Seven japsang (잡상) glare down at me from the clay tiled roof of the king’s throne hall at Gyeongbokgung (경복궁) in Seoul, South Korea. Even from a great distance I can distinguish the beady eyes of the dragon figurine daring me to find fault with this vast palace. I discover no defect. Every pillar, rafter, and crossbeam is lovingly replicated. Shrine, library, and fish pond all bask in glorious reproduction. Yet, the pristine recreations abide so aloof, so devoid of bygone spirit that I perceive nothing wandering among them. It is not for lack of drama that Gyeongbokgung feels sterile to me. Here ministers plotted assassinations, an empress had her corpse burned, Russian envoys exchanged gifts, and the Japanese burned down the entire compound. Seven centuries of war, invasion, and occupation have played out on this soil.
Restoring the extensive estate has been an ongoing labor for the country’s twentieth century government. I understand the desire behind the project. Much of Korea’s ancestral culture has vanished amidst conquest; western education has supplanted old customs; political allegiances and economic prosperity have vanquished heritage. Confident in the present, optimistic about its prospects, the nation looks to fill its archival gap. I admire the chutzpah, the devotion to authenticity, the yearning for a trace of lost antiquity. Revivification, however, comes with its demons. Is the palace’s symbolism enough to warrant the reconstruction cost? Will the remodeling serve an integral function worthy of the effort? Can recreated history tender subsequent value?
Around me the vacant courtyards yawn, waiting for a future age of royalty and noble ambassadors to satisfy their purpose. I and the handful of other visitors to this site seem woefully out of place among the imposing gates, impassive pavilions, and hollow quarters. The mere presence of grand corridors and deserted chambers cannot reconnect locals to their yesteryear. Now that the setting is established, the capital’s saga in all its nuanced, agonizing, tragicomic muddle needs to pervade through the carved balconies, embellished balustrades, and sculptural bridges. Achieving such a layered, faithful, whilst subtle rendition is a formidable responsibility and, perhaps, impossible task for any agency. It is the missing piece at Gyeongbokgung which can bestow a sense of continuation, grant a touchstone to the past, furnish contemplation material for travelers. Without it, the exquisitely remade lodgings remain futile monuments, unfit for pilgrims.
I am both cynical and reverential of Gyeongbokgung’s narrative. Built by the Joseon (대조선국) dynasty in 1395, Gyeongbokgung was plagued by destruction many times. In 1915 imperial Japan demolished most of the area, substituting an administrative structure on the grounds. Its people have persistently chosen to reassemble it from the ashes, despite its penchant for disaster. Will their endeavors finally bear fruit? Is the legendary complex’s destiny brimming with promise? I fear the riposte. I see a reflection of my stubborn pursuit in the royal residence’s chronicles. In the beginning of my creative career I used to envision epic goals, stoke my fevered ambition skyward. I heard all the warnings — “It’s a difficult profession”; “there’s no guarantee of success”; “obscurity is the lot of most writers” — never listening to any. “It can be different for me,” I would reassure my ego. Struggling through the morass of rejections, facing my shredded hopes, I have had to reevaluate who I am and what I want to accomplish. I have tamped down that neophyte enthusiasm, replaced it with doubt. I wonder whether to persist or renounce my passion. At what point does chasing my dream prove foolish? Is tenacity in the face of failure the sign of insanity? When do I give up, settle for orthodox pragmatism?
The answers for both this dwelling and myself are unknown. Truth is, to cease writing would be surrendering to the ogres of apathy, affirming the tirade of vetoes. I imagine Gyeongbokgung’s recurrent resurrections are a battle to dethrone similar insidious monsters: proscription and neglect. Whatever the outcome, the palace and I hunger to contribute meaningfully to the world. How we do so may require a shift in perspective.
