Because of last week’s influenza closure, I found myself with some time off. I decided last Thursday to pay a visit to Changdeok Palace. This palace has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Unfortunately, unlike Gyeongbok Palace, you usually have to take a tour if you want to visit Changdeok Palace. I am not a fan of tours. I like to walk around the buildings and sort of experience them for myself.
Changdeokgung is famous for its beautiful gardens, especially the “secret garden” in the rear of the palace complex. It blends in with nature very well. Here we see the main gate, Donhwamun, originally built in 1607. Once again, we see the typical Korean version of the taegeuk, known in English perhaps as the yin and yang symbol. Unlike the Chinese version, which is in two halves, the Korean version is in thirds representing heaven, earth, and mankind.
As is traditional in East Asian palace design, you have to cross a bridge over a stream of water. The Japanese wreaked great havoc upon Korea’s royal palaces. Currently, only about 30% of Changdeok Palace remains.
Changdeok Palace has some surprising aspects. Unlike Gyeongbok Palace, which resembles the Forbidden City in that everything is laid out in a very orderly fashion, when you enter Changdeok Palace, rather than walking straight to the throne hall, you go through a couple of twists. You have to pass through a couple of gates before coming to the throne hall.
If you look carefully at the stone pathways, you will notice something unique about them. They are raised in the centre. During the Joseon Kingdom and the Great Korean Empire, only the king or emperor could walk on the raised centre. His officials would walk on either side. While these strictures are no longer followed today, the palaces have happily retained them as a part of the historic design of the place.
Having passed through the gates, we finally come to the throne hall, Injeongjeon. This hall is not as big or as impressive as the throne hall in Gyeongbok Palace, but it is still impressive all the same. It has a couple of unusual features. If you look at the exterior of the building along the top of the roof, you will see plum blossoms. This was the imperial symbol during the days of the Great Korean Empire. The family name of Emperor Gojong was Yi. The Chinese character 李 for his family name also means “plum”. The interior of the hall also features chandeliers and some Westernized decorations which seem a bit out of character. During the reign of Emperor Gojong, or to be more respectful and use his title, the Gwangmu Emperor, modernization and westernization began in earnest. The emperor developed a passion for coffee, cut his hair in a more Western style (something which just was not done in the old days), and also began to dress in a more Western fashion.
In the first photo, you might notice what look like minature tombstones. These indicate where the various ranks of officials are to stand during certain state ceremonials. As always, the emperor only walked along the middle pathway.
Other imperial symbols which you are likely to frequently encounter in Korea, China, and Japan are phoenixes and dragons. A pair of phoenixes as a symbol of power is one thing which has lasted to this day in Korea. The flag of the President of the Republic of Korea is blue. On it, are a pair of phoenixes. (He also has a palace guard that dresses in authentic Joseon-style military uniforms for state occasions.)
Dragons are also a very prominent feature of East Asian palace architecture. On the ceiling over the throne, one always finds a pair of dragons. The Forbidden City in Beijing has a marvelous display of a river of dragons.
There are all sorts of other buildings within the palace complex. The royal garage has since been moved to the National Palace Museum. You used to be able to see the cars of the imperial family at Changdeok Palace. Hyundai paid for their upkeep.
Following Korea’s resumption of independence, the Crown Prince Eumin and the Crown Princess Bangja were not permitted to return to Korea. Prince Eumin had married a Japanese princess by the name of Nashimotomiya Masako. She took the name of Princess Bangja. The ban on their return to Korea lasted until Park Chung-hee took power. In the 1960s, Crown Prince Eumin and Crown Princess Bangja returned to Korea where they lived in this rather modest complex of buildings known as Nakseonjae. Following Prince Eumin’s death, Princess Bangja continued to reside at Nakseonjae until her death in 1989. Unlike the rest of the palace complex, it is not brightly painted. Rather, it is in the modest style of a nobleman’s house. This home was originally built for one of the concubines of one of the kings. His wife, the queen, lived in the queen’s residence right behind the king’s office.
Like Deoksu Palace, you can see quite a bit of the attempts at modernization and Westernization made during the reign of the Gwangmu Emperor (King Gojong). Here are some western furnishings used by the emperor and his staff. The palace did have one of the earliest electric generators in the country.