Field Report: Cheonggyecheon and Gwanghwamun Square, Seoul, South Korea (29 September 2015)

29Sep15 006 South Korea Seoul Cheonggyecheon

Seoul is a splendid monument to its own long and rich history, with various features of the urban landscape bearing witness to the march of many centuries across the Korean capital. Today, let’s combine a refreshing morning stroll with an educational history walk as we learn more about this amazing city through the relics that dot its centre.

My last day in Korea began with a relaxed constitutional along the stone-paved banks of Cheonggyecheon. I’ve been here before on previous visits to Seoul – see here, for example – but it’s one of those places that acquires a different charm in different seasons, or even at different times of the day.

The stream runs for several kilometres through central Seoul. Since all I was after was a light morning walk, I confined myself to the very short upper stretch leading towards Gwanghwamun Square.

Despite being a little out of sight, flowing in a sunken stream bed and overshadowed by the gleaming towers of downtown Seoul, Cheonggyecheon boasts of a history that’s almost as long as (if not longer than) those of some of the massive historic structures that one sees elsewhere in the city. It began life as a creek flowing across the centre of the Joseon capital, and over the centuries it benefited from periodic maintenance work, including the construction of several bridges. By the 1950s, however, it had become little more than a dirty, unsightly, neglected canal lined with shanties – a situation exacerbated by the influx of refugees in the aftermath of the Korean War. From 1958 onward, Cheonggyecheon was gradually covered up with concrete (see the last picture in this article), culminating in the 1970s with the construction of an elevated motorway along its former course.

In 2003, the Seoul Metropolitan Government began work on a massive urban renewal programme that involved demolishing the motorway and resurrecting the ancient stream, to serve as a new public recreation space for the capital’s inhabitants. The project was completed in 2005, and whilst a few broken remnants of the old motorway were allowed to remain – perhaps as a monument to a time of explosive, unchecked urban growth – the city was finally allowed to regain its long-lost stream. That, and something else besides: a new venue for rest and recreation, wider and more refined and better developed than ever before, a vast improvement over the purely utilitarian hats Cheonggyecheon had worn in centuries past, whether as the dirt-choked open drainage system of the Joseon era or as the dull grey concrete road of more recent history.

One of my previous posts has more pictures and commentary describing various features of the waterway, and I invite you there for a better look, but here’s a selection of images taken during my most recent visit.

29Sep15 001 South Korea Seoul Cheonggyecheon

29Sep15 002 South Korea Seoul Cheonggyecheon

29Sep15 003 South Korea Seoul Cheonggyecheon

29Sep15 004 South Korea Seoul Cheonggyecheon

29Sep15 005 South Korea Seoul Cheonggyecheon

29Sep15 007 South Korea Seoul Cheonggyecheon

Exhibitions and seasonal events are occasionally held along the banks of Cheonggyecheon. Today, part of the stream was overlaid with orderly ranks of open umbrellas, which almost seemed to float unaided above the flowing waters (if one were to mentally airbrush away the wires they’d been strung up on).

29Sep15 006 South Korea Seoul Cheonggyecheon

I made may way back up to street level and headed a couple of blocks north, to the southern tip of Gwanghwamun Square – another product of recent urban renewal efforts. This public promenade opened in 2009 after several lanes were claimed for pedestrian use from the vast, traffic-choked Sejong-ro street. In a little corner near the square, overshadowed by a large building…

…is another piece of Seoul’s history.

1902, the 6th year of the Gwangmu era, was Emperor Gojong‘s 40th year on the Korean throne. To commemorate this milestone, an intricately carved stele bearing commemorative inscriptions was erected in the heart of the royal (or, by this time, imperial) capital, and a lavishly decorated structure was built to enclose and protect it.

29Sep15 001 South Korea Seoul Gwanghwamun Square Gojong Monument

The monument house – as well as the actual monument within – are interesting in that they were constructed using traditional methods and artistic styles during a time when the Korean Empire, proclaimed just a few years earlier as the successor to the centuries-old Kingdom of Joseon, was well into a wide-ranging programme of Westernisation. European-style buildings were rising all over Seoul, even within the staunchly traditional confines of royal palaces like Deoksugung … and in the face of this tidal wave of modernisation, a little piece of classical Korean architecture seems almost like an anomaly. A beautiful, flawlessly executed anomaly built right at the centre of imperial power, as if intended to force nobles and commoners alike to look back and honour their venerable traditions even as their feet march them, and their country, inexorably forward.

As for my own feet, they marched me just across the street and into the very long stretch of pavement that is Gwanghwamun Square.

Here, at the plaza’s southern end, I encountered another memorial – one of white-walled tents and photographs of young people, of shelves bearing high-school uniforms and personal belongings. Less permanent than the one of stone and painted wood that I’d just seen, but the event commemorated here is perhaps far more searingly painful, all the more because it happened so recently.

As no words of mine can possibly do it justice, I shall say no more about the event, except to offer this link and invite my gentle readers to learn more, to reflect … and above all, to pray.

29Sep15 002 South Korea Seoul Gwanghwamun Square Sewol Memorial

I don’t know how long this poignant memorial will remain here, but if it’s still in place whilst you’re in Seoul, do stop by and take the opportunity to show your respects.

After a few moments of silence, prayer, and reflection, I continued my northwards trek along Gwanghwamun Square.

Perched on top of a lofty stone-clad pedestal is a statue of Admiral Yi Sun-sin, one of Korea’s most highly respected historical figures. Credited with a string of successes during the Japanese invasions of 1592-1598, he is probably best remembered for leading a heavily outnumbered Korean fleet to victory against a far larger enemy force during the Battle of Myeongnyang. Yi Sun-sin is also noted for reintroducing and redesigning a special class of vessel known as the geobukseon, or turtle ship, a small replica of which shares the same pedestal as his statue.

29Sep15 004 South Korea Seoul Gwanghwamun Square Yi Sun-sin Statue

29Sep15 003 South Korea Seoul Gwanghwamun Square Yi Sun-sin Statue

Further north of here is a colossal seated statue of King Sejong the Great, monarch of Joseon from 1418 to 1450 and perhaps the most revered member of his entire dynasty.

29Sep15 005 South Korea Seoul Gwanghwamun Square King Sejong Statue

Sejong’s reign saw various advancements in politics, science, technology, and other spheres of life, but his most lasting legacy might well be the inscription on the pedestal that supports his monument. Well, not the inscription itself as such, but the writing system used to represent it.

29Sep15 006 South Korea Seoul Gwanghwamun Square King Sejong Statue

Instead of being expressed as 世宗大王 in the formal, classical Chinese used on other public monuments – including Yi Sun-sin’s, as we saw earlier – the title “Sejong Daewang” (literally “Sejong [the] Great King”) was carved upon the statue base as 세종대왕, using the uniquely Korean hangeul script developed under the king’s rule. I won’t burden the readership with a lengthy, boring discourse on the history of this writing system (Wikipedia is a good enough place to start learning more), but if you happen to find yourself at night in a narrow alley somewhere in Seoul, miles away from this imposing gilded statue, glance at the brightly lit signs and peeling posters all across your field of vision … and spare a thought for the chap who led the nation that devised those letters now winking out at you from every corner.

To borrow a lovely phrase from Sir Christopher Wren’s memorial plaque: Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice.

“Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.”

Till the next post – cheerio.

One response to “Field Report: Cheonggyecheon and Gwanghwamun Square, Seoul, South Korea (29 September 2015)

  1. Pingback: Field Report: Cheongwadae Sarangchae and Gyeongbokgung, Seoul, South Korea (29 September 2015) | Within striking distance·

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