The Gwanghwamun and its many rebirths

146aWhen General Yi Song-gye founded the Joseon dynasty and moved Korea’s capital to Seoul, he needed a palace of suitable magnificence. The Gyeongbokgung (경복궁) was carefully sited by the royal geomancers to benefit from the perfect Pung Su (풍수), and at its southernmost point, in direct alignment with the main throne room, the Gwanghwamun (광화문 – the “Gate which casts light on the world”) was built. The Gyeongbokgung was the royal palace of the Joseon dynasty until 1592, when it was burned down either by the Japanese invaders or by Korean slaves hungry for freedom at the start of the Imjin War. Shocked by the disaster, the royal family abandoned the ruins – whose Pung Su was obviously not as auspicious as they were originally assured – and moved to the nearby Changdeokgung.

The Gwanghwamun dominated the Seoul skyline in the late Joseon dynasty
The Gwanghwamun dominated the Seoul skyline in the late Joseon dynasty
In 1865, the queen decided that it was time to restore the palace to its former glory. Ironically, just as Korea was chosing to mark its place in the world by restoring its past, across the East Sea in Japan three years later the Meiji restoration would seek to establish Japan’s position by a programme of relentless modernisation.

The rebuilding programme was achieved with astonishing rapidity: the whole palace and the gate took two years to complete. Not bad when you consider that the current rebuilding of just the gate is taking at least the anticipated two years. But Japanese expansionism would not allow the new palace to remain undisturbed for long.

The Japanese Government General Building before its demolition
The Japanese Government General Building before its demolition
During the colonial period, the monumental Japanese Government General Building dominated the skyline. It was deliberately built at a 6 degree angle to the orientation of the Gwanghwamun and Gyeongbukgung to disrupt the Pung Su. Later, in 1928, the Japanese moved the gate as an unnecessary obstruction. Burned during the Korean war, it was rebuilt by Park Chung-hee in 1965 – in perfect orientation with the government building (and hence 6 degrees out of alignment with the rest of the palace)

The fate of the govermnent building was always going to be controversial in a post-colonial world. Turned into a home for the National Museum of Korea by Roh Tae-woo, and finally demolished under Kim Young-sam in 1995, leaving the Gwanghwamun out of line and out of place.

The Gwanghwamun after the demolition of the Japanese General Government Building. Out of line, out of place
The Gwanghwamun after the demolition of the Japanese Government General Building. Out of line, out of place
The gate is now being rebuilt. The reconstruction, due to be completed this year, aims to restore the gate to its original position, using traditional materials – thought the project is behind schedule in part due to the destruction of the Namdaemun gate at the other end of the old town. There’s only so many specialist craftsmen and materials to go round.

The reconstruction is being filmed by a British crew as part of a one-hour HD documentary part-funded by the Princes Trust. The film’s director, Dr Howard Reid, introduced his film at one of the regular Centre of Korean Studies evening seminars on 20 March (The History of Gwanghwamun: the several births, deaths and rebirths of a national cultural icon).

We were treated to an early edit of part of the material, featuring the master craftsman in charge of the woodwork. We saw the Confucian and shamanistic ceremonies in the mountains to placate the spirits before selecting and felling some of the finest trees to provide the timber for the reborn gate.

Is the reconstruction an irrelevance, a backward-looking step akin to the reconstruction of the palace in the 1860s? Or is it a necessary stage in healing the wounds of history at the heart of the Korean nation? The documentary seeks to consider these questions and more. Based on the early footage we saw, it will be well worth watching.

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