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Sunday, March 29, 2020

Seoul, at Gwanghwamun Square

Walking from the Gwanghwamun gate of Gyengbokgung towards the city, I noticed a lively and exciting avenue. The avenue is surrounded by modern high-rise buildings, and is named Gwanghwamun Square. Observing the avenue, then I remembered this was the location of the actions of the movie Iris, the popular Korean TV serial drama, where the thrilling chase, and fights happened. Kim Hyeon-jun (Lee Byung-hun) and Kim Sun-hwa (Kim So-yeon) come to Gwanghwamun Square to find the bomb planted here by terrorists in episode 17.

The avenue towards the palace exists since Seoul became the capital of Korea. It was a large avenue for the king and his entourage traveling from the palace to other places. In the 20th century it remained a wide avenue, originally a 16-lane roadway, but in 2009 the Government decided to create a landmark national square by transforming 10 lanes of the roadway into a public space where people could enjoy and socialize. Thus it became Gwanghwamun Square.

At its center stands a statue of King Sejong the Great, the fourth and most respected king of the Joseon Dynasty and creator of Hangeul, Korea's alphabet. Coincidently I watched the movie The King's Letters in my flight with Asiana, a historical film about King Sejong who risked everything of his reputation to invent the Hangeul, Korea's alphabet for his people. It was quite an interesting movie to watch, considering the boring and academic topic about the founding of the Korean written language. Surely it wasn’t easy to make an interesting movie about that topic.

Further down there is the statue of Admiral Yi Sun-shin, a naval commander noted for his victories against the Japanese navy during the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592-1598) and a hero among Koreans. In front of the statue is a miniature turtle ship that the Admiral built, and at each front corner are two drums that were used to increase the morale of soldiers going to the battlefield.

That time in October, the ‘Hi Seoul Festival’ was going on at Gwanghwamun Square. It was a large annual performing arts festival to promote international unity by enabling people to communicate with one another through music and non-verbal performances, going beyond the barriers of language, race and age. Hundreds of performances by teams from around the world are presented during the week-long festival.

However, it wasn’t only festivity. As the Sewol ship tragedy had just happened a few months before there was a memorial of the victims of the sunken ship on display. There were posters showing the sadness of the victims’ parents, friends and relatives, some also showed anger about how the government handled this tragedy.

Out of 476 passengers and crew, 304 died in the disaster, most notably around 250 students from Danwon High School, Ansan City. The sinking of MV Sewol resulted in widespread social and political reaction within South Korea. Many criticized the actions of the captain and most of the crew. Also criticized were the ferry operator and the regulators who oversaw its operations, along with the administration of President Park Geun-hye for its disaster response.


Source: Wikipedia

Friday, March 6, 2020

Seoul, at Gyeongbokgung Palace

As I entered the main audience halls of the Gyeongbokgung Palace, I looked up at the ceiling and I was amazed by the patterns of colourful ornaments, in red, blue and green, which bloomed on the eaves (the part of a roof that meets or overhangs the walls of a building). I could see the grand depictions of dragons on the ceilings, they were shown as two yellow dragons flying in the sky. In the Eastern tradition the yellow color is associated with the centre, so it is the color of the centre of the power.

Dragons have been part of Eastern mythology since ancient times, and it is a major symbol of the king’s authority and dignity. A dragon flying up into the sky symbolizes the ideal that a sage man will ascend to the throne. This comes from the mythology in which a dragon that had been hidden in the waters rises and flies up to Heaven. So the flying yellow dragons depicted on the ceilings, as well on the canopy over the king’s throne symbolize the king’s central position, from where the he rules the world around him with authority and dignity.

Walking around I also noticed many other animal figures at the palace, these animals are lucky symbols signifying long life, peace and well-being, and happiness. These include the qilin (kirin in Japanese), elephants, deer, and cranes engraved on the Hall of the Gyeongbokgung Palace. There are also animal figures that are supposed to drive away evil spirits and prevent misfortune. Among these are the cheollok seen around the Yeongjegyo Bridge in Gyeongbokgung Palace, when evil spirits or bad people crossed the bridge, these mythological animals attacked them and chased them away.

King Taejo, the first king and the founder of the Joseon dynasty, in 1392 decided to move government to Hanyang (current Seoul) in the third year of its reign, and started construction of Gyeongbokgung Palace in 1394. This location of the place is surrounded by 4 mountains, mount Bugaksan to the North, mount Namsan to the South, mount Naksan to the East and mount Imwangsan to the West. The arrangement of these mountains was believed to attribute Gyeongbokgung with a good fengshui.

Construction of the palace began in December 1394 under the joint supervision of Jeong Do-jeon, an influential government minister, and his associate Sim Deokpu. Jeong Do-jeon, who was also a leading Confusian scholar, designed the palace reflecting the philosophy of Confucianism. He wanted to reflect the principles of the Joseon dynasty in accordance with the ideals in Confucianism. According to Confucianism one needs to train his mind and body before he can teach others and rule the world.

Therefore Jong Do-jeon suggested that the palace should not be a symbol of sovereign power, but a place where the king himself cultivates his mind and rule over his people with the assistant of good government officials.  He wanted to build a palace that’s not grand or imposing, but rather simple and elegant. Building an extravagant palace would not be a value in Confucianism.

Jong Do-jeon also gave name to the palace Gyeongbokgung, which means the ‘Palace of Shining Blessings’. ‘Gyongbok’ is a word borrowed from one of the Confucian scriptures which means ‘to enjoy good fortune and prosper’. The word ‘gung’ means palace, so ‘Gyeongbokgung’ suggested good wishes to the new dynasty.


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