Seoul, Sunday 1 May 2011. In previous years I had been foiled in my attempts to get to see the famous Secret Garden behind the UNESCO-listed Changdeok Palace. Either there were building works going on, or access was only via guided tour and I had missed my slot, or some other obstacle was put in my path. Today was the day that I finally reached my objective.
The Palace of Prospering Virtue
The Changdeokgung is always a good way to spend some time when in Seoul. On previous visits I had joined a guided tour. There are good and bad things with a guided tour. Yes, you get some useful information about what you’re looking at, but what you’re getting is probably pitched at the average tourist with no prior knowledge. You also are going around with a crowd of people and have to queue up to poke your nose through the windows to see the interior of the various halls and reception rooms. You might also not be able to explore parts of the complex deemed not worthy of attention by your guide.
Going around self-guided you can go at your own pace and appreciate the layout of the place, exploring all the nooks and crannies (subject to the injunctions of the numerous “no entry” signs). Of course, you miss out on the history (though you might have a leaflet or guidebook to help with that) but what you gain is an appreciation of the atmosphere and shape of the place. You can let your imagination roam whenever you want, imagining the ladies of the palace walking along the covered walkways which connect the buildings.
Going at your own pace, soaking up the atmosphere of a place and avoiding the crowds, is a particularly attractive proposition with the Changdeokgung, which is unusual in being laid out in a way sympathetic to the landscape, unlike the nearby Gyeongbokgung, which is imposed on the landscape in a very formal, four-square way. Part of the reason for the Changdeokgung’s more homely feel is that it was originally envisaged as a residence rather than as the primary palace.
In fact, “the felicitous siting of the complex within and in response to its natural landscape is one of [the Changdeokgung’s] outstanding qualities,” says UNESCO in the report which supports the listing of the Changdeokgung as a world heritage site. The report continues:
The palace compound is an outstanding example of Far Eastern palace architecture and garden design, exceptional for the way in which the buildings are integrated into and harmonized with the natural setting, adapting to the topography and retaining indigenous tree cover. ((Spelling of the Changdeokgung has been changed from the UNESCO text to conform to the latest Romanisation ))
The Gyeongbokgung was built in 1395 as the official palace, but as early as the reign of King Taejong (r. 1400-1418), its location was thought to be inauspicious, and the Changdeokgung was built as a secondary palace in 1404. Maybe part of the decision was driven by guilt: Taejong had killed his half brothers in the Gyeongbokgung in 1398 in a bid for the throne. It is said that subsequent kings such as Seongjong (r. 1469-1494) preferred the Changdeokgung to its rectilinear counterpart to the west. Both palaces were burned down burned down during the Imjinwaeran Japanese invasions of 1592-98, an arson which some blamed it on the Japanese, others on slaves who benefited when the official slave records stored therein went up in flames. They were rebuilt after the Japanese left, but the Gyeongbokgung burned down again during the coup in which King Injo seized the throne from his late father’s half-brother Gwanghaegun, and it remained in ruins until Daewongun reconstructed it 1867.
Thus the Changdeokgung was the official residence of the Joseon kings for the most of the 17th through to the mid 19th century. Consequently, it is in the Changdeokgung that many of the livelier stories of the Joseon dynasty royal household were played out: it was here that the famous beauty, King Sukjong’s concubine Jang Hui-bin conducted a shamanistic ritual which ended up with the death of her love-rival Queen Inhyeon. It was here that Crown Prince Sado managed to burn down a couple of halls after knocking over a candle as he chased his tutor around the palace, where he wrought havoc by killing eunuchs and ladies-in-waiting when his mental afflictions got the better of him, and where his life came to an end in a rice chest in 1762.
As you are led round the palace you don’t really notice how irregularly it is laid out. It is only when reviewing your photographs afterwards that you realise that things aren’t in straight lines. For example, looking from the entrance to the royal living quarters back to the main throne hall (the Injeongjeon), the absence of right angles becomes clear.
