Posted by: rbbadger | September 16, 2008

Heungseon Daewongun’s house

One of the nicest things about Korea is that history seems to be lurking everywhere.  Right across the street from the Cheondogyo Central Temple, in a rather bustling neighbourhood, is the house of Prince Heungseon, otherwise known as the Daewongun, former Regent of Korea.

Heungseon Daewongun is perhaps one of the most infamous of the many regents in Korean history.  While in some ways, he was a better administrator that most kings of the day were, he was content to keep Korea isolated at all costs.  Many Catholics were martyred during his time in power.  An American naval ship, sailing up the Taedong River in Pyeongyang was the victim of Korean ire and was sunk.  While he could not to accede to the throne, somehow his 12 year-old son was eligible and thus became King Gojong and later the Emperor Gwangmu.  Daewongun served as regent in his stead until he became of age.  The goal of Heungseon Daewongun was to effect a dynastic restoration.  During the 19th century, the Joseon Dynasty had become weakened and corrupt.  Many times, kings who were very weak ruled while their in-laws basically ran the country.  The Queen Dowager, who was of the Cho clan (there were actually three dowagers at the time and they were all racing to get someone on their family on the throne) summed Heungseon Daewongun’s twelve year old son and sat him on the throne before other royal in-laws, especially the Andong Kims could put one of their own on the throne.  The previous king had died without issue.  As King Gojong was only twelve, his father, Prince Heungseon served as the regent (Daewongun) and ran the country for nine years.

Some important reforms were accomplished during his time in power.  Interestingly, the yangban, or nobles found themselves to be taxed for the first time ever.  His main goals were to resist Japan and to resist the West.  Thinking that the wife he chose for his son, a girl of the poor but noble Min clan, could be easily swayed, he unwittingly created one of the greatest female politicians of the 19th century and a Queen who far more able an administrator than that of her husband.  Queen Myeongseong was successful in getting her father-in-law Heungseon Daewongun banished.  Unfortunately, Daewongun’s hopes for a dynastic revival never happened, mostly because King Gojong wasn’t that great a monarch, though he did try.  King Gojong’s son, the Emperor Sunjong was not really that smart (some go so far as to call him mentally retarded) and was easily swayed by the Japanese.  The rest, as they say, is history.  In 1910, Korea became part of the Japanese Empire. 

This rather small house, especially in comparison to the vast palaces where King Gojong would later inhabit was where Daewongun lived and managed the affairs of state.  It is a quite lovely old house, dating back to the 18th century.  Here are the men’s quarters.

The female quarters are quite nice as well.  I quite like the archway that leads into a small garden into the back.  A word of caution, though, mind your head!

I have written before about ondol, the traditional Korean way of heating a house.  Pipes buried underneath the floor heat it during wintertime.  Like with many of the royal palaces, there are decorative flues which are quite lovely.  This flue is located apart from the house. 

As befits a man of his station, he was carried on a palaquin much like this.  Interesting enough, the traditional Korean wedding ceremony was the one occasion where Korean women of all classes could enjoy this luxury.  The bride is traditionally carried in one of these.  While upper class women used them, lower class women might only ride in one once in their lives on their wedding day.  It was also the only occasion where men of lower classes got to dress like noblemen.

There is a small museum inside.  Here are a couple of mannequins dressed like how how the King and Queen (later Emperor and Empress) would dress. 

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