Myeongdong, Seoul, 30 May. Two hours sleep on the plane, and only another two on my first night in Seoul, means that I’m groggy on Saturday morning. A quick session in the hotel gym doesn’t do much to remedy that.
Coffee with The Drawing Hand
My brain is gently kick-started by a coffee in the hotel lobby, where I meet with illustrator and graphic designer Jieun Kim who is now living in Seoul after her studies in London. Her enchanting drawings were featured in two solo shows at Mokspace, near the British Museum, where I had originally met her, and had the idea of commissioning her to design the 2014 LKL Christmas card. That commission, though I say so myself, was a great idea, but had to be completed remotely when she had to return to Korea in the late summer. This was now my opportunity to get the original drawing of the jpeg she had emailed me, which will in due course be framed and end up on my wall, hopefully to be joined next year by her 2015 card. Over coffee, we talk about her life back in Seoul, and the things she misses about London.
Seooreung – the five western tombs
My next appointment is at midday at Wondang station, a 40 minute tube ride northwest from my hotel, where I am due to meet a friend I first came across at the London Book Fair last year. She has kindly agreed to show me around Seooreung, the area of five royal tombs, a place she used to visit in her childhood. The tombs are a brief taxi ride from Wondang station, and as you might expect there is a wide choice of restaurants for lunch before or after you enter.
Korea’s Joseon dynasty royal tombs were inscribed on UNESCO’s world heritage list in 2009. There are forty burial grounds of Korea’s kings and queens dotted around Seoul and the surrounding areas. The five main royals that are buried at Seooreung are:
- Posthumous King Deokjong (1438-1457) and Queen Sohye (in the Gyeongneung);
- King Yejong (r 1468-1469) and his second consort Queen Ansun (Changneung);
- King Sukjong (r 1674-1680) and his queens Inhyeon and Inwon (Myeongneung);
- Queen Ingyeong, King Sukjong’s first wife (Ingneung); and
- Queen Jeongseong, first consort of King Yeongjo (r 1724–1776) (Hongneung).
The five royal tombs (-reung / -neung, -릉) are joined by two tombs of secondary importance (-won, -원) occupied by a crown prince and a royal concubine. In addition, more recent royal grave-diggers have slotted in a tomb of the least distinguished rank (a -myo, -묘), occupied by a royal concubine whom history treated less kindly.
All the main tombs have much the same layout:
- a red spiked gateway that marks the transition into the sacred space of the tomb area;
- a paved road leading to a T-shaped shrine where the ancestral rites are held. The road is on at least two levels: the higher level, on the left, is for the spirit itself, and the slightly lower level on the right is for the king who will perform the rites. The Myeongneung’s spirit road has an even lower level on either side, for the attendants.
- a small shed to the right of the shrine in which an engraved stele records the achievements of the deceased
- the raised mound itself, with statues of civilian and military officials on either side, and stone horses, sheep and tigers.
At the Seooreung, a small fence behind each T-shaped shrine signifies that the public aren’t allowed to explore further. My guide reminisces how when she was a child (before the tombs were granted UNESCO heritage status) people were allowed to roam freely over the mounds, and children used to play on the statues. It is a little sad that access is restricted in this way, but at other tomb sites, such as the one of King Sejong in Yeoju, you are allowed a little closer.
We visit the tombs in no particular order, our feet leading the way. The first one we stop at is the Sunchangwon, burial place for Crown Prince Sunhoe (1551-1563) and his wife Gonghoebin from the Yoon clan. Sunhoe was made Crown Prince aged 7, but died at the tender age of 13 before he could succeed his father King Myeongjong (r 1545–1567). Sunhoe’s wife survived him by nearly 30 years, but died aged 43 in the first Japanese invasion of 1592. Her body was never discovered because of the chaos of war, and so the only thing to be buried beside the young Sunhoe is an empty coffin.
If the tale of Sunhoe sounds sad, it is also sad that in death not only is he separated from his wife, but the nearby tombs are only of distant relatives. He is the only child of the 16th century to be buried at Seooreung, where there are two brothers and their wives from the 15th century, and from 18th century one king with four of his consorts and two of his daughters-in-law. Sunhoe is very much alone, and you wonder how it was that he came to be buried there.
The first of the five reungs on our trail is Gyeongneung, final resting place of another crown prince who never lived to be king, having died at the age of 19. Crown Prince Uigyeong (1438-1457), was eldest son of King Sejo, the 7th of the Joseon monarchs, who outlived him by more than ten years. Uigyeong was posthumously elevated to the title of King Deokjong by his son, King Seongjong (r 1469–1494). Uigyeong’s wife, Queen Sohye (1437-1504), was an eminent scholar who translated Buddhist sutras from Chinese into Korean, and wrote an etiquette manual entitled Instructions for Women. She was given the title Dowager Queen Insu in 1471 when Seongjong elevated her late husband to posthumous kingship. Sohye died after being head-butted by her troublesome grandson, Seongjong’s son King Yeonsangun, of whom more later.
