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Posted : 2008-02-11 18:06
Updated : 2008-02-11 18:06

Namdaemun Outlived War, Colonialism


Seoul citizens rush into the Sungnyemun (Namdaemun) on March. 3, 2006 when it was first open to the public. / Korea Times File Photo

By Andrei Lankov
Korea Times Columnist

Namdaemun is deservingly known as ``National Treasure No.1.''

It has survived foreign invasions, and was not destroyed in the decades of colonial rule, a very bad time for Korean architecture.

The history of the gate began in 1398 when Seoul became the new capital of the recently established Joseon Kingdom.

For the sake of security, the city was surrounded with walls having four gates.

Each gate had both an official name and a popular name indicating the cardinal direction like Namdaemun or South Gate, which was officially known as Sungnyemun _ ``respecting the ritual Gate.''

Namdaemun faced the south, the areas where the most productive regions were located, so for five centuries of the Yi Kingdom rule it remained the major entrance for goods coming into the capital. It is not coincidental that government granaries were located in its vicinity.

In the 1860s Yi Ha-ung, then acting as a regent for his son, Gojong, decided to undertake some projects to show the significance of royal power. He chose the old Gate to be repaired and restored to its former beauty.

Until the early 1900s pretty much ``everybody who was somebody'' in Korea passed the Gate many times. In old Seoul, one of the most popular places for putting advertisement posters was the Namdaemun Gate.

It might sound strange now, when the gate is seen as the major architectural monument (indeed, it officially holds the title of ``No.1 National Treasure'').

However, it made perfect commercial sense a few hundred years ago when a large part of the traffic to the capital passed through Namdaemun. Therefore, the South Gate was covered with layers of posters.

Officials' salaries were then paid in kind, by rice, thus they had to come to the granaries to receive their allowance. Once the officials were paid, they were ready to sell their rice or trade it for some other merchandise and merchants were waiting for such an opportunity.

In 1912 the Namdaemun modern market was officially established there, and it has remained a major retail center for the Korean capital up to today.

By 1900, a few European cities still had their walls. Korean leaders also came to understand that from the military viewpoint the walls were unnecessary. However they also realized that the commoners continued to believe in the military importance of the walls. Thus, dismantling the fortifications would lead to disturbances, and the government had to postpone this explosive decision as long as possible.

Therefore, when in 1901 the first tramline connected the city interior with the suburbs, the trams had to pass through Namdaemun. It was a politically astute but technically bizarre solution, as everybody who has ever seen the gate can testify.

The tram carriages barely fitted inside the gate. Namdaemun also became the first place where one would experience bad traffic: sometimes carts, trams and porters with heavy loads created havoc near there.

The Japanese administrators who destroyed many architectural monuments, did not touch the gate even when the walls were finally demolished. However, Namdaemun's wooden superstructure was seriously damaged during the Korean War, and had to be restored by 1961, to be designated "National Treasure No.1'' in the following year.

The gate will again be restored, but it will take years, and it will contain less fragments of the 1398 structure which survived earlier renovations and disasters.

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