Changgyeonggung, the Quiet Grand Palace, Part 1

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On my second full day in Seoul, Changgyeonggung was still the nearest tourist attraction to my hostel, and it is open on Tuesdays. For once, the English-language guided tour was at a more convenient time than the Mandarin-language tour, so I decided to go with the English-language tour.

Changgyeonggung is in Seoul's Jongno district.

Changgyeonggung is in Seoul’s Jongno district.

After seeing all of the crowds in Gyeongbokgung, and seeing how many people joined the guided tours in Jongmyo, I was expecting to see another crowd at Gyeonggyeonggung. Well … it turns out I was the only one who showed up for the English-language tour.

The bridge over the old stream at the entrance

The bridge, Okcheongyo, over the old stream at the entrance

I asked the guide if this was normal, and she says that sometimes nobody shows up, and sometimes a few people show up. Jongmyo attracts attention because it is unique and of great cultural and historical significance, and Gyeongbokgung gets a lot of visitors because it is right next to Gwanghwamun Square, but Changgyeonggung is the most out-of-the-way of the grand palaces, and doesn’t have as much to draw in tourists.

The bridge shown in the photo above, Okcheongyo, was building in 1483 and survived the various fires which burned the palace down. It has two goblins carved underneath it to scare off evil spirits entering through the stream. That’s why the goblins face upstream – there is nothing to fear from the downstream direction.

The royal path to Myeongjeongjeon - nowadays, commoners can walk on the path reserved for Joseon kings without being executed

The royal path to Myeongjeongjeon – nowadays, commoners can walk on the path reserved for Joseon kings without being executed

Most of the palace had been destroyed by the Japanese colonial government, and it had been demoted from a ‘palace’ to a ‘garden’. The Japanese even put in a zoo. The South Korean government removed the zoo, and plans to completely restore the palace to how it was in the 19th century. However, only 20% of the palace has been restored, including the few old buildings which had been spared by the Japanese. The guide told me that, if I come back in twenty years, I’ll be able to see the fully restored palace.



Myeongjeongjeon, the main hall, is the most important building in Changgyeonggung. This palace, like all of the palaces in Seoul, were burned down during the Japanese invasion at the end of the 16th century, and this building was built in 1616, making it the oldest main hall in a palace Seoul which still stands.

This stone path was originally intended to be used thus: civil officials would walk on the left side, military officials would walk on the right side, only the king himself could walk on the center path, and nobody else was permitted to walk on the stone path at all except to cross it. People who broke the rules, particularly commoners, could be executed. However, since there are no more kings, everybody is nowadays free to use the center path, as well as the left and right paths.

The double phoenix which symbolizes the Joseon royal family

The double phoenix which symbolizes the Joseon royal family

Since everything – brochures, museums, signs, guidebooks – said that the palaces in Seoul were burned down during the Japanese invasion of 1592, I had assumed that they were burned down by the Japanese. The guide said that this assumption is false. So who burned down the palaces? Korean commoners. The guide explained, the common people were mad that the king wasn’t doing more to resist the Japanese invasion, and since the king wasn’t doing much to stop the Japanese from making the common people miserable, the common people concluded that the king didn’t care, so they burned down the palaces in retaliation. Now, I have to wonder, why don’t the brochures, museums, signs, and guidebooks mention that important detail…

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And above is the king’s throne in Myeongjeongjeon. All places where the king would sit on formal occasions had this painting with the hills, two waterfalls, a sun, and a moon in the background, which I think represents the divine role of kings.

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And on the ceiling, shown above, you can see the double phoenix again. Dragons represented the emperors of China. The Joseon kingdom was nominally a client state of the Chinese empire for most of its existence (even though true political power was held by the Joseon king, not the Chinese emperor), so the Joseon kings did not declare themselves emperor until very late in the Joseon period. Furthermore, when dragons were depicted, they only had four claws, to indicate that they had a lower status than the five-clawed dragons which represented the Chinese emperor.

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I rather liked being able to enjoy one of the major Joseon palaces without the crowds found at other palaces.

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Above is the pavilion where kings would study. In the Joseon kingdom, the highest social class (aside from the royal family) was the scholarly elite, the yangban, and a king was expected to be even more educated, and to never stop his scholarly studies until he died. The guide said that one king had publicly said that his true purpose was to serve as the kingdom’s teacher. The great value that the Joseon kingdom put on education continues in South Korea today, where schoolteachers are paid more than lawyers. Many educational experts say that the countries with the two best educational systems in the world are Finland and South Korea.

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Above is the seat of the king in the council building, Munjeongjeon, which was rebuilt in 1986. The Joseon dynasty had a rule, forbidden the king and major councillors from talking to each other without a scribe present to record everything that they said. This was supposed to promote transparency and good governance. Furthermore, there were strong protections on the councillors’ freedom of speech so they could speak their mind, even when what they had to say would displease the king.

In the back of this photo, you can see the wall separating Changgyeonggung and Changdeokgung

In the back of this photo, you can see the wall separating Changgyeonggung and Changdeokgung

Changgyeonggung and Changdeokgung were once part of the same, interconnected complex, and even today they are right next to each other. The guide said that, even though Changdeokgung was the official residence of the king for much of the Joseon dynasty, it really depended on the king’s personal preferences – kings who particularly liked Changgyeonggung would live in Changgyeonggung.

Since this post is getting a bit long, I am splitting it into two parts. Part 2 will be posted tomorrow, in which I will describe the dramatic story of Prince Sado and what’s left of the ‘garden’ from the Japanese colonial era.


About Sara K.

Sara K. is an aromantic asexual from California who has previously lived in Taiwan. She blogs at the notes which do not fit, has previously been a contributor at Manga Bookshelf, and has written guest posts for Hacking Chinese. She enjoys reading, travel, live theatre, learning languages, and gardening.
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10 Responses to Changgyeonggung, the Quiet Grand Palace, Part 1

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