When you first visit these royal tombs, they seem to be pretty much all the same. It is only in retrospect, when looking at your information leaflets and photographs that you realise that each tomb has its own story, its own unique features. Normally when a king and a queen are buried side by side, the king is placed to the left / west, while the queen’s mound is to the east. Gyeongneung is unusual in two respects: firstly, because Uigyeong only became a king posthumously, while his wife was a living queen, the locations of the mounds are reversed. Secondly, again because Uigyeong was only a crown prince the stone statues that surround his tomb are modelled on those of the less exalted “-won” (-원) tombs, while Sohye / Insu is granted full reung-style statues.
Around the corner from the Gyeongneung is the humblest tomb in the area, the Daebinmyo, tomb of the royal concubine Jang Hui-bin (1659-1701). Famed for her beauty, she caught the eye of King Sukjong when she was a lady in waiting to King Injo’s second queen. Sukjong’s long reign (r 1674–1720) was marked by intense disputes between rival factions, and with each change in power a consort or a concubine fell in or out of favour.
None of Sukjong’s queens (there are three of them, all of whom rest in Seooreung) bore him a son. Jang Hui-bin bore him his first son, King Gyeongjong (r 1720-1724), while Royal Consort Choe Suk-bin bore him King Yeongjo (r 1724-1776). Jang Huibin is the most recent incumbent to arrive at Seooreung, having been exhumed from her original resting place in Gwangju, Gyeonggi-do in 1969 to make room for urban expansion.
Hongneung is another tomb with an unusual feature: an empty space. The usual boundary wall encloses an area big enough (just) for two burial mounds, but only one has been built. The lady buried there is Queen Jeongseong, the first consort of King Yeongjo (r 1724-1776). On her death, Yeongjo ordered her to be buried in this spot, and for a space to be left for him to be buried next to her when his time came. It was not to be.
Jeongseong had a reasonably long life (1693-1757) but failed to produce any royal offspring. Yeongjo took a concubine, Yi Yeong-bin, who gave him a son – the unfortunate Crown Prince Sado – but was never made queen. Soon after Jeongseong passed away, Yeongjo took another wife, Queen Jeongsun, who at the age of 15 was younger than him by half a century. She too had no children, but made up for it with her political astuteness. She outlived the next king (Jeongjo, her step-grandson), and acted as regent for the next king, Sunjo, who came to the throne in 1800 aged 11. Jeongsun and Yeongjo are buried together to the east of Seoul at Wolleung in the complex of tombs known as Donggureung. His first wife is therefore all alone at Seooreung.
As we proceed onwards from Hongneung, the rain, which has been falling gently for the past fifteen minutes, becomes more persistent. The soil and the grass begins to get moist underfoot, and in the warm air the fragrance of the pine trees which surround the tombs bring us closer to nature and also somehow spur the conversation. As we stand in front of Changneung, the tomb of King Yejong (r 1468-1469) and his second consort Queen Ansun, my guide tells me of the story of King Yeonsangun (r 1494–1506, one of the few rulers who was not given a posthumous name). His father was King Seongjong (r 1469–1494), Yejong’s nephew and adopted son. Seongjong only lived into his 30s but in that time had three queens and several concubines. Yeonsangun’s mother, Queen Yoon, had been the second of these, but fell out of favour and was eventually put to death by poison. As she lay dying,1 she coughed up some blood into her handkerchief, passed it to her attendant and with her dying breath instructed that the handkerchief be given to her son when he was older, to indicate to him that she had been poisoned.
When Yeonsangun ascended the throne in 1494 he initially proved to be a sensible ruler, but when he discovered the truth about his mother’s death he went off the rails, launching a series of literati purges in revenge, and taking over Sungkyungwan university, using the premises as a private brothel. Stories of his later reign are colourful in the best traditions of the presentation of erratic and ruthless tyrants. He was deposed in a coup in 1506 and died in exile on Gyodong-do, an island northwest of Ganghwa Island. He has never been rehabilitated, and his tomb, like that of Gwanghaegun, does not make it into the set of those listed at UNESCO. It is a humble -myo tomb in north-east Seoul. [Map]
A few hours after hearing this story, I was sitting in a makgeolli den with Brother Anthony and Hank Kim, and Hank out of the blue started recommending a recently-released film, The Treacherous, (간신, Dir Min Kyu-dong) which deals with Yeonsangun’s reign, and in which the bloodied handkerchief is the pivotal point which divides his early reign from his later life of tyrannical decadence. That movie has got to be on my watch-list, based on the rather luscious visuals alone.2
The Changneung is the furthest of the graves from the entrance, and according to the information board is also the first of the tombs to be built in this complex. This raises the delicate question of what happened to the body of Yejong’s elder brother Uigyeong, who died 12 years earlier but was buried a couple of hundred yards away in the Gyeongneung. And another sad fact: neither Uigyeong nor Yejong lived to see the end of their 20th year.