Instead of the grand gateway which leads directly in a straight line to the courtyard in front of the main throne room and audience hall, as the Gyeongbokgung is organised, with the Changdeokgung you have a winding journey before you are admitted into the royal presence: you enter the palace through a gate to the west (the Donhwamun – 돈화문), walk northwards along a stream, turn right over a bridge (the Geumcheongyo – 금천교), then through a smaller gate (Jinseonmun – 진선문) into an irregular rectangular courtyard before you finally turn left though the Injeongmun (인정문) into the main courtyard in front of the Injeongjeon (인정전) where official receptions and greetings were held.
The Injeongjeon went through a substantial interior revamp during the reign of Emperor Sunjong in 1907, including installation of the latest technology: giant electric light bulbs hang from the roof, covered in imperial yellow lampshades. Externally, the roof ridge (yongmaru) was given an unusual addition at the same time: five pear flowers (yihwa), each with five petals, are spaced along the ridge – a unique feature for a palace building, and indeed the pear as the symbol of the Yi royal family is itself rarely seen.
To the side of the Injeongjeon is the Seonjeongjeon (선정전) with its blue tiled roof. Originally this was used for the daily business between king and officials, but it later came to be used to house the spirit tablets of royal ancestors.
Next on your journey through the place grounds are the living quarters. First comes the Huijeongdang (희정당), where the king would be tutored in the Confucian Classics, though one suspects that the literati would not feel comfortable in post-1917 reconstruction décor and furniture (complete with electric lighting) that graces the interior today.
Behind the Huijeongdang is the elegant Daejojeon (대조전) containing the royal bedchambers. No one seems to know why, but the royal sleeping quarters do not have ridges on their roofs.
Behind the Daejojeon is a small terraced garden with trees and interesting stones.
As you emerge from the garden you come to a peaceful corner of the palace called the Seongjeonggak (성정각), which in the Japanese colonial period was used as a royal hospital. Before then, it was the Crown Prince’s study.
Finally one comes to the Nakseonjae (낙선재), one of the most appealing parts of the Changdeokgung. Tucked away in the south-east corner of the palace complex, this collection of buildings, constructed from 1847 onwards, eschews the colourful dancheong paintwork of the rest of the palace. Painted solely in white, and leaving the timbers bare, the Nakseonjae was built as living quarters for King Heonjong. The nearby Seokbokheon, built a year later, was for the concubine Lady Gyeongbin. Somehow, after being assaulted by the bright colours and ornate shapes of the remainder of the palace, the eye finds the restraint of these slightly humbler buildings very peaceful. More recently, the last crown princess of Korea, the Japanese-born Yi Bang-ja, lived in the Nakseonjae until 1989.
The site of the Nakseonjae used to be occupied by the living quarters of the Crown Prince – the Donggung. When Jeongjo came to the throne in 1776 he moved the Donggung closer to the living quarters of the king. The Seongjeonggak study above is part of that complex, though the main living quarters, the Junghuidang, are no longer in existence. Jeongjo’s father, Crown Prince Sado, had occupied the Donggung and according to Sado’s wife, Lady Hyegyong, the physical remoteness between him and his parents contributed to the emotional distance between king and prince, which was a significant factor in Sado’s mental illness.
The back garden
Of course, another key feature of the Changdeokgung is the Huwon (후원), its rather modestly titled back garden whose development started in 1406. It is also known as the Biwon (비원), the secret garden. While you can have a self-guided stroll around the palace, you can, as far as I am aware, only get into the garden as part of a guided tour, with all the advantages and disadvantages that entails.
The Biwon is considered the archetypal Joseon dynasty garden, in which the original landscape is respected as far as possible and artificial intervention kept to a minimum. When the main Palace complex was originally built, the land was left in its natural woodland state. The first intervention was made in 1459 when King Sejo arranged for some extensive landscaping. Pavilions and ponds were added in the early 17th century as the palaces were rebuilt following the Japanese invasions, and further interventions continued to be made thereafter.
