Gyeongbokgung Palace, and its fascinating history (South Korea)
Historical sites have always intrigued and fascinated me. Seeing these old or restored buildings, I cannot help but think about the people who walked those grounds in the past. What was a normal day-to-day within the walls of these architectural wonders? Therefor, I had to do a little digging into the history of Gyeongbokgung Palace, and share it with you.
Gyeongbokgung Palace is the largest among the Five Grand Palaces, (the others being Gyeonghuigung, Deoksugung, Changgyeonggung, Changdeokgung), built by the Joseon dynasty. In the past, it served as the main residence of the Imperial Family. Nowadays, the palace is open to the public. Visitors can take part in guided tours, or venture through the palace grounds on their own. The re-enactment of the ceremonial guard exchange by the main gate is especially popular among tourists.
So, without further ado, let’s take a look at the information available about this impressive palace.
In 1395, three years after the Joseon Dynasty was founded by King Taejo (birthname: Yi Seong-Gye), the construction of the main royal palace was completed. The palace was named Gyeongbokgung, ‘the Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven.’
With Mount Bugaksan to its rear and Mount Namsan in the foreground, the site of Gyeongbokgung Palace was at the heart of Seoul. A location deemed auspicious according to the traditional practice of geomancy. In front of Gwanghwamun Gate, the main entrance to the palace, ran Yukjogeori, ‘Street of Six Ministries’ (today Sejongno), home to major government offices.
Along the central axis upon which Gwanghwamun Gate stood was the nucleus of the palace. This included the throne hall, reception hall, and the king’s residence. The government ministry district and main buildings of Gyeongbokgung Palace formed the heart of the capital city of Seoul and represented the sovereignty of the Joseon Dynasty.
After all the palaces in the capital were razed by the Japanese during the Imjin War of 1595-1598, Changdeokgung, a secondary palace, was rebuilt and served as the main palace. Gyeongbokgung Palace was left derelict for the next 270 years.
It was finally reconstructed in 1867 by the order of the Prince Regent Heungseon (Heungseon Daewongun). The palace the Prince Regent created was markedly different from the original. Some 500 buildings were built on a site of over 691,921 square meters and constituted a small city. The architectural principles of ancient China were harmonically incorporated into both the tradition and the appearance of the Joseon royal court.
Gyeongbokgung Palace was largely torn down during the Japanese occupation. Almost all the restored buildings were dismantled. Gwanghwamun Gate was removed, and an enormous building housing the Japanese Government-General was constructed in front of the main sector of the palace.
Only the following ten original buildings remained:
- Geunjeongjeon Hall (Throne Hall)
- Gyeongheoru Pavilion (Royal Banquet Hall)
- Hyangwonjeong Pavilion (loose English translation ‘Pavilion of far-Reaching Fragrance’)
- Jagyongjeon Hall (Queen’s residence)
- Jibokjae Hall (loose English translation ‘Hall of collecting Jade’, King Gojong’s private library)
- Sajeongjeon Hall (used by the king for executive meetings with high-ranking officials)
- Sujeongjeon Hall (for use by the cabinet of the Joseon dynasty).
An effort to fully restore Gyeongbokgung Palace to its former glory has been ongoing since 1990. The colonial Government-General building was removed, and Heungnyemun Gate was restored to its original state. Gwanghwamun Gate as well as the residences of the king, queen and the crown prince were restored to their original state.
Additionally, the palace premises became home to the National Folk Museum of Korea and the National Palace Museum of Korea.
Historical timeline for Gyeongbokgung
- 1395 Original Palace Build completed
- 1592-1598 Japanese invasion & destruction of palace
- 1867 Begin of palace reconstruction by Prince Regent Heungseon Daewongun
- 1895 Emperor Gojong leaves the palace. He would be the last member of the Imperial Family to reside there
- 1911 The Empire of Japan’s colonial government systematically demolishes all but 10 buildings that form part of the palace
- 1926 Construction of Japanese Government-General Building
- 1963 Gyeongbokgung is designated as a cultural property
- 1990 Begin of 40-year initiative to restore hundreds of structures destroyed during the Japanese occupation
- 1996 Removal of Government-General Building
- 2001 Reconstruction of Heungnyemun Gate
- 2006-2010 Reconstruction of Gwanghwamun Gate (“Gate of Transformation by Light”)
After opening its doors to visitors, Gyeongbokgung quickly became one of the most famous tourist attractions in South Korea.
While I immensely enjoyed visiting Gyeongbokgung, I do hope to one day have the chance to take a look at the other palaces as well.