The year is 1866. It has been three years since the young Gojong has become the 26th king of Joseon. This is also the year where he would marry the daughter from the Min family clan, who would later become Queen Myeongseong.
Two times a year, in spring and in fall, the re-enactment of the royal wedding ceremony takes place in Unhyeongung to celebrate this event, the last royal wedding of the Joseon Dynasty.
The Royal Wedding Ceremony
A royal wedding is complicated. It is complicated enough to marry off a prince, but a king? Ten times more complicated. Gojong was only twelve when he ascended to the throne but talk of marriage emerged soon after. Finding a suitable bride, a future queen, would take much thought and deliberation; a decision which would affect the political scene for years to come.
In the case of King Gojong, the search for a potential bride took place two months before the wedding. A royal decree was announced prohibiting the marriage of all girls between the ages of twelve and seventeen. After a month and a half, five girls were selected and then narrowed down to three a couple of days later. The future Queen Myeongseong was finally chosen as the bride a mere two weeks before the decided wedding date.
A royal wedding goes through six ritual procedures until the actual ceremony. These ceremonies would take several days in all.
1. Officials of the royal court carry out an official “proposal” ceremony at the queen-to-be’s palace, where she would have been living after being chosen as the bride.
2. A ceremony takes place where wedding gifts are given to the queen-to-be from the officials of the royal court.
3. The royal court consults and decides on a “day of good fortune/luck” for the wedding and informs the queen-to-be in another ceremony.
4. Official investiture ceremony of the queen
5. Ceremony where the King goes to the palace of the Queen to bring her back to the main palace.
6. The wedding ceremony.
For the sake of simplicity, the re-enactment ceremony isn’t a fully accurate depiction of that in the Joseon era. Everything is neatly packed into a smaller time frame, which takes approximately two hours. Most of the re-enactment is truly performance-based, omitting much of the formalities such as the reading of a million official documents.
While all this is happening at the palace, a royal procession from Changdeokgung to Unhyeongung – the procession of the King – takes place. After the queen has been anointed, she retreats briefly (for this is a re-enactment of ceremonies which take during several days) until the King arrives.
Once again, traditional dance troupes take center stage during that waiting time. You can opt to watch the performances, meander around the palace grounds, or follow the parade as it comes in, risking the chance of not being able to secure a good spot to see the ceremony, but it’s your choice.
After the King arrives, the Queen reappears and they go through the official rituals.
After the ceremony, the King and Queen make their way back to the main palace.
A main attraction, the re-enactment of the royal wedding ceremony attracts many visitors because it isn’t an everyday event. And when I say many, I mean MANY. I arrived at the palace about an hour early and there weren’t any seats available. (Most seats are reserved for VIP and press.) I did manage to find a spot where I could watch the ceremony from the side, but some of the props and equipment restricted my view. I shifted places as the ceremony progressed, but if you want to take “serious” photographs, it is best to go early to grab a seat. (You can tell what kind of touristy photos you’d get if you go at a “regular” time by looking at the ones I took in comparison to the ones from Korea.net press photos.)
Also, as it is for any performance taking place without numbered seating, there will be some kerfuffle among the spectators about blocked views, “saving seats”, and so on. In the end, most will be watching the ceremony standing up, so if you’re on the short side, again, go early.
As a history buff, I knew I would enjoy the ceremony no matter what, but there was a detail about the ceremony I greatly appreciated: the casting of King Gojong and Queen Myeongseong. They were portrayed by high school students from a traditional arts school, which is very age appropriate since both King Gojong and Queen Myeongseong were teenagers when they got married. Also, Queen Myeongseong looked like what a traditional Korean beauty would look like, that is, not like that anime-looking K-pop idol beauty that is so craved nowadays. (For the record, I have absolutely no problem with the K-pop idol look. It’s just not proper in a Joseon Dynasty setting.)
I’d recommend this ceremony without hesitation, attached with the warning to go early. It’s a stone’s throw from Insa-dong and Changdeokgung, and a pleasant walk away from Gyeongbokgung, so it’s very easy to fit into your sightseeing schedule. After the ceremony, I took a walk around the palace for a closer look.
Unhyeongung is tucked away in the pocket between Gyeongbokgung and Changgyeonggung in central Seoul. It is a small unassuming palace which served as the temporary living quarters for Gojong before his accession to the throne, and also as the residence for his father, Heungseon Daewongun, who acted as regent in the early years of Gojong’s reign.
The name means “Cloudy Hill” or “Hill of Clouds”, after a hill which is no longer there. The palace had been in the possession of the descendants until 1991 and is now managed by Seoul City as a historical site.
The palace hosts many cultural events during the year: art and artifacts exhibitions, musical performances, special performances for the holidays, educational programs including traditional etiquette, traditional arts and crafts classes, or you can even pretend to be royalty for a day. There are children-friendly programs as well. The palace is also available as a venue for traditional wedding ceremonies, should you want to get married in a true royal palace.
As the living quarters for the King’s father and also the Queen for some time, the palace has set up scenes from their daily lives for viewing throughout the palace. Some might find the mannequins a bit disturbing, especially in dark places, like I did, so I’m going to leave those out.
* For more photos about the ceremony, check out Korea.net’s official Flickr:
* Unhyeongung’s Official Site
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- Erotica in Korea – Racy folk paintings from the Joseon Dynasty