Changdeokgung Palace: The Palace of Illustrious Virtue
Changdeokgung Palace and Gyeongbokgung are two grand palaces that you must visit while travelling in Seoul, South Korea, especially for the history buffs. It is an essential if you want to experience the life of the royal family in the Joseon era. Changdeokgung Palace or ‘The Palace of Illustrious Virtue‘, was the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty, and the largest of the Five Grand Palaces. The palace was built just after the construction of the more famous Gyeongbuk Palace, in 1405 and was completed in 1412. It was built while keeping the ideas of Feng Shui in mind, and rather than dominating the land like the other four palaces, it was constructed to harmonise with the nature that surrounds it. There’s no doubt in my mind how historically rich and beautiful they both are, but my knee was swollen, and I can only choose one. I decided on Changdeokgung Palace.
Why you should tour Changdeokgung Palace
It is true that between the two Korean palaces Gyeongbokgung has more interesting programs for visitors, such as trying out Hanbok clothes and viewing the changing of guards ceremony, however, Changdeokgung is the only Joseon palace that is a Unesco World Heritage site. I wanted to experience the authenticity of Changdeokgung, whose historically rich ambience is more preserved due to its exceptional design and layout of the Secret Garden.
Changdeokgung Palace is the second Korean palace to be built after Gyeongbokgung under the reign of King Taejong in the year 1405. With the construction of the secondary palace, King Taejong used the Gyeongbokgung Palaces as the main palace for state events and reception ceremonies for foreign envoys; the daily morning assemblies and executive matters were held in Changdeokgung Palace. Thus began the two-place system in the Joseon dynasty. I speculate (thank you Six Flying Dragons) that King Taejong who settled at Changedeokgung avoided Gyeongbokgung as much as possible due to the First Strife of Princes incident in 1398.
In 1392, during his father’s (King Taejo) reign, Prince Jeong-an (Yi Bangwon or future King Taejong) helped his father to overthrow Goryeo and established a new dynasty, Joseon. Expecting to be appointed as the successor to the throne since he contributed most to the founding of Joseon, King Taejo and prime minister Jeong Do-jeon instead gave the crown prince title to Yi Bangwon’s half-brother Yi Bangseok, the youngest of the eight sons and the second son of Queen Sindeok. Although very accomplished, Prince Jeong-an had a conflicting ideology with the very influential Jeong Do-jeon. Jeong Do-jeon who shaped and laid down ideological, institutional and legal foundations of the new dynasty saw Joseon as a kingdom led by ministers appointed by the king, while Prince Jeong-an strongly believed in an absolute monarchy ruled directly by the king. Aware of each other’s animosity, both sides were getting ready to make the first strike. After the sudden death of Queen Sindeok, and while King Taejo was still in mourning for his second wife, Yi Bang-won struck first. He raided the palace and killed Jeong Do-jeon and all his supporters, as well as the crown prince. As quoted by Prince Jeong-an in Six Flying Dragons, before he slashed Crown Prince Yi Bangseok,
“Sin and death are not connected.”
Ok. Maybe that quote was the only thing not historically correct, but that sangeuk (Six Flying Dragon) was so amazing, it motivated me to read more about the actual history that inspired the drama, and to finally set my foot in Korea to explore their rich culture and this beautiful palace.
Anyways, back to the historically rich Changdeokgung Palace, and the illustrious Yi Bang-won. Yi Bang-won, later known as King Taejong, ended up reigning for eighteen years, much longer than the two years of his brother and the six years of his father. Ultimately, Changdeok Palace served as the principal seat of the dynasty for more than 250 years and saw thirteen kings walk through its gates.
As you tour the palace ground, you are greeted with exquisite colours and breathtaking craftsmanship, and lucky for me, beautiful spring blossoms of whites, pinks and yellow. It is little wonder the Kings of the Joseon Dynasty greeted foreign dignitaries and hosted major gatherings in this tastefully refine palace.
