Monday, July 11, 2011

Symbolism in a Royal Garden

At the back of Kyungbokkung Palace, the largest and oldest palace in Korea, is a tiny garden in which the women in their isolated seclusion and prisoners from the commoners' eyes were allowed to wander. The garden is Amisan, a slice of verdent greenier nestled at the back of the queen's living quarters with access by the queen and the multiple concubines. In the terraced garden are four hexagonal chimneys obviously reflecting a rich household due to their distant proxemics from the building (the farther the chimney, the more statused the household) and also reflected in the quality of materials (fired bricks), 8-directional shape, size and most importantly, artistic design elaborately incorporated on the sides of the chimneys.

The symbols and designs are not coincidental but carefully planned and imbued with auspicious meanings. The phoenix, the imaginary celestial bird that appears when the king is considered a good and fair ruler and all is well in the kingdom, is an important symbol for the garden. The phoenix also is the representative bird for the queen, and another meaning of the phoenix is the animal representative for 'south', a delightfully auspicious direction and favored for house positions (and indeed, the garden as do all the palace buildings carefully face south). Although I don't know my trees, I'm sure that originally and maybe even at present the palownia tree spreads its branches somewhere in the garden as the palownia tree is the only tree which the celestial bird, the phoenix, will deign to land in.

Other symbols on the chimneys are bats for good fortune, plums and chrysanthemums symbolizing a man of virtue (why not a woman since this is primarily a garden for women???), and the 10 longevity symbols (십장생): crane, deer, herb of eternal youth, pine tree, bamboo, stone, etc. [A study on longevity symbols will reveal that there are a few more than 10; 8 of them seemed standard but the remaining 2 change by speaker, time period and who knows what reasoning.]

On the lowest terrace are two stone tubs or reflecting pools: Hamwolji and Hakhadam, which translate as "a pond containing the moon" and "a pond that reflects the sunset". These are significant within the terraced garden as the tiered garden represent a mountain while the stone reflecting pools symbolize lakes. The decorative motifs on the chimneys are symbolic of the world of plants and animals, and in total, Amisan was the representative garden-world for the higher mortals to linger in the natural world of the immortals.

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