After a lengthy restoration process, Gwanghwamun Gate — the main entrance of Gyeongbokgung Palace and a major downtown landmark — was finally unveiled to the public yesterday, the Liberation Day holiday.
The Cultural Heritage Administration brought in some heavy hitters for the restoration, including calligraphic engraving master Oh Ok-jin (Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 106) to paint the signboard and dancheong master Yang Yong-ho to paint the superstructure. For those of you wondering, dancheong is the colorful painted designs found on many of Korea’s historic wooden public building — not only is it decorative, but it also protected the wood from the elements.
Gwanghwamun Gate has had a tumultuous contemporary history, making it something of a microcosm of Korea’s contemporary history as a whole. The gate was first constructed in 1395, making it — along with the rest of Gyeongbokgung Palace — one of the first buildings constructed in the new royal capital of Seoul. Also like the rest of the palace, it was burnt down during the Japanese invasion of 1592, and left in ruins until Heungseon Daewongun‘s grand restoration of the palace in 1867.
Then things started to get funky. In 1910, Japan annexed Korea. In 1926, the Japanese — great preservationists of Korea’s cultural heritage that they were — had Gwanghwamun Gate torn down and moved to the east side of the palace, all so it wouldn’t restrict the view of the massive Japanese Government-General Building (demolished in 1996), which they had oh-so-sensitively placed right in front of Gyeongbokgung Palace, blocking the view the historic palace from downtown Seoul. The demolition of the gate sparked protests from not only Koreans, but also from Japanese intellectuals, most notably Yanagi Sōetsu, the founder of Japan’s Craft Art movement and an admirer of Korean traditional art. He wrote:
“Unforgettable are the sceneries of the palace with lines of governmental offices of particularly Korean in their style, with the Bukhansan mountains for its background, and the Gwanghwamun for its foreground from which a principal street runs. There is a twofold beauty in its architecture, planned with a careful consideration of the relationship with nature. Nature protects architecture, and architecture ornaments nature. Any people should not destroy the organic relationship between nature and architecture without proper reason. But, now, alas, an unsympathetic power is going to destroy its harmonious relationship between nature and man-made. I’ll be happy, if it is a daydream. But, it isn’t.”
Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, but just five years later, the Korean War broke out, and Gwanghwamun Gate was destroyed. In 1963, President Park Chung-hee had the gate rebuilt in almost its original location on the south side of Gyeongbokgung Palace. One problem — he had the gate built parallel to the old Government-General Building, which was six degrees off axis from the rest of Gyeongbokgung Palace. The palace is arranged along a north-south axis with Mt. Bugaksan to the north and Mt. Gwanaksan to the south. The Japanese-build Government-General Building, meanwhile, faced Mt. Namsan, where the Japanese had placed a large Shinto Shrine. The rebuilt gate was also made of concrete and sported a hangeul sign written by Park Chung-hee himself: not necessarily an irritant if you like Park (and a lot of people do), but controversial none-the-less as he was, after all, a dictator whom nobody will ever accuse of being a paragon of respect for human rights.
Anyway, in 2006, the Cultural Heritage Administration decided to rebuild Gwanghwamun properly as part of a larger project to restore downtown Seoul’s Joseon-era heritage. Yesterday, the restoration of the gate finally came to its conclusion, bringing the landmark gate back to the people of the city.
MAP: Gwanghwamun… New & Improved
View Gwanghwamun in a larger map