Jongno, Seoul, Sunday 15 May 2016. The time lag has caught up with me. My intention this morning had been to go along to the Dongdaemun Design Plaza to visit the exhibition of Joseon dynasty genre paintings from the Kansong museum before joining the RASKB for a walk along the eastern sections of Seoul’s fortress walls. But my sleepy head wouldn’t allow me to get up. I finally rise at 11:30am and grab a quick coffee and muffin at the shop across the road where I had met Jieun the previous day, before catching the subway to Hanseong University station on Line 4.
Walking the Walls with the RASKB
At shortly before 1pm I join a small group of RASKB members led by Robert Fouser. I should not be surprised by now at the ease with which it is possible to get away from Seoul’s hustle and bustle, but I still am. Within a minute’s walk of exit 4 is a stairway which takes you to a path leading alongside Seoul’s ancient City Wall as far as Dongdaemun – the great east gate. Seoul’s City Wall contains four main gates (corresponding to the main points of the compass) and four intermediate smaller gates. The wall follows the line of the hills – above the noise of Seoul’s traffic, and overlooking low-rise housing rather than being dwarfed under Seoul’s ubiquitous tall apartment blocks. Much of the walk is through parkland or woods, and it is just about possible to walk the full circuit in a day.
Opposite the start of the path is a 1992 reconstruction of the Hyehwamun, one of the four smaller gates, which once stood in the area – the northeast gate. In the first of the day’s thoughtful observations on conservation practice, Fouser commented how, if the gate were to be reconstructed today, it would probably be built in the exact original location (where the road now runs – and the road would probably be put in a tunnel underneath the gate). Situated where it is now, conveniently by the side of the road so as not to inconvenience the traffic, it is simply a reminder, a symbol, of what was once there, rather than a true attempt at the restoration of the original structure.
The gate in its day was also known as the Little East Gate (동소문, by contrast to its nearby big brother Dongdaemun), but was actually used more for northbound traffic as the North Gate was normally closed. It was in this district that the rickshawman in Hyeon Jin-geon’s A Lucky Day plied his trade. That short story was published in 1924. Four years later the gate’s upper level was demolished as it was in disrepair, and the rest went in 1938 to make way for tramlines.
As we climb up from the noisy traffic and follow the contours of the wall gradually ascending the slopes of Naksan, we get a lesson in construction, reconstruction and restoration practices through the ages. The original wall was built at the start of the Joseon dynasty. Yi Seong-gye seized power in 1392 and moved the capital from Kaesong to Seoul. Construction techniques in 1396 we relatively rudimentary: irregular-shaped stones were used for the mountainous sections of the wall, while rammed earth was used for the flatter sections. King Sejong conducted a refurbishment in 1421, replacing the earthen sections with stone.
There was a major reconstruction in the reign of King Sukjong, from 1704 onwards. This time the stones were more or less the same size, between 40 and 45 cm in width, increasing the strength of the wall. Somewhere in this section of the wall you can see the names of the builders who supervised the work – a practice adopted by the authorities to enhance accountability and pride, rather than a personal “Kim was here” to future generations.
King Sunjo oversaw another reconstruction effort from 1800, and this time the stone blocks were 60cm square. Park Chung-hee’s restoration efforts in the 1960s were urgent but less sympathetic, using concrete to get the job done. Now the ambition of Seoul’s mayor is to get the walls listed at UNESCO, a plan which requires careful conservation practices and, wherever possible, a cordon sanitaire to be imposed around the site. With Suwon’s Hwaseong fortress and Namhansanseong already listed, and the mountain fortresses of Chungcheongbuk-do and the fortress and village of Naganeupseong vying with Seoul’s walls for attention in the tentative list, that’s a lot of Korean defensive architecture that could ultimately be World Heritage.
To the left of the path as we ascend the hill from Hyehwamun is Jangsu Village, a shanty town which grew up after the Korean war, housing refugees from the north. It has thus far managed to hold out against urban redevelopment, clinging doggedly to the steep sides of the hill.
We descend from Naksan park in the direction of Dongdaemun and take a brief detour into Ihwa Mural Village (이화 벽화마을). Back in 2006, Ihwa was a pretty depressed area, but it followed the pioneering example of Dongpirang in Tongyeong which used murals as a vehicle to revitalise the area. Ihwa was a product of Art in the City, in which a team of artists was selected to produce 64 artworks in the Naksan area of Seoul. But the project had unfortunate side effects: tourists flocking to the area created noise and litter, and the residents began to think they were better off without the murals. Many of the paintings were removed after about a year at the residents’ request.
But the cycle repeated itself more recently: more murals were painted in 2013. And a month before we visited residents had taken matters into their own hands by painting over them again. A famous stairway which had a sunflower design at the beginning of April 2016 was just plain grey at the end of the month. Maybe in a year or two the cycle will come round again.
