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2015 Travel Diary day 10: Namhansanseong and the Gangnam Tombs

Myeongdong, Seoul, Sunday 7 June

Namhansanseong's South Gate
The South Gate – the largest of Namhansanseong’s main gates

The Mountain Fortress

I am scheduled to meet a friend at 9:30 at Sanseong Station on Line 8. From there we take the bus (number 9) via a circuitous route through a residential area and up the steep hill to the main car park of one of Korea’s latest UNESCO world heritage sites. We pick up a map from an information kiosk and set off on a leisurely hike.

Namhansanseong map
Map showing the main body of Namhansanseong

Nothing is very strenuous. One of the useful defensive features of Namhansanseong is that although it’s a bit of a climb to get there it’s pretty flat at the top. The walls, around 7.5km in circumference (plus another 5km of spurs and secondary walls) are intimidating from the outside, but inside their protective circle was housed a fall-back capital city, complete with palace and altars for the royal ancestors and the gods of land and grain. During its heyday in the 17th century the fortress had a standing population of 4,000 to support its military and administrative functions, and from 1624 to 1917 the administrative offices of Gwangju, the main town in the area, were located there.

The still-unfinished Lotte World Tower
The still-unfinished Lotte World Tower

The site is around 25km south east of central Seoul, and on a clear day commands a grand view over the capital. Today, the haze (or maybe residual yellow dust) means that we can just about make out the unfinished Lotte World Tower, and everything else is a bit of a blur.

Its strategic location was such that the Baekje Kingdom was said to have sited its capital there during the reign of its founding King Onjo (r 18 BCE – 28 CE), and it was the site of the 7th century Unified Silla fortress called Jujangseong. In its current form the main body of Namhansanseong dates back to 1624, the reign of King Injo (r 1623-1649), with further spurs and secondary walls added into the 18th century.

The North Gate
The North Gate

Injo came to power in a conservative coup which ousted the pragmatic King Gwanghaegun, who had followed a foreign policy that tried to strike a balance between the Ming and the Qing / Manchu. Injo’s faction was openly hostile to the Qing / Manchu, and the fortification of Namhansanseong was a prudent step in anticipation of hostilities. (It was also a precaution against threats closer to home: Yi Gwal, a disaffected noble, had rebelled in 1623 and Injo had to take refuge further south in Gongju before Yi was defeated). The first Manchu invasion came in 1627 and ended inconclusively, but the enemy was to return in 1636 when Injo refused to accede to subsequent demands for reparations and tribute.

The West Gate
The West Gate

In the invasion of 1627 Injo had taken refuge in Ganghwa Island, and he had sent some of his family there in advance when the second invasion was imminent. But in 1636 the 128,000-strong Manchu army overran Hanseong (modern Seoul) quicker than anticipated and Injo’s route to Ganghwa for his own escape was blocked. Instead he took refuge with his eldest son, Crown Prince Sohyeon, in Namhansanseong.

Injo’s resistance, in the cold winter months of 1626-7, was short-lived:

  1. Firstly, although there was plenty of water (the site has 80 wells and 45 springs) there was only enough grain and other supplies to last 50 days.
  2. Secondly, there were only around 13,000 troops in the fortress. Reinforcements from the provinces were defeated, and no help came from the Ming. In one sad skirmish, a sortie of 300 Joseon troops sallied out from the north gate only to be annihilated by the Qing. The gate was subsequently given the ironic name Jeonseungmun: “Battle Victory Gate,” reminding the inhabitants never to forget the loss.
  3. Next, the fortress walls were giving way under fire from the latest military technology – the “red barbarian cannon” (홍이포) which the Qing had acquired from the Portuguese colony of Macau.
  4. Finally, Ganghwa Island had fallen, and the Qing consequently had some high-value captives.

Further resistance was futile, and Injo surrendered to the Qing Emperor Taizong on 30 January 1627 after a seige of 47 days. To ensure his submission he had to give over his two sons, Crown Prince Sohyeon and the future King Hyojong, as hostages to the Qing. According to Hendrick Hamel, Injo learned at least one lesson from the defeat: when Hamel was sent there in 1654 so that he would not come into contact with a Qing envoy he reported that “there is always enough food for three years. Several thousand men can stay up there.” He also reported that “the most important monks of the country reside there” – a reference to the fact that Namhansanseong was defended in part by Buddhist warrior monks.1

The Sueojangdae - The Western Command Post
The Sueojangdae – The Western Command Post

There were ten temples within the fortress walls providing permanent accommodation for around 140 monks, while a further 350 or so monks were provided for two-month stints by monasteries in the Southern part of the peninsula. In addition, much of the fortress had been built by monks. The north-western section of the fortress was constructed by monks under the command of Byeokam Gakseong, while General Yi Hoe took charge of the southeast section. The construction in the northwest proceeded straightforwardly, but the southeastern section fell behind schedule because the topography was harder. Yi Hoe was executed for incompetence and suspected embezzlement, and there is a legend that a falcon flew out of the severed neck of the unfortunate general, apparently signifying his innocence. As recompense, the Cheongryangdang shaman shrine was constructed nearby in the memory of the general, his wife and his concubine (both of whom committed suicide on hearing of Yi’s disgrace).

