Changdeokgung Palace: Secondary Palace of the Joseon Period

For those who are interested, I figured I may as well put up the paper I wrote for the course “Korean Language and Culture”. The idea of the term paper was to go to a historic site in Korea, write a group paper, and then write an individual paper about our impressions.
I chose Changdeokgung, and the research was somewhat interesting. Somewhat.   You will notice that the quality of my references greatly influenced the style in which I wrote.  Greatly.  And before anyone points this out, yes, at Yonsei Graduate School of International Studies you may be asked to write a term paper on terms startlingly similar to the typical South Korean middle school student’s summer vacation homework.

Changdeokgung: Secondary Palace of the Joseon Period

Albekov Azizbek
Joseph Mondello
Oleg Vladimirovich Pak

We decided to choose our destination from among the Five Grand Palaces of the Joseon Dynasty. Initially we thought it would be unique and educational to go to the palace which was least well known to us, Gyeonghuigung. Unfortunately that palace no longer exists, and the Seoul Museum of History is currently located where it once sat.
Failing that, we decided to go to the palace which we have all been to the least. Among Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung and Deoksugung, we were least familiar with Changdeokgung, and Aziz had not yet had a chance to go. Thus we decided to read as much information as we could find about Changdeokgung and go there prepared to meet with history.
The distinguishing feature of Changdeokgung is that its architecture is in harmony with the topography of the area. Built in 1405, Changdeokgung retains many indigenous Korean features that the other palaces lack. This is because the other palaces, particularly Gyeongbokgung, were designed according to more formalistic principles. This means that the natural topography and landscape of the building site was altered in order to conform with the architect’s design. In the case of Changdeokgung, the building design followed the contour of the land and the natural tree cover. There are many reasons for this decision. The Joseon Dynasty had been established only 13 years earlier in 1392, and it had yet to develop Neo-Confucianism into a state quasi-religion. Thus at this time those in power were only beginning to adopt the extremely formal ways that they would become known for in later years. Another reason for the decision to integrate the buildings into the surrounding landscape is the fact that Changdeokgung was designed as a secondary palace. In its secondary role, it could be designed more for the simple pleasure and enjoyment of the royal family. Main palaces, such as Gyeongbokgung, serve a more ritual and political function, and are required to represent in concrete form the philosophy of the rulers. We can compare this to King Arthur. For formal meetings, The King and his knights sat at a round table. This was to emphasize the fact that no one knight held a position over any other knight, reinforcing the sense of equality between them. However, it is known that, at less formal occasions, King Arthur often sat at a rectangular table.
Changdeokgung is distinguished as being the location of one of the saddest events in the Joseon period, known as the six martyred ministers incident (사육신 사건). The six were members of the high council, appointed by King Sejong. These men were charged by King Minjong with looking after young King Danjong, who took the throne at age 12. In 1457 Sejo usurped the throne and exiled the young king. These six loyal ministers reacted by plotting a coup with Kim Jil, however at the last minute Kim Jil had a change of heart and betrayed the six. They were tortured and executed at Changdeokgung. Sadly, these six ministers were known as traitors for many years. The men of their families were put to death and the women were sold into slavery. In later years, however, the true nature of their coup became known, and their reputation was revived. They are now revered as models of loyal subjects.