Changdeokgung Palace Secret Garden Tour
Later on, King Seonjo expanded the palace grounds by about 500,000 square meters, including Huwon, which is self-contained and occupies sixty percent of Changdeokgung. Through history, this self-contained garden was been called by many names; as a private sanctuary for the king, it was called ‘Geumwon’ (Forbidden Garden). Later on, it was called ‘Naewon’ (Inner garden). Today, it is often called ‘Biwon’ or ‘Huwon’ (비원, Secret garden). The garden accommodates many features including a lotus pond, pavilions, and landscaped lawns, trees, and flowers which are over 300 years old. The palace buildings are situated on the ridge of Bugaksan mountain and artificial features are kept to a minimum to blend into their natural surroundings. The main palace is accessible by anyone after purchasing an entrance ticket, however, for the Changdeokgung Huwon Secret Garden tour, you need to buy the guided tour which is an extra 5,000 won. This is to preserve the original sanctity of the area.
Not surprisingly, Huwon during the beginning of spring wasn’t as beautiful as I imagined it to be. The trees were still bare and there were more browns than greens, but I imagine it would be quite beautiful if I had come later in the early summer when spring blossoms still bloom, and the tree is in full leaf.
Nakseonjae: An Unfortunate Love Story at Changdeokgung Palace
Nakseonjae Hall is a one-storey structure built in ikgong style, inside Changdeokgung Palace. At first glance, it stood as a stark contrast to the other vivid structures of the royal palace. Constructed in 1846, Nakseonjae has a very cosy, and humble feel to it, unlike the domineering, and vibrant coloured patterns of the palace used for royalty.
But that is not to say it doesn’t have its own beauty. Its traditional lattice doors were crafted in many different styles, and its walls and railings are carved and patterned with intricately placed and diverse decorative elements, giving it a more feminine allure. Complimenting this allure is its rear garden made of large stacking stones, beautiful flowers and oddly shaped stone structures which somehow blends harmoniously to create a perfectly landscaped and zen garden. A perfect area to serve as a private sanctuary for the kings and queens of Nakseonjae.
Although beautiful in its humble appeals, its birth was anything but. Built by King Heonjong, the Nakseonjae complex was intended for his beloved royal concubine —her sole usage. Korean royalty follows many strict rules and guideline, and being a king does not give one unrestricted right. So this was an event unheard of in the royal history of the Joseon Dynasty. But then again, he was very young.
Heonjong was 7 when he became king, the youngest in Joseon history. At the age of 14, he married Hyohyeon (of the Andong Kim clan) who unfortunately died two years later. Needing an heir to the throne, a search was spearheaded by his mother, and a final selection was held. In another unprecedented move, Heonjong attended the selection ceremony for his future wife and took an instant liking to one of the three final candidates, Kim Gyeong-bin. However, his mother and the royal clansmen preferred a different candidate, Hyojeong of the Namyang Hong clan (later known as Empress Dowager Myeongheon). And so, following tradition, Hyojeong became his second wife.
Call it fate, serendipity or unfortunate -Hyojeong failed to produce an heir. So she did what most women would do in her situation (not!), she called in a concubine –Kim Gyeong-bin. The king’s love at first sight.
Walking around Nakseonjae, you can feel the love built into the resident through its details –on the walls, tiles and the roof of Nakseonjae, you can see patterns of flowers (representing longevity), and grapes and calabash (symbolizes fertility). Very fitting for its name, which translates to ‘mansion of joy and goodness’.
Ironically, Nakseonjae is more famously known for the tragic demise of the royal family, rather than for its romantic architecture and unfortunate love story. King Heonjong died young, before his prime at twenty-one, and his only daughter and heir with Kim Gyeong-bin died prematurely. As King Heonjong died without an heir, the throne was passed to a distant descendant of King Yeongjo, King Cheoljong.
