Seoul, which was the capital city for the 500 years of the Joseon Dynasty, left behind several well-known palaces, including Gyeongbok-gung, Changdeok-gung and Deoksu-gung. “Gung” is the official name that is given to the property of royal family; but Unhyeon-gung is an exceptional site assigned as “Gung,” as it originally was a nobleman’s residence. Designated as Historic Site No. 257, Unhyeon-gung is a place where Yi Ha-eung, Heungseon Daewongun, played the role of de facto ruler, and reformed the political system at the time. Hence, although it was not a palace lived by the king, it enjoyed more power than the royal palace. The Argus explores Unhyeon-gung, which is the pillar of the late Joseon Dynasty politics, and followed the footsteps of the royal culture of at the time.
Heungseon Daewongun and Unhyeon-gung
When the king of Joseon died without direct descendants, the closest male among the collateral blood relatives succeeded the throne. “Daewongun” was a eulogistic title given to the father of the king who succeeded the throne as the closest collateral descendant. Yi Ha-eung received the name as the father of King Gojong, the last king of Joseon and the first emperor of Korea. As a member of royal family, he was monitored by the “Kim,” clan of Andong, who was then in power. “Kim” supervised royal men who appeared to be the king’s lumber, but Heungseon Daewongun was able to avoid their surveillance by risking humiliation of being called as “debauchee” for eating foods thrown into a pond.
Heungseon Daewongun considered “Geomancy” very important, so he set up his private residence on a site that was scenic enough to be used as an observation site, and named it “Unhyeon,” as there were often heavy clouds. King Gojong was born and lived there until he was 12 years old. When Gojong took over as king, he gave the place the title of “Gung.” As it was the residence of Daewongun, the size of Unhyeon-gung later became grand enough to be compared to palaces. However due to the Japanese occupation, Unhyeon-gung shrunk to 9,413.23㎡ - about 1/9 the size of HUFS in Seoul.
The reporter came out of exit 4 of Anguk Station on line 3, which has the meaning of “Peace of the Country,” and arrived at the entrance of Unhyeon-gung by walking along the frugal Korean traditional stone wall. Standing at the entrance under a clear blue sky, the reporter could see tiles of hanok houses, small flower walls, and pine trees exquisitely crowded, making a stunning sight. Unhyeon-gung is definitely a royal site like Gyeongbok-gung, but it also felt like the reporter furtively stepped into the royal family’s private life. Feeling energized by the beautiful view, the reporter went to the tourist information booth to find a guide who would introduce Unhyeon-gung. After greeting the guide waiting, the reporter presented the press certificate and followed him to the yard.
The first stop was under a square stone, just a few steps away from the information booth. Then the narrator began explaining the background of King Gojong’s ascension and how Unhyeon-gung is different from other palaces.
“As a royal member, Heungseon Daewongun had an ambition to take the crown, when he became adult, he joined hands with Queen Sinjeong, who later becomes the Queen Mother Jo, as she also suffocated with Kim’s clan at the time and wanted to revenge them. They conspired to leave King Cheoljong, the 25th king of Joseon, without a successor and crown Heungseon Daewongun eldest son, Yi Jae-sang. However, to Queen Cho seeing “Feng Shui,” his second son seemed more likeable than the first, so she asked for his second son, Man-bok, who later becomes King Gojong, instead. Daewongun, who wanted the throne, gave his second son as an adopted son to Queen Cho. As for the price, Queen Cho awarded 33,057㎡.” The reporter was wandering why Daewongun’s second son was crowned instead of the first, but the explanation solved the mystery.
Entering the gate to Noandang, the reporter was surprised because it was the largest gate she had ever seen. When looking curiously at the door, the guide explained, “We are passing is called a “lofty gate.” Long ago, the majority of important political issues were discussed here, so a number of high-ranking officials visited Noandang on carriages. Thus, the gate had to be tall.” Picturing high-ranking officials passing the gate riding traditional Korean carriages, the reporter could feel the authority of Daewongun.
Passing the gate and walking inside, the reporter saw traditional houses lined up on both sides. The height of both buildings was different; the right one was built at eye level, but the left was so tall that one had to raise one’s head to see it. Soon the reporter could tell instantly that the left one was Noandang by looking at the neatly written Juryeon, a traditional signboard, hanging from the top. The guide said, “Noandang means “Peaceful old age” and is the place where Heungseon Daewongun used to have political discussions. The signboard above is composed of the handwriting of Chusa Kim Jeong-hui, the greatest calligrapher of the time.” Since Heungseon Daewongun valued geomancy, the whole building was evenly divided in terms of east, south, and west. The west side was decorated with octagonal frames and patterns on the center, and the other three plywood walls were bat-shaped. Bats were also called “rats of the sky” because the pronunciation of Chinese characters was similar to blessing and was regarded as a symbol of happiness, so they were often used as crafts, furniture, and architectural patterns of bats in Unhyeon-gung.
Looking inside the main hall, the guide said, “The two rooms you see were the places to discuss politics with high ranked officials, and the room outside was the place used to argue with lords. The room next to it is a pavilion, a place where they could discuss in cool conditions in the summer.” Hearing the story, the reporter could imagine Daewongun enjoying conversations.
