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Changdeokgung was originally built in 1405 as a secondary palace, but when Gyeongbokgung (Seoul’s principal palace) was destroyed during the Japanese invasion in the 1590s, Changdeokgung became the primary palace until 1896. Like all Joseon palaces, it has a mountain behind it and a small stream in front – good pungsu (feng shui).
Enter through the imposing gate Donhwamun, turn right and cross over the stone bridge (built in 1414) – note the guardian animals carved on its sides. On the left is the beautiful main palace building, Injeongjeon . It sits in harmony with the paved courtyard, the open corridors and the trees behind it. Its size and design are perfect – elegant and colourful but also stately. The electric lights inside are a reminder that Changdeokgung was used as a palace well into the 20th century.
Next door are the government office buildings, including one with a blue-tiled roof. Further on are the private living quarters of the royal family. Peering inside the partially furnished rooms, you can feel what these Joseon palaces were like in their heyday – a bustling beehive buzzing round the king, full of gossip, intrigues and whispering. Don’t miss the white-tiled kitchen. Round the back is a terraced garden with decorative ondol chimneys. Over on the right is something completely different – Nakseonjae , built by King Heonjong (r 1834–49) in an austere Confucian style using unpainted wood. Royal descendants lived here until 1989.
Walk through the dense woodland and suddenly you come across a serene glade among the large, ancient trees. This is the highlight, Biwon (Huwon), the Secret or Hidden Garden. Here are pavilions on the edge of a square lily pond, with other halls and a two-storey library. The board out the front, written by King Jeongjo, means ‘Gather the Universe’. Joseon kings relaxed, studied and wrote poems in this tranquil setting. The all-important civil service examination, gwageo, took place outdoors here.
Further on are a couple more ponds and Yeongyeongdang , a typical yangban house, originally built in 1828 as a place for the Crown Prince to study. Continuing on are more pavilions and ponds, and finally Ongnyucheon , where a rock has three Chinese characters inscribed on it by King Injo in 1636: ong-nyu-cheon, which means ‘jade flowing stream’. A poem composed in Chinese characters by King Sukjong (r 1674–1720) was carved into the rock in 1690:
‘The stream flows away endlessly/And the waterfall plummets down from the sky/These remind me of a white rainbow, thunder and light flooding the valleys.’
A channel was also carved into the rock where the kings and their scholar officials would sail their rice wine cups while writing similar sijo poetry and carousing.