The Shining Fortress part 2: its remarkable story.

by Matthew Jackson

The story which surrounds the building of the Hwaseong fortress is an extraordinary one. The fortress was originally built as part of the new Suwon city, a project initiated by King Chongjo.

King Chongjo (or King Jeongjo, depending on your preferred romanization) had been greatly devoted to his father, Sado Seja, who died at a young age. He visited his father’s tomb every year, and in 1789 moved his tomb to one of the most auspicious burial grounds in Korea, behind the district of the original Suwon city. 1795 was the year in which Chongjo’s parents would have turned 60, a significant age in Korean culture, and hence a very special occasion, recorded in the Uigwe (see picture).

King Chongjo held a grand banquet on his mother’s 60th birthday at Hwaseong Fortress. (A page from the Uigwe)
King Chongjo held a grand banquet on his mother’s 60th birthday at Hwaseong Fortress. (A page from the Uigwe)

The new Suwon city, where the king provided accommodation for the villagers of the old Suwon, was the first planned city in Korea. It was a defensive base for Seoul, but King Chongjo also wanted it to grow to have a large and thriving economy. Established on level ground and located ideally for transport, the new settlement had great potential. In order to attract business, the Choson government introduced a raft of policies, ranging from direct funding to granting exclusive international trading rights over certain products. After the passing of several years, the initial 63 households grew to around 1,000, and the quiet rural village became a centre of commerce, home to every kind of trade.

As the first instance of performance-based wage labour for public projects in Korea, the construction of Hwaseong fortress was an example of social progress as well as architectural innovation. Compulsory labor had previously been the norm in national defence projects. Ordinary citizens provided their own food, and skilled craftsmen received only partial contributions towards living expenses. Performance-based pay, as well as being more efficient, also served as a relief programme for struggling farmers.

Chong Yak-Yong, the chief architect of Hwaseong, argued in favour of the new scheme, and his proposals were approved by the king. King Chongjo also supported the workers in other ways, often holding feasts for them. During the winter months, he gave everyone a fur hat and a roll of cotton to line clothes, and during the hottest periods, he had 4,000 packs of medicine specially prepared to guard against the effects of the heat.

Plans of the Kongsimdon tower, from the Hwaseong Fortress Uigwe (1801)
Plans of the Kongsimdon tower, from the Hwaseong Fortress Uigwe (1801)

The Hwaseong Uigwe, which took five years to complete, provides an extraordinary amount of detail on the construction of the building, even down to the number and unit price of the nails used. It is evident that the project was very well organized, perhaps partly due to the obligation to record everything with such transparency.

As mentioned in the article about Uigwe, the depth of the detail in these records, which include interior, exterior, and perspective drawings of the buildings, enabled the ruins to be successfully restored to their original state after the ravages of the Korean War.

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