The japsang chase off misfortune. Each meticulous quirky character atop the eaves is supposed to guide the property through evil spells. Gathering my thoughts at the monarchial temple I send up a wish to the Monk, the Monkey King, and Sahwasang (화상) that their benevolent powers counsel me too. Language consumes me; weaving stories defines my identity. So should I leap off this tangled roller coaster of “almost-was,” I still want to pursue that search for insightful beauty which has led me here. I want my life to radiate with the same sort of guiding inspiration I expected to experience passing through the bated quadrangles of Gyeongbokgung.
Ondol (온돌) is a traditional Korean architectural style used to heat floors. Smoke from a kitchen stove would be siphoned into adjoining accommodations through the use of raised masonry underlain by horizontal flues. A freestanding chimney at the opposite end of the room would provide necessary drafts to draw the warmth across the passage. Sajeongjeon (사정전) is one of the few halls at Gyeongbokgung to feature this ancient radiant thermal system.
What do you think about restorations? How do they filter their past while staying true to their history? Any stories about chasing dreams or changing careers you want to share? Let us know in the comments below.
I always enjoy reading your post and indulge into your stunning pictures! I am definitely for a restoration, as long as it doesn’t change to architecture and story of a place!
It’s tricky to manage these restorations isn’t it. They are so much more nuanced than I ever thought about. Thanks so much for stopping by!
I love how you captured the beauty of the palace in your own words. I’m a Korean traditional handmade costume maker, and I stopped by to admire your photos! My costumes are based on Korean artifacts and I’ve held exhibitions in Gyeongbokgung. I just uploaded a post about my Korean traditional wedding costume fashion show in Paris – check it out, I think you’d like it too : )
Thank you so much! I wish we had been able to see your work on display at Gyeongbokgung — it would have been fascinating. Looking forward to reading about your show in Paris.
“To cease writing would be surrendering to the ogres of apathy” Oh that’s a wonderful phrase. Yet how easy it is sometimes to surrender, to put off until tomorrow, to give in to that old “I’m not feeling very creative today” thought. And what a joy it is to persevere and relight that spark.
I am constantly struggling to remain in that joy of creation rather than surrendering. Thank you for your inspiration.
Interesting post and makes me reflect on how some places would be nothing without their historical monuments, especially the the developing world where “modernity” basically means shitty buildings made of concrete, bricks, and corrugated metal. Egypt comes to mind, who would ever go to Cairo were it not for the pyramids. Most Southeast Asian cities are dirty, clogged and polluted and temples are a reprieve from modern sprawl. Even Kyoto where we recently spent a month – there’s nothing really special about the city itself, it’s the historical gardens and temples that make it so popular among visitors. Where would the world be if we allowed the great historical buildings and monuments to go to waste? Nobody today would dedicate 50 years to a religious building or complex. Then there’s of course the question of cultural heritage. I think we have to maintain them.
On the hand, yes we have to realize reality when it comes to our own goals and wishes. Having just turned 50, I long gave up the thought of being a professional hockey player, international man of mystery, or popular politician (though there’s maybe still hope with that one…)
As you say there are two sides to every coin. Restoration done correctly and for the right reasons can be a wonderful cultural addition to a country’s history. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts here, and good luck in your pursuits as an international man of mystery. 🙂
Your words are so beautiful to read. Is the dream the destination or the journey?
I find historical reproductions interesting to look at, but totally lacking in soul. I think it’s the fact that no one has walked the halls, and that the building has not absorbed the energy of hundreds of years of tenants. Great piece….. you weave words masterfully ☺
“Is the dream the destination or the journey?” A fantastic question! For me most often the dream is my continuous journey of exploration, though many destinations have been dream-like in their beauty. I love the way you view historic sites. I too believe part of their attraction is the knowledge of previous lives being lived in the same place, which reproductions do not provide….Thank you so much for your kind compliment! I look forward to chatting with you more in the future about journeys and destinations.
Beautiful photos. Look forward to more.
Thank you Peta!
Great shots! Love the perspective shot of the pillars. The colors (red) really stand out amongst the fog.
Thank you so much for your kind words and for stopping by! I too liked that photo, though I was wondering if the fog had muted the pillars. Happy to know it worked out!