The picturesque Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon, just outside Seoul, was built by King Jeongjo to honour his father
IT IS a sunny day in Suwon, the capital of Gyeonggi-do province. The city is just 30 kilometres south of Seoul, making it a convenient day trip from the South Korean capital and an easy commute for locals preferring not to live in the big city.
Suwon’s most famous historical attraction is Hwaseong Fortress, a Unesco World Cultural Heritage Site since 1997.
“You know the Korean series ‘Yi San’ (Lee San)? That series was based on the life of King Jeongjo, the ruler who built this fortress and Hwaseong Haenggung Palace,” says Kevin, our friendly local guide.
I find myself wishing my mother and my sisters were with me. Major fans of the series, I can picture them walking through the fortress and the palace reciting the characters’ conversations and telling me the story of Yi San.
Born as Yi San, King Jeongjo was the son of Crown Prince Sado or Sado Seja, who was put to death by his own father, King Yeongjo, by being placed in a sealed large wooden rice chest. Thirteen years after King Jeongjo acceded to the throne, he began making plans to relocate his father’s grave in order to grant him eternal peace. Searching the whole country for the perfect place for his father’s new tomb, King Jeongjo decided to re-inter his father in Suwon.
King Jeongjo, the 22nd king of the Joseon Dynasty, built Suwon Hwaseong Fortress as an expression of his will to reform the nation and to show his filial piety towards his father.
Suwon Hwaseong Fortress, a piled-stone and brick fortress, stretches for a total of 5.74 km and surrounds the centre of Suwon City. We have too little time to walk the full distance around the fortress so we jump on the Hwaseong Train, a tourist train that travels between Paldalsan Mountain and Yeonmudae. The front of the train is shaped like a powerful dragon to symbolise King Jeongjo while the guest cars resemble the palanquins that once carried the king during his excursions.
The Hwaseong Fortress influenced the development of Korean architecture, urban planning and landscaping. Jeong Yakyong, a leading scholar of the School of Practical Learning, designed the fortress. combining architectural and scientific knowledge from the East and West. The design was characterised by careful planning, the combination of residential and defensive features, and the application of the latest scientific knowledge in that era. Hwaseong is also unique in that it covers both flat and hilly land, making use of the terrain for maximum defensive efficacy.
From the Hwaseong Train, we can see the “chongan”, as the holes in the fortress walls are known. They were used to shoot at the enemy while remaining protected by the wall. The shape of the holes are different: some are drilled straight outwards to shoot at far off enemies, others at a downward slant to shoot at enemies close to the fortress wall.
Equally remarkable was the completion report for the building of Hwaseong Fortress, “Hwaseong Seongyeok Uigwe”, which was published in 1801 and provided details and particulars about the fortress design and construction process. After the periods of Japanese colonial rule and the Korean War, the fortress suffered partial damage and loss and “Hwaseong Seongyeok Uigwe” served as the main resource for the restoration works.
We are lucky to arrive at Hwaseong Haenggung Palace just in time for the martial art show. The performers are dressed in traditional royal guard costumes and quite aside from staging realistic fistfights, they also show how to use traditional swords, spears, lances and halberds. The performance is staged in front of the main gate of the palace twice daily – at 11 and again at 3 – except Monday. The show is free of charge and comes complete with English translation.
Hwaseong Haenggung Palace is the biggest haenggung, or temporary palace, of the Joseon Dynasty. King Jeongjo built it to accommodate his stay when he came to pay respect to his father’s royal tomb. He stayed at this palace a total of 13 times during his reign and also held various important events including the 60th birthday celebration of his mother in 1795.
Most of the palace was destroyed by fire during Japan’s colonial rule in the early 20th century, but a restoration project began in 1996, marking the 200th anniversary of the construction of Suwon Hwaseong Fortress, and the royal villa has been open to the public since 2003.
Suwon, deeply tied to Jeongjo’s deep loyalty to his father, is also known as “The City of Filial Piety”.