The entrance to the Cheongryangdang shrine
The entrance to the Cheongryangdang shrine

Namhansanseong is full of fascinating history, and the 1,000 page document supporting its listing in the UNESCO World Heritage list is well worth a browse. But you do not need to be a history buff to enjoy a walk in the precincts, which was the first national park to be proclaimed by President Syngman Rhee. Although things might look quite a long way on the map you can do the main recommended walking route – to the North Gate, turn left around the northern ramparts and return via the South gate – in a couple of hours. Even on a Sunday it is not over-crowded, though picnic tables laden with makgeolli and labelled with company logos indicate that there are several corporate hiking parties in progress. The walls undulate around the contours of the hills; there are pavilions and spur walls to explore; a detour to shrines, command posts and temple sites; and pleasant views to be enjoyed.

As we walk back to the main car park from the South gate, we pass some restaurants and pause for what is fast becoming my favourite refreshment after a hike: dongdongju and pancake. We are brought a large kettle of the stuff – so generous a portion for two that we had to share it with some other hikers.

Pajeon and dongdongju
Pajeon and dongdongju on the walk from the South Gate to the car park

Had I known at the time, I would have asked to try some of the local soju: Namhansanseong soju is Gyeonggi-do Intangible Cultural Property No. 13 and is made to a recipe which is said to date back to Baekje times. For those who over-indulge, there is a famous local hangover soup called Hyojonggaeng (literally, bell-tolled-at-dawn soup). According to the Korean Porridge Book (Haedongjukji) published in 1925, the soup used to be mass-produced in Namhansanseong and delivered to Seoul overnight to relieve the hangovers of the upper classes first thing in the morning. Somewhere among the tourist restaurants in the fortress this dish must be available, and next time I’m there I shall search it out.

But for today, it’s time to move on. As we arrive at the car park, the fast bus is just about to leave, and we arrive back at Sanseong station in no time.

The Seonjeongneung tombs in Gangnam

A few stops away at Seolleung station on Line 2 I emerge into the full heat of the sun. The glitzy area of Gangnam is the last place you expect to find some Joseon dynasty history. But nevertheless two royal tombs lie in some peaceful woodland near the subway station named after one of them.

First I take a minor detour to track down a novel brick building that had been featured at an architectural exhibition in London a few months previously: the ABC Building by WISE Architecture, interesting for the way that it has decorative partition walls formed out of a lattice of bricks pinned together by steel tubes.

Just across the road from the ABC building is the peaceful wooded park containing the tombs.

The Seolleung is the tomb of King Seongjong (1457-1494), the 9th King in the Joseon dynasty, who came to the throne at the age of 12. His reign was generally marked by a period of peace and stability, as well as by the completion of the Grand Code of State Administration, the main statute of the Joseon Dynasty. Nearby is the tomb of his third consort, Queen Jeonghyeon, who was promoted to Queen when Lady Yun, his second consort (and mother of King Yeongsangun), was deposed.

Further away is the Jeongneung, the tomb of King Jungjong (1488-1544), the son of Queen Jeonghyeon. Jungjong succeeded his half brother Yeongsangun in 1506 following a coup. He had a long but ineffectual reign, outliving two consorts, and was originally buried next to his second consort, Queen Janggyeong (1491-1515), in the Seosamreung tomb complex in Wondang, Goyang-si. But his third consort, Queen Munjeong (1501-1565), had him exhumed and reburied in the current Gangnam site, which was said to be more propitious. It also had the advantage that she would be able to be buried next to him in due course, without being near her predecessor.2

The Tomb of Queen Jeonghyeon in the Seolleung
The Tomb of Queen Jeonghyeon in the Seolleung

What happened to the geomancer who recommended this particular location is not recorded. What is recorded, in the Annals of King Seonjo (r 1567-1608), is that the area was not ideal: “the ground in front of the ceremonial pavilion was submerged every rainy season so boats were used between the pavilion and the tomb keeper’s house.” But the conditions seem to have suited the splendid 500 year old ginkgo tree that stands next to the tomb keeper’s house.

The incompetent geomancer can be forgiven for the other feature of Jungjong’s tomb that makes it less than ideal. He has probably the least appealing view from his tomb of any deceased Royal: a supremely ugly office block housing an insurance company.

