Thursday, October 22, 2015

Gyeongbokgung Palace and Geomancy

Gyeongbokgung Palace, 23 October 2015
Picture taken by Robert Koehler
Gyeongbokgung Palace was the main royal palace where the king resided and carried out governmental affairs. The palace was built at the time of the Joseon Dynasty's founding and its establishment of a new capital. The dynasty's original capital was Gyegyeong but was relocated to Hanyang at the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty to herald a new beginning and because of the auspicious topographical features. For a time Mt. Gyeryong area was considered for the Joseon capital but it was not deemed as propitious, according to the principles of pungsujiri (geomancy). After considering a number of possible sites, Hanyang was selected for the new capital, especially as it was more easily accessible from other regions on the peninsula and it had the Hansu River nearby as a source of water and transit. The area was also protected by two mountain ranges that included four inner and four outer mountains, creating an ideal pungsujiri topographical structure which was in line with the principle of baesanimsu (背山臨水, literally meaning "a mountain in the back and a river in front"), geomantic standards for the ideal house. Notice the four mountains protecting the Hanyang capital and how the mountain positions balance one another. Particularly, Bugak mountain stands tall, and its height changed the positioning of the typically east-facing structures, and so the north mountain instead of the typical west mountain became the behind-the-palace sentinel. Worth note, Gyeongbokgung and its straight axis of buildings face south instead of east.

Pungsujiri - geomantic principles for assessing spatial arrangement of surroundings and utilizing that space to create a sense or order and harmony on earth as represented in the heavens
The Hansu also included an inner and outer river, which complemented the four inner mountains to form another favorable pungsujiri characteristic called sanhageumdae. According to pungsujiri, the inner river represented a hanbok, the traditional dress, that seemed to be fastened together by a belt formed by the outer river, which served to embrace Hanyang and its Gyeongbokgung Palace. This geographical layout was ideal not only for pungsujiri principles but for natural protection from invaders as well. Indeed, the strategic value of Hanyang had also been acknowledged during the earlier Goryeo Dyansty, when five kings -- King Sookjong, King Gojong, King Gongmin, King Woo and King Gaongyang -- had attempted to relocated the capital to Hanyang. With the launch of the Joseon Dynasty, Hanyang finally became the new capital and center of government. Along with the declaration of the new dynasty, the construction of Gyeongbokgung Palace began in December 1394, and was completed in September 1395. After three months of finishing work, King Taejo moved into the palace and started to conduct affairs there on December 28, 1395.

Who designed the architecture of Gyeongbokgung Palace?

The palace designer was Jeong Do-jeon. He was not an architect but a Confucian scholar and politician who had played a key role in the foundation of the Joseon Dynasty. Jeong designed Gyeongbokgung by referring to the book "Rites of Zhou", a classical Chinese reference about political concepts, state governance, and ritual practices. Both the designer himself and the reference book seem to have little direct connection to building architecture. But, "Rites of Zhou" did provide guidelines for East Asian palace architecture. It instructs, "The palace should be in the center of the city, with an ancestral temple on the left [Chongmyo Shrine], temples to the deities to the right [Sajik Shrine], office buildings in front, bedchambers and a marketplace behind, and five gates and three districts." These instructions were carried out to the letter of the "Rites" and applied to the layout of wanggukgyeongwidogoedo (arrangements via longitude and latitude via axis lines?) and jowichimmyosajikdo (arrangement of the shrines). 

The instructions of the book ostensibly provided guidelines for the physical arrangement of buildings. In addition, it was a valuable source of political ideology related to "harmony of ethics and laws." When the instructions of "Rites of Zhou" are evaluated in detail, it is possible to discover the guidelines for political ideology as well as basic principles for the palace construction. The instruction can be translated as "harmony of axis and concentric circles". The axis symbolizes the authority to rule by law and by forcefulness. The concentric circles convey a sense of harmony, aesthetics of modesty, and governance based on ethical rule.

Two different views depicting the axis or hierarchical authority to power which in effect depicts the right and authority to rule. Basically, what is carefully arranged on earth is a reflection of the heavens, and it is the heavens that give the right to rule, and therefore the arrangements on earth must be correct.
A more complicated view of Gyeongbokgung Palace, fairly complete with all its 5 gates on an axis (the axis of power), the administrative offices arranged by their power positions, the king's area, and the queen's area in the far back, the place of course for modesty, a central trait the queen should have.
In north-east Asia there are five directions, and the four castle wall gates are built in the representative four directions. What is missing in the picture above is the central direction, represented by yellow. The center position is the king, and therefore the center position within Gyeongbokgung is the Geunjeongjeon, the king's throne hall. 

"Having five gates and three districts" is an especially critical requirement of the instructions in the "Rites of Zhou". The five gates are composed of Go-gate ("calling" gate), which is the front gate of the palace; another Go-gate ("storage" gate) that is constructed between the first Go-gate and the Chi-gate; Chi-gate which is the main gate of Chijo; Eung-gate that is built between the Chi-gate and No-gate; and No-gate which is the main gate for Yeonjo. Oejo (govt office area), Chijo (king's area), and Yeonjo (queen's area) make up the three districts. The first Go-gate, Chi-gate, and No-gate were located in front of Oejo, Chijo, and Yeonjo districts, respectively. Building two additional gates between the three gates accounted for the desired five gates. The principle of the five gates and three districts is widely applied in the palace architecture of East Asia.

