<Voyage to Seoul’s Palace>
Deoksugung: The Last Palace of Chosun Dynasty
Jongro is the center of Seoul, where many skyscrappers of government institutions and corporations are located. It has been center of the city for over 500 years, since Chosun Dynasty started. In those days, there were palaces and important government facilities on this big crowded road. Nowadays, palaces that shone brightly once still exist among fabulous, tall, grey buildings, striving for their self-esteem and hardly acquiring their confidence. Among those palaces in Seoul, Deoksugung is very special and unqiue palace. It is just beside Seoul City Hall and Seoul Plaza, you may have hard time finding it since gigantic Seoul Plaza is attracting all of people’s attention. If you happen to find its gate, you’ll get to enter totally different world in busy, fast Seoul. Deoksugung is where past is still lingering its steps while present is slowly pushing it out.
Daehanmun is the main gate of Deoksugung. However, if you stand in front of it, its grand existence seems still proud of itself. Handsome men who look like actors in traditional movies are standing at the gate with their armors, as if they were real gatekeepers in the past who were guarding King’s palace. It is an odd scence, which look like past and present are co-existing, making people suddenly take a journey to the past. However, tourists who take pictures with those gatekeepers suddenly take people out of their romantic imagination of ancestors with their flash snapping.
The first building you encounter is Junghwajeon. It served as the main throne hall of Gojong. The king took control of every governmental work with his bureaucrats in this building. Actually, it was a two-story building, but after a big fire accident, it was rebuilt as a one story building, as if symbolizing power of the king which kept declinig at the last times of Chosun dynasty. It is the most fabulously decorated building of Deoksugung. If you look inside of the building, king’s chair where the emperor must have controlled its loyal bureaucrats once can be seen. However, dark inside is empty now and king’s chair is solely existing, making the chair look more forlorn and bleak. Two golden dragons on the ceiling, which symbolize the emperor, are still there as if it were showing off their appearances without knowing that no one is on the chair, with their gloss lost many years ago.
Next is a group of buildings, Jeukjodang, Junmyeongdang, and Seogeodang. These buildings are unique among many typical buildings of Korean traditional palaces. As you saw in Junghwajeon buildings, most Korean palace buildings are colorfully decorated with red, green, yellow, and so on. However, these buildings I’d like to introduce are mostly not colored, keeping it’s originality with wood. That makes these buildings look more like aristocrats’ antique houses, not a palace. This is another attractive point of Deoksugung. It emphasizes unpretentious and moderate look of Deoksugung. Instead of showing off its grand size and colorful appearance, natural beauty from antiquity that has passed through ages can be felt, just like that of an old queen who looks still beautiful without her crown.
Unfortunately, Hamnyeongjeon, which was used as the king’s bedroom was in the middle of reconstruction at the time. This building is where Gojong spent his last moments until he died at his age of 68. Instead, black and white pictures of Gojong’s life in Deoksugung were being displayed. Something that is last always leaves special feelings behind to people who are left. Deoksugung is also a place like that. Deoksugung existed at the time when Chosun was falling down. It was last moments Chosun could glimmer with its name ’empire’. Weak emperor who coudln’t do nothing about his country seem to have left something in this palace so that people in the future could vaguely feel something at their heart. Deokhongjeon, which is located next to Hamneyongjeon was used as a spirit hall of Empress Myeongseong, who was murdered by Japan even before Gojong started to rule in Deoksugung.
Now, there are two very special buildings in Deosugung. They are Jeonggwanheon and Seokjojeon. Jeonggwanheon was place where the emperor spent his free time, sipping coffee. It is a structure that was built by a Russian architect, including both Korean and Western architectural features. At the first sight, it looks as if a pavilion of Europe, but if you look more carefully, the pillars are made of wood instead of marvels and patterns on it are usually Korean traditional patterns. That makes this building look exotically beautiful, and strangely unfamilliar. Seokjojeon is a completely western style building. By looking only at this building makes you feel like you are standing at a European palace. Made of stones, not woods, it is in neoclassical style with verandas in three sides. As Chosun changed itself to modernized country with Western influence, Gojong tried to use many rooms of this building as his office, bedroom and so on, just like Western country’s emperors did. Nowadays, a part of Seokjojeon is being used as National Museum of Art. It is an example of good use of antique buildings in modern age. Many people visit Deoksugung to visit the exhibitions. Western style buildings like Seokjojeon and Jeonggwanheon is a unique feature of Deoksugung but it is also a representation of tragic history of Chosun, which couldn’t but accept Western culture into their life. Just like tall buildings that are seen outside of this palace, those buidlings show both harmony and incoherence of Western and Eastern culture.
Accidentally, Korean traditional clothes, Hanbok Festival was being held in Deoksugung when I visited Deoksugung. Large fashion show runway was established in front of Junghwajeon for Hanbok designers’ collection and tents provided for natural dye, traditional knots, and Korean tradtional hair styling were crowded of tourists. Especially, tents that enabled tourists to practice making knots and traditional hair styling were always full of people coming. Hanbok fashion show was popular too, so many reporters from TV and newspaper flashed their cameras. Models wearing beautiful Hanbok made showed off their beauty in front of many people. The seats were fully acquired, made so many crowds suffer their legs from standing. Beauty of Hanbok went well with Deoksugung’s buildings and nature of fall with colored leaves on the tree. This festival must have been good chance to inform Hanbok’s attractiveness to many people.
Deoksugung is open for 12 hours, 9:00 A.M. to 21:00 A.M. It is closed on Mondays, and admission is permitted until one hour before closing. There is admission fee of 1,000 won on adults and 500 won on children. There are also free guided tours provided in English, too. Guideline phamplet is composed of very detail information in easy-looking structure. You can see Royal Guard Changing Ceremony at 11:00, 14:00, 15:30, in front of Daehanmun. However, be careful, since there’s no ceremony on Mondays. For your information there is 『Bae, Bien-U』retrospective exhibition going on in National Museum of Art.
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