Hwaseong Fortress, the epitome of late Joseon Dynasty architecture, surrounds the traditional city center of Suwon. Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997, the fortress was carefully thought out and meticulously designed to reflect the thoughts and ideals of King Jeongjo, the 22nd ruler of Joseon, who also had the entire construction process precisely documented.
In the spring of 1795, Hanyang, the capital of the Joseon Dynasty and today’s Seoul, overflowed with visitors from all over the country. Suspension of the night curfew and temporary tents could not resolve the overwhelming demand for accommodations. But shopkeepers celebrated the unexpected surge of customers.
The visitors had all come for one reason: to catch a sight of the king’s procession. Posters put up throughout the country announced the king’s impending travel, informing commoners when they could see him at close range. In those days, the king was likened to a sun god. Seeing the king was compared to being awash in a celestial light. Those who traveled from afar to catch a glimpse were called gwangwang minin, meaning “the people who came to see the light.” Today the word gwangwangmeans “tourism.”
The King’s Filial Piety
At around seven in the morning on the ninth day of the second month of 1795, King Jeongjo formally greeted his mother, Lady Hyegyeong, at the front gate of Changdeok Palace, mounted his horse and departed with her for Hwaseong Fortress, where they would stay for four days. The primary reasons for the trip were to celebrate Lady Hyegyeong’s 60th birthday at the fortress and to visit the tomb of Crown Prince Sado, the king’s father, located in its vicinity.
Nothing was spared in the preparations. For starters, the royal procession itself stretched for one kilometer. Thus, it covered five percent of the 20-kilometer trip simply by lining up. Still, it took two days for the lumbering procession to reach Suwon, home of the fortress. The Joseon Dynasty had never seen such a sight. It still resonates with many Koreans today as an exemplary display of the 18th century monarch’s filial piety.
Jeongjo became the next in line for the throne at the tender age of 11, when Crown Prince Sado died after spending eight days crammed into a wooden rice chest. Sado’s own father, King Yeongjo, ordered the lockup on charges of blasphemy and treason. History suggests that the crown prince was mentally ill and terrorized the palace. There also were rumors that he was victimized by factional strife and a palace plot.
The young Jeongjo, now named the son of his dead uncle, spent the next 14 years constantly fearing that palace officials would try to assassinate him. “I am so fearful that it’s like sitting on pins and needles, and my situation is as perilous as eggs piled on top of each other,” he said. Those who raised his suspicions “walk with pounding footsteps, showing no signs of caution or reverence,” he explained. In 1776, following the death of his grandfather, he stood before those people and proclaimed himself to be the son of Crown Prince Sado.
The ill-fated crown prince’s tomb lies on Mt. Hwa, some 10 kilometers south of Mt. Paldal, the highest point of Hwaseong Fortress. Befitting the name of Mt. Hwa, which means “flower mountain,” the tomb is lavishly decorated, surrounded by 12 exquisite stones, carved in the shape of lotus buds, and retaining panels. The site, once the location of the Suwon county office, had for hundreds of years been regarded as an auspicious site for royal burials.
In 1789, King Jeongjo moved the county office to where it stands today, and moved his father’s tomb from Yangju, north of Hanyang, to Mt. Hwa. He then renamed the tomb Hyeollyungwon, meaning the “garden of prominent rise,” and built a temple nearby to pray for his father’s happiness in the afterlife. And so, 33 years after his death, Lady Hyegyeong was finally able to properly pay her respects to her deceased husband.
Recalling Memories of 200 Years Past
A grand royal procession was a ceremonial and political event often undertaken by the pre-modern dynasties of Northeast Asia. But King Jeongjo’s procession to Hwaseong Fortress broke the mold. The scale was the biggest since the founding of the Joseon Dynasty in 1392, as was the budget.
For the eight-day trip, the palace mobilized 6,000 people and 1,400 horses and allocated 100,000 nyang, equivalent to around seven billion won today (approximately US$ 6.2 million). Some 120 craftsmen gathered to construct the palanquin that carried Lady Hyegyeong in the procession. It cost 2,785 nyang (200 million won), worth two of Korea’s most expensive luxury sedans today.
These figures can be quoted nowadays thanks to the meticulous records of the procession kept at the time. One of them is “Record of King Jeongjo’s Procession to the Tomb of Crown Prince Sado in Eulmyo Year” (Wonhaeng eulmyo jeongni uigwe), an eight-volume record of the entire event, including all of the preparatory stages. Sixty-three banchado, illustrations showing all of the participants and their positions in the procession, greatly enrich the record. Kim Hong-do (1745-c. 1806), a famed genre painter and court artist, assembled the most talented artists to produce the artworks. The illustrations, therefore, have supreme documentary and artistic value.
