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If I traipsed past a fourteenth century castle on my way to the grocery store would I still gaze in awe? Would the changing of the palace guard cease to thrill and instead become dull and mundane? Would the interminable bus loads of goggling tourists and the incessant chatter of schoolchildren drive me a bit mad? I suppose it’s easy to take for granted even the most spectacular of urban nuclei, tho this mid-city castle is hard to ignore.

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Gyeongbokgung Palace, deep in the heart of Seoul, soared to its zenith in the mid-1400s, largely due to the vision of the monarch at the time, King Jeongjo. No idle ruler, he created a writing system for the Korean language (called Hangeul) which allowed his citizens to build words in the same way as our alphabet, abandoning the need to commit to memory thousands of Chinese characters.

I didn’t get the chance to research (yet) but I wonder if historical literacy rates are consequently higher in Korea than in China.

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The main palace compound served as both residence for king and family and as the meeting place for palace and foreign business discussions. Walking through the compound was a bit like the opening credits of the Get Smart tv show: Door upon door in a never ending sequence, tho here it was archways and inner layers of courtyards and more buildings.

The layers of inner and outer courtyards are quite symmetrical and the courtyard walls form perfect squares aligned with the points of a compass. Quite amazing.

I read that the buildings were sited according to Confucian values of propriety and virtue.

Obviously something was successful as the whole place has a feeling of being stately rather than overbearing.

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Late in the 1500s the original palace was destroyed by the Japanese and the site remained vacant for 273 years! (Gives me hope for some of the demolished-buildings-turned-empty-lots in Winnipeg…) During the reign of another king, Gojong, the compound was rebuilt and expanded.

As Korea lost so many of its significant structures to one battle or another, the various modern-day presidents seem committed to restoring to their original state a large number of palaces, temples, stupas and pagodas.

And the emphasis is on restoration — excavating to the original foundation and endeavoring to replicate the originals as closely as possible. Korea records and numbers these ‘national treasures’ — some research on my return will tell me how many there are.

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When we first walked through the palace gates I told my two free-range children that living in a compound such as this often meant rarely leaving for one’s entire life, especially if one were female. As we wandered though the many buildings it became clearer to us all that this was more like an enclosed village — more than 3,000 royal family members and their servants lived inside the palace walls at one time — and with a few more acres, not so different from living on an island in the Pacific Ocean!

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And while Seoul traffic bustles its way around the outer confines of the palace, the serenity inside the walls of the palace is not too hard to imagine.

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King Jeongjo is quoted as saying, “I read books in my spare time, away from the 10,000 things I must do.”

And so he built, among other secluded spots, this pavilion, where he and his family would retreat from their official obligations.

We were pleased to see the aura of calm remains still!

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