Lonely Planet review
Originally built by King Taejo, the founder of the Joseon dynasty, the grandest of Seoul’s palaces served as the principal palace until 1592, when it was burnt down during the Japanese invasions. It lay in ruins for nearly 300 years until Heungseon Daewongun, regent and father of King Gojong, started to rebuild it in 1865. King Gojong moved in during 1868, but the expensive rebuilding project virtually bankrupted the government.
Two of the grandest architectural sights in Seoul are here. The first is the ornate two-storey Geunjeongjeon, the main palace building, where kings were crowned, met foreign envoys and conducted affairs of state. With its double-tiered stone platform, flagstone courtyard and surrounding open-sided corridors, Geunjeongjeon is an impressive sight.
Then walk left to Gyeonghoeru, a large raised pavilion resting on 48 stone pillars and overlooking an artificial lake with two small islands, which is almost as grand a scene. State banquets were held inside and kings went boating on the pond.
Behind these imposing structures are smaller meeting halls, and behind them are the king’s living quarters, with a master bedroom the size of a ballroom, surrounded by eight small rooms that were used by ladies-in-waiting, concubines, servants, slaves and guards. Altogether the palace consisted of 330 buildings and had up to 3000 staff, including 140 eunuchs, all serving the royal family.
On the right is Gyotaejeon, the separate but large living quarters for the primary queen, and behind that is a terraced garden, Amisan, with ondol (underfloor heating) chimneys decorated with longevity symbols. Also on the eastern side is Jaseondang, the quarters for the Crown Prince, who spent his mornings, afternoons and evenings reading, studying and listening to lectures. But at night he could relax with his wife and his concubines, who were graded into four ranks (the king, of course, had more and they were graded into six ranks). One canny tutor married the Crown Prince off to his daughter and put family members into top government positions.
At the rear, King Gojong built more halls for his own personal use and an ornamental pond with an attractive hexagonal pavilion on an island, where a heron can sometimes be spotted.
It was near here on 8 October 1895 that Queen Myeongseong (Queen Min) was killed in her bedroom by Japanese assassins who then burnt her body. It is said only one finger survived the fire. Four months later King Gojong fled from the palace to the nearby Russian legation building and never returned.
During Japanese colonial rule, most of the palace was destroyed. The Japanese governor general’s ugly office block was built inside the walls, but was demolished in 1996, and work on restoring the palace to its former glory will take decades more.
An audio commentary and a free guided tour (at 11am, 1.30pm and 3.30pm) are available to learn more about this unique, Korean-style palace. Soldiers in Joseon-era uniforms stand guard and there are regular changing of the guard ceremonies, as well as a re-enactment of the government service examination.
The National Folk Museum (www.nfm.go.kr) takes at least an hour to walk around. This major museum, built in 1939, has modern displays divided into three large sections and uses models, varied film techniques, photos of Korea now and a century ago, and apartment mock-ups to illustrate social life during the ages. Listen to yangban children rote learning (as children still do) and watch a shamanist ceremony called a gut. See an amazingly colourful funeral bier (it looks like a fantasy Noah’s Ark) – these were used to give the deceased a great send-off. Screened on the wall above is footage of these old-style funerals. The Confucian notion of filial piety was tough. Children had to mourn their parents for three years – making daily food offerings and wearing white mourning clothes.