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Phoenix Rising

gyeongbok-japsang-btSeven 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.

gyeongbok-soldier-btRestoring 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?

gyeongbok-palace-btAround 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.

gyeongbok-columns-btI 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. gyeongbok-interior-btI 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?

gyeongbok-btThe 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.

gyeongbok-lake-btThe 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.gyeongbok-courtyard-bt


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.



50 replies »

  1. 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 : )

  2. “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.

  3. 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…)

    Frank (bbqboy)

    • 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. 🙂

  4. 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.

  5. I was very interested to read about the reconstruction of this palace. I imagine some people are a little ambivalent about the project, feeling it is the architectural equivalent of trying to clone a mammoth. I’m sure there will be those who feel that once something has gone it has gone, and rebuilding a destroyed site like this is just one more step toward the Disneyfication of history.

    I don’t feel that way myself. I don’t believe that rebuilding something necessarily makes it fake, although this is always a danger. From what I read of Saddam Hussein’s attempted rebuilding of Babylon, for example, it seems to have been something of an archaeological disaster. (I believe the damage was made even worse by the subsequent stationing of allied forces in the area as part of the Second Gulf War.)

    On the other hand, Ise Grand Shrine in Japan is considered ancient with a history stretching back perhaps a couple of millennia (depending on who you believe), but in fact the buildings are rebuilt every 20 years so the shrine there now dates to only 2013. Similarly the Golden Pavilion temple in Kyoto is culturally extremely significant and still attracts huge numbers of visitors, but the present building dates only to 1955 since the previous one was burnt down by a deranged monk.

    I don’t know a huge amount about the Gyeongbokgung project, but if the authorities have tried to follow traditional skills and techniques as far as possible, it could be important in helping pass on a part of the culture that would otherwise die out. I also understand the desire some Koreans may have for a tangible symbol of the country’s history given that so much of what existed has been destroyed. I think based on what you said about the reconstruction in your post, my instinct is to support it.

    • I agree with you that the value of reconstruction depends on the intent behind it. While these projects will not please everyone, they can be vital to understanding past history and culture as long as those are portrayed without bias or propaganda. Of course this is idealistic and rarely happens. While most do not see restoration of an ancient site or object as an issue, reconstruction comes with much ambivalence. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this Bun.

      • I hope that in this case the project can proceed without any great politicization, overt or implied. It would be a pity if it became just one more piece of propaganda in the already difficult relationship between South Korea and Japan.

  6. Korea is one of the SE Asian countries I haven’t visited but I hope to, one of these days. I love your photo of the guard. Is he real, or a statue? The face looks all too human but the uniform makes me think it could be a statue – who could wear all that stuff?
    Great Post, will look forward to more of the same.

    • The guard is indeed a real person. There are several of them posted near the main gates of the palace and their ability to stay still for hours on end is amazing to watch! I cannot imagine that the costumes are very comfortable for them either. In contrast the palace couple who dress up as royalty and sometimes wander the courtyard have an easier job. Thank you so much for your kind words and for reading my stories.

  7. Those whispers of doubt are so familiar. You do contribute meaningfully. It’s so difficult, today, to separate money from the definition of success, especially in America. Took me a long time to do it, and it’s a relatively recent shift.

  8. Interesting article with a hint of melancholy, conveyed both by your words and pictures. I know nothing of Korea, unfortunately, but can guess as powerful a history and heritage as in China or Mongolia.
    It’s the first time I read you and hope to have other opportunities to do so as your words sure catch the reader in a moody atmosphere. I’ll peruse through your blog to find other good stuff you’ve written! 😉

  9. My advice — never give up! I’ve pursued a dream for some fifteen years now and still haven’t achieved it; but I know I’m getting close. To me, without dreams, life loses a little of its lustre.

  10. Those are some great pictures! I’m not sure how I feel about restorations, on one hand it can be beautiful to leave certain monuments etc like they are, on the other hand restorations give us an even better idea what the original looks were.

    • I can understand that sentiment. Certainly in places like Seoul where so much history was destroyed there is no other option than to recreate. Thank you so much for visiting and for sharing your perspective. Glad you like the photos!

  11. How lovely and refreshing it is to perceive a reconstructed palace with one’s own journey. It is not hard to understand Korean resentment towards the Japanese. But I’m pretty sure this former Joseon dynasty palace was not rebuilt to fuel that sentiment. The past is not a place in time we should dwell in. It is, rather, a reflective pool to measure how much better (or worse) we have become over time.

    • I don’t believe the palace was rebuilt out of resentment, but a desire to recapture the country’s torn heritage. The past is a tricky thing. Rarely do we view it as it really was and though we feel capable of judging it, I wonder how accurate such verdicts are filtered through our differing perspectives and knowledge. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about this!

  12. I think that whether it be a restoration or a reconstruction, the location needs to come alive in some way or it will die. You’ve shown this place as impressive, yet sterile. Perhaps a good docent-led tour can bring it alive for current and future generations. The building as it stands appears to represent just the shell.
    As for the chasing of dreams or careers, I think that it has to do with what you expect, hope or want to get out of it. Often it comes down to money, particularly for a writer. However, with remuneration off the table you can be successful and touch people on many levels.

    • I like your idea of docent-led tours. Good ones really do make places come alive. I think perhaps if more of the residences were also furnished it would give the place more of an atmosphere. As for the career, I agree that success really is in the eye of the beholder. As I try to navigate through the ups and downs of what I want to get out of mine I will hopefully find a satisfying result. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with me!

  13. Captivating pictures of architectural wonder! They depict the glorious past so vividly and I appreciate your concern and lament dear friend. I agree…”To cease writing would be surrendering to the ogres of apathy…” Past heritage has to be preserved for posterity and I am glad persons like you keep the issue alive. Thanks for sharing the most meaningful topic.

  14. Very beautifully written
    The comparisons to your writing career are quite well constructed.
    It reminds me immediately of the book I just finished reading – Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. I know she isn’t for everyone but I find her writing accessible and relatable. The book is about overcoming fear and adversity in order to live a creative life. To continue “making things” for the sake of them being made and for no other reason.
    I beg of you to continue writing. It may not win you a Pulitzer but your words and imagery definitely reach this reader, just as Gyeongbokgung reached you in its own way.

    • Thank you for the recommendation. I have not read Gilbert’s Big Magic, but I will give it a try. Thank you also for your encouragement and kind words. The beauty of making things one loves is beyond compare, however, one sometimes forgets that it should be the essence. It is good to be reminded of the fact every so often.

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