Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Temple of Heaven, Seoul

Although the Temple of Heaven is in the heart of Seoul, few people know about this historic treasure.  Located at City Hall subway station, exit 6, and hidden between 5-star hotels -- the President's Hotel and the Westin Chosun Hotel -- is an open space where sits the three-storied Hwanggunggu, the Yellow Palace Shrine, pretty much all that is left of the original Temple of Heaven.

Hwanggunggu, the octagonal Yellow Palace Shrine surrounded by fire-eating, protective haetae,
with the President Hotel behind. Originally built in 1899 but rebuilt after the Korean War.
Hwanggunggu as seen through the central door of the gate, the door that only the king could walk through
The central stairs of ascension for only the king to use as symbolized by the dragon, the emperor's celestial representative 
Haetae, the celestial unicorn-dragons, that were iconically used in and around architecture in the Joseon dynasty, particularly because of people's belief that the haetae were a balance to the elements and could therefore control fire, a hazard that could and often did ravage wooden structures. They were protectors against fire, as well as being
omniscient creatures knowing the goodness and badness in people.

The palace shrine is a relatively new historical structure in Korea. In a country that proudly boasts of stone pagodas that are traced back to the Silla and Goryeo Dynasties and dolmen that are dated much earlier, this palace shrine, built in 1897, is quite "young". Hwanggunggu is where Emperor Kojong prayed to King Taejo, the founder of the empire. It is also where he, as emperor and therefore "son" of Heaven, raised prayers to his ancestor, Heaven itself, for the blessings on his nation and for bountiful harvests. Only an emperor could offer sajik prayers (sa = earth and jik = grain) for abundance in the reapings of the earth as a king was not of the lineage of heaven and so could only worship the earth and grain spirits, not petition them.

Kojong, born 1852, had taken the throne as boy-king in 1863 but the nation was ruled under Regent Daewongun for the first ten years until Kojong was old enough to take the title and the responsibilities of the king. With the weakening of China and the Chinese Qin Dynasty losing the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) to Japan, Korea's political position was shaky. Therefore in an attempt to proclaim Korea on equal standing with both China and Japan which both had emperors and to stimulate Western recognition of the Joseon dynasty as a power, King Kojong proclaimed himself Emperor of Korea and therefore of equal standing with the emperors of China and Japan. Similarly he changed the name of Korea from the kingdom of the Joseon Dynasty to Daehan-jejuk or the "Great Han (Korean) Empire". The change in status signified a change in ceremony. The new emperor therefore built the Wongudan Altar as appropriate for his celestial status and as sacrifices to the heavens were seen as important.

Wongudan Altar, also known as Hwangudan, Hwangdan and Wondan, was constructed in 1897 and is in the compound containing a three-storied round-shaped altar, Hwanggunggu (a three-storied octagonal building where memorial tablets of the Heaven gods were kept), three stone drums and a gate of three doors. The repetition of three is obvious and is based on cosmogony principles. Three can represent the third dimension. Three is apparent in many trigrams, concepts common to Korea and which are woven into the Korean flag via trigram imagery of heaven, earth, water, fire. Three can also represent the triads of body-soul-spirit, birth-life-death, beginning-middle-end and past-present-future.

The three stone drums set up in 1902 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Emperor Gojong's (1852-1919) ascension to the throne. The drums are modeled after the instruments used while making offerings and sacrifices to the heavens.
The construction of the octagonal building had never in known history been built in Korea prior to the construction of Hwanggunggu as an octagonal construction represented a dynastic link to the heavens. Hwanggunggu was the first octagonal building constructed in Korea and represented the new emperor's right to perform prayers to Heaven on behalf of earth. A few other octagonal constructions were made following Hwanggunggu, one being in the Changdeokgung Palace where the Crown Prince's octagonal study chamber is located on the eastern side and faces the east, architectural cosmogony stating his status as a rising sun to the nation. Eight can symbolize regeneration, renewal, resurrection. In Buddhism, eight means completion and symbolizes good augury. In China, which has strongly influenced Korea, eight is the manifestation of the whole, and, based on the eight trigrams of the Chinese bagua of Taoist cosmology, pairs of trigram opposites are arranged in a circle, the circumference of which symbolizes time and space. The octagon was a combination of the circular and the square, the cheonwonjibang (천원지방, literally heaven is round and earth is square). With this in mind, Kojong's ascendancy to emperor had visual credence.

Tap to enlarge - Source
Spring and autumnal ceremonies with sacrificial rites were held on the solstices at the altar. The site for constructing the altar was based on pungsujiri (geomancy) principles. Located between Bugaksan and Namsan, literally north and south mountains, and situated on a natural hill the site was deemed as particularly propitious for offertory food and animal sacrifices.

Emperor Kojong reinstated the Rite of Heaven to strengthen his position as emperor and to spiritually bolster his nation. King Seongjong of the Goryeo Dynasty had performed the Rite of Heaven to ensure bountiful harvest but later during the dynasty the rite was abolished. King Sejo, the seventh king of the Joseon Dynasty, restarted the ritual but in 1464 ten years into his reign, the ritual was abandoned. Almost 450 years later in 1897 Emperor Kojong re-initiated the ritual, but the majority of the years Kojong was "emperor" he was also hiding behind the Russian legation or becoming more and more of a mere figurehead for his country and failing to access celestial blessings to positively shape its destiny.

In 1904 Japan stripped Korea of its rights as an independent nation. In 1907 Emperor Kojong was forced to abdicate in favor of his son Sunjong and then confined to Deoksugung Palace until his mysterious death in 1919. In 1910 the Empire of Korea was annexed by Japan and the dynasty overseen by a celestial emperor was no more. In 1913 the Japanese in an attempt to further control the country dismantled the altar, the symbol of celestial connections, but allowing Hwanggunggu, the stone drums and the gate with three doors to remain standing. Where the altar had previously stood, the Japanese built the Joseon Gyeongseong Railroad Hotel.

[Nomenclature is important and the Joseon capital of Hanseong was renamed 京城, meaning capital but which reads as "Kei-jo" in Japanese and "Gyeongseong" in Korean.]

Building the Gyeongseong Railroad Hotel on the site of the previous altar was the Japanese giving a direct message to Cho-sen, their name for their Korean colony, their right to rule. The message was clear: Hwangudan, the symbol of autonomy and independence to the Great Han Empire was to be a memory of the past, as was the empire itself. Later the Gyeongseong Railroad Hotel was rebuilt into the Chosun Hotel and eventually renamed the Westin Chosun Hotel, the full name which is used today; however, Chosun Hotel likes to market itself as replacing the Japanese-built Gyeongseong Hotel and tries to hush the fact that it indeed stands in part on the original site of the Wongudan, the Altar of Heaven.

The gates remain but the site of the former altar in now somewhere under the Westin Chosun Hotel,
something that the hotel management doesn't broadcast.
The Temple of Heaven where Emperor Kojong worshipped at solstices, 1904
Keijo (Seoul), Chosen - Temple of Heaven, Chosen Hotel Grounds, ca. 1907 - 1914
Wongudan, 1925, Seoul, Korea

I want to give a special thanks to J. K. Shin who introduced me to the Temple of Heaven in a RAS Business and Culture Club meet-up. Thank you, dear "professor", for giving me the backbone of this write up. After living in Korea for 20 years, I never knew this jewel in the downtown cosmopolitan space even existed!

[Published in Korean Quarterly, Vol 19, No 1, Fall 2015, p 43]

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