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A remarkable example of the global nature of contemporary culture is the way Filipino audiences have taken to Korean drama series like Jewel in the Palace. Something in these tales of intramural intrigues and courtly passions must have appealed to our local viewers. One wag even suggested that we could actually make our own version and call it “Jowa in the Palace” with “jowa” being gay lingo for “spouse”. On the part of the Koreans, court intrigues are nothing new. For there is no lack of sumptuous settings for such Machiavellian plots. Seoul has the privilege of being home to five grand palaces. Now islands of serenity in the bustle of city life, they had witnessed many tumultuous events. One palace, Gyeongbukgung, was completely destroyed during the Japanese invasion of 1592. It was eventually restored only to be damaged when Japan again occupied Korea in the 20th century. The Japanese built a huge Neo-Classical administrative building on top of the ruins, creating a virile image of their imperial might. This office was such a despised symbol of foreign domination that the Koreans would insist on its destruction upon regaining their independence. In the 1990s, Gyeongbuk Palace (“gung” is the Korean word for palace) would rise once more. Clearly, even huge edifices are vulnerable pawns in the pageant of power. Of Seoul’s many royal residences, perhaps the most beautiful is Changdeokgung. Though having had its share of the ravages of war and fire, it has retained many structures from its past. It is the only palace in Korea to appear on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Wandering about Changdeokgung, one feels close to the bosom of the earth. For this is a building that embraces its setting. Every pillar stands with the strength of trees, floors stretch out with the vastness of the sea. In contrast, the structures of Gyeongbukgung have a linear orientation. State ceremonies are carried out in a regimented orderly procession. Not so with Changdeok Palace where courtyards wrap around mountains, gardens reflect the contours of the land.
A few years ago, I had the honor to be tasked by UNESCO’s Dr Molly Lee with designing modules for training teachers to explain the features of Changdeok Palace within the framework of Education for Sustainable Development or ESD. This meant analyzing the buildings and gardens of the royal compound from the perspectives of Environment, Economics, as well as Society and Culture. I was of course quite nervous about the assignment, not being a scholar of Korean matters. Fortunately, I was working with local experts such as Dr Sun Kyung Lee as well as the officers of the Korean National Commission for UNESCO.
The Environmental modules were probably the easiest to conceptualize. The UNESCO Heritage List inscription citation makes specific mention of the organic relation between Changdeokgung’s layout and the surrounding terrain. Indeed, the Palace is a wonderful enclave of rare flora and fauna, a micro ecosystem in itself.
Dr Lee explained to us that the many ancient trees and the various ponds helped cool the area so that the average temperatures in Changdeokgung were lower than the rest of Seoul. More importantly, it was demonstrated how the various courtyards of the buildings were thoughtfully positioned so that, throughout the day. each one did not receive the same amount of sunshine as the rest. The dissimilar degrees of exposure to solar energy resulted in different temperature gradients which in turn aided in the formation of natural breezes. In this way, the Palace halls actually had an efficient air-conditioning system which did not require wasteful energy consumption.
The eaves of the buildings were carefully designed so that they kept away glare and rain while allowing the maximum amount of light to enter. I was also impressed with the many sliding doors. Their wooden grids and delicate paper panels reminded me so much of our own capiz windows. What was most interesting though was that, during the warm Seoul summers, these sliding doors could actually be hitched up so that the whole room was completely open on all sides.
For the Economic aspect, one could point to the many tourists that visited Changdeokgung every year. Though there was a great demand to see the place, it was decided to restrict access so as not to strain the ancient structures. Visitors were required to join guided tours and could not wander around at will. Entrance fees are higher than for the other palaces. This insured that tourist numbers would be low while maintaining a sizable income stream – a good model for some of our more fragile heritage sites. The Korean example illustrates that, sometimes, limited high-end tourism may be a better option. It was perhaps the Socio-cultural dimension that was most challenging to document. As has already been discussed, certain buildings such as palaces reflect the drama of history because they are both the settings and the targets of the great movements in a nation’s life. Global trends may also bring about changes in the fabric of local edifices. In the case of Changdeokgung, one sees that the centuries-old edifices had to adapt to the advent of electricity and other features of Western life.
Occasionally, world-wide narratives would intersect with more site-specific tales. This point is best illustrated by the palace kitchen. At first, one will read into this antiseptic white tiled room a universal story dealing with the eventual acceptance of European culinary conveniences and standards of hygiene. Later on, one learns that this modernstyle kitchen was actually built because the Japanese had confined the royal family to a smaller section of the compound. Since the king and his clan could no longer make use of the original outlying cooking facility, it was necessary to construct one that was more centrally located and with more contemporary appointments. What initially seems to be a non-descript room for food preparation is actually replete with reminders of imperialism and subjugation. Viewing the garden with its strategically arranged ornamental rocks and pedestals for floral arrangements, one is easily lulled into seeing all these as delightful decorative elements. Yet, upon realizing that one is standing in the women’s quarters, it suddenly becomes clear that these artful devices are meant to be entertaining distractions for
cloistered consorts. How many queens had sat staring at these same views while yearning for what lay outside their shuttered enclaves? All over Changdeok Palace are symbols which are very meaningful for the Korean people. There are images of animals like the phoenix which represents the king. Tiles are decorated with a branching fern-like motif which is an allusion to a sacred plant that confers immortality. There are stone markers in the main plaza which indicate where an official was supposed to stand according to rank. The characters were in Chinese, indicating the pervasive influence that the Celestial Empire traditionally had in the region. It surprised my hosts that I could make out the numerals 1 to 9. The secret source of my knowledge: Mahjong!
One of the teaching modules I devised required participants to create matching T-shirts using designs taken from the palace compound. Many festooned their creations with images of flowers, terraces, trees, architectural details, even clouds! What is easily the most evocative part of the Changdeokgung is Biwon, the Secret Garden. Here the foliage is at its most lush. Concerns about time recede as one meanders around a courtesan’s dream of ancient pavilions. Many kings built their sanctuaries and reading rooms in the tranquil embrace of this sylvan quarter. One Biwon retreat mimics a rustic farmer’s home. Evidently, when the royal family members were tired of all the pomp and splendor of their palatial lives, they would escape here and play at being simple folk. Yet, in many ways, this modest residence is more impressive than its gilded counterparts. Unencumbered by rich trappings and elaborate decorations, the pure wooden surfaces and the translucent paper lined windows gleam with a quiet beauty. Palaces rise and fall with the whims of destiny. But an exquisite edifice like Changdeokgung endures in the hearts of a people not just because its regal halls are filled with the embellishments of pride and power. This jewel in the heart of Seoul continues to enchant generations of visitors because it demonstrates how humans can fashion splendid abodes while respecting the rhythms of nature.