Posts Tagged ‘Joseon Dynasty’

Once you’ve seen one Joseon dynasty tomb, you’ve seen them all. That’s something I’ve never said, at least not without being sarcastic. For those who have been in Korea for an extended period I could understand that some historical monuments start to look very similar to each other. If you are in this phase of diminishing returns when it comes to visiting ‘old stuff’, then I sincerely recommend a visit to the royal tombs of Taereung Gangneung over on the north east side of Seoul.



The two locations are a tomb complex in Nowon-gu. Taereung Royal Tomb (태릉) houses the burial mound of Queen Munjeong who was the second queen of King Jungjong, the 11th King of the Joseon Dynasty. Nearby Gangneung (강릉) is the final resting place of  Munjeoang’s son King Myeongjong, the 13th King of Joseon Dynasty, and his wife Queen Insunwanghu.  As mentioned earlier, once you are familiar with the burial sites of the Joseon Dynasty history can start slipping into carefully cultivated UNESCO heritage sites. The orderly layouts and well designed information placard can detract from the interesting and often extremely turbulent history which lies beneath.

Taereung Shrine Entrance

Beneath the grassy knoll of Taereung lies one of the more interesting figures of Korean dynastic history and a great candidate to be patron saint of pushy mums – Queen Munjeong. Her son Myeongjong was too young to rule by himself until 1565 so Queen Munjeong ated as a regent. Despite her many depictions as a power crazy Lady Macbeth type figure, there are also accounts of her being a more than competent administrator. She even gave out land to common people that had been formerly owned by the nobility. Although this practice is rarely for altruistic reasons; it is usually more related to stripping the yangban (upper classes) of land for political reasons. An ominous sign which appears in most dynasties the world over, was the fact that she continued to rule even after her son reached the age of majority. It was only after her death that her son took over power, which seems to me a black and white indication of their relationship.If, like me, you would like to know more about this narrative then you could watch the historical drama  Mandate of Heaven 2013. It’s on a list which I am working my way through – I’m about 1400 years behind at the moment! Another interesting fact about Munjeong was that she was one of the most influential supporters of Buddhism. During the early years of Joseon Neo Confucism replaced Buddhism as the de facto state ideology. The Queen lifted the official ban on Buddhist worship and instigated a resurgence of Buddhism.The next chapter of Korean history starts after Munjeong’s death. However, I have not visited the other tomb complex yet so I will reserve the research for my next visit.

The location of the tomb is in a wonderful location, owing to the practice of geomancy. Like most tombs and royal palaces in Korea the location is chosen with freshwater flowing near the front area and mountains to the rear. In the case of Taereung you can actually follow a small tributary from the Jungang Stream (itself a tributary of the Han). There is a great cycle path all the way up the Jungang Cheon and heading north you can take a right before Taerung Subway station and wind your way up the stream which follows the Bukbu Expressway. It’s a great bike ride in summer because it’s mostly in the shade. The advantage of going by bike is the fact that you miss nearly all the main traffic. I came off the stream when it splits and found myself next to the huge Military academy – the museum is opposite.

The museum is actually the main reason why I would recommend this place. It gives a very detailed description of how tombs are used and made. That sounds extraordinarily dull, but believe me, the graphics and displays kept me in the museum for much longer than I expected. I wish I had seen the museum a few years ago because it would have helped me understand exactly why the paths are laid out as they are and also the construction of the burial mound.

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The museum costs 1000 won for adults and is open Summer season 09:00-18:30 / Winter season 09:00-17:30

[Subway + Bus]
Seokgye station (Seoul Subway Line 1 and 6), Exit 6.
– Take bus 1155 , 1156 or 73
– Get off at Taereung Gangneung (10 min interval / 15 min ride).

Hwarangdae station (Seoul Subway Line 6), Exit 1.
–  Take bus 202 , 1155, 1156, 73 or 82.
–  Get aff at Taereung Gangneung (5 min interval / 5 min ride).

Taereung station (Seoul Subway Line 6 and 7), Exit 7.
– Take bus 202, 1155 , 1156, 73 or 82.
– Get off at Taereung Gangneung (10 min interval / 10 min ride).

I have researched more information about the Sosu Seowon than any other post I have written (or not written). My reasons are not really from any deep desire to uncover the mysteries of Confucianism, nor are they based on extra enthusiasm for this subject. The reason I have read so much is partly because I don’t understand it, but mostly because of a constantly nagging suspicion about Korea, if I was in any way scientific I would even call it a theory. I don’t want to use inverted commas for theory, so I will call it my idea.

