Parts of the text have been adopted in full or with modification for optimal reading experience from the following sources under the CC-BY-SA license. https://wikipedia.org/wiki/Gyeongbokgung, https://wikipedia.org/wiki/Changdeokgung, https://wikipedia.org/wiki/Changgyeonggung, https://wikipedia.org/wiki/Deoksugung, https://wikipedia.org/wiki/Gyeonghuigung
Grand Royal Palaces of Korea
GYEONGBOKGUNG – “Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven”
With Mount Bugak 북악산 as a backdrop and Yukjogeori 육조거리 (“Street of Six Ministries” (today’s Sejong-no 세종로) just outside the main entrance to the palace Gwanghwamun Gate 광화문, Gyeongbokgung 경복궁 was built in 1395 (three years after the foundation of the Joseon Dynasty), in the heart of the Dynasty’s capital, Hanyang 한양 (today’s Seoul) and served as the Dynasty’s main palace. Sadly, it was reduced to ashes during the Japanese invasion of 1592, and was left abandoned until 1867. Today, the restored complex consists of 330 buildings, forming a labyrinthine configuration, in which the walls separate offices for the king and state officials called Oejeon 외전 (outer court) from living quarters for the royal family and gardens called Naejeon 내전 (inner court). Added to the extensive complex were other palaces of various sizes, including Junggung 중궁 (the Queen’s residence) and Donggung 동궁 (the Crown Prince’s residence).
In the early 20th century during the Japanese Occupation (1910 – 1945), Gyeongbokgung, the symbol of national sovereignty, was demolished and the ownership of the land was transferred to the Japanese Governor-General in 1911. In 1915, a significant portion of the buildings were torn down for an exhibition. Following the event, the Japanese built the Government-General building on the site.
The South Korean government has been making continuous efforts to restore Gyeongbokgung since 1990. The Government-General building was demolished in 1996 under the command of President Kim Young-sam 김영삼. Heungnyemun Gate 흥례문 and Gwanghwamun Gate 광화문 have also been reconstructed in their original locations. The inner court and Donggung, the Crown Prince’s residence, have also been restored recently.
Gwanghwamun, meaning “spreading light,” is the main and largest gate of Gyeongbokgung. First constructed in 1395, it served as a landmark and symbol of the capital Hanyang, but it went through recurring accounts of destruction and disrepair. It was destroyed by fire during the Japanese invasion in 1592 and was left in ruins until 1867 when it was finally restored along with the rest of Gyeongbokgung Palace. It was again deconstructed and moved to a different location by the Japanese during the Japanese Occupation so that a massive Japanese Government-General building could be built on the site. After getting completely destroyed during the Korean War, it was once again restored and relocated near the original location in 1969 and is one of the most popular spots among tourists.
On the wall outside of Jagyeongjeon 자경전, you can find Shipjangsaeng 십장생. Meaning “Ten Symbols of Longevity,” it’s a traditional Korean pattern consisting of the sun, mountain, rock, water, cloud, pine tree, elixir plant, turtle, crane, and deer. Each symbol stands for longevity, but when used together it strengthens their original meaning.
Haechi 해치, or haetae 해태, is a legendary creature in Chinese and Korean mythology (Spooky Korean superstitions & beliefs) that’s believed to be able to distinguish good from evil and keep justice. Since ancient times, the haechi have been regarded as auspicious animals that prevent fires and disasters, which is why you can find their statues at the entrance of the palaces. The Seoul Metropolitan Government selected haechi as the city’s icon in May 2008. Since then, the Seoul Metropolitan Government has placed haechi statues in various parts of the city, including Gwanghwamun Square. Why don’t you look around Seoul’s historic attractions and find them all?
A bilingual [ENG-KOR] children’s book Haechi and the Lie [Amazon]
CHANGDEOKGUNG – “Palace of Prospering Virtue”
Changdeokgung 창덕궁 is also known as Donggwol 동궐(Eastern Palace) because of its location which sits to the east of the main palace, Gyeongbokgung. Changdeokgung was home to the Joseon government, as well as a beloved residence of numerous kings of the Joseon Dynasty. For this reason, it was the longest-serving royal residential palace. Its unique beauty comes from the fact that it flawlessly blends into its surrounding nature and landscape, and Huwon 후원, the palace’s rear garden, and the only rear garden of any Korean palace, is the essence of Korean landscaping, occupying about 60% of the palace. Luckily, Changdeokgung Palace is well-preserved compared to other palaces that were damaged and destroyed throughout history and many of its original features still remain intact. It was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997.