Another sad event for all of Korea that had a lasting effect on Changdeokgung was the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592. In this invasion Seoul was abandoned by the royal family and all of the royal palaces were burned to the ground by the Japanese. When the royal family returned to the site of the palaces, they were very surprised. They vowed to rebuild the palaces, however the rebuilding took much longer than anyone would have expected. The reconstruction of Changdeokgung, for example, was not completed until 1610.
In 1623, however, the palace would burn again. The peninsula was in the grips of factional fighting related to the dispute between Ming China and Japan. The Western Faction, one of the warring parties, chased off sitting Prince Gwanghae and installed Injo on the throne, in an event called Injobanjeong (인조반정). In the process Changdeokgung was burnt to the ground. This damage was not repaired until 1647. Sadly, Prince Gwanghae was exiled, first to Ganghwa Island and then to Jeju Island, where he eventually died.
In the latter half of the 17th century, Changdeokgung was the location of three coronations: King Hyojong (1649), King Hyeonjong (1659) and King Sukjong (1674). Changdeokgung would go on to occasionally host coronation ceremonies throughout its history, but never again would it have a hat trick.
In the back garden of Changdeokgung we found Daebodan, a magnificent two-story shrine. This was built in 1704 as a location for rituals and worship. Some felt that installing the shrine in Changdeokgung’s beautiful secret garden (후원) had spoiled the peaceful atmosphere of the place, but naturally it is now impossible to imagine the palace complex without this building.
The secret garden itself is intriguing. While the palace is presented as being more in harmony with nature than any of the other five grand palaces, the secret garden consists primarily of man-made structures, such as a lake, hills and paths. This contradiction does not, however, spoil the beauty and majesty of this special place.
Another interesting building is Huijeongdang Hall. Despite being a traditional Korean palace structure on the outside, the interior is decorated in Western style, and even has carpeting. There is a covered parking space at the rear of Huijeongdang where the king used to park.
Daejojeon Hall is also decorated with western furniture. This building was built as the queen’s residence from materials culled from Gyeotaejeon hall at Gyeongbokgung.
Injeongjeon, which was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in 1804, is the main throne hall of Changdeokgung. The centerpiece of the building is the King’s throne, which is ornately decorated and surrounded by dragon carvings and paintings depicting common Korean traditional tropes (cranes, clouds, turtles, deer, mountains, the sun and moon, etc.). This is where kings in residence at Changdeokgung reigned.
One of the more interesting buildings at Changdeokgung is Nakseonjae. This was built during the reign of King Heonjeong in 1847, making it one of the youngest buildings at Changdeokgung. Amazingly, this building was inhabited by members of the royal family until 1989. There is a lotus pond which gives the area a peaceful feeling and there are many interesting architectural features in the buildings reflecting a combination of traditional Korean styles with modern techniques.
No visit to Changdeokgung would be complete without looking through the famous Manwolmun. The name means ‘full moon gate’, and Manwolmun is indeed the only round gate in any Korean palace. By standing in front of Manwolmun, one is treated to a perfectly framed view of Baekak Mountain in the distance which is especially beautiful in the fall. We had to wait for a while to get a chance to look, because the gate is very popular with photographers who go to great lengths to make sure their pictures are lined up perfectly.
It is unfortunate that Changdeokgung is the least well known among the four surviving great palaces. While not as large as Gyeongbokgung or as stately as Changgyeonggung, this palace nonetheless has a distinctive feel that gives one an alternative view of the Choseon period. In order to fully appreciate the history of Korean royalty it is essential to visit all of these cultural inheritances.

