Gyeonggijeon: The House of the Official Portrait of King Taejo

Above is the canopy of a conniferous tree, below is a paved sidewalk with flowers lined up on both sides, in the upper right is a pair of South Korean schoolgirls walking towards the viewer, and on the left is a wall, and beyong the wall a Joseon-era traditional Korean building, all in the late afternoon light (and the shade of the tree).

Here, along one of the main streets of the hanok maeul in Jeonju, capital of Jeollabuk Province, is the wall of Gyeonggijeon, which was built to hold an official royal portrait of King Taejo, the first king of the Joseon dynasty.

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As I said in the previous post, Lee Seong-gye (also spelled Yi Seong-gye) was a member of the Lee (or Yi) clan of Jeonju. Though Lee Seong-gye was actually born in Hamhung (a city in North Korea), his family traces their roots to Jeonju.

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The complex is full of spacious courtyards – quite a contrast with the crowded alleys of the hanok maeul just outside the walls.

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The official religion of the Joseon dynasty was Confucianism, and Confucianism takes respecting one’s ancestors very seriously. Therefore, there are many Joseon-era buildings in this complex serving various purposes.

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For example, I think one of these buildings was supposed to store the cookware for preparing meals for honoring King Taejo (who was the ancestor of all other Joseon kings), and another building served as the place for making rice cakes, and things like that.

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In any case, the original purpose of each structure is explained by little signboards.

You can see one of the little grey signboards in this picture

You can see one of the little grey signboards in this picture

As I’ve said before, I have a fondness for Joseon architecture.

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And we can enter one of the little buildings, and see one of the contraptions which was used to prepare food.

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In another courtyard, we see a turtle (symbolizing longevity? I know it symbolizes something) carrying a stele on its back, and we see what looks like a jar for storing the placenta of a Joseon king. That’s right, the placenta of every Joseon prince was preserved (at least for a while), and whenever a prince managed to become a king, everyone knew it was a king’s placenta, and it would be moved to a place of appropriate honor. I wonder whose placenta is there … and a quick internet search indicates that it’s King Yejong’s placenta.

The turtle, stele, and placenta jar

The turtle, stele, and placenta jar

The official entrance to the most important section looks like this.

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And here is what the fuss is all about…

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Say what? Casual visitors are not allowed to take photographs of the official replica (the original deteriorated) of the official royal portrait of King Taejo, founder of the Joseon dynasty, but it’s in there, where all of the people are looking in.

I found on the internet a digital replica of the official replica:

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In the complex there is a royal portrait museum, which describes what a big deal this portrait is. First of all, it is the only portrait of King Taejo (Lee Seong-gye) which survives to the present day. Second … not many official royal Joseon portraits survive, and some of the ones which do survive are in North Korea and thus not accessible to South Koreans. Third, the Joseon dynasty had lots and lots of rituals, and some of those rituals would be performed around the official portraits of the kings’ ancestors, which is why there was an altar and entire complex built around this portrait. Thus to have an official portrait (okay, official replica of an official portrait) along with its altar intact in Jeonju of the very first Joseon king is a big deal.

In this photo I am standing near where the portrait is, looking outwards.  That paved path is the road for the spirit of King Taejo, and anyone who isn't the spirit of King Taejo is forbidden to step on it, which is why there is that little sign blocking the way for living mortals.

In this photo I am standing near where the portrait is, looking outwards. That paved path is the road for the spirit of King Taejo, and anyone who isn’t the spirit of King Taejo is forbidden to step on it, which is why there is that little sign blocking the way for living mortals.

If you want to learn more of the information available at the Royal Portraits Museum, there’s this blog post.

If I had only visited one or two sites of the Joseon royal family, I don’t think I would have really got it. In fact, there is still much I don’t know or understand about the Joseon royal family, but by going repeatedly to different sites revealing little bits of their complex way of life, and letting things sink in (such as seeing the placenta jars multiple times), I can actually manage to nick the surface of what the Joseon royal system was like. It truly was an extremely elaborate system, full of rules, rituals, and symbols.

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And this is why I like to spend a lot of time visiting many places in a single country/region rather than trying to cover many countries/regions in limited travel time. If I had, instead of spending over two months in South Korea, had spent 8 weeks in 8 different countries, I feel I have not even nicked the surface of those countries’ cultures, and if I can’t learn anything of even a teensy bit of depth about those cultures, what would be the point of going? I think it’s better to learn something about one country than nothing about eight.

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This entry was posted in City, Hanok/Folk Village, Jeollabuk, Joseon, Mostly Photos and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Gyeonggijeon: The House of the Official Portrait of King Taejo

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