CHANGGYEONGGUNG – “Palace of Magnificent Joy”
Changgyeonggung 창경궁 was built in the mid-15th century by King Sejong 세종 for his father, Taejong 태종. Originally named Suganggung 수강궁, it received the current name after a renovation and expansion project that took place in 1483. Like other palaces, many of its structures were destroyed as a result of the multiple invasions by Japan. It was reconstructed by successive Kings, but a significant portion was once again torn down by the Japanese during the Japanese Occupation, to make room for a modern park for the Japanese Empire. On the site, the Japanese built a zoo, a botanical garden, and a museum. After getting destroyed during the Korean War, the zoo was restocked but was eventually relocated to present-day Seoul Grand Park.
WHAT ARE THE MINI STATUES ON THE KOREAN PALACE ROOF?
Look up to the roofs of Korean palaces and at the peak of the roof you will find mysterious statues called japsang 잡상, which are always placed in an odd number (the most a palace can have is 11). Their purpose goes back to the Korean shamanic religion and they are intended to chase away evil spirits and misfortune, similar to that of gargoyles in the Western culture, as well as to show the dignity and grandeur of a building. The tradition is considered to have been a result of the Chinese influence during the Joseon Dynasty, as evidenced by the fact that the first few japsang statues on a roof are believed to be the characters and the deities of Earth from the Chinese classic Journey to the West.
DEOKSUGUNG- “Palace of Virtuous Longevity”
Deoksugung 덕수궁 is different from other Korean palaces in style for containing a harmonious mixture of medieval and modern style architecture. For example – you will find a Western-style garden and a modern seal engraved on a fountain. Originally, Deoksugung was not a palace, but when the 14th king of the Joseon Dynasty, King Seonjo 선조, returned from evacuation during the Japanese invasion in 1592, all palaces were severely damaged, and Deoksugung was chosen as a temporary residence for the royal family. The 15th king, King Gwanghaegun 광해군, renamed it to Gyeonggunung 경운궁, and formalized it as a royal palace, and Emperor Gojong 고종 of the Korean Empire (also the 26th king of the Joseon Dynasty), stayed here and expanded it. During the Joseon Dynasty, the royal guard was responsible for opening and closing the palace gate as well as patrolling and you can see the reenactment taking place today when you visit.
ROYAL GUARD CHANGING CEREMONY
Sumunjang gyodaeuisik 수문장 교대의식 (The Chief Gate-keeper Changing Ceremony). The royal guard system, which started when 예종 King Yejong, the 8th king of the Joseon Dynasty who came to the throne in 1469, was conceptually the same as the national defense, as it was used as a means to strengthen the royal authority and maintain stability. The royal guard system was structured when the gate guard system and its rules were institutionalized and incorporated in Gyeonggukdaejeon 경국대전 (National Code) during the reign of King Seongjong 성종, the 9th king. The changing ceremony of the royal guard in front of the Daehanmun Gate 대한문 started in 1906 when the gate was designated as the main gate to the Palace.
DAECHWITA 대취타 – Watch the original and the modern remake by BTS!
The Order of the Changing Ceremony
1) Entrance of the officials and announcement of the ceremony
2) Delivery of the passcode and passcode response
3) First drumbeat (passing the case with the keys)
4) Second drumbeat (checking the authenticity of the token and identification of the plate which represents the chief gatekeeper, sumunjang 수문장)
5) Third drumbeat (implementation of the shift)
6) Closing announcement
GYEONGHUIGUNG – “Palace of Joy and Harmony”
The construction of Gyeonghuigung 경희궁 began in 1617 during the reign of King Gwanghaegun 광해군, the 15th king of the Joseon Dynasty, and was completed in 1620. It was originally called Gyeongdeokgung 경덕궁 because Gyeongdeok was the posthumous epithet of Wonjong 원종, who was named king after his death. In the latter Joseon Dynasty period, Gyeonghuigung served as the secondary palace for the king, and as it was situated on the west side of Seoul, it was also called Seogwol 서궐 (West Palace). The secondary palace is usually the palace where the King moves to in times of emergency. From King Injo 인조 to King Cheoljong 철종, about 10 kings of the Joseon Dynasty stayed here.
Before losing most of its complex to two devastating fires in the 19th century, it was of a considerable size, with an arched bridge connecting it to Deoksugung. During the Japanese Occupation, the remaining was dismantled to make space for Gyeongseong Middle School 경성중학교, which was a school for Japanese citizens. Reconstruction efforts began in the late 1990s as part of a government project, but due to urban growth and decades of neglect, the government was only able to reconstruct around 1/3 of the former Palace.