Entrance to the Shrine

My idea is that despite Korea’s futuristic aesthetics, fast internet connections, huge shiny skyscrapers and an entire generation plugged into their smart phones, I believe that you can find something timeless underneath. The neon flashing modernity that lights up the huge construction projects of modern Korea easily distracts you from several truths. These truths, rules of behaviour, and manifestations of culture reach back deep into history, a history which goes back way beyond most nation states of the early 21st Century. It’s true, many civilizations stretch back even further than Korea, many have never been conquered, colonized or generally abused by the other cultures jostling around it. However, I believe that Korea has managed to preserve many of its “intangible cultural assets” through persistence, resistance and centuries of isolation. The longer I stay in Korea the more echoes of neolithic life I find, perhaps neolithic is an exaggeration but there are many historical precedents to be found which account for the modern behaviour we see today. One aspect in which I have found a constant thread is the dedication to study.


One of the most notable features of Korea is the dedication to studying and the breadth of the various spheres of education. Korea has the highest tertiary gross enrollment ratio of any country in the world (UNESCO 2010). There is a strong deference to teachers or leader figures whether it be the hastily prepared power point presentation for the boss, or the middle school students hunched over their books in after school academies. The word Seonsaengnim is used for people of higher status but roughly translates as Master. You might argue that the deference is not being subject to the person of higher status but rather the undeniable truth that education is the most powerful tool to get ahead in this most competitive of countries. This deeply entrenched philosophy of working hard and studying harder is not some modern concept, it’s not playing catch up with the West because of the hard times in the first half of the last Century. The philosophy, or even religion, of hard work and diligent studying is something you can see throughout the history of Korea, especially during the last dynasty – the Joseon Dynasty.

New Cherry Blossom

Buddhism found a natural home in Korea, especially during the Shilla Dynasty. The various tribes and clans of the peninsula always found a neat way to co-opt their local shamanistic beliefs into their branch of Buddhism. I have even seen discrete shrines to mountain gods tucked behind some temples. Despite the Buddhist influence, by the time the Joseon dynasty kicked off they were getting tired of the old ways. Buddhism was associated with the debauchery and excess of the elite, the elite who were often propped up by the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty in China. In many cases the Kings had Mongol wives and many of the rulers were part Mongol or at least put in place by the Mongols. The Joseon Dynasty started to shed the centuries of superstition and metaphysics of Buddhism and to a lesser extent Taoism. What came in its place was a Korean version of Neo-Confucianism. One of the great advantages of the previous Goryeo Dynasty was the access officials had to Chinese culture and in particular literature. These ideas filtered into Korea through the various scholars (still venerated to this day) and became the corner-stone of the new Joseon Dynasty. Buddhism and the temples of Buddhism were increasingly marginalised – which is why if you visit Korea you will find many temples way out of the cities and perched halfway up high mountains. Many of the original temples were converted into use as private educational institutions – seowons.



When I first read about seowons (서원) they reminded me of the endless Hagwons you see in modern Korea. These days most of the school students study maths, science, and of course English in these private academies. In the past they would have studied the Chinese classics which were essential to pass the state exams to enter government service. The modern equivalent is perhaps the dreaded entrance exam which permits entry into the exclusive Universities – once you have a degree from the better Universities you are more or less guaranteed a position in one of Korea’s top firms. The name of a top University is seen as being more important than experience, potential or personality. There are many more parallels between modern Korea and the original use of seowons, but the underlying theme is that to get on in a Neo-Confucian society you need to study. Social mobility came and went with various monarchs but rich or poor you would have to study to get anywhere near the top. The seowons served this purpose, and the Sosu Seowon was the first.

The Scholars

This private Neo-Confucian academy was founded by the magistrate of Punggi County Ju Sebung (주세붕/周世鵬 1495–1554), during the reignof King Jungjong. It’s located near Suksusa Temple, in Sunheung-myeon, about 30 minutes from Yeongju. Aside from being the first of its kind, it is also unique for many other reasons. It was the only seowon that survived from the Seowon Abolishment  Act in 1871. Ju Se-bung was criticized for founding a school because of other more pressing matters of the time – especially famine and drought.  Being a scholar himself he was able to use reason and wisdom to defend his actions

“Education is the cardinal virtue of man, and ought to be promoted above all else.”

Other seowons enjoyed a fruitful period but Sosu Seowon was the first thus it became one of the richest. Sosu Seowon also enjoyed more attention because it enshrined An Hyang (1243 -1306). An Hyang is a name you see many times in the history books; he was a Confucian scholar who brought Neo-Confucianism to Korea from China in the 13th century.The academy gained even more prestige when Toegye  (another big name in the list or Confucian greats) became magistrate of the county. He asked King Myeongjong to grant the academy a royal charter and the King responded with a hand signed “Sosu Seowon”, and a supply of books. Many seowons and temples before them had a mixed relationship with the Monarchy, similar to some of the more powerful monastic orders in Europe. In this case the annals of the king specify that the local magistrate cannot interfere in the affairs of the academy, nor disturb the Confucian scholars. Sosu Seowon as an institution and as a physical place, was free from interference from the monarchy. Its location, even in our times, underlines this fact.



