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UNESCO World Heritage Series: Part 4 – Changdeokgung Palace

Changdeokgung Palace (Photo credit: Jun Michael Park)
by Yvonne Kim
27 April 2017

BY MATTHEW FENNELL

April 27, 2017 - In the fourth installment of our World Heritage Series, Asia Society Korea did not have to travel far as we made the short trip to Changdeokgung in downtown Seoul. For the many tourists seeking out royal palaces in Korea, the first point of call is usually Gyeongbokgung, the largest of the Five Grand Palaces built during the Joseon dynasty. However, it was its lesser known neighbor, Changdeokgung, that was awarded World Heritage Status in 1997 for having had great influence on the development of Korean architecture, garden design, and landscape planning over many centuries. The palace grounds are spectacular, comprising of royal buildings and a rear garden which boasts a 300-year-old tree, a pavilion and a small pond. Construction of the palace began in 1405 and was completed in 1412.

Despite remaining a focal point throughout Korean history, Changdeokgung has experienced a checkered past. The palace was burnt to the ground during the 1592 Japanese invasion of Korea and it was only reconstructed in 1609 under the leadership of King Sonjo and King Kwanghaegun. Unfortunately, the palace only lasted another 14 years before suffering a second arson attack, this time during the Injo Political Revolt against Kwanghaegun. Throughout history, the palace has shown remarkable resistance with each rebuild remaining faithful to its original design. While the neighboring Gyeongbokgung was being rebuilt because of its own fire damage following the Imjin War, Changdeokgung was the site of the royal court and the seat of government up until 1868. In another piece of trivia, Korea's last Emperor Sunjong resided in the palace until his death in 1926.

While the royal buildings are certainly impressive, it is Huwon, more commonly known as the Secret Garden that is most alluring and the reason why many so many people visit Changdeokgung Palace in the first place. The garden, kept as natural as possible with little human intervention, was constructed during the reign of King Taejong and served as a resting place for royal family members when venturing outside of the palace walls was deemed to be dangerous or difficult. The most popular times to visit the garden are during the spring when the flowers are starting to bloom or in the fall when autumn colors are at their peak and sky is clear; when there is a full moon during this period, Changdeokgung opens its gates at night and offers a different glimpse of its beauty. Though damaged, destroyed, rebuilt, and replaced throughout its history, Changdeokgung Palace remains one of the best-preserved examples of Korean historical architecture.