Seoul’s Marvelous Changdeokgung Palace
Its buildings in harmony with its surroundings and its enchanting garden are the perfect expression of the Korean vision of beauty and space. A UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site, the Royal Palace of Seoul is a true haven in the heart of a busy megalopolis.
Seoul is a capital of stark contrasts. Today, it is the kingdom of K-culture, trendy neighborhoods and mega-architecture like the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, but it also possesses a heritage evoking its glorious past, reflected in the five royal palaces still housed within its walls. One, Changdeokgung—the “Palace of Prosperity”—is particularly striking, with its buildings laid out according to Confucian principles and its splendid huwon: literally “back garden” or “secret garden”. Located in the Jongno-gu District, situated north of the Han River and east of the first and most important building of the Joseon period (1392-1897), Gyeongbokgung (the “Palace of Resplendent Happiness”), Changdeokgung was built between 1405 and 1412 by the dynasty’s third king, Taejong. Because Gyeongbokgung had been the setting for a fratricidal war for the throne, the king who reigned from 1400 to 1418 decided to live in a new place, in the center of a larger estate of 58 hectares (143 acres). “At the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty,” says Chung Hwa-Young, heritage curator in charge of the site, “Changdeokgung was the royal residence and Gyeongbokgung the palace used for official receptions. After the Japanese invasion in 1592, it was rebuilt identically in 1609 and served as the governmental palace until the faithful reconstruction in 1872 of Gyeongbokgung, which had also been damaged by numerous attacks and fires. The dynasty’s last king, Cheoljong, died there in 1864, and the descendants of the royal family lived there until 1989. So Changdeokgung was occupied for over five and a half centuries.”
Considered the most iconic Korean palace because of its harmony with nature, Changdeokgung was listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1997. According to the principles of baesanimsu (or feng shui), which also apply to the capital, it was built between a river and a mountain. “Since ancient times, Koreans have considered that the ideal house should be built with a mountain at the back and a river in front,” she says. “In winter, the mountain blocks the wind, and in summer, the water and cool wind keep the air fresh. The palace is framed by Mount Baegaksan in the back, and in the front, the Geumcheon River was supposed to protect the king from evil spirits. The Joseons considered nature sacred, and this view is reflected in the palace’s topography.” The complex of official and residential buildings was designed to reflect the values of Confucius (551-479 BCE): simple but not humble; magnificent but not extravagant. The public area in front has buildings and structures each with three gates and three courtyards, while the rear section of the estate consists of the private residential area.
At first glance, the layout seems disparate, even chaotic. Unlike the buildings in Gyeongbokgung or in Chinese palaces, which are laid out in a straight line from north to south to emphasize royal power, the buildings in Changdeokgung blend into the environment and create a sense of serenity in keeping with the site. The administrative area contains the main hall with the throne room, the Injeongjeon (“wise and informed politics”), and the headquarters with the offices of the king and officials, the Seonjeongjeon (“governing the country and educating the people”). Behind it, the private space includes the Huijeongang and Daejojeon, respectively the king’s room (which also served as an office) and the queen’s room. All these buildings, constructed in Korean pine, are built on stone platforms. Their corbelled tile roofs feature statues of often imaginary animals like phoenixes and dragons. The public buildings sports paintings (dancheong) of lotus flowers, forsythia, peonies and chrysanthemums in five colors (blue, white, yellow, red and black), representing the five cardinal points of Far Eastern civilizations: “A decoration linked with the theory of yin and yang, and also with the five elements,” says Chung Hwa-Young. Lastly, beyond its splendid coffered ceilings lavishly decorated with stylized plants and animals, the Injeongjeon, like the king’s office, has a painting behind the throne that underlines the sacred nature of its function. Against a landscape with five mountain peaks, pine trees and waterfalls, a red sun, a metaphor for the king, faces the white moon symbolizing the queen.
Nature Reigns Supreme in the Palace
Nature is glorified in Changdeokgung more than anywhere else in Seoul. Its huwon is considered one of the three most beautiful gardens in Asia, along with those of the Summer Palace in Beijing and the imperial villa in Katsura, Japan. According to the curator, nature represents supreme beauty in Korea.
So its gardens are characterized by a layout that avoids any distortion and is at one with the universe, unlike those in China, where mountains, waterfalls, valleys and caves contrast with untamed nature, or Japan, where the elements are artificially arranged. Designed six centuries ago in over 30 hectares (74 acres), four “zones” enclosed by small fences all feature ponds surrounded by pavilions, which blend harmoniously with wild, luxuriant woods containing 30,000 trees. The 160-odd species include oak, currant, maple and plum, and 70 of the trees are over 300 years old. In this garden of wonders, the realm of birds and red squirrels, none of them was planted by man except for the mulberry trees devoted to silkworm breeding for the queen. In the first space, named Buyongji, the lake, embellished with two pavilions (small, so as not to impinge upon the beauty of the site), reflects the symbolism of yin and yang in its design. Near the library, another square pavilion represents the earth, with a circular grove in the center evoking the sky. Waterfalls, a splendid pond with lotus flowers near the “Gate of Eternal Youth”, a rice field and thatched pavilions form a calm and idyllic Eden in the heart of the capital. This enchanting estate with its many different levels also became a formidable political tool throughout history.
While it was a place of rest and meditation for his family, the sovereign could oversee internal affairs, organize military training—showing that he was the supreme commander of the army—and hold national events like civil service competitions and banquets. King Jeongjo (1776-1800), for instance, would spend evenings there with his ministers enacting and accelerating his political reforms. Changdeokgung is a historical witness of the Land of Morning Calm, and its architecture and gardens crystallize the philosophical order of an entire people: never to betray the rules of nature and the universe. “This aesthetic and spiritual vision reflects its modesty,” says the curator. “People are only a part of nature and must respect the natural order of things. Koreans have tried to find true beauty through this humility.” The palace here is one of the most beautiful symbols of this belief.
Changdeokgung, 99, Yulgok-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul.