Gwangneung located in Namyangju City, Gyeonggi Province, contains the remains of King Sejo and his wife Queen Jeonghui. The tomb doesn’t have the stone chamber and the screening rocks. / Courtesy of Choi Jin-yeun
By Chung Ah-young
The royal tombs of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), which were recently designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site at the 33rd session of the World Heritage Committee, seem to be indiscernible from one other.
However, the tombs that house 27 generations of the kingdom's kings, queens and posthumously designated rulers have kept their own historical stories, offering green sanctuaries for modern urbanites.
The new two-volume book, ``Joseon Royal Tombs ― Sleepless History'' written by Lee Woo-sang and photographed by Choi Jin-yeun, explores the behind-the-scenes stories surrounding the tombs constructions and their occupants.
The author said that the tombs are good to visit due to their moderate size and easy access, compared to Chinese and Egyptian tombs that take several days to tour.
Also, the sites are quite well preserved, having survived more than 500 years without grave robberies and destruction.
The collection of 40 tombs is scattered around 18 locations ― with two in Jereung and Hureung in North Korea ― within a 40-kilometer radius of the former city boundaries of Seoul. Built over five centuries, from 1408 to 1966, the tombs honored the memory of ancestors, showed respect for their achievements, asserted royal authority, protected ancestral spirits from evil and provided protection from vandalism.
Actually, these tombs, called ``neung,'' are part of 119 mausoleums that include 13 ``won,'' which belong to crown princes and princesses and the biological mothers of kings (royal concubines), and ``myo,'' which include royal family members and overthrown kings such as Gwanghaegun and Yeonsangun.
How were the tombs constructed? First of all, the book introduces ancient funeral rites to understand their creation. When a king became critically ill, a state of emergency was declared, during which time he issued his final decree and bequeathed the throne to the crown prince. When the king finally died, he was placed under continuous observation so that immediately upon his passing, eunuchs would bathe his body and dress him in funeral attire.
The royal family and court officials then began preparation for a funeral and the crown prince, other princes, queens, concubines, and princesses took off their regular headgear and garments, wore their hair in a natural style, and removed all decorative accessories. The royal court then issued a decree that prohibited various activities during the mourning period, while the military office declared a state of emergency and mobilized reinforcements to secure the palace grounds and city gates. For a five-day period, markets were closed, and essentials could only be acquired through underground channels. For three months following a king's death, wedding ceremonies, musical performances, and the butchering of livestock were prohibited by the state. The Minister of Personnel, along with the State Council, launched three temporary offices ― Office of the Royal Coffin, Office of the Royal Funeral, and Office of the Royal Tomb ― to oversee various activities related to the state funeral.
The most significant task undertaken by the Office of the Royal Tomb was building the tomb. The tomb construction included the T-shaped shrine for conducting ceremonial rituals for the deceased, pavilion to enshrine the memorial stone, and tomb structure, with a burial chamber, and areas for tomb caretakers and the preparation of ritual food.
However, the most difficult and important thing was to properly preserve the body prior to its burial, especially during the summer months.
``Fortunately, the nation maintained two icehouses in Seoul: Dongbinggo (eastern) and Seobinggo (western). In the middle of winter, ice would be collected from the Han River with clean waters, in slabs with a thickness of at least 12 centimeters, and cut into 1.8-meter blocks for storage,'' the book says.
During the mourning period, the coffin of a king or queen was laid on an ice tray and enclosed with a framework of bamboo that was filled with ice, which offered adequate refrigeration to preserve the body.
It takes about three to five months to construct the tomb based on the traditional geomancy with about 6,000-9,000 workers involved.
In accordance with geomancy, the tombs typically have their back protected by a hill as they face south toward water and, ideally, layers of mountain ridges in the distance. Alongside the burial area, the royal tombs feature a ceremonial area and an entrance. In addition to the burial mounds, associated buildings that are an integral part of the tombs include a T-shaped wooden shrine, a shed for stele, a royal kitchen and a guards' house, a red-spiked gate and the tomb keeper's house. The grounds are adorned on the outside with a range of stone objects including figures of people and animals.
The author introduced Jeongneung, located in Seongbuk-gu, northern Seoul, the tomb of queen consort Sindeok, the second wife of King Taejo (1392-1398) who founded the Joseon Kingdom. Because of a power struggle, Jeongneung was expelled from the original site chosen by King Taejo and later restored. The queen consort had many children, which naturally induced a battle for the throne. Usually the son of the first wife is the successor to the throne, but she was determined that it be one of her sons. However, the successor, King Taejong, the son of the first wife, killed all her sons and developed an extreme hatred towards the queen consort. When she died, King Taejong ordered the eviction of the grave outside Seoul and degraded the tomb's status to ``myo.''
``It was the first royal tomb of the Joseon Kingdom King Taejo enthusiastically created on the basis of the construction styles of the Goryeo Royal Tombs because he loved Queen Sindeok so much,'' the author said.
Gwangneung, located in Namyangju City, Gyeonggi Province contains the remains of King Sejo and his wife Queen Jeonghui.
The two tombs were built in 1468 and 1483, respectively. Gwangneung is important in that changes taking place in the construction of royal tombs are evident in its construction.
Screening rocks were not installed at this tomb. Instead of an outer coffin stone, quicklime was used instead. Another break from tradition was the fact that the reverential access was not built. Finally, only a tone T-shaped ritual shrine was built for both burial mounds. This change in tomb architecture came from the last wishes of the king and reflects a new frugal style that influenced later royal tomb constructions.
King Sejo left in his will: ``In order to have my body decay quickly, don't use the stone coffin and chamber and the screening rocks.'' It was intended to relieve the people's burdens to build the tomb and save money.
King Sejo was the seventh king born in 1417 and better known as Grand Prince Suyang. The second of King Sejong the Great's many sons, he showed great ability at archery, horse riding, and martial arts and was also a brilliant military commander.
But his ascent to the throne was stained with ruthless bloodshed involving the forced removal of his nephew from the throne. He went on to prove himself as one of the most able rulers and administrators in Korean history. ``It's hard to define Sejo in the dichotomy,'' the author said.
``Most of the tombs have similar patterns in construction, but according to the king's last wishes, the shapes and patterns changed a little and affected other descendant rulers' tombs,'' the author added.
The side of Hongneung, located in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, the tomb of Queen Jeongseong, consort to King Yeongjo, the 21st ruler, is left empty. The empty space was originally prepared for King Yeongjo.
``The next king determined the former king's tomb site. Who is the next king? It's King Jeongjo whose father, Crown Prince Sado, was put to death by his own father, King Yeongjo,'' the book said.
Jeongjo managed to succeed King Yeongjo amid the political struggle to obstruct him from taking the throne. The author said that despite the Yeongjo's will to be buried beside Queen Jeongseong, Jeongjo buried his grandfather in Donggureung where King Hyojong was once buried, but later moved. In the traditional geomancy, the removed tomb site was regarded as inauspicious.
``Hongneung's site is splendorous and grandiose from the distant view. But Yeongjo couldn't be placed there. It became one of the most solitary tombs than any others just like an island,'' he said.