Gwanghwamun, the Heart of Seoul

Written by on January 17, 2011 in Travel

Gwanghwamun Square seen from the south

Once upon a time, Seoul was a city enclosed in four great gates from the north, south, east and west. In the center of the city was Gyeongbokgung, the royal palace that was home to the kings of the Joseon Dynasty (1392 ~1897).
Although Seoul has expanded vastly over the years, Gyeongbok Palace and its surrounding area is still the beating heart of the city. The area is simply called Gwanghwamun.

Gwanghwamun

Gwanghwamun

Gwanghwamun (광화문, 光化門, “Gwanghwa Gate”) is actually the name of the south gate to Gyeongbok Palace. Originally built in 1395, it was destroyed during the Japanese invasions in the 16th century and rebuilt in 1864. The gate was again destroyed during the Korean War, to be rebuilt in 1968. The gate went through renovations once more in 2006 and opened to the public in August of 2010.

In front of Gwanghwamun lies Sejongno, the main street leading to Gyeongbok Palace. This area used to be a traffic-only street but went through urban renewal from 2008 and reopened with a people-friendly public recreational space in the center, called Gwanghwamun Square.

Two historic figures are prominent in the Square: Admiral Yi Sun Shin and King Sejong the Great.

Admiral Yi is one of the most revered figures in Korean history, having defeated Japanese troops multiple times during their invasion of the Joseon Dynasty in the 16th century. He is also noted for improving and renovating the design of the Geobukseon (거북선, “Turtle Ship”), which was utilized in many of his successful battles.

The warship is topped with an iron clad dome that makes it resemble a turtle, although the ship’s figurehead is that of a dragon. A small replica of the ship is at the base of the Admiral’s statue.

The statue of Admiral Yi Sun Shin has been guarding this area since 1968, long before the renewal of Gwanghwamun Square, looming tall in the middle of the many-lane street of Sejongno. Before the statue of King Sejong was placed on the north side in 2009, the Admiral’s statue was the main symbol of the area besides Gwanghwamun itself.

The Admiral’s statue had been worn and torn after years and years of service, and went through much needed repairs and restoration at the end of 2010. It’s the newer and better Admiral that you see now.

Admirals and water, how apt. In the summer, pillars from the water fountain dance merrily in front of the Admiral, both day and night:  Dancing waters of Gwanghwamun (YouTube)

 

In other seasons when the waters are silent, the place is taken over by other exciting things, such as this exhibition of Nam June Paik’s video art in 2010.

The other historical figure that graces the Square: King Sejong the Great. King Sejong is responsible for the creation of the Korean alphabet Hangeul () in 1446. Before the creation of Hangeul the country was using Chinese characters hanja (한자) to write, with most of the literate population being the social upper class.

King Sejong who strongly believed that learning and education shouldn’t be limited to a certain class, appointed a group of noted scholars to the task of creating an alphabet “for the people”, and after years of deliberation and painstaking research, Hangeul was made.

Hangeul is a phonetic alphabet, which makes it very easy to learn. Most of my foreign friends discover that they can read Hangeul after an hour of lessons. They may not know the meaning of what they’re reading, but they can read!
The creation of Hangeul is such a historic event that it’s natural that King Sejong should have a place in the heart of Seoul. It’s his natural habitat, after all. (Gyeongbok Palace!)

 The making of Hangeul is depicted in scenes on the pillars behind the statue. Gwanghwamun was under renovation when this photo was taken; the panel hiding the construction was covered with the amazing art of Kang Ik-Joong.

Sejong Center for the Performing Arts  is named after the king. The Center was rebuilt in 1978 after a devastating fire of the original Seoul Civil Hall in 1972, and has been the center hub of performing arts ever since.
The Center lights up at night. During the summer, spectators sit on the stone steps to enjoy various outdoor concerts and events.

King Sejong lends his name to yet another entity, the Sejong Belt.

This is the entrance to the Sejong Belt , the culture coalition that encompasses all the art galleries, museums, and exhibition halls within the area. The actual space connects to the Sejong Center, the King Sejong and Chungmugong (Admiral Yi Sun Shin) museums.

