Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Picture Logue of 동구능 (Dongguneung)

Last weekend I ventured to Dongguneung, literally "East 9 tombs (for royalty)". Since Dongguneung became a UNESCO treasure site this past summer, visitors have been roped away from the sculpted slopes upon which the 9 kings and/or famous consorts are buried. In the picture above, people may go to the rope which is immediately behind the ceremonial building, located at the base of the sculpted hill. The main building is where ancestor worship is performed on the anniversary of the death of each respected royalty. A few tombs even have postings on the decorum of laying out the feast for the deceased.

All of the 9 sculpted mountain slopes had the typical neung, royal tumuli or tomb hillock, at the top although visitors were not allowed to get a clear view from their restricted viewing area way down below. I did venture to the top of one sculpted slope - ironically that of a queen, Queen Danui (1686-1718), the first queen of King Geyongjong, the 20th monarch of Joseon, and the queen [I like this!] who was known for her brains and personality. My sole purpose was to actually see the mysteriously arranged stone images at the top, as no model was provided anywhere in the park area, to satisfy the imagination, especially since the minute thumbnail outline-layout of the very complicated arrangement included in the ticketing brochure was unsatisfactory an explanation of the layout. But seeing the arrangement and not being able to get an adequate picture, I quickly started down ... where I was met by a very displeased security guard.

His greatest displeasure was evident in his initial exclamation, "I, security! How I protect tombs if you go break?" I hadn't thought of people actually vandalizing the tombs but when I questioned him on that, he said of course, because this is now a famous UNESCO site and people are attracted to fame and its treasures! Then I understood his outrage and the reason for disallowing any viewing of the mountain top tombs. So, based on people's utter stupidity and acts of destruction, no one is allowed even near the tops of the tombs in order to not only maintain respect for the deceased hidden beneath their mound-shaped earthen sepulchers but also to protect against crass vandalism of the stone images standing in tradition-regulated formation to serve or guard the royalty in his or her after life: the four Confucian scholars (having different scholarly standing is my understanding and probably signifying great learning which was the focus of the Joseon Dynasty) with a horse usually standing behind each (a symbol of military achievements/might/propensity but secondary in position to the scholars), and the four stone tigers and four stone goats (the latter eight animals which are facing away from the tomb in order to protect the king from the 마귀, magui or the evil spirits).

I asked in both Korean (of several visiting individuals) and the transformed, eager-to-speak English guard what was the meaning of each stone statue but they could only tell me that they were there to protect the king from the 마귀.

Later, at the tomb where the founder of the Joseon Dynasty, King Taejo (1335-1408), was entombed, I was allowed to go up because a Korean lady spoke with a guard about one of her party, an elderly man from a very prestigious region (which I didn't catch), who wanted to see the top. The guard permitted her party of 4 to walk up the hidden wooded side of the mound ... and I just joined the group, which they laughingly nodded their acceptance of my presence. They were rather pleased that I was interested in their culture and also that I spoke enough Korean to communicate cultural ideas about the tombs. At the top, however, the questions regarding the kind of animals standing there and their purposes kept bubbling out, but interestingly, the 4 individuals didn't exactly know much about their not-so ancient culture. My questions did stimulate an interesting discussion among the group on whether the stone tiger represented a tiger, a 해태 (the mythical unicorn lion which stands as guardians outside of villages, even outside the city of Seoul) or a bear.

Finally, a photographer who had also been allowed to the top and was rather knowledgeable about the tomb clarified it as a tiger, the animal of strength and power having some deep relationship to the king. This makes sense as both the tiger and the dragon have been used to symbolize the king. My guess is that the tiger is the symbol of earthly representation and the dragon is the celestial and metaphysical link to heaven or god, both of which can translate synonymously in Chinese. So, the Korean language which derives its cultural meanings from Chinese characters would have the same culturally embedded symbolisms.

Respects are made to the deceased not in the ceremonial building but the small building to the right, the location of the deceased's ancestor tablet(s), depending upon the number of royalty buried on that particular hill. The tablets are always located to the right of the ceremonial building, and although I don't know the exact reason for this, the entire arrangement of the tombs, the buildings, tablets and all objects concerned are based on 풍수지리, pungsujiri in Korean or fengshui in Chinese, but literally translated as "wind water geographic features".