So, it’s your first time in Korea. Where are you going to go? Myeongdong shopping area? Hongdae party district? Sinsa’s artsy cafes? Maybe. But one place you’ll almost certainly visit is Jongno, the political district of the city. Here, you can walk along Cheonggyecheon Stream, visit the numerous museums, or try traditional street food. But, the main feature of this neighborhood is undoubtedly Gyeongbokgung Palace. As a traveler, I can’t recommend this destination enough.
However, as an archaeologist, I’ve come to note the downfalls in Korea’s curation system. Many of the palaces lack information (in any language) about the dynamic history of these buildings and the people who lived inside of them. If you grab a brochure at Gyeongbokgung, you’ll read a brief history of the palace and the names and functions of every hall, but it doesn’t go much further than that.
I wanted to write this tour guide for you, not as a comprehensive guide, but to create a trail of interesting facts*. Consider this a guide to make you fall in love with every pebble, corner and leaf inside Gyeongbokgung. There are some hilarious, dynamic and tragic stories that hide behind those towering, grey walls, and I’m really excited to share them with you.
Oh, wait! Are you wearing hanbok? If you do – you can get free entry. Sadly, trans visibility is low in this country and they don’t give the discount to those wearing hanbok of the opposite sex. If you have any personal experiences with this, please let us know in the comments! Hopefully, we can get a conversation going and beat the system!
What is Gyeongbokgung?
Before I get to the fun stuff, we should have a basic understanding of this enormous complex. I’ll stick with only the interesting stuff in this article, so remember: there’s a lot more to learn past this web page.
Gyeongbokgung was the first palace built in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) and it was officially established in 1395. Meaning ‘Resplendent Happiness’, the name comes from an old eulogy that goes:
I am already intoxicated by alcohol and my stomach is full of moral virtue. My Lordship, may you enjoy 10,000 moments of resplendent happiness.
Hanyang, now Seoul, was the new capital of the Joseon Empire, namely for its geographical advantages. There were four inner mountains (Baegak, Tarak, Mongmyeon, Inwang) and four outer mountains (Samgak, Acha, Gwanak, Deogyang) that protected the city against foreign invaders. Much of the city’s construction followed principles from the Zhou dynasty, namely the idea that buildings should be constructed in harmony with the surrounding nature.
Sadly, Gyeongbokgung’s history is a turbulent and often lonely one. Its most damaging historical point was the Japanese colonization of 1910-1945, when Gyeongbokgung was ruthlessly torn down. There were numerous reasons for doing this: to repair Changdokgung Palace which was damaged by fire, to strip away Korean authority, and to build exhibition galleries for the ‘Joseon Products Exhibition’ held in 1915. In 1935, the great Joseon dynasty became a laughing stock of the Japanese Empire as the palace was officially listed as an amusement park.
Despite this depressing period, Gyeongbukgung has pushed through hard times to become a staple not only of Seoul, but of the Korean Peninsula. It’s a remarkable feat of architecture and geomancy*, and proof of that is evident in how many visitors come every day. Finally – it’s time for me to introduce you to some of the palace’s most amazing stories and features! I hope you enjoy every step of this unabridged tour and please send us photos from your time there!
*Geomancy is the construction of a building based on energy flows under the belief that good fortune will come there.
Gwanghwamun & The Outer Walls
I don’t want you to start your tour at Gwanghwamun, the palace’s main gate. I want you to start a little further back, onto the main road of Jongno. Take a look at Number 1 on the map (see above), and you’ll see that I’ve highlighted the memorial for King Gojong. This is a really beautiful memorial crafted by Gojong’s son, Sunjong. Most Koreans and tourists alike absent-mindedly pass by, not even knowing what it is. Don’t be afraid to go and have a peek – admire the carvings and auspicious symbols that celebrate the 40th year of Gojong’s coronation and his 51st birthday.
