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Ancient Beauty in Modern Seoul

The second of five palaces built in the Joseon Dynasty, Changdeokgung Palace’s architecture is unique in its intentional harmony with the surrounding environment. Its name directly translates to “Prospering Virtue Palace”. The approximately 58-hectare complex has weathered political revolts and wars. Though architects could have modernised its design during various stages of reconstruction, the palace grounds were always rebuilt in accordance to their original design. Thanks to this appreciation for Joseon-era architecture, Changdeokgung Palace is an oft referred to example of traditional Korea’s beauty.

Building It Up

In 1405 Emperor Taejong (third emperor of the Joseon Dynasty) built the new palace Changdeokgung, a physical symbol of his decision to change the country’s capital from Gaegyeong (modern Kaesong) to Hanseong (now known as Seoul). Construction of the palace complex was finished in seven years. Over a century later, the fourteenth emperor of the Joseon Dynasty, Seonjo, expanded the palace. His additions to the complex included Huwon. Nicknamed the “Secret Garden”, it is nestled at the rear of the complex and houses more than 56,000 different specimens of trees and plants.

The front view of Donhwamun, the main gate

Fights and Fires

In 1592, Japan invaded Korea in aggressive moves that sparked the Imjin War (1592 – 1598). Imperial Regent Toyotomi Hieyoshi met initial success, conquering significant portions of the Korean Peninsula. Shook by the increasing presence of the Japanese army, the royal family fled from Changdeokgung. The citizens of Hanseong were livid. Feeling abandoned by their monarchy, they marched to the complex and burnt the palace down. The damage was repaired in 1611, its reconstruction ordered by Emperor Gwanghaegun two years prior.

This hard work was soon ruined. In 1623 the palace was set aflame. Despite being a skilled administrator and diplomat, Gwanghaegun was widely unpopular. Neither the first-born nor legitimate son of Emperor Seonjo, Gwanghaegun was Seonjo’s second son, born to his father’s concubine, Kim Gyeongbin. The Greater Northern faction suppressed views against their monarch. To silence those disputing Gwanghaegun’s rule, Prince Imhae, Seojo’s oldest son, and Grand Prince Yeongchang, the Queen’s son, were killed. Infuriated by their illegitimate monarch and his supporters, the Western faction staged a coup. The palace was destroyed, Gwanghaegun was exiled to Jeju Island, and two leaders of the Greater Northern faction were murdered. Injo, Seojo’s grandson, was crowned and became the Western faction’s puppet.

Injeongjeon, the Throne Hall

Pungsu-jiri-seol, Korea’s answer to Chinese Feng Shui

Translating to “wind-water-earth-principles theory”, Pungsu principles are a study in geomancy – the art of arranging sites to draw from the auspicious aspects of the natural environment. Changdeokgung palace was built in accordance to these beliefs. Behind the complex lies the peak of Mt. Bugaksan, the main guardian mountain for the area. In front of the palace, river Geumcheon steadily runs along. Also in agreement with Confucian ideology, the overall style and layout of the palace grounds are relatively simplistic. This compatibility with the environment makes Changdeokgung unique among Seoul’s palaces.

While the location harmonises with nature, the buildings align with traditional palace composition. They are wooden constructions atop stone foundations, largely consisting of tiled roofs and aesthetic additions such as corbels and carvings. Utilising the principles of “sammun samjo”, there are three main gates:

Donhwamun, the main gate, is a two-storey wooden pavilion. Built in 1412, it was set on fire during the Imjin War and restored in 1608.

Jinseonmun, the middle gate. Before it lies Geumcheongyo Bridge, built in 1411 and the oldest bridge in Seoul.

Injeongmun was built in 1405 during Emperor Taejo’s reign. It precedes the throne hall, for which it shares a name.

Two modern princesses posing inside Nakseonjae Complex

and three main courts:

Huijeongdang, the administrative court. Originally the emperor’s private chambers, daily meetings were shifted here from Seongjeongjeon when more space was needed to discuss matters of state.

Nakseonjae, the royal residential court. In 1847, Emperor Heonjong built the residential compound. It was separated from the rest of the complex, having been built for his concubine, Kim Gyeongbin.

Injeongjeon, the official audience court. It is a two-storey building where the emperor conducted official business and received foreign visitors. Its construction was part of the original development in 1405.

Must-See Sights

If time is of the essence, here are structures of Changdeokgung that capture the spirit, style, and history of the awe-inspiring compound.

Among the Palace Buildings

Injeongjeon, the throne hall, was built in the fifth year of Emperor Taejong’s reign. It was among those destroyed by fire in the Imjin War. Approximately two centuries later, Injeongjeon was ruined by fire once again. In 1804, Emperor Sunjo ordered the hall’s repair. Aside from being used for official duties and meetings with visiting dignitaries, the grand hall was also a site of commemoration. Many coronation ceremonies were held within it, and when the royal family found cause for celebration, their festivities would take place in Injeongjeon.