Fellow blogger Steve has written about the two museums here: The Stories of King Sejong and Admiral Yi

 

Inside the Sejong Belt entrance is the Haechi shop, full of souvenirs and goods with the Haechi character.
Haechi is the mascot of Seoul. The character derives from the mythical fire-breathing lion-like creature that served as guardians against evil and bad fortune. They can be usually found in pairs as stone statues at palace gates, village entrances, staircases and bridges, in yards of traditional homes.
I personally love the mascot, although some thought it ridiculously “cute” for something mythical. Bah to them. The mascot looks friendly and happy, which I think is great.

The character stars in an animated cartoon currently playing on SBS called “My Friend Haechi” which depicts the trials and troubles of Haechi as it strives to become the guardian of Seoul. The theme song is sung by K-pop superstars Girls’ Generation (소녀시대, SNSD), which is good to know if you’re a hardcore fan.

 

A more traditional style of Haechi can be seen in a green topiary, which was on display during the spring and summer of 2010. Gwanghwamun Square is abundant with colorful flowers in those seasons. (The US embassy is in the background, if you’re wondering about the flag.)

 

Gwanghwamun Square is lined on each side with “history waterways”, a list of historic events carved into stone in chronological order up to 2009. Water flows over the years, as time does.
This section notes that electric trolleys were introduced in Seoul in 1899, the Hangang steel train bridge constructed in 1900, and the import of Vietnamese rice started in 1901.

There are also plaques besides the waterway, such as this one noting the site of the Hanseongbu, which was a government office overseeing the city of Seoul in the Joseon Dynasty.

Gwanghwamun isn’t always about history. There are art events, outside concerts, and other fun things like skating rinks.

Seoul City opens a skating rink every winter. Sometimes it’s set up in Seoul Plaza in front of City Hall, sometimes here in Gwanghwamun Square. The children really don’t care where the rink is, as long as they have fun.

The view looking southward from the north side of Gwanghwamun Square. 10 lane Sejongno flanks each side; either jam packed during rush hour or semi-packed during the other hours, the streets are always busy. Like most of Seoul.

The in-progress Museum of Korean Contemporary History, US Embassy, KT building, and Kyobo building line up on the left; Sejongno Park and the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts take up most of the area on the right.

On the south side, the Gwanghwamun Post Office and its neighbors: Ilmin Museum of Art and the Donga Media Center tower.

Right next to the tower is Cheonggye Plaza, the west end of Cheonggyecheon, the public recreation space surrounding a stream. A perpetual spiral tree and a winter-only Christmas tree mark the place.

I forgot to take a photo of the Kyobo building, which houses my favorite bookstore – I was too busy going in to buy books!

Across from Cheonggye Plaza and directly in front of Line 5’s Gwanghwamun metro station exit #6, is the Seoul Tourist Information booth. A must-go place if you’re a tourist. The booth is open from 9am to 10 pm.

A panoramic view of Gwanghwamun crossroads, from the south side:   Gwanghwamun Crossroads on YouTube

The area of Gwanghwamun has changed much over the years. Although Admiral Yi and the Sejong Center have stood steadfast, the Gwanghwamun which I remember from my childhood, through my teens, and then as an adult are slightly different; the surroundings and atmosphere have changed little by little with the times. Mostly for the better, of course.

You can find old photos of the Gwanghwamun area in the Seoul city blog. It’s Korean text only, but the photos speak for themselves. From the Joseon Dynasty to 1960s ~ 2008:
http://blog.seoul.go.kr/281
http://blog.seoul.go.kr/526

Information

  • Metro:
    Gwanghwamun station (line 5, exit #2) – southside of the square
    Gyeongbokgung station (line 3, exit #6) – northside, walk towards Gwanghwamun
  • Many lines of buses run in the area – check the bus routes in your neighborhood for Gwanghwamun or Sejong Center.
  • http://square.sisul.or.kr    in Korean, English, Japanese, Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese)

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About the Author

Suzy Chung

Suzy Chung is a multilingual writer, editor, and translator with a marketing background. A coffee addict, bookworm, art junkie, foodie, oenophile, K-pop enthusiast, and occasional painter, she has been online since the mid ’90s when the internet wasn’t really the internet but a blue screen with text only discussions. She has lived in three continents but truly believes that Korea is the place to be and is willing to convince anyone who will listen!