After you enjoy the stroll towards the palace, admiring the towering mountains behind it, you can stop in front of Gwanghwamun Gate (number 2). Originally known as ‘Noon Gate’, the structure was later titled ‘Gwanghwa’, meaning ‘the brilliance of the King shining on the whole country’. You can see that there are three doorways. Can you guess what they’re for? The middle arch was strictly for the King; the right and left doors were for civil and military officials respectively. Which door are you going to go through?
What you’re looking at today is a modern installation. Gwanghwamun suffered numerous hardships and even lost its entire upper, wooden stories during the Korean war. Later, it was reconstructed in concrete, only to return to its fully original state in 2010 when it was built with wood. Because of the large road across from it, its front entrance platform couldn’t be built. It does feel, at some point, like a rather weak entrance for a palace. But, you just need to take another look up at the gorgeously painted structure for it to feel regal again.
On the outer walls, we have three other gates of Gwanghwamun. Yeongchunmun (Western) Gate (number 3) is decorated with white tigers and was mostly used by the royal secretariat. In 1926, the shaking of local trams caused the wall to collapse. It wasn’t rebuilt until 1975, 50 meters north of its original site. You can still see the makeshift reconstruction in the foundation bricks. All the way in the back, we have Sinmun Gate (number 4) of the north with black tortoises. This was mostly for ceremonies held by the King and his officials. Lastly, we can circle back around to Geonchunmun (number 5) of the East, which features blue dragons. This gate was used for royal family members and court ladies, as it was near the Crown Prince’s living quarters.
After your stroll around the outside walls, step back towards the main road to see the eastern watchtower (number 6). Sadly, this gorgeous structure has separated into its own pavilion, smack in the middle of the crowded street. Just like Gojong’s memorial, people pass by this without thought or question about its placement. When Gyeongbokgung underwent its huge renovation, the walls were stripped back to make way for oncoming traffic and the watchtower was forced into solitude. If you use your imagination, you can picture the walls stretching to reach the tower and moving further East until it reaches Changdokgung Palace.
Another key feature to note is the Haechi, also known as Haetae (number 7), which were mythical creatures used to expel fires and bite liars. The initial placement for the two Haechi was in front of the Office of the Inspector-General, which has been graciously marked on the Gwanghwamun Plaza (see photo above). As per Joseon tradition, artists and craftsmen put a personal stamp on their work, and many of the Haechi seen around the palace are designed with humorous expressions like the big, toothy grin. Try and spot them all, and send us a picture of your favorite! I love this little detail; it adds a whole new perspective on the palace and the Joseon people.
Yeongjegyo Bridge & Geunjeongjeon Hall
As you pass through the main entrance and hand the guard your ticket, you’ll be surprised to spot a sudden stream coursing through the palace. Sadly, this stream is man-made and doesn’t flow naturally, meaning that it only looks its best during the rainy season. Because of this, the water may look a bit brown and dirty… so, please imagine it in its best light! This is Yeongjegyo Bridge (number 8), which flows from east to west based on the principles of qi energy flows. It recalls Buddhist temples, which also start with a stream at their entrance in order to encourage the visitor to ‘purify’ their mind. However, if you look down the stream you’ll notice a new mythical creature: the Cheollok. These stone creatures have a unicorn and scaled body with long, silly tongues. They expel fire from the palace like the Haechi, and once again we can see the humor of the artist creeping through.
As you keep moving forward, you’ll come to one of the most recognizable sites of Gyeongbokgung: Geunjeongjeon Hall (number 9). As you approach this towering building, you’ll note that all around you are Chinese symbols carved into stones on the ground. These are ‘rank stones’ and they marked where each official was to stand when addressing the King. Different jobs had different numbers, and the longer and more efficiently you worked, the higher your rank. Additionally, on the stairs, you’ll notice a third lane in the middle. Here, there’s a stone with phoenixes carved into it – one that has sadly been neglected by curators – and this was where the King was carried up in his sedan chair.