Seonjeongjeon began as the meeting point for the emperor and government representatives to talk about state affairs. A narrow corridor connects Seonjeongjeon to Seonjeongmun gate. This corridor was used in the funeral procession when the building was reestablished as a royal shrine.

While Huijeongdang, the administrative court, retains its traditional Korean exterior, its interior is a reflection of Western tastes from the early twentieth century. A fire ruined most of its interior in 1917. Occurring in the early years of Japanese occupation of Korea (which lasted from 1910 – 1945), the Japanese government reconstructed Huijeongdang’s inner workings with modern amenities such as wooden floors, electricity, glass windows, and curtains. In this way, Huijeongdang is unique to all other buildings within Changdeokgung.

A true labour of love, Nakseonjae Complex was intended as a place that Kim could call her own, free from the prying eyes of the court. After Emperor Heonjong’s first wife died, his mother Queen Sunwon arranged the selection of brides for her son to choose from. Among these accomplished and beautiful women, Heonjong was most interested in Kim Gyeongbin. But his mother preferred another, Hyojeong. And so his mother’s choice became the emperor’s second wife. When it she could not conceive, a concubine was needed to produce an heir. Gyeongbin was brought in, and Nakseonjae was built. Overlooking the lower palace grounds, the simple and elegant complex was opened to the public in 2006.

Within Huwon

Previously known as Geumwon (“Forbidden Garden”) and Naewon (“Inner Garden”), the large garden holds pavilions, ponds, and carefully maintained trees, flowers, and lawns. 32 hectares in size, the garden was accessible only to the royal family. Excepting the military, which performed inspections and parades at the emperor’s behest, few were allowed to wander its magnificent grounds.

The first stop in the Secret Garden Tour, Buyongji Pond and Juhamnu Pavilion are remarkable in style. The pond sits before Juhanmnu Pavilion, a two-floor structure. Its construction coincided with emperor Jeongjo’s ascension in 1776. The first floor comprises of Gyujanggak, the Royal library. Heading up to the second floor, the reading room overlooks the tranquil pond. A gate named Eosumun sits before the pavilion. Its name is derived from the Korean adage, “su eo ji gyo” (水鱼之交), meaning that like fish and water, the emperor is inseparable from his people.

Due to the heat and humidity, our tour of Huwon was abridged from an hour to forty minutes. Jondeokjeong Pavilion was our last sight, and one that ended the tour on a high note. Built in 1644, Jondeokjeong is the oldest of the palace pavilions. A solid wooden structure with a tiled roof and pillars painted red, the inner ceiling is decorated with twin dragons bearing cintamani, a wish-fulfilling jewel found in Buddhist and Hindu traditions. A powerful symbol of compassion and knowledge, it is suggested that this design reflects Jeongjo’s desire for a return to emperor’s holding full royal authority.

Things to Know Before you go

Remember to Buy a Ticket for the Palace and the Garden

Simply purchasing a ticket to the palace grounds limits you to seeing only the first third of the entire Changdeokgung. To see Huwon as well, you have to pay extra. Definitely worth the price of admission, in cooler temperatures the tour covers the entire garden, with the guide spending between an hour to an hour and a half discussing its history and giving people plenty of time to get that perfect picture.

Wear Comfy Shoes

We spent an entire day exploring the palace grounds, and our feet certainly let us feel it the next day! Most of the path is a mixture of concrete and dry, compressed dirt, both of which put a strain on your feet after some time. If you start to feel aches and pains, give yourself a moment to stretch your hamstrings before continuing on.

Changdeokgung reflected inside Hongsigung café

Eat Out

There is all of one café located inside Changdeokgung (a small establishment that shares a space with the gift shop), but fear not. Once you’ve purchased a ticket, visitors are allowed to leave and re-enter. To break up the palace grounds into manageable portions, I recommend wandering the surrounding area for a bite to eat. We took a break from the Korean sun in Hongsigung. Situated on the second floor, the café offers a clear view of the palace’s outer walls and a sneak peak of its tiled roofs. Its interior, a powerful contrast of concrete, wood, grey tiles, and marble tabletops, tall plants scattered around the area add to its intriguing atmosphere.

Bring Water

The large palace complex provides water in all of two areas – the gift shop and a water fountain located at the foot of the entrance to the Secret Garden. Water bottles are allowed inside, so bring as much as needed for a day out.

I hope you’ve found this information fun and informative, and wish you luck on your travels – feel free to share your experiences, a traveler’s world never has too many stories!

1 reply »

  1. It’s all about the architecture here, and how well it combines with mother nature. People do not have to oppose nature and these photographs show how beautifully human design can coincide with nature’s design.

    Like

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