One of the required courses this semester at the Methodist Theological University was “Understanding Korean Society”. It may have been an ambitious title as almost everyone who has lived in another country may agree, it takes a lot longer than about 13 hours of class time to understand a culture. Just ask many of the vulagis in Fiji who still struggle to understand our way of life after living here for half a decade or more.
However our Professor, Rev. Dr. Joong Urn Kim, did his best at providing us with the relevant materials to read and various snapshots of Korean culture and society during these classes. With exams over and only one term paper due. Professor Kim took our class of international students on a field trip to conclude our course. Our destination was not far from the University – a 20 minute walk or a two-stop bus ride to Gwanghwamun, which is where the southern and main gate of our destination was located. Our expedition was to take us into and around Gyeongbokgung, the main and largest palace of the five grand Palaces built by the Joseon Dynasty, who ruled Korea for over six centuries.
I’ve been to grand locations before. I have walked up to the gates of Buckingham Palace with my mother and late father; visited Windsor Castle with my sister, and visited palaces, castles and cathedrals and temples in a number of countries. I remember watching Bernardo Bertolucci’s film, “The Last Emperor” about the life of Puyi, the last Emperor of China and being captivated by the image of the Forbidden City (the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty in Beijing) no doubt due to Bertolucci’s vision. I remember wondering what it might have been like to live in this huge complex, or to visit it or something like it one day. Twenty-five years later, my wonder turned to amazement, I entered Gyeongbokgung, the imperial palace of Korea.
Gyeongbokgung Palace was originally built in 1394, following the design of the Korean architect Jeong Do-jeon. Over time it came to have some 330 buildings within the palace complex. The palace complex includes the Gyeonghoreu pavilion, which is depicted on the 10,000 Won Korean note, and the National Folk Museum of Korea. At the entrance, guards in traditional costume perform regularly the change of the guard ceremony.
But the complex has had its fair share of disasters and tragedies. As we walked around the palace grounds we learned from our tour guide that the palace was severely damaged by fire in 1553, and its costly restoration, ordered by then king, Myeongjong, was completed in the following year. Within forty years (in the late 16th Century), however, most of the Palace was burnt to the ground during the Japanese invasions of Korea. The palace site was left in ruins for the next three centuries. In the mid Nineteenth Century, during the regency of Daewongun, the palace buildings were reconstructed and formed a massive complex with 330 buildings and 5,792 rooms. Standing on nearly 107 acres of land, Gyeongbokgung again became an iconic symbol for both the Korean nation and the Korean royal family. Tragedy struck in 1895, when Japanese agents murdered and violated the body of Empress Mysongseoung. Her husband, Emperor Gojong, left the palace; the Imperial family never returned to Gyeongbokgung.
Following the Japanese annexation of Korea on August 29, 1910 and its subsequent occupation, Japanese colonial government systematically demolished all but 10 of the 330 buildings and constructed the massive Japanese General Government Building in front of the throne hall in order to completely erase the symbol and heritage of the Joseon Dynasty. By the end of the Korean war that followed liberation from Japan, only seven buildings remained including Geunjeongjeon - the Imperial Throne Hall and Gyeonghoeru Pavilion – the state banquet hall built on an island in an artificial, rectangular lake, both which have been declared as national treasures by the Korean government.
In 1989, the South Korean government started a 40-year initiative to rebuild the hundreds of structures that were destroyed by the colonial government of the Empire of Japan, during the period of occupied Colonial Korea. By the end of 2009, it was estimated that approximately 40 percent of the structures that were standing before the Japanese occupation of Korea were restored or reconstructed. Another 20 year restoration project is planned by the South Korean government to restore Gyeongbokgung to its former status.
One of the tourists in the group being shown around by the guide asked about the current status of the royal family. The simple but poignant response from the guide was that after the emperor died, none of the royal family led any type of resistance to the Japanese occupation of Korea. Following liberation, the government decided that there was no leadership role for the descendents of the royal family that had stood by and allowed the country to be exploited by the invaders. Whatever romantic or idealistic notions of hereditary rule my fellow tourists may have had disappeared very quickly with that statement about responsibility.
As I continued to walk around the complex, soaking in the architecture, the scenery, the history of this piece of land that had seen so much - life, celebration, death, destruction, liberation and restoration; I wondered about our history, our national treasures. How many living in Suva know that the original village of Suva was located where the Thurston Botanical Gardens are today? Or why Walu Bay is called “walu” bay? How many Christians know that the first official missionaries to Fiji were three Tahitian men who built Fiji’s first church on the island of Oneata? Until 2000 how many Indo-Fijian’s knew that their ancestors were quarantined on Nukulau Island?
We need to share stories, our his-stories and her-stories so that we continue to grow into a nation we will truly have a common story in which each one of us is included and through that, find their place in this island nation we call home.
Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity.