09 October 2008

Seoul: Gyeongbokgung

Today was a very good day. My sightseeing centered around Gyeongbokgung, the main royal palace of Seoul, where a royal ceremony re-enactment was held today to mark the 562nd anniversary of the creation of the Korean alphabet.

I am starting at the corner of Sejongno (Sejong Blvd.), Seoul's widest street running south from Gyeongbokgung, and Jongno (Bell Street), Seoul's east-west main street. This tombstone, erected by Emperor Gojong in 1902, is now used as the reference point for distance markers throughout the two Koreas. All road signs that say "xx kilometers to Seoul," including those in North Korea (for example, on the expressway from Pyongyang to Kaesong), actually point to the distance to this exact tombstone.

The pavilion is named Bigak. Today, it stands in front of the headquarters of Kyobo Insurance Company, which sells life insurance, auto insurance by AXA, and more. Kyobo also runs a chain of bookstores, and its main and largest location is in the basement. I decided to visit it first, as I needed to buy a CD and some books.

This sexy poster of Mariah Carey welcomes me. It's always nice to listen to her, especially when I am in Seoul. If I could pick my own venue for my next Mariah Carey concert, there is no question about it; it will have to be here in Seoul.

Another welcoming sight: Friends DVD box sets. I didn't really care for the show all that much, but Jennifer Aniston will always be my idol, and I will forever be a card-carrying member of Team Aniston.

Later, elsewhere in the bookstore, I saw a book with Angelina Jolie's face on the cover - and made sure to punch down on it.

Back to the music section, and back to Mariah. It appears that the South Korean government censors have deemed E=MC2 too obscene for the nation's youth, and the customer must be 19 to sample/buy the CD. On the same rack, a Britney Spears album was tagged with the same warning. Too bad, as the two are the biggest idols among South Korea's teenage girls.

This is what I came here today to buy. Sarah McLachlan's Greatest Hits album, Closer, came out this week. I paid a good price - 15,300 won (USD $15). Below, some more Sarah McLachlan CDs can be seen.

I love the packaging; it contains the original English lyrics for all the songs - a rarity in Greatest Hits collections - and even contains the Korean translations for all of them! These CDs are locally pressed and printed in South Korea.

Also inside it was a flyer alerting me to two upcoming releases - a Celine Dion compilation on October 28th, and a Mariah Carey ballad compilation on October 21st. As I don't see myself going back to the US before the 21st, I will be back here to buy the Mariah Carey compilation, which will also be locally produced with Korean translations of the lyrics.

The bookstore has a pretty decent English, French, and Japanese section. The English section stocks a good variety of books, especially in regards to US current events and politics. Whether I want to read Noam Chomsky (a banned author at the South Korean military) or some neocon propaganda that the Lee Myung-bak regime lives by, I can find them all here. This shelf is displaying books by/about John McCain and Barack Obama.

I had no luck finding the spirituality book I wanted; I will have to order it by Internet. As I exited the store, with barely the Sarah McLachlan CD, I saw a display showing three dozen or so Nobelaureates.

This was the most prominent: President Kim Dae-jung, who won the Peace Prize in 2000 for his contributions to the South Korean democracy, and for efforts to bring peace to the Korean peninsula. Revered by the liberals and reviled by the conservatives, Kim, the first leftist President, is indeed a controversial figure; in fact, the first inter-Korean summit in 2000, which led to his winning the Nobel Prize, supposedly involved lots of back-hand deals and money transfers to the North Korean Communists. But Kim, whose rule ran from 1998 to 2003, nevertheless did some good, notably in cleaning up the economic mess of his predecessors, in including conservatives in his government (including longtime fascist Kim Jong-pil as his Prime Minister), and in maintaining good ties to the US and other allies, something his successor Roh Moo-hyun neglected. Kim was certainly a better leader than Lee Myung-bak, for sure; Lee was once again quoted today as saying "leftists are looking for any and every opportunity to stir up trouble."

Kim Dae-jung was the first and only South Korean Nobelaureate. A blank to his right inspires some other South Korean to step up and become the second Nobelaureate.

I am now heading for the palace. On the west side of Sejongno, there is the Sejong Cultural Center, a prominent fine arts performing venue.

Across from Sejong Cultural Center, at 32 Sejongno, is the US Embassy, as evidenced by the American flag. Security is tight, between all the anti-W anger among the general South Korean population, and a labor dispute at the nearby YTN cable news headquarters which recently saw six unionized reporters fired. These firings were the first for reporters, for reasons other than poor job performance, since the mass firings of journalists by the Chun Doo-hwan military government in 1980 as he shut down many broadcasters.

To the north (left) of the US Embassy is an identical building, which houses South Korea's Ministry of Culture, Athletics, and Tourism.

I have entered the palace through a side door. The front gate is closed, in the scaffolding, being dismantled and moved a few yards to its correct location. Closer by is an excavation where archaeologists are looking at the remains of a former gate. This construction zone, in fact, was once occupied by the huge granite Japanese Governor-General building, which was demolished in 1996 as part of the restoration of Gyeongbokgung which had begun in 1990.

This palace has the Changing of the Guards, just like London's Buckingham Palace. It happens every hour midday. The guards have just finished changing, and are marching back to their rest areas.

Here's something new for me: the National Palace Museum. It occupies the building formerly used by the National Museum of Korea from 1995 to 2005, when it moved to its present large building in Yongsan. I went in, as it was free today and for the rest of the year, in celebration of the 60th anniversary of South Korea's government.

The exhibits here deal with the various aspects of life in the royal court of Joseon, which had twenty-seven monarchs from 1392 to the Japanese annexation in 1910. The first twenty-five were kings, while the twenty-sixth king, Gojong, became an emperor later in his reign.

This is the genealogy book for the family of Sejong, the fourth king, and the inventor of the Korean alphabet. Joseon's crown succession was hereditary, like most other kingdoms.

In Korea, instead of signatures, seals have traditionally been used, and the royal court was no exception. The king would've used these seals to enact new laws.

Joseon was a Confucian fundamentalist state. Ancestral ceremonies were paramount. This shrine is a replica of one at Jongmyo, where Confucian tablets of Joseon's kings are housed.

This sign says: "Authorized Personnel Only, by the Order of the King."

Korean roofs often have gargoyles adorning them, to drive evil spirits away.

These gargoyles are modeled after the characters from the Chinese classic, Journey to the West. The left figure is Monk Sanzang, who leaves for India in search of some Buddhist texts and enlightening. The middle is the Monkey King, whose immaturity is kept in check in the story by a crown put on him by Kwan Yin. The right is the Pig Monster. These three, plus a fourth beyond the right edge of this photo, travel together.

Joseon standardized its system of measures early on. These are standardized weights. Clockwise from top left, they weigh 50 units, 30 units, 20 units, 1 unit, 2 units, and 10 units. One unit was 37.5 grams.

The unit's name was the ryang (량), which was also used as a unit of currency, much like the pound and the peso. The current currency unit, the won (圓, which simply means "round," same as the Chinese yuan and the Japanese yen), didn't get introduced until the 20th Century. There have been a series of different wons of different values, and the current one, in use since 1962, is to be written only in Korean (원).

The weights are labeled in Chinese tamper-proof legalese characters. For example, the number 1 is 一 in normal writing, but it's written here in legalese 壹. The number 2 (二) is written as 貳 in legalese. 3 (normally 三) is 參. The normal numerals are too easy to tamper; extra strokes can easily be added to turn a 1 into a 2, or a 2 into a 3, for example.

Korea adopted the metric system at the beginning of the 20th Century, though many traditional units continue to be used even today. One notable such unit is the "pyeong," which is a unit of area, and equals 3.3 square meters; most homes and offices are still measured in pyeong.

There also are two imperial cars, restored in 2001 by Hyundai Motor Company. This is the first one, a British-built Daimler believed to be 1914 model year, belonging to the last empress. Only three are in existence worldwide, and this one also holds the distinction of being the oldest surviving car in South Korea. The very first car in Korea was a 1903 Cadillac owned by Emperor Gojong; apparently, it no longer exists.

The last emperor of Korea, Sunjong, who ruled for only three years before the Japanese annexation of 1910, had this 1918 Cadillac.

An imperial reception room around 1900 would have looked like this, with a mix of Korean, Chinese, and Western elements.

Placentas and umbilical cords of royal children were put in jars like this, then put in bigger outer jars, and placed in stone monuments placed throughout the country at auspicious locations. This particular jar housed the placenta of King Sejong.

Court music was a very important part of royal life. These are some percussion instruments.

I'm done with the museum, and have come back outside. This palace has its own subway station, as seen here, added in 1985. A blue sign below says that I can sign up for the tour of the Presidential Blue House, somewhere inside this palace; the Blue House is the palace's northern neighbor. But I am not going, as long as Lee Myung-bak is there.

I have paid 3,000 won (USD $3) to enter the palace's paid area. This is a reception pavilion named Gyeonghoeru, on a rectangular island in the middle of a rectangular pond. This is the largest pavilion in Korea, and it used to be on the back of the 10,000-won banknote before its 2006 redesign.

A very quiet alleyway, with all the ambience of an ancient palace.

The Japanese burned down this palace in 1592 when they invaded Korea. It remained in ashes until Emperor Gojong rebuilt it in the 1860s, but when the Japanese came back in the early 20th Century, this time to colonize, they again destroyed most of the palace, to build the Governor-General Building and other monuments. Restoration is proceeding slowly, and it will take a few more decades before Gyeongbokgung will be fully restored. Gyeongbokgung is the second largest palace in Asia after Beijing's Forbidden City, and once the restoration is finished, it should be just as grand and majestic.

This pavilion occupies the center of a lake. Its name is Hyangwonjeong.

On March 6, 1887, an electric light bulb was turned on in this pavilion, powered by a power plant inside the palace. It was the first time electricity flowed in Korea; the power plant lit up another 750 light bulbs located throughout the palace.

The pavilion served this rear palace, named Geoncheonggung, built by Emperor Gojong in the 1870s to get some privacy from his uncle, the Crown Regent, Prince Daewongun. Due to Gojong's ascension at a young age, Daewongun ruled for much of Gojong's early reign, pushing a hardline isolationist anti-West policy.

