Field Report: Seodaemun Independence Park, Seoul, South Korea (13 December 2014)

13Dec14 005 South Korea Seoul Seodaemun Independence Park Dongnimmun

The last major stop of my winter 2014 visit to Seoul was an important monument raised to commemorate Korean independence – not from Japan, but from the nation’s centuries-old status as a tributary state of Imperial China.

Seodaemun Prison, which I described in my previous post, is the centrepiece of Seoul’s Seodaemun Independence Park: a collection of monuments and historic relics set within a leafy corner of the city.

The park surrounds Seodaemun Prison and stretches off to the south-east. I didn’t explore the entire area thoroughly – just the southern tip, where the park’s oldest landmark is the main attraction.

To get there, I went on a stroll along a paved path that sloped gently downhill from the former prison’s main gate.

13Dec14 001 South Korea Seoul Seodaemun Independence Park

Along the way, I passed a wooden hall called Dongnipgwan. Although the structure we see today is of fairly recent vintage (built in 1996), its origins go back much further.

13Dec14 002 South Korea Seoul Seodaemun Independence Park Dongnipgwan

The old Dongnipgwan (“Independence Hall”), then called Mohwagwan, was constructed during the Joseon era as a venue for entertaining visiting emissaries from Imperial China. During that time, the partnership was not an equal one: at the risk of oversimplifying the rather complex arrangement, suffice it to say that China was held to be the master (though in an increasingly symbolic sense as time went on) and Joseon was its vassal. When the Chinese emperor’s representative came visiting, he wouldn’t deferentially seek an audience with the king – instead, the king would go out to meet him at the Mohwagwan, and then personally escort him back to the palace for a series of lavish rites and receptions. When that old tributary relationship ended with the proclamation of the Korean Empire in the late 19th century, the hall was renovated by the Independence Club, a Korean patriotic association founded by the pioneering nationalist Seo Jae-pil (Philip Jaisohn). Destroyed during Japanese colonial rule, the hall was rebuilt nearly two decades ago, albeit on a site a few hundred metres from its original location.

From here, I continued on towards the southern end of the park, dominated by a large stone arch.

13Dec14 003 South Korea Seoul Seodaemun Independence Park Dongnimmun

Financed through donations raised by the Independence Club and designed by Seo Jae-pil, the Independence Gate (completed in 1897) was raised as a symbol of the new Korean Empire’s departure from the old tributary system that was centred on an increasingly weakened and unstable China. Gone were the days when the Joseon monarch would submit (even symbolically) to the authority of the Chinese Emperor: now, Korea had its own Emperor, who would submit to no other. Of course, we all know that this new arrangement wouldn’t last, with Japan quickly taking over and Korea eventually transforming into an emperor-free republic after the Second World War … but the fiercely independent spirit of modern-day Korean nationalism (with all its good and bad parts) might have found its first soaring expression in the carved stone of this Western-style monument.

13Dec14 004 South Korea Seoul Seodaemun Independence Park Dongnimmun

After passing through and beyond, I looked back and saw two forlorn stone pillar bases standing in front of the arch. These are all that remain of Yeongeunmun, the ceremonial gateway built near Mohwagwan as a token of the Joseon kingdom’s deference to Imperial China, later demolished and replaced by the Independence Gate that now stands behind it.

13Dec14 005 South Korea Seoul Seodaemun Independence Park Dongnimmun

Here, where the beginnings of modern Korea were so triumphantly celebrated, I called an end to my winter 2014 visit to Seoul. Thanks for coming with me on this journey, and please look forward to my next series of posts documenting a spring 2015 holiday in Japan’s southern main island of Kyūshū.

Until then, cheerio.

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