Friday, August 25, 2017

History Alive: RAS Walking Tours

Hanyang aka Seoul, the pulsing vibrant capitol of the Joseon Dynasty and of modern Korea, mixes traditional architecture of the past with soaring tower constructions of the present. Vestige artifacts of the 500-year long dynasty are virtually hidden amidst the scrapers of capitalism. And yet, the old structures whisper history for those willing to listen.

In my 20+ years living in Korea, I’ve read books on the history of Korea and talked with many Korean friends, but it’s been the Royal Asiatic Society walking tours led by historians who have opened my eyes to the many historical treasures nestled in the Seoul downtown landscape.

While I read that Bosingak Belfry was the time keeper of the Joseon Dynasty and the bell was rung 33 times at 4 a.m. and 28 times at 10 p.m. to signal the opening and closing of the great gates and the market places, I learned in walking tours that the belfry was totally destroyed in the Korean War and the bell virtually buried in debris and earth.

The plaque at Tapgol Park reads that the March 1, 1919 independence protest began at Tapgol, but a RAS historian further explained the top of the 10-storey pagoda had been missing in the early 1900s and Koreans had no intention of reconstructing it. Korean belief was if the pagoda were completed, their nation would fall, which indeed happened. The Japanese learned of the superstition, completed the pagoda, and then ruled the peninsula for 35 years.

Tapgol/Pagoda Park in Seoul, ca. 1904 - Wikimedia Commons
I also learned Chong-ro—the road connecting the belfry, Tapgol Park and running close to the palaces—was formerly a place where people were executed by hacking or hanging, and the street was haunted by ghosts. It was also the road populated by the noble class with their horses, and peasants were obliged to bow in subservience while yangban processions passed. Pimatgol, literally meaning avoid + horse + alley, was the parallel alley for the peasants to go about their business and literally avoid the horses and forced bowing. Chong-ro is now a major downtown street and Pimatgol has been reconstructed into a place for business and social dining, but marked rocks in Pimatgol shout that history bled onto those stones. 

Why does a nation need five great palaces? Gyeongbokgung, the greatest of palaces, was built on principles of geomancy and astronomy. Building it symbolized the establishment of a dynasty, destroying it in colonial times symbolized the fall. Changdeokgung had been an alternative palace for a time and then used as a state palace, similar to Changgyeonggung, which in colonial times was desecrated by the Japanese invaders and turned into a zoo, an overt act of defilement. Deoksugung became the royal palace when Emperor Kojong was forced from Gyeongbokgung by the Japanese; after his death in 1919 the palace became a park and an art gallery, like many of the palaces. Gyeonghuigung was never a state palace, and during colonialism it was converted to a boys’ high school so the tramping of boys’ feet could smash its energy.
some dan-cheong imagery
I learned the exterior of the palaces is based on dan-cheong, literally “red” and “blue”. Dan-cheong is traditional painting of the palaces, so the palace supports are red like tree trunks, and the roof or upper part is green like leaves. And I learned that green and blue were not traditionally viewed as distinctly different in Korea as in the West. The small figures on the roof tiles invoke the power of the Monkey King, and the latticework on doors and windows are wishes for happiness, wealth or blessings for health. Architecturally, palaces, temples and houses were built without nails. Their joinery was the careful hewing and placement of beams at 90-degree angles. There are no flying buttresses and rose windows in Korea, but the graceful sway of the roofs are said to be like the up-turned feathers of a crane in flight. Traditional buildings are in harmony with nature.

Now when I walk the streets of Seoul, I nod my head as I listen to the buildings and stones telling me their little-heard histories. And while I still sign up for the RAS historical walking tours, I’m now a member of the society’s excursion committee planning other tours of discovery. For me, learning of the past is understanding the national foundation on which the present is built.

Published in The Korea Times under Culture and 4th in a series of viewpoints on Seoul as written by expats. [My Seoul Story[ History alive: Royal Asiatic Society walking tours, August 10, 2017.

No comments:

Post a Comment