These buildings were placed in the 1890s by Gojong, moved from Changdeokgung. Despite the buildings' Korean paint schemes, the architecture is Chinese.

Behind these buildings lies a tall wall, beyond which a street lies, separating this palace from the Blue House. It was really tempting to go up to the wall and start shouting: "2MB, keep up your manipulation of American and South Korean democracies, and I swear I will kick your ass. Either that, or I'll make sure President Obama does it for me!"

I then returned to the palace's main courtyard to witness the royal ceremony proclaiming the Korean alphabet. I won't share photos here, but I have them over at Christy's Art Blog.

After the ceremony, I walked by this souvenir stand, where it's possible to put these royal outfits on and take a commemorative photo. I can be a king, a queen, a general, a concubine, or whatever.

At a nearby stand, I found this set of old South Korean stamps. These commemorate the various South Korean Presidents over the years; the lower left, in particular, marks US President Jimmy Carter's visit to Seoul to talk to President Park Chung-hee. The bottom center shows the inauguration of President Roh Moo-hyun five years ago.

Another stamp set showcases the South Korean automotive industry. These early 1980s stamps feature various vehicles produced in South Korea at the time, such as the Hyundai Pony, the Saehan Maepsy, and the Kia Bongo van.

North Korean stamps in South Korea? Yes, some of them with postmarks.

I then proceeded to the National Folk Museum, also on the palace grounds but just outside the paid area. At the entrance is a plaza with the statues of the twelve icons of the Chinese zodiac. On the left is the boar, the last; on the right is the dog, the 11th. These used to be at the very entrance the last time I was here four years ago, but are now moved to this plaza.

A historical relic at the entrance to the exhibits. This asks the Koreans to do their patriotic duty by voting in the legislative elections of May 10, 1948, sponsored by the United Nations.

Although this election was supposed to be Korea-wide, the Soviets refused to allow UN observers into the northern sector, and only the southern half could participate, resulting in the Republic of Korea, proclaimed on August 15 of the same year, being only the southern half. The Soviets then put in its own satellite government in the north the following month, and Korea was permanently divided.

An ancient incense burner, with Buddhist and Taoist elements.

Something more modern. On the right, a photo shows the destruction of a railroad bridge in Pyongyang in 1950, as South Korea was forced to retreat and many refugees tried to climb over the bridge to join the exodus south. On the left, the KTX bullet train makes its first revenue run between Seoul and Busan in 2004.

I will say this again and again: when the bastard regimes of both Koreas are overthrown, and KTX starts offering through service to London via North Korea, China, the Trans-Siberian and the Channel Tunnel, please sign me up.

This was what today's royal ceremony was all about. This is the Hunminjeongeum, the book explaining the concept and the use of the new Korean alphabet.

A young Korean boy in the royal era would have used this book, Cheonjamun, to learn the first 1,000 Chinese characters. The pronunciation and meaning of each character is written below, in Korean.

The industrialization of South Korea, starting in the 1960s, improved living standards quite a bit. This is a typical 1970 living room/bedroom, which shows some domestic cigarettes then in production, a black-and-white TV set, a turntable with a Beatles record on it, and a manual sewing machine, among other things.

Here's a 1970 kitchen. The coal-fired stoves are in the back; today they are pretty much extinct, replaced by modern natural gas ranges. The lower left shows a spent coal cartridge, again a common sight back then and rare today. A tiny refrigerator on the right shows signs of modernity.

A few of the many traditional Korean braiding art pieces on a special exhibition.

Portions of this museum were closed for renovation of exhibits, but I managed to walk through a hall chronicling the life cycle of a royal era Korean. See Christy's Art Blog again for photos and explanations.

I'm back out, and it's now getting late and time to go home. This is the exterior of the National Folk Museum, a building built in 1972 using elements from several Korean landmarks. The lower stone staircase is from Bulguksa, the nation's most prominent Buddhist temple located in Gyeongju.

This building housed the National Museum from its opening until 1985, when it moved across the palace to the Japanese Governor-General Building. Its closing in 1995 for demolition moved the museum again to the current National Palace Museum building, before moving to Yongsan in 2005.

There is also a sculpture garden with various shaman statues, as seen in the following two photos.

Some shaman village guardians. The "general of the underground" variety comes in two versions - "great" and "female." I also saw the "female general under the heavens" today - something I've never seen until now.

This one is truly unusual. It's labeled "General of the Blue Empire of the East."

The phallic-shaped harubang, carved out of volcanic rock, is a common sight on Jeju Island, which I have yet to visit. It is a one-hour flight from Gimpo Airport. I need to get there on a future visit.

And since this is a Jeju Island relic, I again dedicate this photo to my writing mentor Gayle Brandeis - or rather, her novel character Helen Sing Lo, who is originally from Jeju, and would immediately feel at home next to this statue.

This example has its right hand above its left hand. Another example behind me has the left hand above the right hand instead.

Evidence of even more tourist traffic. This Daewoo bus is labeled as "for exclusive use of foreign tourists." The side banners identify it as operating for a tour operator based in Taiwan.