The view from King Jungjong's tomb
The view from King Jungjong’s tomb

Jungjong probably doesn’t mind. He’s not there to be affronted by the view, because actually his tomb is empty. During the Japanese invasions of 1592-1598 the tombs were vandalised and the bodies dug up. The coffins were burned and the bodily remains left exposed to the elements. 50 years on, no-one could tell whether this was actually Jungjong’s body, though there were suspicions that it was not as it looked too heavy. The body was reburied elsewhere, and what went back into the Jeongneung was a new coffin with sundry debris from the tomb. King Seongjeong’s and Queen Jeonghyeon’s tombs are similarly empty.

The Jeongneung - King Jungjong's tomb
The Jeongneung – King Jungjong’s tomb

As the tombs are in such a busy area of Seoul, and are a popular place for people to go for a stroll, the tomb areas themselves are fenced off so you cannot go up close. But according to the leaflet available at the entrance to the park, the statues of the military officials, 3 metres in height, have been defaced by the Japanese, but some of the stone animals are relatively unharmed and have cute, humorous expressions.

Patrons of Buddhist Art

Inside the National Museum of Korea
Inside the National Museum of Korea

From Gangnam, I make my way to the National Museum of Korea, primarily to go souvenir hunting in the gift shop. While I am there I look in to see a temporary exhibition of Buddhist art work specially commissioned by wealthy patrons. The exhibition leaflet explains:

The National Museum of Korea presents Devout Patrons of Buddhist Art, a special exhibition that explores the lives, wishes and motivations of people who commissioned the creation of Korean Buddhist artworks. In Buddhism, great emphasis is placed on the performance of good deeds to help disseminate the Buddha’s teachings. Examples of such deeds include the construction of temples and stone pagodas, the enshrinement of Buddhist statues and paintings in a temple, and the publication of sutras. This exhibition introduces some of these remarkable patrons through the outstanding artworks and projects that they commissioned, which embody the joy, anger, sorrow and pleasure of those who enacted them.

By the time I finish at the museum the heart of the day is gradually beginning to ease off, and it is now pleasant to bask in the sun.

New Connections

I head back to the hotel to rest before dinner. My final evening in Seoul is about to set off on its usual schedule: a bit of retail therapy in Insadong (focused on the purchase of a tie or two at Lee Geon Maan) followed by dinner at San Chon. My companions are an interesting combination: a former curator of the Kim Whan-ki museum in Buamdong; a writer I had not met before but with whom I had several friends in common; a designer famous for her hanji products; a former director of the Korean Cultural Centre in London together with his wife; an artist I knew from London who happened to be in Korea at the same time; a businessman with whom apparently I had got drunk in London (it must have been a good evening, because I had limited recall of the occasion); and my companion on the trip to Gangneung. Despite the rapidly emerging received wisdom that it is the local Koreans who are paranoid about MERS and that foreigners are completely blasé, it was the foreigners who had cried off and the Koreans who were happy to venture out.

A brief Seungmu ins San Chon
A brief Seungmu in San Chon

The reason given for one cancellation was entirely altruistic – someone whose friends had convinced her that if she socialised with other people after travelling in the subway she would be bound to infect them.

Altogether there were eight of us happily tucking in to the temple food, gulping down the makgeolli and enjoying convivial company while watching the dance performance on the stage beside us. I think the performance was shorter than usual, and the number of fellow-diners slightly smaller than usual, perhaps reflecting the MERS scare.

I settle the bill, and we head off to 2차 where a new friend is expecting us. Over the course of the preceding week I had added a couple of new Facebook friends as a result of realising mutual connections, and I’m not sure that I’ve ever converted a virtual friend into a real-life meeting so quickly. A couple of blocks away, down a narrow lane off Insadong, is a cosy makgeolli den, and sitting at the end of one of the tables is my new friend, a composer who had studied in London; with her is an artist who I later discovered (another of the unexpected connections that marked this trip) was a founder member of the UK Korean Artists Association. His latest project is a large-scale installation for the reception area of the new Four Seasons Hotel in Gwanghwamun, due to open later in the year.

2차 in an alley somewhere off Insadong
2차 in an alley somewhere off Insadong

I relish the new connections, and also enjoy the makgeolli, served in a large wooden bowl with a dusting of dried pine-needles and a side order of dried fish. The first bowl is soon finished and we are well into our second. I know my willpower to resist a third will not be sufficient, but fortunately people are beginning to tire, so I will not be too hung over on my last morning in Korea.

Somewhere along the Cheonggyecheon
Somewhere along the Cheonggyecheon

I walk back along the Cheonggyecheon slightly unsteadily, but sober enough to know that the psychedelic light displays on the wall are not alcohol-induced.

Namhansanseong Fortress is Historic Site #57, and the temporary palace contained therein is Historic Site #480. The Seolleung and Jeongneung Royal Tombs are Historic Site #199.


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  1. Source: Hendrick Hamel, Hamel’s Journal and a Description of the Kingdom of Korea 1653-1666, Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch, 1998. []
  2. In the end, Queen Munjeong was actually buried in the Taereung Tomb in Gongneung-dong of Seoul. []

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