Another important record is “Painting of King Jeongjo’s Procession to His Father’s Tomb at Hwaseong” (Hwaseong neunghaeng do), an eight-panel folding screen. It depicts highlights of the procession as well as a detailed picture of the completed fortress, which indicates it was painted a year after the procession. There are some lively, delightful details here and there, such as pictures of soldiers trying to control crowds, groups of young scholars enjoying the scenery, men trying to stop others from fighting, and taffy and rice cake sellers weaving through the crowds.
Many people began to think back 200 years to this time when the novel “Eternal Empire” (Yeongwon-han jeguk) by Lee In-hwa was published in 1993. Based on the assumption that the monarch was poisoned to death, the novel was a bestseller and a movie of the same title soon followed. When the Hwaseong Fortress was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, an annotated compilation of the records the king left behind was published and the illustrations of the procession, originally black and white woodblock print pictures, were colored and republished, thus becoming high-end cultural products. These moves all helped reinstate King Jeongjo to his reputation as the reformer monarch who led the Joseon Renaissance. It reawakened Koreans’ long forgotten memories of an admirable king.
The procession was not King Jeongjo’s first to pay respects to his father. After relocating his father’s tomb, he visited it every year, so the procession of 1795 was his sixth. The processions served the king’s ulterior motives. Since many soldiers were mobilized for these visits, they became an opportunity to check their state of training and inspect the defense system of the capital. Moreover, the deployment of so many soldiers meant that new roads and bridges would be needed, thus expanding the kingdom’s transportation network. Consequently, the processions reaffirmed the king’s authority and power.
Purpose of the Fortress
Hwaseong Fortress was an invincible stronghold built with the latest technology. It constituted a new multipurpose town designed by Jeong Yak-yong (1762-1836), a scholar advocating the new “practical learning” (Silhak), who had also designed the king’s pontoon bridge. But examination of the design suggests that a military fortification was not all that the king had in mind.
Streams were channeled through the town and a new cross-shaped road network was built to facilitate the movement of people and goods. During his four-day stay, the king paid his respects at his father’s tomb, held a special state civil service exam for the selection of regional officials, observed the soldiers’ training day and night, held his mother’s 60th birthday banquet and then another banquet for the elderly people in the local area. In the new fortified town that he had created, he tested everything that he conceived and tried to implement after much agony and deliberation. It was a year since he had started preparations for the royal procession, six years since he had relocated his father’s tomb, and 20 years since he had ascended the throne.
With its walls stretching 5.7 kilometers in circumference and standing 4.9 to 6.2 meters high, Hwaseong Fortress was completed in 1796, the year after King Jeongjo’s grand procession to his father’s tomb. Construction of the whole fortification took just two years and six months to finish, its 40-some defense facilities including four beautiful main gates in the north, south, east and west. The western command post stands on the highest part of the fortress at the top of Mt. Paldal; Banghwasuryu Pavilion (whose name means “pavilion for courting flowers and seeking willows”) and Hwahong Gate, one of the smaller gates which surmounts arched sluices, are lovely at any time of the year; and the three observation towers called Gongsimdon, representing a new type of structure made of brick and stones and hollow on the inside, could
only be seen here
The temporary palace at Hwaseong was damaged during the Japanese colonial period and used at various times as a hospital, school or police station. But the palace was restored to its original state in 2003, and that is what visitors see today. The accurate restoration was possible as King Jeongjo had the entire construction process documented in “Record of the Construction of Hwaseong Fortress” (Hwaseong seongyeok uigwe).
Reborn as a World Heritage Site
When the UNESCO team visited Suwon in April 1997, a photocopied version of “Record of the Construction of Hwaseong Fortress” found its way into the hands of Nimal de Silva, who was leading the field inspection of the fortress. Already impressed by the architectural diversity of the defense structures of the fortress, he marveled at the vast and exhaustively detailed document.
The book is said to have played a decisive role in the decision to bestow World Heritage status to Hwaseong, which had suffered repeated damage and restoration over a period of just two centuries. The UNESCO team’s reaction to the book is in line with the way Koreans today like to think of King Jeongjo. In the records he left behind, his sincerity shines through and sheds light on his thoughts about monarchy and republic, the transition from pre-modern to modern, and the individual and the state.
Lee Chang-guy Poet and Literary Critic
Ahn Hong-beom Photographer