Changdeokgeong Palace was the main site of the royal court and the principal seat of government up until 1868. The last Emperor of Korea, King Sunjong, resided in the palace until his death in 1926. Though Gyeongbuk Palace is the more popular, and dominating palace in the city, Changdeok Palace is more historically rich and is revered as the more beautiful palace to visit. Overall, it was a great experience touring this Korean palace, being able to see how the royal chamber looks, strolling through the garden where the Kings and Queens used to enjoy their leisure time, and imagining the Kings of Joseon fishing at the pond while contemplating about palace intrigues.
How to get to Changdeokgeong Palace
2-71 Waryong-dong Jongno-gu, Seoul, Korea. MAP
Subway: Take the Anguk Subway, and take the 3rd exit. Continue straight for a couple blocks. The palace will be visible on your left. Or, you can take the Jongno 3-ga Station in Line 1, 3, and 5, and take the 6th exit. The Palace complex is about 5 minutes from the Anguk Station and 10 minutes down the Donhwamun-ro Street from Jongno 3-ga Station.
Bus: Board the blue bus numbered 109, 151, 162, 171, 172, 272, or take the 7025 green bus to reach the palace.
Days of Operation:
Open every day except for Mondays.
Best Time to Visit Changdeokgeong Palace
Seoul experiences a subtropical climate and has four distinct seasons: Spring (March and May) is pleasant but still a bit cold, with cherry blossom in full bloom. Summer (June — mid-July) is mostly hot and humid. Then comes the incessant rain —this is when the number of visitors is lowest. It is in September that the city gets some respite from the incessant pouring, and autumn brings in some beautiful colours and sights in the natural surroundings of the Changdeokgung Palace complex. Winter (November – March) is cold and harsh.
Changdeokgung Palace can be visited any time of the year and is quite beautiful during springtime when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom. However, if you wish to see the spectacular foliage of the Secret Garden, visit during the autumn season, between September and November.
Changdeokgeong Palace Hours of Operation
February ~ May & September – October: 9:00am – 6:00pm
June ~ August: 9:00am – 6:30pm
November ~ January: 9:00am – 5:30pm
The Secret Garden: (by guided tour only)
February ~ May & September – October: 10:00am – 5:30pm
June ~ August: 10:00am – 6:00pm
November ~ January: 10:00am – 4:30pm
Last admission: 1 hour before closing.
Huwon Guided Tour last admission: 2 hours before closing.
Parking is available.
Admission to Changdeokgung Palace
and Huwon Secret Garden Tour
Admission for Korean Citizens:
Adults ages 25-64: 3,000 won / Group (over 10): 2,400 won
Children and Teenagers ages 24 and under: Free
Huwon Secret Garden Tour
Adults ages 19 and over: 5,000 won
Children and Teenagers ages 7-18: 2,500 won
To participate in the Huwon tour, both regular admission (3,000 won) and admission to Huwon (5,000 won) must be purchased.
International Visitor Admission Fee:
Adults ages 19-64: Regular 3,000 won / Huwon 5,000 won
Children and Teenagers ages 18 and under: Regular 1,500 won / Huwon 2,500 won
Group (over 10): 20% discount offered for regular tickets only.
Free: Children 6 years old and under. Seniors over 65. Every month on the last Wednesday there is free admission, however, this does not include the Secret Garden Tour.
General Tours with Guided Speaker (1hr):
Korean: March ~ October: 9:30am , 11:30am , 1:30pm, 3:30pm, 4:30pm; November ~ February: 9:30am , 11:30am , 1:30pm, 3:30pm
English: 10:30am & 2:30pm
The Secret Garden Guided Tours (90 minutes):
There are only 100 tickets available for these tours. 50 tickets can be booked in advance online while 50 tickets will be held for walk-ups, and are sold at the ticket booth the day of.
Korean: Throughout the year there are 6 to 9 tours a day generally starting on the hour from 10:00 am throughout the year.
English: February ~ October: 11:30am, 1:30pm, 3:30pm; November ~ January: 11:30am & 1:30pm
Japanese: 10:30am & 2:30pm
Amenities: parking, restrooms, cafe, water fountains, free wheelchair rental, baby stroller rental
For more information visit their official website.
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