Before entering the hall, take a look at the decorations carved into the hall’s patio. All around you’ll see lotus-shaped balusters with beaded jewels tying them together in the middle. Additionally, the animals of the Chinese zodiac smile down at you. The rat symbolizes midnight towards the north, and the horses stand at the south for noon. You’ll also be able to see large, metal incense burners. Originally these had lids, but it seems that they’ve been lost over time. Their three legs are designed after the sanye, lion looking dragons, who like flames and smoke. Everything has a hidden meaning!
Similarly, there are large pots near the stairway called deumu. Originally, deumu were used to put out fires. The Joseon people believed (very seriously) that fire monsters came out from the heavens. If a fire monster ever dared to approach the palace, officials hoped that it would see its own, frightening reflection in the daemu and run away. They were also incredibly functional and were used to prepare patjuk, red bean porridge, during winter solstice!
Alright, alright. Let’s get to the actual hall, shall we? Go ahead and take a look inside. Do you see the dragons on the ceiling? Traditionally, a five-clawed dragon symbolized the highest human power: the King. Notice something strange? These dragons have seven claws. Historians aren’t quite sure why the artist did this, but we can guess that it was to ignite the spirit of the country by representing the local people as the highest power. He was scripting a new narrative for a country free from colonization and authoritative power.
Although you can’t see it, one of my favorite stories of Geunjeongjeun Hall comes from inside the walls. When archaeologists were dismantling broken fragments after it was destroyed, they found numerous talisman, lucky papers, with the Chinese character for ‘water’ written on it. These were snuck into the rafters to keep the building safe from the heavenly, fiery demons.
Lastly, I want to point you in the direction of one of Korea’s most symbolic images: the Ilwolobongbyeong Screen resting behind the throne. Yes, the name is quite a mouthful. But this image is something you’re going to see all over the palaces – nay, all over Korea – so try and familiarize yourself with it! The screen shows mountains, streams, auspicious animals, and the sun and moon. It suggests that the whole universe is watched over by the King, and so this image would have followed him everywhere he went as a symbol of his power.
Sajeongjeon & Sujeongjeon Halls
After making your way through the palace’s main plaza, and no doubt taking a lot of gorgeous photos, make your way to Sajeongjeon Hall (number 10). ‘Sajeongjeon’ translates to ‘Thoughtful Governance’, and was used as the King’s council hall. It includes two auxiliary buildings, one of them called Cheonchujeon Hall (number 11). This hall is said to have been used by scholars of the famous Jiphyeonjeong Hall, a royal research institute and library that was used during King Sejong’s reign (did you see his statue in Gwanghwamun square?). It was the cradle of academic and scientific research and is famous for being the place where the Korean script was made, where the sundial and water clock were invented, and where royal court music called aak was composed.
Sajeongjeon Hall was used for numerous purposes, such as cabinet meetings called sangcham, which were held daily. The Joseon King was expected to spend his days studying here to advance his academic skills. The most common form of study was a debate of the Confucian scriptures or history. The only King who never missed his lecture was King Sejong – he attended for 20 years! I love studying as much as the next book nerd, but you’d be hard-pressed to ask me to go to class for 20 years straight. Sejong attended class three times a day, which is why so many Koreans consider him a staple of Korean intellect.
In the small courtyard, we can spot a tool called angbuilgu. Invented by Jang Yeong-sil under King Sejong, it serves as both a clock and a calendar. There are 13 horizontal lines that represent the 24 solar terms, as well as vertical lines that are used to tell the seasons and time of day with the help of the needle’s shadow facing north. This invention was incredibly advanced for its time, and we know of its success because of the exact coordinates of Hanyang written on the base.
Continue making your way out of the area to the western lawn (number 12). You’ll see a vast stretch of trees and a large, open courtyard. This area was not always like this. In fact, it was full of government and administrative offices like the royal secretariat, waiting room for the King, and the King’s special advisory. It was a highly important part of the palace that was torn down during Japanese occupation. Now, only Sujeongjeon Hall remains in solitude.
Aha. Gyeonghoeru Pavilion. One of the most popular stops on the Gyeongbokgung tour. Try not to be distracted by the crowds of people: this place is full of rich history, and I’ll be sure to offer you all the juicy stuff.
