Sancheong Town, Gyeongsangnam-do, Sunday 1 April 2012. Yes, it’s 1 April, and no, this article is not an April Fool’s joke.
Sunday in Sancheong town, and the National Assembly election campaign is in full swing. All along the main street, the ppongtchak trucks are parked nose to tail, probably about eight of them. All of them blare out loud music and bear the portrait of their candidate together with his or her number. Each truck has its company of supporters: mainly middle-aged women in matching brightly-coloured tracksuits and sun-visors. One group is dancing and cheerleading in time to the music, while a group on the opposite side of the road bows deferentially as we drive past. Not much chance to get across their policies, but maybe everyone’s manifesto is Ppongtchak for All.
We are heading for the next county, Hadong-gun, to look at some sites which aren’t much on the tourist trail: the Burial Grounds of the Royal Umbilical Cords.1
Actually, it was rather difficult to tell what exactly was buried. In Korean, the word is 탯줄, which translates as “umbilical cord”; but on the English-language signs at the burial sites the particular bit of human tissue is called the placenta chamber. Anyway, you get the general gist as to what it is we’re talking about here.
From ancient times it was believed that the placenta gave life to a newborn and thus was not to be discarded lightly, but instead needed to be carefully preserved. The practices around this preservation were highly regulated, with the treatment put into one of three grades depending on the rank of the infant. For the Joseon royal family in particular, the placenta was thought to be connected to the fate of the nation and was thus even more carefully handled. Consequently the burial chamber for the king’s placenta was of course in the first grade, and the burial plot, stipulated at one hectare, was maintained by up to eight officials.
Indeed, there was a whole government department devoted to scouting out the most propitious sites in the country for this burial practice. Their job was to come up with a shortlist of suitable plots and then the king would chose the actual site. His placenta would then be buried in the first year of his reign.
In the low hills and farmland of Hadong County2 is the burial site of probably the most prestigious placenta in Korean history: that of Sejong the Great (r 1418-1450), which was buried in 1418.
Unfortunately the Japanese found it.
When the Japanese first invaded during the Imjin War (1592-1598), they found the burial location and trashed the place. The Joseon authorities did a repair job in 1601 and added a memorial stele in 1734.
When the Japanese returned to stay in the first half of the 20th century, they did a more thorough job. They studied the relevant documents to identify all the burial places in the country – a relatively easy task given that all the sites were owned and carefully catalogued by the Royal estate. Then they dug up all the royal placentas, and moved them to a location in Gyeonggi-do3. And once the Japanese had severed the connection of the Joseon kings with the various propitious sites, they then sold the land off to commoners as prime burial plots.
Today, all that remains of the original burial site of King Sejong’s placenta is the memorial stele and related artefacts. But this memorial has been relocated to the bottom of the hill where the placenta was originally buried. The original spot is no longer accessible – it being a private burial place.
A couple of miles away, the burial place of King Danjong’s placenta fared slightly better, presumably because he’s not such a prestigious monarch. But still the land was sold off as a burial ground to a commoner during the colonial period. It’s a nice quiet spot, at the top of a small hill, with a good view over the surrounding fields slightly obscured by the pine trees which have grown to a commanding height since the original interment.
The lenient treatment suffered by the burial place of Danjong’s placenta in no way compensates for his own particularly gruesome fate. He was forced to abdicate in 1455 after only a couple of years on the throne, aged a mere 14 years old. The leader of the coup was his uncle Sejo. Following an attempted counter-coup, Sejo exiled Danjong to Cheongryeongpo Cape, a promontory on the Namhan River in Yeongwol County, Kangwon Province. [Map] Then, in 1457, Sejo had him slowly roasted to death: Danjong was locked up in his bedroom and the servants were told to stoke up the ondol system full blast. There is a tale that all the pine trees nearby bowed deeply towards the house in grief at this horrible death.
Strangely, the Korean Tourism Organisation website gives a somewhat sanitised version of Danjong’s death: Sejo in a more gentlemanly fashion forces him to take poison, a much more usual method of getting rid of troublemakers. But ask a Korean what really happened, and they will tell you what they are taught in school. And it will be the version that is currently on Wikipedia: Danjong was roasted alive by a super-heated ondol system.4
The people of Yeongwol County honour Danjong’s memory in an annual festival at his tomb (his actual tomb in Yeongwol, not his placenta’s burial place). Lateral Movements has an account of the 2012 celebrations.
Meanwhile, back in Sacheon-si, Gyeongsangnam-do, just down the road from the burial site of King Sejong’s placenta is the well-tended family graveyard of the Yu family. One of their ancestors, Yu Seong-Ryong (유성룡1542–1607), was a long-standing friend of Admiral Yi Sun-shin. He was prime minister during the time of the Japanese invasions and had provided invaluable support to Yi when his rivals were plotting against him. It is nice to see his descendants finding their final resting place in such a peaceful location.
The placenta chambers of Sejong’s children seem to have had a happier fate than that of their father. Blogger Chris Backe visited their burial place in Seongju-gun, near Daegu, in May 2012. Check out his post, which has a helpful diagram of what a taeshil’s burial chamber looks like.
- Ancient Koreans were not alone in their careful treatment of the placenta. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Placenta#Cultural_practices_and_beliefs
- Wikipedia entry on the Taejang Ceremony
- Gyeongsangnam-do Cultural Treasure No 30; Gyeongsangnam-do, Sacheon-si, Gonmyeong-myeon, Eunsa-ri (http://g.co/maps/6mr8t) [↩]
- Officially the address is Sacheon-si rather than Hadong-gun [↩]
- The information boards at the original burial sites are inconsistent as to the final resting place of the placenta jars: one sign says that all the royal placentas are now in Yangju, Gyeonggi-do, while another suggests that at least King Sejong’s and King Danjong’s placentas were reburied in the grounds of the royal tomb of Seosamreung, Goyangsi, Gyeonggi-do [↩]
- Update: on 6 May 2013 Wikipedia was sanitised to remove any mentioned on Danjong’s method of death. The track-changes version reads as follows:
The following year, six officials of the court attempted to restore him to power, but their plot was discovered and they were immediately executed. Perceiving that he would present a continuing threat to his rule, Sejo then accepted the advice of the court and ordered that Danjong be disposed of. In 1457, he was murdered at his house in the place to which he was exiled. The men sent by Sejo locked Danjong’s bedroom door and overheated the room, thus burning the boy to death.