The institute is spread over the hills and the various complexes would have accommodated about 4,000 scholars. There is also a shrine for  An Hyang, An Bo, An Chuk and Ju Se-bung, where a memorial services take place on the first day of the third and ninth months of the lunar calendar every year. The study facilities have been placed in the east and the shrine placed in the west. Outside the entrance to  Sosu Seowon is the Okgyesu stream of the Nakdong River. This stream comes down from the impressive Mt. Sobaek. Although I made my quest to reach this place I would definitely recommend stopping by on the end of a Sobaek hike.


I took a very local bus from Yeongju but the easiest and quickest way to get there is by taking a train to Punggi and then taking the bus I mentioned up the valley. At the time of writing the road was being widened so I expect it will be a much easier journey in the future. The train i from Cheongyangni  (Seoul’s eastern terminus) is exceptional. You can pass through some mountain scenery and the pleasant town of Danyang on the way. If you plan on sticking around there is an Azalea festival and some other Temples scattered around Mt. Sobaek.


Korail Timetable

Punggi Korail Timetable

You can take bus number 27 from Punggi Station – check it’s not going to Yeongju. For the bus times coming back check in the tourist office at the Sosu Carpark (their timetable is different from the one at the bus stop.

Extra links:

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Gyeongbokgung Palace was built in 1395 at the start of the Joseon Dynasty. This new dynasty moved the capital to Seoul, the earlier Goryeo Dynasty was based in Kaesong. The palace dominates the northern part of Seoul and is a testament to one of the longest running dynasties in the World – 1392–1897.  The name Gyeongbokgung translates to “Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven.” Its dominant location in the heart of the capital is no accident, with Bukhansan to the north and the mighty river Han to the South, the location was deemed ‘auspicious’ by the traditional practice of geomancy or Feng Shui.



If you ever doubt the benefits of this practice I recommend taking a closer look at this building; it seems like the modern skyscrapers of Seoul are queueing up to pay homage to this building or rather this complex of buildings. My first encounter with the centre of Seoul was ascending the steps from Gwanghwamun station only to be met by the awesome sight of King Sejong guarding the path to the Palace with the snow-capped Bukhansan in the background. The palace grounds stretch all the way to the Blue House – the home of South Korea’s President. I have been to the palace about five times and I would recommend it as being the number one priority on a Seoul bucket list.

Changing of the Guards

Changing of the Guards

The first structure is Gwanghwamun Gate (mun means gate). This is the main entrance to the palace and it is linked to the major parts of Seoul by the  Sejongno boulevard. As I mentioned earlier, this street is the beating heart of Seoul because it contains the statues of King Sejong and Lee Sun-shin. To get a good idea of this central axis I recommend visiting the Seoul City Museum. They have models and pictures which allow you to appreciate this area in all its glory. Gwanghwamun Gate is also where you will see the changing of the guard. During the Japanese occupation of Korea, the Japanese  destroyed the gate and built their own government buildings. The gate appears quite modern looking , especially compared to some of the other stone gates in the capital. This is down to the fact that it was rebuilt in 1968 using concrete. As you walk through the gate you get an immediate impression of a large-scale landscaped layout with several important buildings. I will tell you about some of them moving south to north.

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Gangnyeongjeon ( 강녕전) was used as the king’s main residence, I always imagine King Taejo living here after seeing him in the amazing drama ‘Deep Rooted Tree’.  Like most of the palace buildings in Seoul it was destroyed in the Japanese invasion of 1592. It has also suffered fire damage on other occasions. Since then it has been rebuilt to its original design. The only disappointment, especially to any European visitor, is that it doesn’t look particularly old. This is a common problem with many of the monuments in Korea, but at least they are being restored. The building sits on a tall stone foundation, and a stone veranda is in front of the building. You might see similar structures throughout Korea, but few match this one for scale and location.


The next building moving north is Geunjeongjeon ( 근정전) which is a Throne Hall, or was a Throne Hall because Korea is a Republic these days. The name means ‘diligence helps governance’, a very Confucian name. This type of room will be familiar to anyone who has  seen films like ‘Elizabeth’ or who watches TV shows like ‘Game of Thrones’. This two-tiered stone edifice was where the king formally granted audiences,  greeted foreign ambassadors  and gave royal declarations. I imagine that King Sejong decreed the new alphabet from here. The highlights for me, and anyone with a love of close up photography, were the  sculptures of  animals on the balustrades. There is also a stone-paved courtyard  lined with rank stones or pumgyeseoks( 품계석). These were important for a Confucian society because each stone indicated where the officials were to stand. This strictly ordered ranking system is still very much a part of corperate culture in Korea. People get very uncomfortable until they know their age or rank relative to others.