Intended to be used to entertain foreign envoys, Gyeonghoeru (number 13) was later used for state banquets and ritual rain ceremonies. The name means ‘felicitous gatherings’, so it sounds like a party place to me. Three bridges are connected to the pavilion, but only the southern one features the King’s lane, meaning that he would have arrived from this direction. You’ll also notice the animal statues on the bridge, once again used to drive away bad spirits. There are creatures called bulgasari, which were believed to defend the country from foreign invasions by chewing iron and swallowing fire. This is one of my favorite stops on the tour. If you take a close look at the stone railing of this bridge, you can spot some holes filled with cement. These have been there for nearly 70 years: marks of bullet holes from the Korean war. It’s a wonder that the bridge didn’t get destroyed, and now we have this melancholy reminder of modern warfare in a truly ancient place.
Let’s jump forward to 1997, when the pond was drained and a bronze dragon was found at the bottom of the lake. Archaeologists suppose that this was done under the belief that melted metal would generate water and that water would overcome fire, so bronze dragons were regularly made and dropped into water to prevent fires of important places. Sound confusing? It is.
One of my favorite stories from this pavilion is about the 10th King of Joseon, Yeonsangun, considered to be one of the worst tyrants in Korean history. A man of chaos, he selected 100 gisaengs, or courtesans, of outstanding beauty to accompany him around the palace. He later increased this number to 1,000, often kidnapping women from rural areas, until he was dethroned by his half-brother and died in exile. Now, Koreans use the idiom Heungchung Mangchung (흥청망청) to suggest someone who flirts to death or spends money too lavishly!
Before moving onto the next key zone, take a peek at Hahyangjeong Pavilion (number 14), a small counterpart to its much larger neighbor. This is not as ancient as it appears; it was built in 1959 under President Rhee Syngman. The man in charge of construction worked to the bone under an incredibly short time strain. Many archaeologists dismiss this pavilion due to its depressing history, but if we take a moment to note how gorgeously it melts in with the surrounding nature, I think we can agree that it situated itself as an integral part of Gyeongbokgung’s fascinating history.
Gangnyeongjeon & Gyotaejeon Hall
Gangnyeongjeong Hall (number 15) is built on a high, stone platform known as woldae with a broad stage. After the Changdeokgung Palace fire broke out in 1917, it was stripped down to use as rebuilding material. The present building, as well as Gyotaejeon Hall (number 16), were built in 1996 based on reports from archaeological excavations.
At Gangneyongjeong Hall, I want you to take a look upwards. Do you notice the figures on the roof? Maybe you’ve seen this in other parts of the palace, but I want to explain these to you in more detail now. These adorable figurines are characters from the famous story, ‘Journey to the West’, a Buddhist folk tale. The characters (in order) are the Buddhist monk Xuanzang, the mischevious Monkey King, the Pig Monster, and the Half-Water Demon. They were used to drive away evil spirits, as the characters defeated all the evil spirits on their journey to India in search of Buddhist scriptures. After their grand victory, they carried Buddhism back to the Tang dynasty and spread the religion across the land. Although Joseon was a Confucian society, Buddhism was respected within the royal household and many symbolic features continued to be used.
Before making your way past these halls, take a look at the King’s well in the courtyard. One thing I love as an archaeologist is that nearly everything had a purpose or meaning in ancient times. The cylindrical body symbolized the taeguk symbol which you can now see on the Korean flag, meaning ‘supreme ultimate’. Additionally, the octagonal base symbolizes the eight trigrams of the Universe. You’ll also note holes in the ground surrounding the well, which means poles would have been inserted here to turn the well into a gazebo, perfect for a refreshing, summer afternoon.
A popular photo site, Yanguimun Gate (number 17) is decorated with Chinese characters engraved into red, brick chimneys. One gate has the symbol for cheonsemanse, meaning ‘ten thousand generations’, and the other mansumugang, symbolizing the enjoyment of life. Chimneys were incredibly praised objects in Joseon and weren’t just considered functional. We’ll see more gorgeous chimneys on this tour a bit later!