At this point in the route, if ever I follow it again, I will try to spot the pavilion on a nearby hill to the northeast. This spot, Dongmangbong (or “peak of longing in the direction of the east”), is where King Danjong’s wife Queen Jeongsun would come to pine for her husband who had been imprisoned in Yeongwol, Gangwon-do, by his usurping uncle King Sejo. A sad story made even sadder by Danjong’s mode of death.
The weather forecast had not been encouraging for the day, and we had all brought umbrellas as a precaution. Sure enough, the rain started to fall, gently at first. But then, as we got to Changsin-dong where the famous painter Park Soo-keun lived and worked, it became more persistent and aggressive. It didn’t look like it was going to stop any time soon.
So once we got to Dongdaemun I said my farewells to Dr Fouser and went to the exhibition that I had been too lazy to visit that morning.
Genre paintings at the DDP
Kansong’s exhibitions are always good – the quality of their collection is incredible – but I always find it frustrating that photography is not allowed and that there never seems to be a catalogue for sale, other than an expensive volume covering the whole collection rather than the specific exhibition. So my memories of this particular exhibition are sketchy. What inevitably sticks in the mind is the video work by Lee Lee-nam which pays homage to and magically recreates Kim Hong-do’s famous painting Hearing a Birdsong on Horseback (마상청앵), in which a traveling scholar is captivated by the sound of an oriole singing in a nearby tree. The original work was displayed in a dimly-lit case in the next room.
The other painting to catch my eye was a shaggy-looking scholar or daoist hermit sitting on a cliff looking out to sea (or maybe he was sitting on a rocky mountain-top looking at the moon): a work by Yun Du-seo, whose works I would encounter in more detail down in Haenam County later that week.
Late afternoon and evening
On emerging from the DDP, the rain was as persistent as ever. I decided to visit Bukchon in the hope that the gallery housing a photographic exhibition by a friend of a friend would be open: the gallery’s website very unhelpfully didn’t have their opening hours. The (Belgian) photographer explained to me some days later what the gallery owner had offered by way of explanation: “It’s the Korean Way. In Korea, a gallery expects people to ring them up to find out when they are open.” Hmm. So why bother with a website then?
Anyway. I found the gallery, and it was closed. But downstairs there was a chic little coffee shop staffed by two very elegant middle-aged women, one of whom could easily have been mistaken for Uhm Jung-hwa’s sister. A half hour of refuge from the rain, with another nice cup of hand drip, was a very pleasant prospect in which I indulged myself before braving the weather again for a walk back to my hotel for a rest before dinner.
If it seems like I’m having a lot of down-time during my stay, that’s not really the case. Most of the down-time was spent reviewing photographs and more importantly communicating with my various friends trying to coordinate names, times and places for dinner appointments. For the number of days I had available in Seoul there were far too many people I wanted to see (and thankfully who also wanted to see me in return) for intimate one-on-ones, and I needed to trust that if someone is a friend of mine they would get on with other friends of mine. Fortunately, that seemed to be universally the case. But assembling a congenial gathering took time. For example: as far as I knew at 5pm on this Sunday, the following evening I would be back in Seoul after a trip down to Gongju, and having dinner with Chris, Hyeran, Insoon, maybe Krys, and maybe others, depending on what my Kakao and Facebook activity managed to assemble. But later that evening, after a change of plan, I had to unmake all dinner arrangements for the following day. More of that in tomorrow’s write-up.
Tonight’s companions for dinner in Daehakro were to be Chris – who had been my companion (and generous chauffeur) on the trip to Gangneung last year, and who was taking me down to Gongju the next day; Byun-seok – a friend of a London friend, with whom I had got very drunk over some good claret and whisky in London a few weeks previously; and Jin – the traditional dancer with whom I always try to meet up, and who had joined me for 2차 the previous evening. Chris and Jin knew each other through the performing arts world, and Byun-seok was happy to meet them both.
As it was still raining hard, Chris decreed that the appropriate focus of the evening should be makgeolli, and I was happy to agree. It made a nice change: normally when I am in Daehakro it’s soju with either samgyeopsal or grilled duck. Fortunately she knew of a good makgeolli café near her apartment and we happily tucked into a few bowls with various side dishes.
I returned to Jongno late that evening with Byun-seok in the back of a Kakao Benz: a very convenient and upscale localised version of Uber.
- The Walls and Gates of Seoul, Gusts of Popular Feeling, 1 April 2009
- Seoul City Wall Course: Seoul’s Most Precious Historic Wall that Protected the City, visitseoul.net
- Seoul City Wall homepage.
- Seoul City Wall’s entry on the UNESCO World Heritage tentative list.
- Murals attract visitors, and trouble, to quiet villages, Korea JoongAng Daily, 13 June 2016
- Ihwa Mural Village, Seoul Selection, 1 April 2015