July 2, 2013

The Eight Gates of Seoul

As my year in Seoul comes to an end, and now that my concerts are over, I’ve had time to unwind and explore the city more. My biggest project this year was a work written for Contemporary Music Ensemble Korea (CMEK) titled “Gateways.” The inspiration for this piece came from the 8 gates that were found along the city’s fortress wall for hundreds of years. As has been well-documented here and here, there are today only 6 gates still standing. Each of the gates has a long history of destruction and rebirth, a history that continues to this day (The South gate, Sungnyemun, was just rebuilt after sustaining significant damage from arson). As a project, I set out to photograph each of the remaining gates as well as the locations of the missing gates, and to hike all of the remaining sections of the old city walls. Here are the results, presented in the same order as the movements of my piece.

Note: each of the gates goes by at least two names. I’ve listed them under their official names, with the other names (which are titled according to their directional placement, and are often more commonly-used) in parentheses.

Heunginjimun 興仁之門 (Dongdaemun 동대문 )

This, the East gate, is one of the big ones. (The gates that are located along the wall in cardinal directions are big gates, whereas the other gates are smaller.) Today, this area is best-known for the Dongdaemun market. Historically, markets were located near the city gates for matters of convenience. It was the ideal meeting point for those living outside and inside the city walls. As with all the gates, it’s surrounded by a laser security system to prevent anyone from getting too close and doing something rash.

Heunginjimun at night

Heunginjimun at night

Hyehwamun 惠化門 (Dongsomun 동소문)

It doesn’t take too long to walk the fortress wall from Heunginjimun north towards Hyehwamun. In contrast to the muted colors of Heunginjimun, Hyehwamun is bright and saturated with color. During most days, you can step through the gate and have a glimpse at the two phoenixes on the ceiling.

Hyehwamun at night

The interior ceiling of Hyehwamun, depicting a pair of phoenix.

Sukjeongmun 肅靖門 (Bukdaemun 북대문)

From Hyewhamun, one can follow the city wall past the mayor’s house and up the mountains behind Gyeongbokgung Palace. After stopping at a checkpoint, where you must present your ID, you’re able to move on towards Sukjeongmun, the North gate. The trail is dotted with lookout points, manned by soldiers with guns. Other military, dressed in less-intimidating clothing, are posted along the way to ensure no one is taking any prohibited photos.

Sukjeongmun is different from the other gates. It’s located on top of a mountain, which would have made it rather impractical for getting in and out of the city. It seems to have been built for philosophical reasons. After all, it’s a bit strange to have gates in every direction except one. Unlike the other gates, this one was kept shut, perhaps to prevent bad energy from entering the city walls. And while it is named a “big gate,” it really compares more with the smaller gates than with the much larger South and East gates.

If you go here, you might consider trying to speak to the military personnel watching the gate. I was impressed by one captain’s knowledge of the gates, and learned a few details I’d never heard.

Sukjeongmun. Not pictured: soldiers with guns.

Changuimun 彰義門 (Buksomun 북소문)

Moving on from Sukjeongmun, one follows the wall that contours along the mountain ridge, eventually descending what might be one of the longest staircases on earth. At the bottom is Changuimun, which serves as a gateway to the Buam-dong neighborhood. I’m not sure why, but this is one of my favorite gates in the city. Perhaps this is because, besides Sukjeongmun, it’s the most peaceful gate. It’s also the oldest standing gate, having last been rebuilt around 1740.

Changuimun at night

Changuimun at night

Donuimun 敦義門 (Seodaemun 서대문)

One can continue along the fortress wall, climbing up Inwangsan then descending towards Seodaemun Prison. Eventually, you may come across an intersection with a small monument, memorializing where Donuimun once stood. In 1915 it was destroyed during the Japanese occupation to make way for a road. Unfortunately it hasn’t yet been rebuilt, though the city government had plans to back in 2009.

Today a monument stands where Donuimun (the great West gate) onc

On top of the monument there is a description of Donuimun with s

Souimun 昭義門 (Seosomun 서소문)

The fortress wall in this area is no more, and it’s very difficult to find the spot where Souimun once stood. But there, nestled between some shrubs in front of a parking garage, is a plaque marking the location of Souimun. It’s easy to miss, considering it’s not even at eye-level as you pass by. It, too, was destroyed during the Japanese occupation, and one hopes the city may find the funds and time to rebuild it soon. Having visited all the other gates prior to this spot, it’s a little heartbreaking to see the lack of attention paid to this area.

This plaque marks where Souimun once stood. It's nestled between

Another view of the Souimun marker. To give some perspective, th

Sungnyemun 崇禮門 (Namdaemun 남대문)

This is the most famous of the gates, being Korea’s “National Treasure No. 1.” It was just reopened in May 2012 after a 3-year restoration project to repair the damages from arson. The reconstruction of this gate can be seen as a blessing though. Whereas some other gates and landmarks in Seoul were hastily rebuilt using modern materials (concrete, for instance), the government took the time to rebuilt this gate according to tradition. It took much longer, and was surely more expensive, but the results are impressive.

Sungnyemun at night

Gwanghuimun 光熙門 (Namsomun 남소문)

Coming from Namsan, one can follow the fortress wall to this gate, which now stands in a slightly different location from where it was previously located before the Korean War. Unlike the newly-restored Sungnyemun, this gate has an dusty quality about it. (Even though it was restored in 1976.) Plants grow from the roof, and a lawnmower is currently residing inside the gate (as of June 2013). The ceiling of this gate is by far my favorite, owing to its faded and worn look. I hope they don’t go repainting it anytime soon.

Gwanghuimun from the front

Gwanghuimun from the back

Gwanghuimun ceiling

A lot has been written about these gates in recent years, and there seems to be a renewed effort on the part of the government to take care of these landmarks. Perhaps spurred by the rebuilding of Sungnyemun, both Heunginjimun and Gwanghuimun are currently undergoing some repairs. All of the gates now have security posts and alarm systems (for better or for worse), and I hope this recognition of the gates’ importance will soon lead to the reconstruction of the missing gates. It’s not the first time the gates have been destroyed and rebuilt, after all.

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