Next, make your way to Gyotaejeon Hall (number 16). This was the Queen’s living quarters, where the King would visit on auspicious days in hopes that they could ‘do the do’ and create a son. Sadly, it was also dismantled for its timber and the current building is a replica.
A unique feature of the flora and fauna surrounding Hamwonjeon Hall (number 18) are the Aengdu trees. This was a soft and sweet fruit treasured by King Sejong. He suffered from diabetes and had weak teeth as a consequence, so their softness made them one of his favorite foods. He requested the planting of these trees, and they add a charming feature and interesting backstory to the garden. However, the chimneys are what really grasp one’s attention. You’ll notice numerous animals and plants decorating them, as well as adorable house-shaped smoke ventilation at the top.
This entire pavilion was built based on geomancy, as the neighboring Mt. Baekdu could carry its energy to the Queen and bring her a son. Thus, this area was also used as a birthing place for Crown Princes and Princesses. Nothing, and I mean nothing, was built without conscious thought in Joseon.
Jagyeongjeon & Jaseongdang Hall
Jagyeongjeon Hall (number 19) was dedicated to Queen Sinjeong, more famously known as Queen Dowager Jo, the adoptive mother of King Gojong. As the King was only 12 at the time of his enthronement, she ruled behind bamboo screens. The present version of this building was built in 1888, and the stunning designs echo the love that Gojong had for his mother. We can see imagery of bamboo, azalea, chrysanthemums, pomegranates, peonies, peaches, bats, honeysuckle, dragons, and cranes. These all represent the ideal characteristics of a moral person, as well as longevity and fortune.
One of my favorite parts of his compound is the outhouses. Yes, that’s right. The crappers. Many people ask me about toilets as a historian, and I completely understand the poo fascination. Gyeongbokgung had about twenty-eight areas for outhouses during its heyday, and only the ones here remain. They’re very subtly hidden, and rightfully so, so most tourists pass them without ever knowing what’s truly inside…
Hamhwadang & Jipgyeongdang Hall, Hyangwonjeong Pavilion
The two halls here were mainly used as living quarters of the royal concubines. Jipgyeongdang (number 20) is gorgeously decorated with amazing wood patterns in the style of auspicious symbols, but one decoration sticks out from the rest. It’s one of my favorite spots of Gyeongbokgung, a kind of ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ gem. If you look under Jipgyeongdang’s loft, adjacent to a fuel hole is a patterned design that looks almost 21st century. Can you guess what this is? It’s actually a pattern of broken ice, used as a superstition to balance out the firey fuel hole beside it. The ice was painted to regulate the amount of fire entering the building, and to find a harmonious balance among the five elements.
Make your way to the next pavilion, Hyangwonjeong (number 21), which was dedicated to Queen Min by her husband Gojong. The structure of the pavilion has changed over the years, but if you look at it from the side of Geoncheonggung, you can see stone props that prove the bridge was originally built on the north side.
This is also the site where electricity was generated for the first time in Korea on March 6th, 1897. The generator here was constructed a full two years before those in China and Japan. Although we consider this amazing now, most palace residents were not a fan of electricity. The generator created incredibly loud noises that caused the court ladies to get insomnia. Additionally, the bright lights were said to have given many palace residents headaches. To top it all off, the heat produced from the generator made the nearby waters too warm, killing the fish that inhabited it. After these issues, people believed that foreign invention was an omen of bad luck. Sadly, their suspicions came shortly before the collapse of Joseon under the Japanese empire.
What’s this, you say? A palace within a palace? That’s damn right, because Kings can do whatever they want. And that’s exactly what Gojong did. He used his private funds to create this palace in an attempt to free himself from his father’s regency and lead the government on his own accord.