Here’s my personal impression paper, which features many of my own impressions

Changdeokgung: Another Side of Royal Life in the Joseon Dynasty.

I have to start by saying I’m very glad we decided to visit Changdeokgung rather than one of the more popular tourist destinations. I had been to Changdeokgung a long time ago, when I first came to Korea, but I was unfamiliar with the culture and history of Korea at the time, and it was good to return to the palace grounds after having done some research and becoming more familiar with the history of the place. Doing initial research for this project got me very interested in the place and left me curious to see how the centuries of development, building, fires, and changes in government and society had effected the place as it is today.
Looking at the front gate, I was eager to see what I had read in my preparation. While most palace gates have very high thresholds, the gate at Changdeokgung was built so that a car could be driven through it. I was to find that this trait continues throughout the palace complex, which is very car-friendly. This is because the last remaining royals lived in this palace until their deaths in the late 20th century. Knowing this fact served as a reminder that this was still very much an occupied palace until less than forty years ago.
To reach the main parts of the palace you have to pass over an ancient stone bridge called Geumcheongyo. This is one of the oldest stone bridges in Korea. According to ancient Korean pungsu theory, palaces should be built over streams of running water. This bridge is decorated with many mythical creatures and animals and flowers. The area around the bridge is surrounded by trees, which is where the bridge takes its other name “Goeshin” or “the place where trees were planted.” I could imagine the kings’ guests crossing over this bridge in the woods and feeling like they were passing into another world. The effect of the bridge is of setting off the palace from the ordinary world.
After walking over the Geumcheongyo it’s only a short walk to Injeongmun, the gate to Injeongdang (hall). Amazingly, Injeongmun was most recently rebuilt in 1745, 31 years before my country even existed. It’s difficult to imagine a building having been preserved so long, considering the series of events that have occurred since that time, including the Korean War. Passing through Injeongmun we came to Injeongjeon. As with most Korean palace halls, it is difficult to see inside and imagine what the building may have been like when the king was in residence. I did notice that Injeongjeon has a cathedral ceiling, something I have never noticed at any of the other palaces. The information guide in front of Injeongjeon states that, while most palace main halls are in the far north, Injeongjeon and Changdeokgung are different because Injeongjeon is actually located in the southern portion of the palace. This is why Changdeokgung’s secret garden is unique.
Next to Injeongjeon sits Seonjeongjeon. I felt that even though it was smaller than Injeongjeon it was more impressive. Perhaps it’s because it is located behind a field of grass, or because it is surrounded by the King’s living quarters, but this smaller building looked somewhat more imposing to me. It made sense to me to discover that this building was a popular place for the kings to work
I have to say honestly that I am less impressed by buildings like Daejojeon. Daejojeon was built to be the Queen’s residence, and like most residences it’s a nice place to live but it’s nothing special to visit. I found it odd, however, to read that many of the kings died in this building. Why they came here to die among the queens and their furniture I do not know.
Buyongjeong is a beautiful and impressive pavilion. The building is constructed partly over the water, and its doors can be opened to render it completely open. This was the site of receptions for those who passed the gwageo exam. The pavilion is named after the pond that it stands atop, Buyongji pond. Despite reading repeatedly that this palace was built in accordance with nature, it turns out that this is a man-made lake. Behind the lake stands Juhamnu, which is an impressive building that reminds me of the Summer Palace in Beijing. Juhamnu is a library where the kings kept libraries of cutting-edge science books. The name means “the pavilion where every kind of principle of the universe gathers”. This was the reading room for government officials in training.
Behind Buyongji Pond at the very back of the palace complex is the Ongnyucheon Stream. The stream is crossed by simple stepping stone bridges and the water there is clean and fresh enough to drink. We enjoyed the crisp cold flavor of the water after our long walk through the complex. We finished our tour by reading the poem inscribed on a stone in the stream by King Injo..

The stream flows away to infinity,
and the waterfall plummets down from the sky
these remind me of white rainbows
thunder and light all over the valley.

Having seen our way to the back of the palace grounds, we turned the corner and came back out Donhwamun. After taking a trip deep into history it felt strange to be back in modern Seoul. It is amazing to think that a place of such peace and ancient beauty can exist in the middle of a bustling modern city

Also, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.


~ by Joshing on December 10, 2008.

3 Responses to “Changdeokgung Palace: Secondary Palace of the Joseon Period”

  1. But Gyeonghuigung in fact does still exist! Like all the palaces, it was essentially razed and then reconstructed (more than most, sadly) but is located behind the Seoul History Museum. Walk past the plaza (towards Shinchon/away from Gwanghwamun) and the gate is on your right. Small, but lovely – RAS includes it on their Joseon architecture tour.

  2. 그렇구나. I had no way of knowing that, actually, as I’ve been to the Seoul History Museum, read that it was on the site of Gyeonghuigung, and made the intuitive leap.

    Please don’t tell my professor.

  3. Give me their name RIGHT NOW! I’m reporting you! Seriously, though, go check it out. It’s very small and quiet and relaxing – oh, and free to get into. You can’t beat free.

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