The first stop on the tour combines comfort break and retail opportunity with the first major pond in the garden, the Buyongji (부용지), which was built in 1707 in the reign of King Sukjong. It’s the classic square pond (representing earth) with roundish island (representing heaven) in the middle. Pavilions of various sizes overlook the pond offering the opportunity for rest or reading and the royal library was housed in the Juhamnu (주합루), the imposing two-storey building constructed on the north side of the pond in 1776, the year King Jeongjo came to the throne.
The most picturesque of these pavilions, which has its legs resting in the pond, is the Buyongjeong (부용정). It is said to be in the shape of a Chinese character, when looked at from above. If you’re allowed up close to it, it provides a good photo opportunity as you look through the open windows to the pond and pavilion the other side.
When I visited, the Buyongji pond was curiously drab in colour, the water a murky greenish-brown rather than the translucent black one expects. And the season of late spring meant that much of the floral interest had faded. The best times to visit are the height of spring, or October / November when the Autumn foliage is at its most spectacular.
Walking on from the Buyongji pond you get to the simpler Aeryeonji (애련지) lotus pond with its solitary pavilion, the Aeryeonjeong (애련정). Perhaps even more than the Buyongji, the Aeryeonji is an Autumn pond. Google the word, and you’ll find plenty of images with the maples and acers in a glorious red.
Near the Aeryeonji is the Yeongyeongdang (연경당), a country villa where the King would camp out for a night or two, maybe believing that was how the other half lived. The villa was built by Crown Prince Hyomyeong in around 1828. Dotted around the grounds in front of the villa, and beside the Aeryeonjeong pavilion, are interesting shaped stones that a king or scholar could reflect upon while reading the Confucian classics – a traditional feature of a Korean garden.
The typical man-made pond in a grand Korean is square, but one of the more recent ponds built in the Biwon (an early 20th century modification to the garden) is built in the shape of the Korean peninsula.
This pond is called the Gwallamji (관람지), and it is surrounded by unusual pavilions: beside the pond itself, with its feet resting in the water, is the fan-shaped Gwallamjeong (관람정); overlooking the pond from the slopes to the south is the Seungjaejeong (승재정), almost hidden in the trees;
and, if the pond is shaped like the Korean peninsula, just where Baekdusan would sit is the Jondeokjeong (존덕정), built in 1644, which is given extra stature by having a double-decker hexagonal roof.
Just at the back of the Gyeonghuigung palace to the West of the capital there is a rocky place where family or scholars could picnic by a quiet stream, so at the furthest point in the secret garden is a spring surrounded by rocks. The brook is called the Jade Stream (Ongnyucheon, 옥류천), and a curved channel was carved into the rocks in 1636 where the scholars could float their wine cups while composing poetry. It was a moment of confidence and repose in King Injo’s reign that would soon end: in December the same year, the Manchu / Qing armies invaded, and Injo was forced to surrender early the next year.
Carved onto the rock at the head of the stream, the Soyoam (소요암), is a poem:
Cascading hundreds of feet,
Falling from the skies far beyond,
Rising in arcs of whiteness,
Roaring along ravines unending.
Perhaps rather an exaggeration for the gentle trickle that is the Ongnyucheon, but no poetry is possible without imagination.
In another corner of the garden, not included in the usual guided tour, is the New Seonwonjeon area. Originally the site of a shrine to honour the Ming emperors, the Japanese built a shrine where they moved the spirit portraits of some Joseon kings.
Bypassing these buildings, the guided tour takes you to the garden exit near the Donhwamun where you first entered the Palace complex. Your last sight is Natural Monument #194: a 750-year-old Chinese Juniper. It has seen better days, but it has also seen some fascinating and colourful moments in Joseon dynasty history pass before it.
Recommended reading on the Joseon Dynasty royal palaces:
- Changdeokgung page on Cultural Heritage Administration website
- Changdeokgung Palace website
- Changdeokgung page on UNESCO World Heritage website
- 5 Palaces page on Seoul Government website
- Palaces of Korea, Kim Dong-uk, Hollym 2006
- December 2014 edition of Korea Magazine (pdf download)
All photos © London Korean Links except where stated otherwise.