Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do, 16 May 2016, 3pm.
Not far away from Songsan-ri is the fortress of Gongsanseong. It clings to the banks of the Geumgang river (nothing to do with Mount Geumgang in north Gangwondo) and its walls scale the cliffs and meander along the contours of the hill, forming a 2.6km circuit which climbs to a height of 110 metres.
Originally known as Ungjinseong, the fortress housed Baekje’s royal palace during the Ungjin period (475 – 538 CE). It was renamed Gongsanseong in the Goryeo period, and in the Joseon dynasty it was the centre of local administration. Only two of the fortress’s gates survived into modern times: the Jinnamnu in the southwest and Gongbungnu in the northeast, facing the river from the side of the hill.
A broad, winding driveway leads up from the car park to the new main gate at the northwest corner of the fortress, the Geumseoru gate. This entrance was reconstructed in 1993 with the convenience of modern transport in mind: the driveway continues on into the fortress, with the stone wall propped up above it with concrete; what would once have been the main entranceway is now redundant on a slope to the right of the roadway.
Inside the entrance are photographs of two of Gongju’s goodwill ambassadors: baseball superhero Park Chan-ho and LPGA star Park Seri, both born in the area. And on the ceiling above you is a colourful but fierce-looking winged tiger.
Once you get beyond the walls you are presented with a choice of paths to take. One takes you to the right, on an anti-clockwise tour of the ramparts; one to the left, should you prefer your circuit to be clockwise; straight on takes you past a range where you can practice archery – a long-standing sport on the peninsula – on a gentle slope that leads through what would once have been the administrative centre of the fortress to the North Gate on the river; or a path that bears right for a walk into the heart of the fortress.
We were quite tempted by the archery practice, but were concerned that we might fall behind schedule if we indulged too much. So we took the last option, on a path taking us through woodland, along the flanks of the main hill, to a junction of paths where I ended up totally misreading the rudimentary map that comes with the information leaflet. Instead of heading down to a pavilion, which is where I thought I was going, we ascended a slope to one of the two summits in the fortress. At the top was a bench where, silhouetted against the skyline, a halmoni and haraboji were seated, deep in conversation with each other. I felt a bit guilty approaching them, disturbing their private conversation. But as we emerged onto the skyline we were rewarded with such a fantastic outlook over the river that I realised that my misreading of the map must have somehow been intended by some higher power. The elderly couple ignored us, but Chris has sharp hearing and overheard snippets of conversation. The grandfather was interrogating the grandmother about her past and her interests, and she was quite happy providing copious personal information. It seems they were on a first date – a lovely spot for it.
We lingered a while looking at the view along the Geumgang river, and then turned left along the ramparts. At regular intervals there were flagpoles with creatures signifying the four points of the compass, the designs copied from the wall-paintings in the 6th tomb in Songsan-ri. As we walked northwards along the cliff beside the river, the walls were facing East, and hence the flags had a dragon. Elsewhere on the wall we would come across flags with turtle, tiger and jujak emblems.
We soon found ourselves descending a steep escarpment down to the pavilion that I had been aiming for in the first place – the Manharu pavilion. From the other side of the river, where we had stopped an hour earlier during a compulsory civil defence drill when traffic police had brought everything to a halt, this spot had looked idyllic. And as we approached from above it looked similarly peaceful: a lookout pavilion with, behind it, a 9 metre deep pond of fresh water (though the levels were nowhere near where they should be to withstand a siege from the armies of Goguryeo).
We lingered in this pleasant spot for a while. The route onwards around the ramparts was blocked for reconstruction. This was the part of the fortress marked on the map as the “site of the ancillary facility of the royal palace”. This area was subject to archaeological investigation in 2005 and 2011-12, and various pieces of Baekje-period weaponry and armour were discovered. Of special interest was a suit of lacquered leather armour of the type that Baekje used to export to Tang China. This particular suit can be dated towards the end of Baekje’s Sabi period as it contains Chinese characters that refer to a particular date: 645 CE.
Our path blocked, we headed back to the centre of the fortress to explore more. We ended up walking around the southwestern section of the wall, where the royal palace had once been situated. There were some fine views over the town from this spot.
Long after King Seong moved his capital from Ungjin (Gongju) to Sabi (Buyeo) in 538, the fortress remained serviceable. Under King Seonjo and again under King Injo the walls were improved – the rammed earth sections replaced by stone. The fortress saw active service during the Japanese invasions of Korea in King Seonjo’s reign, the small temple behind the riverside pavillion (Yeongeunsa) serving as accommodation for the soldier monks. At the southernmost point of the fortress there is a monument to the Three Ming Generals (Igong, Imje and Nambangwi) who fought to defend Gongsanseong from the Japanese during the second invasion of 1597-8.
Nearly three decades later in 1624 King Injo would take refuge there when Seoul fell to the rebellious general Yi Gwal. He only stayed there for six days, but that stay gave rise to a bizarre story. It is said that he used to sit in the shade of two trees as he waited for the rebellion to be quashed. When he heard that the rebels had been defeated he attributed the good news to the two trees and rewarded them by conferring on them the bureaucratic rank of Senior Grade 3. The fortress had its name changed to Ssangsusanseong – Twin Tree Mountain Fortress – and a stone inscription was erected next to the trees. A century later, by which time the trees had died of old age, the local governor had a pavilion (the Ssangsujeong) erected on the spot where the trees had once stood.
The flight to Gongju also gave King Injo the opportunity to name a rice cake. It is said that when he was on the road southward he was offered some rice cakes seasoned with soybean flour by a local man called Im. Injo appreciated the gift, and asked what they were called. They didn’t have a name, so Injo decided to call them Im jeolmi (jeolmi meaning “absolutely tasty”). The spelling later changed to injeolmi.
Having named a rice cake and honoured some trees, Injo went back to Seoul to take charge of the country again.
We were walking where the mood took us, exploring where our feet led, and as I read the brochures from the comfort of my home I realised we missed out on a few things. We missed the main north gate (the Gongbungnu) and the elegant lookout pavilion high on the hill above it (the Gonsanjeong). I cannot understand how we missed the lookout pavilion, which really dominates the skyline, unless it was being reconstructed at the time. At the other end of the fortress we missed a splendid two-storey pavilion built in 500 CE to provide very grand banqueting facilities (the Imnyugak임류각).
But it really didn’t matter what we missed. Neither of us was in charge, and we were happy with the slightly random nature of our stroll, exploring a pavilion here or a turn in the pathway there. Eventually we found ourselves walking northwards back up to the main gate where we had entered about an hour earlier – the guide books suggest you need at least 90 minutes to do the fortress properly, and that’s probably about right. We certainly didn’t have time to play bows and arrows in the archery range if we were to tick off two further Baekje historic sites before sundown. Instead we celebrated the weather by rewarding ourselves with a quick ice cream from a shop just across the road from the car park. Then Chris keyed Buyeo’s Jeongnimsa Temple Site into the SatNav and we hit the road.
Gongsanseong Fortress is Historic Site #12.
- Gongsanseong Fortress on Cultural Heritage Administration website
- Gongsanseong Fortress on 1-2-3 Korea