Unhyeon Palace, the main stage of Korea’s contemporary political history  open the window of AOD


Every Sunday afternoon in the months of April, May, September, and October the historic Insa-dong neighborhood hosts a culturally captivating event. A nobleman clad in a splendidly majestic outfit sits atop a large sedan chair, with some 20 bodyguards surrounding it.

This is a reenactment of Prince Heungseon’s commute from the king’s palace. The grand parade of King Gojong’s father takes the spectators from the 21st century urban neighborhood to a scene in the 19th century. Today’s parade of Prince Heungseon started at his private home, Unhyeon Palace. Let’s visit his palatial home on this sparkling autumn day.

Located in Unni-dong in the middle of Seoul, Unhyeon Palace can be reached from Anguk Station of subway line number three. Come up through exit number four and walk about 50 meters and you will see the grand residence. Unhyeon Palace is one of the most important historical sites from the 19th and 20th century Korea, for it was where Prince Heungseon wielded his immense political clout. Here’s Director Jeong Ki-cheol of Unhyeon Palace.

Unhyeon Palace is an important historical site of the late Joseon era. The country was making its transition from a medieval kingdom to a contemporary-era state. It was a chaotic time in general. So when King Gojong was crowned, his father Prince Heungseon ruled as regent for the first ten years of King Gojong’s reign, from 1863 to 1873. The prince limited the old ruling families’ power and discovered new talents to carry out reforms in the military, education, and customs. All his reformist ideas were said to have been shaped in the men’s quarter of Unhyeon Palace. However, the prince is also criticized for rejecting all outside influences, such as western studies and Catholicism, and missing the opportunity to modernize the country.

Prince Heungseon had ruled as regent for his son, King Gojong, who was enthroned when he was only twelve years old. The prince ruled with iron fist in the late Joseon period, strengthening king’s power and carrying out reformist policies. His private residence was named Unhyeon Palace, after his title was upgraded from mere prince to Great Prince Heungseon in December 1863. Consequently, his residence grew in size and splendor to live up to the new title. Here’s Director Jeong Ki-cheol again.

At its largest Unhyeon Palace measured about 33,000 square meters, taking up the area from the present day Japanese Cultural Center to Gyodong Elementary School and the Samwhan Corporation building. According to a historical record, the Unhyeon Palace walls stretched for several hundreds of meters and there were four large gates just as majestic as those of the king’s palace. This reference shows that Unhyeon Palace was just as grand as a royal palace.

Prince Heungseon lived in Unhyeon Palace until he passed away at age 79 in 1898. The residence was reduced to a quarter of its former size in the aftermath of the Japanese colonial rule and the Korean War. Royal descendants had inherited the palace, but had difficulty maintaining it. The palace has been under the ownership of the city of Seoul since 1993. Here’s cultural guide Ha Jeong-hyo to explain more.

Currently, the site measures only about 7,100 square meters, less than a quarter of its previous size. Descendants of Prince Heungseon asked the city to purchase the residence in 1993, so the city bought it for about 8.3 billion won, 7.5 million dollars in today’s exchange rate. At the time the city renovated the palace, building new restrooms and such. The renovation cost a total of 12.4 billion won, including 800 million won in interior props. It has been a cultural asset of Seoul since 1997.

The palace was opened to public after the city government purchased it, so Korean people can see how royal family members lived in the late 19th century.

- I thought it would be big and extravagant, since it was a palace. But it’s smaller and more humble than I thought. It’s a very endearing place.
- It seems like time has stopped here. It’s really noisy outside, but inside it’s so quiet. I feel like I’m in a different world.

Unhyeon Palace retains only a fraction of its former glory. It is so modest today that it’s hard to believe this place was the hub of all political activities in the late Joseon era. Then let’s begin the tour of Unhyeon Palace. The building standing to the right of the entrance is called Sujiksa수직사. This is where security guards and maintenance staff of Unhyeon Palace used to live. Reportedly, many of the Unhyeon Palace staff members were sent from the king’s royal palace. Behind Sujiksa is Noandang, the office of Prince Heungseon where he conducted most of his affairs.

The name Noandang means “comfort in old age.” This is where Prince Heungseon carried out his political plans and devised many reform ideas. Today the room houses only an eight-paneled silk screen and a settee and table set. This is an unexpectedly modest room for a regent who ruled behind the king and wielded great political influence.

