Editorial Feature

Five Must-sees at Five Historic Palaces in Seoul

Professor You, Hong-june celebrates the 500-year history of these majestic buildings 

Seoul is home to five royal palaces. After being founded in 1392 , the rulers of the Joseon Dynasty changed palaces several times due to wars and other national crises over a history lasting more than 500 years. The first main palace built by the dynasty was Gyeongbokgung Palace. This was followed soon after by the Princes’ Rebellion, however, and less than ten years after the dynasty was inaugurated, the new palace of Changdeokgung was built. The Joseon Dynasty would subsequently adopt a two-palace system, ensuring that a second palace would always be available just in case.

Around two decades after the dynasty was established, the royal house passed the throne on to the king’s son, creating the need for a separate palace for the retired monarch and his surviving grandmother and mother. This was Changgyeonggung Palace.

All of these palaces would be burned down when Japan launched its Imjin Invasions in 1592. The king later took up residence at the temporarily constructed Gyeongungung Palace (later to become Deoksugung Palace) while Changdeokgung and Changgyeonggung were being restored. The king ended up driven out as a tyrant, however. A believer in the principles of feng shui, he promptly decided to build yet another palace known as Gyeonghuigung.

In the late 19th century, the Joseon Dynasty restored the ruined Gyeongbokgung Palace as a way of displaying the monarch’s increased authority. It was attacked by outside forces, however, and the queen ended up slain by Japanese assassins in Gyeongbokgung. In response, the king returned to Gyeongungung Palace, which was close to the foreign legations, and attempted to establish a modern palace system with the construction of Seokjojeon Hall, a Western-style stone building. In 1910, the Joseon Dynasty was finally brought down by imperial Japan, and Gyeongungung, which had been the residence of the last king’s father, was renamed Deoksugung Palace.

The Joseon Dynasty thus left behind five royal palaces from its more than 500-year history. Recently, reconstruction efforts were begun on Changgyeonggung Palace and Gyeonghuigung Palace, which were deliberately destroyed by imperial Japan—the former by being turned into a zoo, the latter by having a middle school established inside. The chief buildings of the five palaces can therefore be found at Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung, and Deoksugung. Join us as we take a tour of the remaining palaces using Street View.

1. Geunjeongjeon Hall, Gyeongbokgung Palace

Gyeongbokgung Palace is the most prestigious of the Joseon Dynasty’s palaces, and Geunjeongjeon Hall is its most central building. It is elegant and imposing. The two-storey palace appears to spread its wings atop a triple layer of stonework when viewed through the one of its three gates, including the main palace gate at Gwanghwamun. While smaller in scale than Beijing’s Forbidden City complex, it blends with Bugaksan and Inwangsan mountains in the background to create a happy harmony between the natural and artificial. The stones covering its front courtyard appear rough but natural and have a functional role in diffusing the rays of the sun. Fourteen animal sculptures are tenderly carved into the banister, conveying both a sense of the palace’s prestige and a warm human intimacy.

2. Gyeonghoeru Pavilion, Gyeongbokgung Palace

A setting for banquets at Gyeongbokgung Palace, Gyeonghoeru Pavilion epitomizes the characteristics of palace architecture: beauty without extravagance. A two-storey structure measuring around 1,000 square meters jutting into a square pond, it is capable of accommodating around 1,200 people at a time. The interior of the second story is partitioned into three levels, with a space that can be functionally separated through the use of doors. Visitors looking out from the pavilion’s top can enjoy a beautiful vista of palace structures, mountains, and trees. Two islands have been placed in the wide pond, and landscaping with trees further enhances the scene’s elegance. The presence of these islands allows the pond’s water to ripple around naturally and evenly in various directions.

3. Buyongjeong Pavilion, Changdeokgung Palace

In addition to possessing all the qualities of a royal palace, Changdeokgung Palace also boasts the beautiful Huwon (secret garden) among its great virtues. A walk past the various palace structures used for daily life and over the foothills leads to the Huwon’s centerpiece: the pavilion of Buyongjeong. Once just an ordinary foothill, the site became home to a cozy pavilion known as Yeonghwadang when a spring was excavated in the 15th century to form a pond. By the 18th century, it was joined by the Gyujanggak (Royal Library) building, which was used for scholars in their studies, and the beautiful Buyongjeong Pavilion, which afforded a view of boating on the pond. The resulting site boasts a harmony like pieces of big and small furniture arranged within the living room of nature. Ancient trees and naturally tended flower beds combine to produce a garden that emanates a humane beauty along with all the prestige of a royal palace.

4. Nakseonjae Hall, Changdeokgung Palace

Changdeokgung Palace is home to a great many buildings with different roles. Nakseonjae Hall, which was used as the king’s library and a reception area for guests in the 19th century, is an example of a palace structure that epitomizes the ,yangban (aristocratic) architecture of the day. For this reason, the hall conveys the simplicity of a living space used by ordinary Confucian scholars rather than the grandeur of the royal household, featuring none of the traditional multicolored dancheong paintwork. Centering on a wood-floored central hall, it has a room on the right for resting, and to the left is a space that could be used for chatting with guests, giving a feeling of sitting atop a pavilion. The hall boasts a subtle beauty, with no ostentatious displays of style in the window bars or other architectural details.

5. Jeonggwanheon Pavilion, Deoksugung Palace

An unfinished modern palace, Deoksugung Palace arrived at the close of the Joseon Dynasty’s history. Harried by outside forces, the dynasty sought to survive by building Seokjojeon Hall and accepting Western culture, but in the end, it met its demise. The pavilion of Jeonggwanheon can be found on a high hill in Deoksugung, where traditional wooden architecture coexists with the newer style of stone buildings. With a name meaning “house of quiet viewing,” the pavilion was a space where the king would engage in contemplation over coffee. Designed by a Russian architect, Jeonggwanheon is an example of Western architecture that also carries an Eastern feel, showing a mixture of cultures together with a dynasty’s unrealized dreams.

Words by You, Hong-june
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