Gyeongbok Palace: A worthwhile stop

Kayagum players
The sound of the Kayagum, a traditional stringed Korean instrument apparently invented 1,400 years ago, played at Gyeongbokgung Palace. They were part of a large group reenacting a ceremony for court elders.

Home Again

Having recently returned to the land of parking lots and fast food, bread and cheese, and friends and family, I find myself in the United States with an an abundance of both sentimentality for all things Korean and newfound time. This blend lends itself perfectly to reminiscence about the last few month’s with the time to write about it.

With a lengthy list of dynasties and kingdoms appearing in its long history, the Korean peninsula has no shortage of palaces and royal sites. Seoul is no exception, and in a short walk around central Seoul, you can easily come across more than one. Despite having lived here for a year, I had never visited the largest of the palaces, Gyeongbok-gung, until recently. Lonely Planet has a less-than-enthusiastic take on Seoul’s palaces, advising that if you visit more than one, it’s about one more than necessary. Heeding their advice, we visited Changdeok Palace in our first month and I mentally crossed Seoul’s palaces off my to-do list.

Gyeongbokgung Palace
Changing of the Guard at Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul, South Korea.

Looking for an interesting way to pass a Sunday afternoon and with only a few more to spare before departing Korea, we ignored Lonely Planet’s lukewarm review and headed to Gyeongbok-gung on a Sunday afternoon. All remains of Korea’s royal past are generally gorgeous, but like gothic churches in Europe, they can start to feel like repetitive experiences. Contrary to Lonely Planet’s take on the matter, Gyeongbok-gung was hardly another repeat of the same-old thing. With huge halls and soaring eaves, re-enactors standing in colorful garb in front of palace gates and pavilions peacefully perched in lotus ponds, good luck taking it all in with just an afternoon.

A little bit of history

Three years after Yi Seong-gye founded the Joseon Dynasty in 1392, the royal family picked up and moved to move to a hardly developed city called Hanyang. Deeming it the new capital, five royal compounds were built in close proximity to one another, but Gyeongbok-gung was the first to be built, becoming the largest and dominant palace. Over 600 years later, Hanyang now goes by the name Seoul, and remains the bustling capital and seat of government, although now a democratically elected president runs rather than a king.

Hats are Fun
A group reenacts a ceremony for court elders at Gyeongbokgung Palace.

Sprawling across acres of land at the base of Mt. Bukak, even speed-walking through the compound would take about an hour. It’s worth taking your time to look at the details, though. The palace can be split up into three parts: the outer court, where grand stately matters took place and I imagine the king sat at his throne often stroking his chin and saying, “Next,” in a bored voice to a royal peon. The highlight of the outer court is the “Hall of Diligent Government” (Geungjeong-jeon), or the throne room. Entering through Gwanghwamun, an imposing and colorful gate, it’s easy to imagine a processional of people carrying the king in his throne across the huge courtyard, up the stairs of it’s stone base, and into the one-room room. The structure seems to have served no practical purpose beyond impressing visitors and asserting the king’s superiority, but considering Confucianism emphasizes a head-spinning hierarchy, that’s no surprise.

Where can a king get a little rest?

The inner court features more humble residences where the royal family actually spent their days. Here the king could rule while the queen performed her duty of producing heirs and maintaining “harmony and order within the royal family.” Considering royal families throughout the world as in Korea are not known for their harmonious relationships with each other, I’m not sure whose job was harder. The gardens, designed for rest and relaxation, are more tranquil but just as gorgeous. Two pavilions sit in the middle of ponds with lotus flowers and lily pads growing beneath.

Japan strikes again … and again

That's one stately elder.
That's one stately elder. Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul, South Korea.

Gyeongbok-gung exudes with a sense of ancient history and traditions preserved from the past. While we were there, we saw the changing of the guard ceremony and then stumbled upon a re-enactment of a ceremony for court elders involving hundreds of people in traditional outfits, many playing conventional instruments. Like the outfits of the re-enactors, the structures that stand today are mostly remakes as well. Like so much else in Korea, the original palace was destroyed by the Japanese in their Japanese invasion on 1592-98. The palace then sat vacant for 250 years until the Prince Regent reconstructed it in 1868, adding 330 buildings. Then the Japanese invaded again in the 20th century and this time they didn’t leave, destroying 85% of the palace over their harsh occupation. Restoration of the palace began again in 1990 and is ongoing.

Today Gyeongbok-gung a peaceful reprieve from the sounds of crowds and traffic in the middle of Seoul. If you can’t appreciate ancient sites reconstructed after the Japanese destroyed the original, however, Korea’s not the place to visit. Restored or not, it’s a gorgeous place to spend an afternoon.

More pictures of Gyeongbokgung Palace below. If you want to see even more, check out this slideshow on Flickr.

Keeping Watch
Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul, South Korea
Take a Break
King Jeongjo was quoted saying, "I read books in my spare time, away from the 10,000 things I must do." Some of us read books on our living room couches. Royalty gets to read books in places like Hyangwong-jeong, however. Lounging on a pavilion surrounded by a spring and lily pads is not a bad place to crack open a new novel, though today, it's a scene just for visitors to imagine.
Just a Door
Seoul is full of important gates and doors, many of them converging right here at Gyeongbokgung Palace, like the main entrance, Gwanghwamun Gate. This, on the other hand, is just a door. Considering it sits inside an ancient palace twice destroyed by foreign forces, I'm sure it has a story all its own.
The Hall of Diligent Government
Do you think people ever thought, "Alright, we get it already. You're the head honcho, we're the lowly commoners. Noted." Apparently this huge hall, named the Hall of Diligent Government (Geungjeong-jeon) was exclusively used for formal occasions, like royal audiences. I imagine a king sitting here stroking his chin slightly bored.
Greg is nothing if not serious about Korean culture and history. Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul, South Korea.
This Thing Doesn't Fit
Musicians join the procession through Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul, South Korea. Their hats had fresh flowers in them.
This Hat Needs a Visor
Get this woman an ajumma visor! After sitting in the sun in long robes on a humid June afternoon in Korea, these ladies had to be steaming. Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul
Steer Clear
OK, I know they are just re-enactors, but when these guys were hoofing it straight in my direction, and it wasn't entirely clear when they were going to abruptly come to a stop (in unison, of course), my heart beat picked up a bit.
Gyeongbokgung Palace

Apparently the Joseon Dynasty appreciated colorful ceremonies, even better on a sunny day.

If you want to see even more, check out this slideshow on Flickr.