I must apologise to Queen Ingyeong, the first consort of King Sukjong (r 1674–1720). She married the crown prince at the age of 11 in 1671, became queen in 1674 and died of smallpox six years later, leaving behind two daughters both of whom died prematurely. By the time I got to her tomb, the Ingneung, I must have been flagging somewhat, and I failed to take any pictures of her final resting place. The above photo is from the informative leaflet published by the Cultural Heritage Administration (there’s one for each tomb site), and shows an unusual step in the spirit road half way to the shrine.
The Sugyeongwon is the burial place of Yi Yeong-bin, a consort of King Yeongjo whose son the Crown Prince Sado came to an unfortunate end in a rice chest.
Finally, the Myeongneung, accessed from the other side of the car park (don’t lose your ticket) is where King Sukjong (r 1674-1720) and two of his queens are buried. As noted above, another of his queens (Ingyeong) and his famous concubine Jang Hui-bin are also buried nearby.
As I head back to Central Seoul on the subway with no fixed plan for the rest of the day, Facebook Messenger starts buzzing. My brief post the previous evening announcing my arrival in Seoul had already generated some activity.
Studio Meditation with a Pencil suggested that I pay their animation studio a visit, while David Kilburn suggested a visit to the Tea Museum which he runs with his wife Jade, and Brother Anthony of Taize had also suggested that we get together. Later in the evening, traditional dancer Yi Chuljin suggested that I come over to Daehakro for dinner. The visit to Studio MWP would have to wait till later in my trip, but the rest of the afternoon was now mapped out with the other appointments.
The Tea Museum
I arrive back at Anguk subway station, twelve stops from Wondang, seemingly in no time. I walk towards Changdeokgung and then turn northwards along the westernmost flank of the palace precincts. I am surprised at how low-rise it all is – apparantely a consequence of UNESCO warnings that any building that spoils the view of the Changdeok Palace could threaten its World Heritage listing. And this is how buildings like the Tea Museum have survived.
The path from the entrance gate leads you through a well-planted garden that could remind you of England
The brainchild of Anglo-Korean couple David and Jade Kilburn, the Tea Museum is part museum, part café, part art space, and opened in November 2014 with an inaugural exhibition by London-based Korean artists Bada Song. When I visited, there was an exhibition of works by Elizabeth Keith, who is famous for her watercolours and sketches of Korea from 1915 onwards, and the following exhibition was to be of very detailed botanical paintings by a member, if I recall, of the diplomatic community from way back.
But while it is pleasant to browse the gallery while you are there, you will also probably be visiting for the tea and other refreshments. One of the best sellers at the museum is the dandelion tea, made to a method which David Kilburn found in the British Library and has now recreated. In times past dandelion tea was drunk as an alternative to coffee as it tastes quite similar. It is popular among Koreans as it is good for the stomach and disgestion. But the bingsu is the star of the show – undoubtedly the best I have ever tasted.
Makgeolli at Kim Sakkat
The unexpected arrival of the bingsu meant that I was behind schedule for my next appointment, which I thought was tea with Brother Anthony and Hank Kim at Seoul Selection. But I need not have rushed, because plans were freer than that, and we ended up skipping tea and wandering down Insadong and beyond in search of makgeolli at an establishment named after Korea’s 19th-century beat poet, Kim Sakkat.
The speciality makgeolli of the house is Neulim Maeul, a brew that is free of artificial chemical sweeteners, and very fine it is too.
With the drink slipping down so well, and the side dishes so tasty, I can tell I’m not going to make it over to Daehakro to see Yi Chul-jin any time soon, so instead he comes over from the theatre where he has been performing to join us. He is looking well, and over conversation we all agree to come to his performance the following week, which will include a salpuri brought up to date in modern costume.
We move on to a sober 2차 in a nearby coffee house, after which I walk back along the Chonggyecheon to my hotel, red-cheeked enough to know that I had had a good evening, but sober enough to know that I would not be hung over in the morning. A perfect end to another great day.
Seooreung is registered by the Cultural Heritage Administration as Historic Site #198.
- Deposed Queen Yoon is buried in the Seosamreung complex of royal tombs, not too far away [Map]
- Subsequent research has also rooted out a film by Shin Sang-ok from 1961, who also presents the story of the king, focusing on his attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of his mother https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_Yeonsan_(film)