-It’s the first time I’ve seen Noandang, Prince Heungseon’s office. It’s smaller and more modest than I imagined. The political affairs handled from this very room did not yield such positive results, but the room is nonetheless very meaningful in Korean history.
- The tour guide’s explanation gave meaning to the residence. It was like listening to an old folklore.

Noandang was the center of political activities in its heyday. But it was also a place of exile for Prince Heungseon when he was ousted from power. He died in the inner chamber of Noandang in 1898 at age 79.

If you leave Noandang and enter through the middle gate to the left, you will see Norakdang, the inner quarter of Unhyeon Palace. It is also called the Gate of Appointment, because people who were chosen by Prince Heungseon to serve in the royal court eventually passed through this gate. Norakdang means “pleasure in old age” and it is the central and grandest building of Unhyeon Palace. There are nine rooms in this quarter, and this is where King Gojong and his wife held their wedding ceremony. Here’s cultural tour guide Ha Jeong-hyo again.

The wedding took place on March 21, 1866 at two in the afternoon. The king was fifteen and the queen was sixteen. One month prior to the wedding, the queen moved here to receive training in royal etiquette. After the nuptial, King Gojong took the largest room, and the queen the second largest, leaving Prince Heungseon and his wife with only the smallest of the rooms. Lamenting the lack of space, the prince started building Irodang in the back where the prince and his wife took up residence. So Norakdang became the main inner quarter of Unhyeon Palace and Irodang the side residential building for the prince and his wife.

It is recorded that 1,641 entourage members and 700 horses were mobilized for the wedding and they all passed through Unhyeon Palace, a telling passage of how grand the palace was. In the room there are mannequins dressed up in the costumes of ladies in waiting and court maids, as well as household items and porcelain vases to liven up the visitors’ imaginations.

Irodang, where King Gojong’s mother used to stay, was built in the shape of a square to deter other men from accessing the area. So Irodang was essentially off-limits to all men, except for Prince Heungseon. Here’s cultural tour guide Ha Jeong-hyo to explain more about it.

“I” in Irodang means “two” and “ro” means “old.” So Irodang means a place for the two oldest people, the prince and his wife. The building had a three-tiered foundation and the courtyard was in the middle of the building. It was so designed to prevent outside men from visiting the ladies in waiting, who stayed in the rooms across the courtyard. From above, the building looks like a square.

A museum stands in front of Irodang. Comprised of 18 exhibition halls, the museum displays artifacts related to Prince Heungseon, ceremonial gowns from King Gojong’s wedding, and other relics related to Unhyeon Palace.

Prince Heungseon used to commute between Unhyeon Palace and King Gojong’s palace. In remembrance of this daily travel, Unhyeon Palace hosts an event reenacting the princely parade every spring and fall. The parade is held twice every Sunday and the role of Prince Heungseon is open to anyone. When selected to play the prince in the enactment, the participant can dress up in the princely garb and ride the sedan chair around the residence.

- I’m wearing Prince Heungseon’s outfit and feel like I’ve become the prince himself. It was a great experience to ride on the sedan chair and go around Unhyeon Palace. I definitely felt like a nobleman.

It’s a terrific feeling to parade around the palace on an impressive sedan chair surrounded by twenty bodyguards.

Cultural performances and music concerts are held every Sunday in the middle of Unhyeon Palace. The elegant sounds of Korean musical instrument resound all around the autumnal palace.

- The weather is great and the atmosphere is peaceful. To hear the music of haegeum makes it even better. It is really nice to listen to such music in Unhyeon Palace. I can really appreciate the serenity and relaxed atmosphere.
- I really love the haegeum performance. I also like the weather and Unhyeon Palace. It’s great to hear music in such an exceptional place.

Imagine this when you are at Unhyeon Palace. The young King Gojong used to play in the yard, Empress Myengseong was trained in queenly demeanor in the inner quarter, and Prince Heungseon ruled the nation with his iron will. They have all parted from this world, but the sun, the wind, and the trees still present in Unhyeon Palace must still remember them. Although Unhyeon Palace represents one of the more unfortunate times in Korean history, it is still an important relic from our past.

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