Yesan-gun, Chungcheongnam-do, 11 November 2018. In the first half of the 19th century, although the Yi family was on the throne, much of the power in the land was actually wielded by the Andong Kim family who had intermarried with the royal family. One member of the royal family, Yi Ha-eung, resorted to rather unusual means to adjust the balance of power in his favour.
So the story goes, Yi had heard from a noted geomancer about a site in Chungcheongnam-do that had spectacular gi. So powerful was the feng shui of the location that if a person were to be buried there, the next two generations of his family would rule the land. Yi was in a hurry and was not prepared to wait to have himself buried there. Instead, he planned to dig up the grave of his father Yi Gu, who for the past 24 years had been resting peacefully six feet underground in Yeoncheon county, Gyeonggi-do, and re-bury him in the geomantically perfect spot in Yesan County, Chungcheongnam-do. The only problem was that the splendid site was already occupied by a Baekje-era temple called Gayasa.
Not one to be daunted by such a technicality, Yi Ha-eung is said to have burned down the temple and demolished its centuries-old stone pagoda, thus clearing the site for his father’s second resting place. The late Yi Gu moved to Yesan-gun in 1846, when King Heonjong had been on the throne for around 12 years.
Six years later in 1852, as if to fulfil the geomancer’s prophecy, Yi Ha-eung’s second son, Yi Myeongbok was born. Myeongbok subsequently came to the throne aged 12 after the death of King Cheoljong (1831 ~ 1863, reigned 1849 ~ 1863) and would reign as King Gojong until his abdication in favour of his son Sunjong in 1907. Yi Ha-eung became known as Heungseon Daewongun and ruled as regent for much of Gojong’s early reign, and his late father became known as Namyeon-gun.
The site of Namyeon-gun’s tomb is indeed splendid, nestling in a secluded valley in the heart of Gayasan, surrounded and protected by a ring of hills that give a feeling of both security and peace.
That sense of peace was rudely interrupted 20 years later in 1868 when a German merchant, Ernst Jacob Oppert (1832-1903), frustrated at not being granted the trading rights he wanted, attempted a spot of grave robbery to give himself some leverage in his negotiations. According to the Korean government’s history website “this crime not only greatly injured the prestige of Westerners, but also led to the strengthening of the seclusionism and the oppression of Catholicism by Heungseon Daewongun.”
The area’s excellent geomantic properties had already been established when the Daewongun moved his father’s tomb there. King Heonjong’s placenta chamber was buried nearby once he came to the throne in 1834. It rests in a wooded landscape beside what is now a small reservoir in Okgye-ri, two kilometres away from Namyeon-gun’s tomb.
Namyeon-gun’s tomb itself is unremarkable, a smallish hemisphere on top of a much larger mound (perhaps created out of the rubble of Gayasa?), and was designated Chungcheongnam-do Monument No. 80 in 1989.
Obsession with auspicious grave sites was not uncommon during this period and earlier. According to Dasan Jeong Yakyong (1762 – 1836) in his Mongmin Simso (Book of Advice on Governing the People):
Presently, litigation in the courts for grave sites has become a troubling problem. About half of the [recent] fighting and assaults resulting in death are due to this [ie, conflict over grave sites] … [I]t is said that the unfortunate act of excavating graves [to move them to better places] is considered to be an act of filial piety … [and, quoting Jeong Son (1676–1759)] People who desire to bury their parents in auspicious places are violating private property rights by [illegally] occupying grave sites in hills belonging to others and sometimes digging out the bones of others’ ancestors.1
You can enjoy a dramatisation of the Daewongun’s geomantic plotting in the 2018 movie 명당 (known as Fengshui) directed by Park Hee-gon. The Korea JoongAng Daily analyses its historical veracity here.
And at this point I have to leave Chuncheongnam-do for this year, and head off to catch the train southwards to Milyang from Cheonan Asan KTX station.
남연군묘 is at 충청남도 예산군 덕산면 상가리 산5-28 (Google map). Thanks to Kim Sun-mee of Unsanyo, Seosan-si for the travel tip.
- German merchant’s bodysnatching expedition in 1868 – Robert Neff in the Korea Times, 21 July 2010
- ‘Fengshui’ rearranges Joseon history: Choosing the perfect burial spot did matter, but it wasn’t worth fighting over – Yim Seung-hye in the Korea JoongAng Daily, 7 January 2019
- Quoted by Hong Key Yoon in P’ungsu, A Study of Geomancy in Korea, SUNY Press 2017, p51.