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.