One of the most famous associations with this palace is the Eulmi Incident of 1895. In order to fully embrace this story, we should make our way to Gonnyeonghap Hall (number 22), Queen Min’s living quarters. At the age of 45, the Queen was murdered under the hands of the Japanese. Her body was then carried out to a nearby pine grove, where it was burned to hide any evidence. Her death was witnessed by an American, a Russian architect and other envoys who reported the murder to various embassies around the world. The horrible situation was labeled ‘The Fox Hunt’ by the Japanese swordsmen who took her life. Perhaps you’re wondering why they didn’t target the King. What was it about Queen Min that was so intimidating?
Queen Min was an incredibly bright woman who excelled in politics and diplomacy. She was, in every way, Gojong’s equal and he treated her as such. Isabella Bird Bishop, the daughter of a British clergyman, described her as:
… a very nice looking, slender woman, with glossy, raven-black hair and very pale skin, the pallor of which was enhanced by the use of pearl powder. The eyes were cold and keen, and the general expression was one of brilliant intelligence. I was impressed with the graceful and charming manner of the Queen, her thoughtful kindness, her singular intelligence and force, and her remarkable conversational power even through the medium of an interpreter. I was not surprised at her singular political influence, or her sway over the King and many others.
Recognizing that Japan was aiming to control Joseon, Queen Min became friendly with Russian envoys in order to keep them as allies. She was a major stumbling block to Japanese colonization, leading the assassins to take her out at a tragically young age. Sadly, no portrait or photo exists from her life (the one featured above is suspected to be Queen Min without entire proof), and we have to rely on the description given by Isabella Bird to imagine her physical character.
After the Eulmi Incident, Gojong took refuge in the Russian Legation in 1896. From that point onwards, Geoncheonggung lost its owner until it was permanently demolished by the Japanese in 1909. Reconstruction was officially finished in 2007.
The next spot in the palace is Gwanmungak Hall, which functioned as the King’s office. However, you won’t be able to find it. This ghost building was also his library and was later renovated by a Russian architect, one who witnessed the murder of Queen Min, making it the first and only building in Gyeongbokgung to be constructed in Western-style. However, it was torn down by the Japanese in 1901 and the lot stands empty. Can you envision it with your mind?
Another missing hall is Jaseongdang, whose foundation stones (number 23) were brought back to Joseon after being discarded on a Japanese island. Unfortunately, they had been too badly burned and were simply left in a heap in the palace. Now they stand in the same spot where Queen Min’s corpse was burned, the entire area a depressing site of a dark Korean history.
Jikbojae & Taewonjeon Hall
Jikbojae (number 24), meaning ‘a house that collects precious books like jade’, fittingly was the King’s library and was created in Chinese architectural style. Gojong used these halls as galleries, library and a reception area for foreign envoys. In 1893 alone, we received ministers from England, Japan and Australia five times here.
Nearby, Taewonjeon Hall (number 25) stands for ‘the heavens’, and was where the corpses of royal family members were brought for state funerals. Their spirit tablets would have first been placed in Musojeon Hall for three years before being enshrined in Jongmyo, the official state shrine. It took two years after the assassination of Queen Min for her funeral to finally be held in November 1897.
Our tour ends with something a bit lighter and a bit tastier. This is Janggo Hall (number 26), where jars of soy sauce and bean paste were created and kept for sacrificial rites and banquets. Koreans believed that disaster would strike if their condiments changed flavors, so they picked particular, lucky days to cook. A string of red peppers or paper shapes of traditional Korean shoes were often used to bring good luck, so these were often stuck to the condiment jars. This is a tradition still carried out by some Koreans today, especially in the countryside! 195 jars were collected from the whole country and are displayed here.
Well, everyone. That concludes the official Pinpoint Korea tour of Gyeongbokgung! This palace is an amazing place full of mystery, tragedy, romance and humor. Did you learn anything new? Is there anything you want to see for yourself next time you go? Which stop seems the most interesting? I hope that I was able to offer you a fresh, eye-opening tour experience. Don’t expect to go to Gyeongbokgung and use the brochure for full historical coverage. And even though this tour only scratches the surface of all the amazing stories this palace has to offer, I hope that it can be a fitting replacement.