Category: Changdeokgung.

Changdeok Palace: Better than any Koreanovela

By Ino Manalo, Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 02:55:00 09/27/2009

Changdeok Palace

Changdeok Palace

MANILA, Philippines—A remarkable example of the global nature of contemporary culture is the way Filipino audiences have taken to Korean TV drama shows like “Jewel in the Palace.” Something in these tales of intrigues and courtly passions must have appealed to our local viewers.

To the Koreans, court intrigues are nothing new. There is no lack of sumptuous settings for such Machiavellian plots. Seoul has the privilege of being home to five grand palaces. Now islands of serenity in the bustle of city life, they had witnessed tumultuous events.

One palace, Gyeongbukgung, was completely destroyed in the 1592 Japanese invasion. It was restored only to be damaged when Japan again occupied Korea in the 20th century.
The Japanese built a huge Neo-Classical administrative building atop the ruins, creating a virile image of their imperial might.

This office was such a despised symbol of foreign domination that the Koreans insisted on its destruction upon regaining their independence. In the 1990s, Gyeongbuk Palace (“gung” is the Korean word for “palace”) rose again. Clearly, even huge edifices are vulnerable pawns in the pageant of power.

Most beautiful

Of Seoul’s many royal residences, perhaps the most beautiful is Changdeokgung. Though having had its share of the ravages of war and fire, it has retained many structures from its past. It is the only palace in Korea to appear on the Unesco World Heritage List.

Wandering about Changdeokgung, one feels close to the bosom of the earth. This is a building that embraces its setting. Every pillar stands with the strength of trees, floors stretch out like a vast sea.

In contrast, the structures of Gyeongbukgung have a linear orientation. State ceremonies are carried out in regimented orderly procession. Not so in Changdeok Palace, where courtyards wrap around mountains and gardens reflect the contours of the land.

A few years ago, I had the honor of being tasked by Unesco’s Dr. Molly Lee to design modules for training teachers on how to explain the features of Changdeok Palace within the framework of Education for Sustainable Development or ESD. This meant analyzing the buildings and gardens of the royal compound from the perspectives of environment, economics, as well as society and culture.

I was, of course, quite nervous about the assignment, not being a scholar of Korean history or culture. Fortunately, I was working with local experts such as Dr. Sun Kyung Lee, and the officers of the Korean National Commission for Unesco.

Organic relation

The environmental modules were probably the easiest to conceptualize. The Unesco Heritage List inscription citation makes specific mention of the organic relation between Changdeokgung’s layout and the surrounding terrain. Indeed, the palace is a wonderful enclave of rare flora and fauna, a micro-ecosystem in itself.

Dr. Sun Kyung Lee explained that the many ancient trees and the various ponds help cool the area so that the average temperatures in Changdeokgung are lower than the rest of Seoul. More importantly, it was demonstrated how the various courtyards of the buildings were thoughtfully positioned so that throughout the day, each one does not receive the same amount of sunshine as the rest.

The dissimilar degrees of exposure to solar energy results in different temperature gradients, which in turn aids in the formation of natural breezes. In this way, the palace halls actually has an efficient air-conditioning system which does not require wasteful energy consumption.

The eaves of the buildings are carefully designed so that they keep away glare and rain while allowing maximum light to enter.

I was also impressed with the many sliding doors. Their wooden grids and delicate paper panels reminded me of our own capiz windows. What was most interesting, though, was that, in the warm Seoul summers, these sliding doors could actually be hitched up so that the whole room would be completely open on all sides.

For the economic aspect, one could point to the many tourists that visit Changdeokgung every year. Though there is a great demand to see the place, it was decided to restrict access so as not to strain the ancient structures. Visitors are required to join guided tours and are not allowed to wander around at will.

Entrance fees were made higher than for the other palaces. This insures that tourist numbers would be low while maintaining a sizable income stream—a good model for some of our more fragile heritage sites. The Korean example illustrates that sometimes, limited high-end tourism might be a better option.

Historical drama

It was perhaps the socio-cultural dimension that was most challenging to document. Certain buildings such as palaces reflect the drama of history because they are both the settings and the targets of great movements in a nation’s life.

Occasionally, world-wide narratives intersect with more site-specific tales. This point is best illustrated by Changdeokgung’s kitchen. At first, this antiseptic white-tiled room hints only at a universal story dealing with the eventual acceptance of European culinary conveniences and standards of hygiene.

Later on, one learns this modern-style kitchen was actually built because the Japanese had confined the royal family to a smaller section of the compound. Since the king and his clan could no longer make use of the original outlying cooking facility, it was necessary to construct one that was more centrally located and with more contemporary appointments.

What initially seems a nondescript room for food preparation is actually replete with reminders of imperialism and subjugation.

Viewing the garden with its strategically arranged ornamental rocks and pedestals for floral arrangements, one is easily lulled into seeing all of these as delightful decorative elements. Yet, realizing that one is standing in the women’s quarters, it suddenly becomes clear that these artful devices were meant to be entertaining distractions for cloistered consorts.

How many queens had sat staring at these same views while contemplating what lay outside their shuttered courtyards?

Meaningful symbol

All over Changdeok Palace are symbols very meaningful for the Korean people. There are images of animals like the phoenix, which represents the king. Tiles are decorated with a branching fern-like motif—an allusion to a sacred plant that confers immortality. There are stone markers in the main plaza indicating where an official was to stand according to rank. The characters are in Chinese, indicating the pervasive influence the Celestial Empire traditionally had in the region.

It surprised my hosts that I could make out the numerals 1 to 9. The secret source of my knowledge: mahjong!

One of the teaching modules I devised required participants to create matching T-shirts using designs taken from the palace compound. Many festooned their creations with images of flowers, terraces, trees, architectural details, even clouds.

Easily the most evocative part of Changdeokgung is Biwon, the Secret Garden. Here the foliage is at its most lush. Concerns about time recede as one meanders around a courtesan’s dream of ancient pavilions. Many kings built their sanctuaries and reading rooms in the tranquil embrace of this sylvan quarter.

One Biwon retreat mimics a rustic farmer’s home. Evidently, when the royal family was tired of the pomp and splendor of their palatial lives, they would escape here and play at being simple folk.

Yet, in many ways, this modest residence is more impressive than its gilded counterparts. Unencumbered by rich trappings and elaborate decorations, the pure wooden surfaces and the translucent paper-lined windows gleam with a quiet beauty.

Palaces rise and fall with the whims of destiny. But an exquisite edifice like Changdeokgung endures in the hearts of a people, not because of its regal halls filled with the embellishments of pride and power, but because it demonstrates how humans can fashion beautiful abodes while respecting the rhythms of nature.

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Category: Changdeokgung
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