London Korean Links

Covering things Korean in London and beyond since 2006

2014 Travel Diary day 7: the concubine, the eunuchs and the gisaeng

Another literary lunch and a visit to the tombs of the trusted palace servants.

Some of the better-preserved statues on Choansan
Some of the better-preserved statues on Choansan

Eulji-ro, Seoul, Thursday 12 June, 9am. I decide to take it easy today, and have a bit of a lie in. I pop outside to the subway station to pick up a coffee and pastry, and then pay a quick visit to the hotel gym which seems to be frequented mainly by energetic senior citizens taking advantage of the facilities while most of the hotel guests are at work.

My lunch appointment today is with one of the authors who came to the London Book Fair earlier in the year. For want of a better location, we have pasta in my hotel: every now and then it’s nice to take a break from Korean food, sacrilegious though that might seem.

The most stimulating panel session of the London Book Fair had consisted of today’s lunch companion and my Busan lunch companion of a couple of days previously, discussing migrant literature. The discussion had been particularly memorable because of the way the authors eagerly agreed with each other on many points, to the extent of seeming to finish each other’s sentences: it is not always the case that violent arguments make for the best audience experience. One particularly striking coincidence to emerge out of the discussion was that both authors were interested in the life of Crown Prince Sohyeon, who spent most of his life in the Qing court, part hostage, part diplomat. Both authors were interested in his story from the perspective of his life as an exile, in a foreign land, and encountering alien and modern ideas from Westerners in Beijing. In fact one of the authors planned writing a novel about him, only to find that the other had already done so.

Our lunchtime conversation naturally drifts to the subject of Joseon dynasty history, and from Sohyeon’s death (either poisoned or battered to death by his own father, King Injo, with an ink slab) to the gruesome ends suffered by other members of the royal family such as Sado and Danjong. In exchange, I share the barbaric fate supposedly suffered by King Edward II. As we part, she gives me a recommendation for tourist sites in and around Seoul: in particular the royal tombs. She talks about the famous concubine Jang Hui-bin, whose tomb was originally located south of Seoul but, in order to make room for a local construction project in 1969, was moved to in a complex of tombs in Goyang-si called the Seooreung where she was reunited in death with her royal lover and, somewhat insensitively, her lover’s wife. Jang’s colourful career as concubine of King Sukjong (r 1674–1720) and mother of his successor King Gyeongjong (r 1720–1724) is full of incident: rivalries, political purges, alleged murder and more. According to the story relayed by Lady Hyegyong, she “practiced black magic to bring death to the saintly Queen Inhyeon” (Sukjong’s wife). After her accomplices confessed, Jang was ordered to take poison in 1701.1 Her story has inspired a number of TV dramas in which she has been portrayed by modern beauties such as Lee Mi-sook, Kim Hye-soo and Kim Tae-hee.

Kim Tae-hee as Jang Hui-bin
Kim Tae-hee as Jang Hui-bin in the drama Jang Ok-jung, Living by Love (장옥정, 사랑에 살다 )

The tomb and the stories are something to follow up on next time I’m in Seoul. And in a neat segue, my task for the afternoon was to hunt down more tombs: the graveyards of the Joseon dynasty palace eunuchs (내시). The site is not a very well known one, even to locals. But a photographic exhibition in Mokspace gallery in London had alerted me to the out-of-the-way place.

This is the second time that Mokspace has dictated a place that I visit on my Korea trip. Last year I had visited Unjusa in Jeollanamdo after seeing photographs of the place in a Mokspace exhibition of Buddhist art. The exhibition that had attracted my attention this time had been entitled Loyalty, by photographer (and senior director of photography at The Hankyoreh) Tak Ki-hyoung, who lives very close to the graveyard.

The eunuchs' tombs are nearby
The eunuchs’ tombs are nearby

A bit of Googling on my part, and Navering by a Korean friend, tracked the site to Nokcheon subway station on line 1 in north-east Seoul. Come out of the station, walk southwards down the road that follows the subway line for a hundred yards or so and turn right, along a track which runs past what looks like a driving school. Soon the path is climbing gently up the slopes of Choansan through shady woods. Once you get to the summit, walk southwards along the ridge for 20 minutes and you come to signposts to the area known as 비석골 근린공원 – which roughly translates as “gravestone village park”.

A noticeboard near the signposts gives the following information:

Historic Site No 440
Location: 58 lots of land including San 8-3, Wolgye-dong, Nowon-gu, Seoul

There are about a thousand tombs of aristocrats, eunuchs and commoners from the Joseon period in Choansan. Particularly noteworthy is the concentration of tombs of eunuchs who belonged to the Department of Eunuchs and who were in charge of various court matters during the Joseon period. For that reason, Choansan was also referred to as Eunuchs Mountain. According to records, the tombs of a eunuch named Kim Gyehan and his son Kim Gwangtaek were originally in this graveyard but they were moved to Hyochon-ri in Yangju a long time ago. The oldest tomb in this area is that of Seung Geukcheol, grandson of Kim Gyehan, and it dates to 1634 (12th year of King Injo’s reign). Eunuchs handed down their family lineage to their adopted son, so the grandson could have a different surname. The tombs of eunuchs in the area mostly face west, where the palace is. It is mainly because of the topographical features of Choansan, but many believe it is because the eunuchs wanted to wish for the well-being of the king even in death. Until the Japanese Colonial Period, the village residents offered ancestral ceremonies for the eunuchs every autumn. The tombs of people from various classes, along with numerous stone monuments, are scattered in the area, and they serve as important materials for the study of ancestral rites, tombs and stone monuments from the Joseon period.

