The Shining Fortress part 1: its construction

by Matthew Jackson

The official report by the advisors to UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee concluded that the Suwon Hwaseong Fortress “represents the pinnacle of 18th century military architecture, incorporating the best of that from Europe and from the Far East. As such it has a unique historical importance”.

What makes Hwaseong special? Following the editor’s first-hand account of his visit to this historic building, here are a few interesting facts about its construction to be followed by the equally intriguing history of how it came into existence.

Chi fortification in Hwaseon fortress
Chi fortification in Hwaseong fortress

Background

The Fortress of Hwaseong (“Shining Fortress”) was built in Suwon city, the capital of Kyonggi Province, in 1796, during the reign of King Chongjo (or Jeongjo, depending on your preferred romanization) of the Choson Dynasty.

The castle fulfilled military, political and commercial functions. Its chief architect was Chong Yak-yong, a renowned scholar official and leader of the “practical learning” (silhak) movement.

Construction

One interesting feature of the Hwaseong Fortress is the combination of Western and Eastern construction tools and materials used to build it. Another unusual feature is the walls, which appear very low for a castle – 15-20 meters tall in some places. This was due to the move to cannon warfare, which meant that high walls were a liability. Bricks as well as large stones were used, as they had the effect of localizing the damage caused by a direct hit.

Defensive features

The castle’s four main gates were shielded by semicircular walls. Known as Ongsung, they made direct assault on the gates very difficult. If the enemy breached its walls, they would be enclosed on all sides and vulnerable to attack.

Two of the gates were flanked by guard towers, which added a further layer of protection. If the gate caught fire during an assault, the Osongji came swiftly into action. Osongi were installations akin to a fire hydrant. Installed above the gates, they poured out water from five holes linked to a water tank.

Gates Changan (above) and Paldal (below); the images on the right are from Hwaseong Fortress Uigwe
Gates Changan (above) and Paldal (below); the images on the right are from Hwaseong Fortress Uigwe

Offensive features

The castle had 2,700 gun embrasures. The Kongsimdon tower contained a spiral corridor leading to the top, with tens of gun embrasures stationed at various points, allowing the gunner to conceal himself easily and fire in any direction.

The walls had openings at the top so that hot water or sewage could be poured down on invaders. Where the wall formed a straight line, defense was enhanced by chi installations. The chi structure (top) protruded from the walls, allowing soldiers to attack the enemy from different angles.

The Kongsimdon tower
The Kongsimdon tower

Aesthetics

As well as being practical, much thought went into making the Hwaseong buildings pleasing to look at. No two buildings are alike, and each was placed carefully with a specific purpose in mind.

Nimal De Silva, who conducted the field inspection by UNESCO, observed that although Hwaseong is only 200 years old, each of the castle’s buildings has a distinctive artistic value, as well as being scientific, rational structures designed for practical use.

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