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The most scenic of all the buildings for me is the Gyeonghoeru (경회루) Pavilion. This was a state banquet hall during the Joseon Dynasty. Its first inception  was  in 1412, but it was burned down in 1592, yes there is a predictable patten with fires in that year! The reason I like it so much is because it is located on an island of an artificial, rectangular lake. The wooden structure  sits on top of  stone pillars, with wooden stairs connecting the second floor to the first floor. The outer perimeters are supported by square pillars but the inner columns are cylindrical. Three stone bridges connect the building to the rest of the palace grounds, the balustrades around the island are decorated with sculptures depicting twelve Zodiac animals. The same twelve animals can also be seen near the folk museum.

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I’m going to miss some of the other buildings and move on to another favourite: Hyangwonjeong ( 향원정) This is a smaller, two-story hexagonal pavilion built on an artificial island of a lake. It was built later than the other buildings and reminds me of a kind of oriental folly, the sort you might find in the park of an English stately home.  The name Hyangwonjeong apparently means “Pavilion of Far-Reaching Fragrance,”. I’m not sure why it was called this but it does feel less city like at this northern end of the grounds. It is perhaps the most photogenic of all the buildings in the palace, I once fell asleep on the grass next to the lake.

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Getting there:

Gyeongbokgung Palace Station (Seoul Subway Line 3), Exit 5.

Gwanghwamun Station (Seoul Subway Line 5), Exit 2.

Top tip: There is an all in one ticket which you can use for other palaces. However, if you don’t have much time then perhaps just visit this one.


TicketSeolleung (선릉) and the Jeongneung (정릉) are royal tombs in the Gangnam district of Seoul. Most people, including myself simply refer to the whole place as Seolleung (pronounced more like Son Young). Getting there couldn’t be much easier now that the station of the same name has a Yellow Line link. From Seolleung station take exit 8 and continue up the road for about 5 minutes.You can also get there from Samseong station exit 5. From the COEX it is about 10 minutes walk, but beware – there is only one exit to this park so you may have to walk round the entire  park if you arrive from the COEX side.
There are many tombs and shrines dotted over the whole of Korea, and especially Seoul. If you’ve been in Korea for some time you may become jaded by the conventional 5 colour beams from the typical religious architecture.  The tombs and stone statues here are similar to those found in other areas. What differs is the location. Seonjeoneun is hidden away behind the huge office buildings and hotels of Gangnam. It’s also on a hill and surrounded by parkland. Without the tombs I’m pretty sure it would have been developed by now.  After visiting a few times I realized that many people come here simply to escape the city. The human scale of this part of Seoul is particularly overwhelming with some of the biggest skyscrapers in the city and some of the biggest traffic jams. Indeed, the gigantic COEX centre is less than 10 minutes walk from here. So if you don’t like history, and you’re not interested in Joseon era tombs, you can still come here to relax. Although you will still have to pay the 1000 won admission fee – well worth it!

Seonjeongneung contains the burial mounds of three important royals of the Joseon Dynasty (1392 – 1910). They are: Seongjong (1469-1494), his wife Queen Jeonghyeon, and King Jungjong (1506-1544).The red gates as you come in are common to many shrines and tombs, the red symbolises holiness. You will also see the taegeuk (as seen on the Korean flag). The taeguk is usually called by its more famous Chinese name – yinyang. However, in Korea I recommend calling it the taeguk as it is a symbol of national pride.

Another interesting feature are the stones paths leading up to the ceremonial buildings. They are spirit roads allowing the dead kings or queens to journey unimpeded into the after life. Apparently you shouldn’t walk on the slightly elevated path because it might impede the spirit of he kings. The lower paths are for humans. Whether this is true or not I don’t know, but in a country which has been conditioned by neo Confucianism I would treat such places with more caution. Whether you are royalist,Confucian or something else, I think it’s always better to respect the dead, especially of they were important enough to deserve such shrines and tombs

What strikes me the most after visiting this place, and reading about it,are  the similarities between other cultures and the manner in which they treat the deceased. You may notice the monkeys on the eaves of the buildings, these ‘Japsangs’ are to ward off evil spirits in the same way you can find gargoyles on the corners of older Catholic Churches. In addition to this, you can find the stone statues of the departed monarchs who serve as guardians in the afterlife. In this case they are soldiers and animals but  similar customs could be found in Egypt, on the steppes of Russia and even in the burial sites of Anglo-Saxon nobles like in Sutton Hoo.

If you plan on going to this park then it can be done on the same day as the COEX and Bongeunsa temple. The following photographs were taken on two separate occasions so you may notice the grass and sunlight are different.

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