Judging by the photographs in the exhibition, there are some good quality statues in the vicinity, but thye are hard to track down. A lot of the statues near the main paths are rather eroded, but even so their faces are full of character. And there are lots of little-used tracks through the undergrowth and maybe along one of these you’ll find a treasure.

Many of the statues have been decapitated, and as you wander through the woods you feel it is rather sad that the graves have not been better honoured and looked after.

Once you’ve finished browsing round the undergrowth you descend the hill and emerge in a children’s playground, at the fringes of which are arrayed more of the better preserved statues from the woods above. In fact, if you approach the area from Wolgye subway station rather than Nokcheon (Wolgye, also on line 1, is in fact much closer, though you will need your map app to guide you through the complex of apartment blocks and schools) you will probably think that the statues in the playground are the main attraction, and you will then omit to venture up into the woods. That would be a mistake. Navigation is much easier, and the walk more pleasant, from Nokcheon, and you will finish your visit by walking to Wolgye station.

From Wolgye I decide to visit another curiosity: a temple donated to the Jogye Order by a gisaeng. To be more exact, Gilsangsa is in fact a former “yojeong” or gisaeng-house which has been converted for use as a temple. It was once one of the top yojeong in Korea, called Daewongak.

Hurrying to evening prayer in the Geukrakjeon
Hurrying to evening prayer in the Geukrakjeon (The Hall of Ultimate Bliss) – formerly the restaurant and upscale entertainment venue called Daewongak.

The original owner of the estate was Kim Yeong-han, who lived there with her lover, the poet Baek Seok. According to the more worldly version of the story in the Korea JoongAng Daily, when the couple parted Kim Yeong-han in sadness donated the buildings to Monk Beopjeong. If this is true, it was a long period of grief, because Baek Seok went to Manchuria in the 1940s and lived in Hamhung in North Korea after the division of the peninsula. A romanticised version of the story of Kim Yeong-han and Baek Seok can also be found in this Daum blog post. The post gives a rather poignant quote from Kim:

Some religion preaches that soul can get restored even after death, but I don’t believe it. Whenever I dreamt of him, he didn’t appear in his age. Instead, he is always young like his image of 60 years ago. The moment DMZ is abolished I will run to his tomb and bow him.

A more spiritual version of the story (on the Gilsangsa website) says that Kim Yeong-han was so moved upon reading Monk Beopjeong’s book Non-Possession that she wanted to make the precious donation. Beopjeong initially refused, but after ten years relented and finally accepted the gift in 1995. Kim was given the Buddhist name Gilsanghwa and thus the temple became known as Gilsangsa.

The temple is a pleasant stroll through Seongbuk-dong up the hill from Hansung University station (again, a map app comes in handy), past the residencies of many ambassadors and art galleries, one of which is promoted as being on the hallyu tourist trail, as it featured as the home of the gangster boss in the SBS drama series “Protect the Boss”  (15, Seonjam-ro 5-gil, Seongbuk-gu, Seoul)

The entrance to the temple is a conventional temple gateway, but the main shrine is anything but conventional – it’s an aristocratic villa, rather like the Seokpajeong in Buamdong. The building now has the name Geukrakjeon (The Hall of Ultimate Bliss).

We arrived just as the temple bell was ringing for the evening service, calling to mind one of the sayings of the temple’s former owner:

“I have made many mistakes in my life. I don’t know much about Buddhism, but my only wish is that the temple bell ring out clearly from the octagonal pavilion, where the women used to change their clothes.”

Although the place has a sublimely peaceful feeling, situated as it is so close to the centre of Seoul the visitors tend to be curious sight-seers rather than seekers after truth, but maybe that’s as it should be: according to the temple’s website Gilsanghwa’s desire “was that the temple become an open space where all who came could forget the pains of life”. Its openness to all is symbolised by the stone statue of Avalokitesvara Guan Yin Buddha, carved by a Catholic artist and looking suspiciously like the Virgin Mary.

Descending the hill from the temple, past a construction site which looks as if it is going to be an annex for the nearby Kansong Museum, we come across one of the more quirky business propositions: a tie museum which also sells European antique furniture and serves Italian food. The owner was happy to show us round.

Various famous Koreans dressed in ties, at the Tie Museum in Seongbuk-dong
Various famous Koreans dressed in ties, at the Tie Museum in Seongbuk-dong

The question that was burning on my lips was how such an enterprise makes any money in this exclusive part of Seoul, but I was too polite to ask it. I assumed that, this being a museum, none of the ties were available for sale, but there is an affiliated retail outlet in Insadong.

We find a sashimi place at the bottom of the hill, and from there I take a gentle hour-long walk back to the hotel in Myeongdong, for once, reasonably sober.


I am grateful to Kang Hyeran for her help in researching the Eunuch’s graveyard and the story of Baek Seok and Kim Yeong-han. Any errors made in simplifying the stories are mine.

<< Previous diary entry | Diary index | Next diary entry >>

  1. The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong, tr JaHyun Kim Haboush, University of California Press, 1996, p 246. []

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.