Also of geomantic importance is the construction of an artificial stream flowing across the axis of lined-up gates. The stream is a representative boundary between the earthly and the heavenly, just as the palace is a earthly representation of the correct and just happenings of the heavens. So, when one crosses the artificial stream (every Korean palace has one), the person is metaphysically entering the realm of the heavens.

Gyeongbokgung Palace, 23 October 2015
Picture taken by Robert Koehler

Note the gates on the axis and how they get higher and higher. The highest one (appears to be #4 in the line-up is not a gate but is the Geunjeongjeon or Throne Hall, the place where the king met envoys and state officials. It is much like the modern-day convention center. It is not a gate but the center of official activity for the kingdom.

Another point to note, each of the gates and the Geunjeongjeon are built in harmony with the surroundings, each of them is an imitation or reflection of the mountains around (note the height and curve of the roofs to create a line-up of mountains).

Each gate has its own name, e.g. Gwanghwamun, and a generalized name, e.g. Go-mun.
  • Gwanghwamun (The Main and South Gate) - Go-mun ("calling" gate)
  • Heungnyemun (The Second Inner Gate) - Go-mun ("storage" gate)
  • Geunjeongmun (The Third Inner Gate) - Chi-mun, which is the main gate to the Chi-jo
  • GEUNJEONGJEON - not a gate but the centralized throne hall
  • Eung-mun, which is the main gate for the Chi-jo, the district for the king
  • No-mun, which is the main gate for the Yeon-jo, the district for the queen
Symbolism in numbers

Three and five are symbolic numbers. The number three symbolized balance and harmony, while the number five represents abundance, variety, harmony, retention, and completion of combinations in East Asia. The number five is visible in other examples, such as five colors, five musical notes, five tastes, five elements, five directions, five deities, five mythological creatures, five ethical practices, five classics, five vices, and five virtues. While these five gates are situated along an axis, the arrangement of concentric circles is found in wang-guk-gyeong-wido-goedo of the "Rites of Zhou". The axis and concentric circles are related to harmony and completion.

Concentric circles represent 조화 (harmony) - the harmonization of the king, queen, officials, servants, people, etc. In the broader meaning, the palace needs to be in harmony with the world. In Eastern society, concentric circles get more emphasis than the axis because the concentric circles form orders.

The forces of yin and yang are considered as well as the role the 5 elements have on creating harmoniousness and balance. In the same way, offices within the court are viewed by as their elemental function, and how their elemental function creates harmony and synergy when interacting with other offices (or not interacting with other offices because elements may not be beneficial for interaction and so drain the synergy). So, when the king gives duties to people in offices, he must consider the 5 elements which represent their positions. Offices are classified by capabilities. This concentric structure is used to manage people. Only Gyeongbokgung among the palaces is laid out this way.
Another look at the inter-play and exchange of the elements and the governmental offices.

The characteristics of the 5 elements are considered when creating offices and staffing available positions.

The 5 elements are the source of all energy in the universe and the source of perfect harmony. Therefore, Geunjeongjeon (the throne hall) is in the center of the palace compound, the king's district is right behind the throne hall and the king sleeps there in the heart of the palace so that even while he is sleeping, he can get the perfect energy so as to perform in his role as harmonizer in the earthly model of that which is heavenly.

Throughout Chinese history, there has been a distinction between a royal palace and an imperial palace. The principle of "five gates and three districts" is typically applied to royal palaces but not for imperial palaces. The Forbidden City complex is a representative example of an imperial palace while that of Gyeongbokgung is a representative example of the palace of a kingdom. Also, consider the western palaces - almost all of them are built as one very extensive building, perhaps in a linear construction or with multiple right angles, but still as one building. Then consider palaces of north-east Asia - the countries which have adopted Confucianism as fundamental principles of controlling the people, and you will realize that the architecture bespeaks the same control, the same harmony of togetherness and division. Following are other depictions of building Gyeongbokgung with harmony.

 In the heart of the diagram showing relationships and pungsujiri, there are 5 characters and 8 forms.

Chi-jo, the king's district, and Yeon-jo, the queen's district

In the king's district are three buildings, a small space but the characteristics of this space is dynamic. Though small, there is flow and steadiness, as represented in the structures. The center building is for the king and the outer buildings are for high-ranking and most trusted officials. These buildings metaphysically are "water" and "mountain", two opposing natural elements that balance each other. In nature "water" has the characteristic of always moving, flowing, increasing. Water is therefore representative of "intelligence". Yet in nature "mountain" is strong, stays continuous, and is steady. Mountain is therefore representative of "generousness". Confucius said, "Intelligent people like water; generous people like mountains". (Thus, when someone asks you whether you like beaches or mountains better, you'll recognize it as a psychology test.) These three structures are where the metaphysical flow of water (intelligence) and steadiness (generousness) are at the heart of the nation. [I'm not fully understanding how it was explained to me, but I tried.]

Similarly, the architecture of the queen's area reflects the characteristics she should uphold for the nation. The wall separating the other areas of the court and her private area is symbolic of mountains, and therefore represent generousness, the characteristic the queen is supposed to have.

The keywords in Confucianism are modest, harmony and courtesy - all realized in the architecture at Gyeongbokgung.


This lecture material was presented in a Korean architecture lecture series hosted by the Korea Foundation by Professor Seockjae Yim of Ewha Womans University. This year he wrote a book entitled "Gyeongbokgung Palace Built with Courtesy: 예도 지은 경복궁" 2015, which I think would provide even more fascinating insights on the pungsujiri of Gyeongbokgung. This was one of the most informative lectures I have ever attended!

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