Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Seoul Historical Tour

Last Sunday I joined a tour of historic sites in Seoul organized by the Royal Asiatic Society, a group of English-speaking foreigners dedicated to learning more about the history and culture of Korea. I had just recently learned of this group and was excited about the opportunity to befriend some of the other foreigners here.

The tour was in English and led by Peter Bartholomew, a Canadian who has resided in Seoul for over 40 years. We met at Doksu Palace at 9 AM and proceeded to meander the more scenic backstreets of central Seoul for the next 6 hours. My fellow tour-goers were an impressive bunch, including two ambassadors, a former Peace Corps volunteer turned scholar, a group of Dutch businessmen, a Korean couple very dedicated to teaching their daughter English, and a smattering of various other nationalities.


Our tour led us from Doksu Palace through the neighborhood that housed the major foreign legations at the turn of the century, through the lesser-known but very impressive Gyeonghui Palace complex, northward to the Blue House (the presidential compound) at the northern end of Gwangbuk Palace, and then back south through the artsy area of Bukchon, ending up at Unhyon Palace, where Queen Min was married and where the last surviving members of the royal family lived out their final years. 

The Blue House, female traffic guard in foreground

Far'ners tromping towards Gyeonghui Palace
Along the way our guide shared many historical tidbits about past kings of Korea and particularly the events of the last decades of the Chosun dynasty. I learned some things I had not previously known or had forgotten about. Mr. Bartholomew pulled no punches when describing how the Japanese empire gradually took over Korean sovereignty, through a combination of guile, manipulation and thuggery. "I can't give this tour for Japanese people," he told us with a sly grin.

We saw the site of the former Russian legation where King Kojong fled after his wife Queen Min was murdered, and the teahouse where young Prince Sunjong drank the opium-laced tea which left him brain-damaged for the rest of his life. We also got a detailed account of the functionality and symbolism of the various buildings in the sprawling palace compounds, and how they had diminished through various wars and disasters.

Doksu Palace, with modern buildings in the background
Mr. Bartholomew spoke very passionately about the fate of traditional Korean homes, called hanok. Under his guidance the RAS has attempted to purchase several of these buildings to preserve them and prevent them from being torn down and replaced with modern apartments or shopping complexes. At several points along the tour he would say things like "There used to be a beautiful old house here, RAS tried to buy it, but it got torn down to build that monstrosity you see now."

I could tell that our guide felt quite strongly on this subject and his moving words were having a powerful effect on the rest of the group, but somehow I was having trouble summoning much indignation over the subject. I've always been a bit uncomfortable with foreigners coming into a country and preaching about how the local people should preserve their own culture. I had the same reaction when reading Alex Kerr's writing on his efforts to preserve the thatch-roofed country houses of traditional Japan.

It seems to me that the practice of preserving and restoring old buildings is much more of a Western compulsion than an Eastern one. At one point during the tour, Mr. Bartholomew himself said, "Koreans traditionally do not care much about keeping their old houses." Is it not just another form of cultural interference to try to alter the local peoples' idea of what is worth preserving?

Koreans and Japanese tend to be more concerned with maintaining ancient practices, techniques and art forms than in keeping old buildings and objects themselves. One famous temple in Japan has been torn down and rebuilt every 20 years, in exactly the same way and by exactly the same family, for centuries. The tea ceremony is an art form based on repeating the motions of an ancient task in exactly the same way, without changing or innovating. Similarly, Kabuki theater, flower arranging, traditional dance, and martial arts all tend to focus on preserving the way things were done in the ancient past, rather than creating new forms as is the tendency in Western art, music and theater. If Asians don't tell us Westerners to stop re-interpreting Shakespeare, who are we to tell them to stop tearing down their old buildings?

Admittedly, I have an innate blindness regarding matters of architecture. I tend to see all products of human construction as more or less equally ugly, equally invasive of the natural environment. In my ideal world we would all be living close together in tiny apartments, reserving as much space as possible for wilderness, so that the egrets and polar bears and such can have plenty of room to prance around in peace.

When people like Alex Kerr and Peter Bartholomew say that the old, traditional-style buildings are more beautiful than the new ones, I have to take their word for it, because everyone else seems to agree. I can't see it myself. To my view, traditional homes only seem more attractive because they are old and, consequently, rare. The people who built them originally were not guided by aesthetic concerns but simply chose the most functional, utilitarian design possible with the materials available at the time.

200 years from now, when nearly all of our ferro-concrete apartment highrises have been replaced by something more futuristic, I expect there will be some group of passionate individuals dedicated to "preserving the ferro-concrete apartment highrises." This group will no doubt be dominated by foreigners.




  1. changmi wrote:200 years from now, when nearly all of our ferro-concrete apartment highrises have been replaced by something more futuristic, I expect there will be some group of passionate individuals dedicated to "preserving the ferro-concrete apartment highrises." This group will no doubt be dominated by foreigners.

    Ha ha. That made me chuckle.

    I might give it only a hundred years. My ferro-concrete high-rise, built just thirty years ago, is slated for phoenixing (torn down, with something glorious rising from its ashes).

    A lot of the newer apartments are better looking then their decade-old counterparts. More glass and less cement, more trees and open space down below, and fewer cookie-cutter all-look-same layouts. This apartment building just went up a few hundred meters to the north of my place, and the complex to the south looks like something you might find back in Orange County.

  2. hanok is more close to nature. It applied the ondol system which is a floor heating system, and it also is a one story building (unlike japanese traditional buildings that have many stories) for the purpose of being close to the ground. It's supposed to be cool in the summer and warm in the winter. it's not because they're rare or old... well I guess I can't complain since you said you weren't that into architecture anyways

  3. I suppose you have a point about hanok being closer to nature (in the sense of being closer to the ground, which is where 95% of nature occurs^^). My point is that modern housing is "kinder" to nature. In a country as densely populated as modern South Korea, if every family lived in a hanok they would cover every square meter of land across the country, leaving no room for forests, wetlands or other natural habitats. Garbage pickup would be a logistical nightmare, and the celebrated traditional ondol heating system would quickly burn up every scrap of wood.