Stepping down the Noandang, the height was so high that it felt like a royal building rather than just a hanok. Pointing to the wide stones supporting the hanok, the guide said, “You see them? There are called stylobate; one stylobate symbolizes commoners, two means a noblemen, and four represents death, so Jongmyo has four stylobates, and Gyeongbok-gung has five of them. As Noandang is the house of Daewongun, there are three, and you can assume that the building was built after Gojong became the king.” The reporter could imagine Daewongun smiling proudly of receiving such an honor.
Meanwhile, walking the courtyard, when the reporter was puzzled by the lack of an explanation of the remaining buildings of Noandang, the guide stopped in front of the buildings in front of the courtyard. “The building you see ahead is part of Sujiksa, where the servants lived. As it was a particularly important place related to work, even high-ranking officers were on standby. The character models you see here are Cheon Ji-yeol, Ha Jung-il, and Jang Soon-kyo, who used to be Heungseon Daewongun’s drinking buddies. Originally commoners, as Yi Ha-eung became the father of the king; they were able to serve as special guards for him.” After listening to the guide, the reporter was able to grasp the loyalty and the power of Daewongun at once.
Passing the old hall and walking through the passage outside, we arrived at Norakdang. Norakdang was a place where Queen Myeongseong took bridal lessons and held a family reunion for the Heungseon Daewongun family. The building also has the design of Choikgong, a bird wing-shaped decoration, which was used only in the royal palace.
While stepping into Norakdang, the reporter noticed a powerful and unique signboard above written by the military subject named Shin Heon, who was trusted by Heungseon Daewongun. The building was square shaped, and above all, the height of the building was lower than Noandang. “Since Norakdang was originally a residential area for Daewongun’s wife, Min, the hostess, the house has a secluded square shape, according to Confucian principles. Also, Norakdang is originally Lee Ha-eung’s house, and so it has two stylobates.” The guide said.
On the right side of Norakdang was a semi-underground space: the kitchen. The guide said, “In Joseon society, where there was a clear distinction between men and women; women represented the right and men the left. Thus, it was polite for women to greet on the right and men on the left. Even traditional clothes show this; men’s clothes go up to the left, and women’s go up to the right.”
While admiring so many implications within Norakdang, a shadow casted over the reporter so she raised her head up and saw Unhyeongung’s white western house. “The building you see there was half forcibly built by Japan in 1910 on the site of originally Daewon-gun’s Sarangchae. As you may have noticed, it served as a surveillance agency designed to spy on Unhyeon-gung, which was an important political institution. Japanese soldiers looked down from there and watched who was coming and going. The tenaciousness of Japanese people could be seen through the building exterior. The sharply raised lightning rod represents the spear, and the shape of the window is 日, which is the Chinese character of Japan, all of which insinuate Japan’s surveillance. Sadly, however, that place is now a cultural asset, and not too long ago, it was the filming location of k-drama, “The Goblin”.” Upon hearing the explanation, the mansion attached to Unhyeon-gung in a friendly manner, looked strange and was an eyesore. Looking at Norakdang again before stepping out, the reporter felt heavy hearted, as the space which was supposed to be happy seemed disturbed with lingering anxiety.
The reporter left Norakdang and passed the wall decorated with colorful patterns and arrived at Irodang, the main building of Unhyeon-gung. Irodang was the private section for the couple and was the innermost building that can only be entered through the passageway between Norakdang. Therefore newly constructed, it also was isolated and square-shaped like Norakdang.
To the front of Irodang Hall is a spacious front yard where family gatherings could be held, and on the east, there was “Yogaseok,” a stone structure with a square stone plate on top of a hexagonal stone pillar, which was used as a sundial.
Irodang was quiet and solemn, as if Daewongun and his wife were sleeping inside. “Originally, there were more houses here, but the fire broke out and they are gone.” said the guide. After the guide’s demonstration, the reporter spotted a tank, which Daewongun used to store water, with the inscription “The Pond with Wooden Water under the Cloud” written by Heungseon Daewongun himself. “With so many fires, these water tanks were often used to put out fire.” The guide explained.
When the reporter found a shining black marble chair, the guide said that it was a prop for Heungseon Daewongun to move the orchid to before he went to bed. Thinking of Heungseon Daewongun moving orchids here and there every night, the reporter could guess how much he liked the plant. Starting to walk out of the garden slowly, there was a “Gyeongsongbi,” a memorial sculpture of the Gyeongsong tree, a pine tree that King Gojong liked to sit under and play. King Gojong loved this tree very much, so when he revisited the gung, he gave it a second-class government post. Unfortunately, during the Japanese colonial era, it was struck by lightning and died.
While looking around the monument in pity, one spotted the inscription about the tree on the back of the monument, which was written by Kim Byeong-gi, a prime minister at the time. After spending time in the garden, the reporter finished her visit to Unhyeon-gung and ended the tour at the field where traditional music came from. At first, the tour seemed short, but before she knew it, the sun was going down, and the musicians were packing up their instruments, too. The reporter greeted the performers who played the music, thanked the guide, and took another look at the palace and left the gung.
Unhyeon-gung, the center of politics in the late Joseon Dynasty, ironically has “老,” which represents “the old,” inscribed on every signboard. The reporter thought deeply about the reason but could not come up with a plausible answer. But one thing was for sure: Heungseon Daewongun was very proud of his son, King Gojong, and wanted him to be the center of the royal house, not himself. This, however, could not be the only reason, and there are still many unanswered riddles left in the site. The Argus recommends readers visit Unhyeon-gung, which illustrates the life of Heungseon Daewongun, and see it for oneself.
By Mun Ji-hyun Staff Reporter of Theory & Critque Section