And so at last we have left China, and made landing on Korean soil.
For 500 years, the Korean Peninsula was a tributary state of Imperial China, first under the Ming Dynasty and then the Qing Dynasty. Korea itself wasn’t called Korea (which is derived from the earlier Goryeo Dynasty 高麗王朝) during this period. Rather, with permission from the first Ming Emperor Hongwu 洪武, the kingdom was renamed Joseon (朝鮮), and the new dynasty, established by Yi Seonggye 李成桂 – now King Taejo 太祖大王, which simply means the First Emperor of the Dynasty – named the Joseon Dynasty. The capital of the dynasty was shifted to Hanseong 漢城, what is today known as Seoul.
The dynasty would last between 1392 to 1895 – one of the longest dynastic reigns of any imperial entity in the world. Following which, for a brief period of time between 1897 to 1910, Joseon would pronounce itself independent of the Chinese, and a new Korean Empire or Daehan Jaeguk 大韓帝國 would come into being, proclaimed by King, later Emperor, Gojong 高宗 of the former Joseon Dynasty.
In these short 13 years, the Emperor attempted the sort of western-style modernisation and reforms that Japan had undergone during the Meiji era. During this period, when Korea opened itself up to the world, Europeans also made an initial, tentative entry into Korea, establishing their consulates and residences in the former legation quarter of Jeongdong – which still stands today, and is a surreal, fairytale landscape of European buildings in an otherwise high-rise city.
But the Gojong Emperor’s efforts would ultimately be in vain. By 1910, Imperial Japanese forces swept into Korea and “annexed” the Empire. For the next 35 years, Korea would become a colony of Japan. The Japanese chose, as their Imperial Capital, Hanseong – the city of the Joseons, renaming it Keijo 京城, or simply, Capital City. In the course of Imperial Rule, they would undertake a systematic policy of cultural destruction – demolishing important landmarks of Korean history and identity, and replacing these with their own pseudo-European style Imperial architecture.
The most famous of these buildings was the former Japanese Government-General Offices Building, which was erected within the grounds of the Gyeongbok Palace – the former Imperial Palace. Whole tracts of the palace grounds and its architecture had been demolished in order that this building be erected. In the 1990s, public pressure moved the independent South Korean Government to demolish the Offices and restore, in its place, the former palace structures that the Japanese had destroyed.
In the aftermath of World War II – Japan surrendered to the Soviet Union and the United States of America, who occupied the Northern and Southern halves of the Korean Peninsula respectively. Even though the plan had been for a unified Korea, the Cold War led to the Peninsula being divided, as it still is today.
The South eventually gained independence as the Republic of Korea in 1948, declaring independence in the former colonial Japanese Government General Offices. It’s Chinese name became 韓國. In the meantime, the North also declared its independence that same year, and interestingly, is referred to as Joseon 朝鮮 in Chinese even today.
The capital of newly independent South Korea remained in Keijo, which was renamed Seoul 서울 – a Korean word referring to “Capital City”; and a word which, interestingly has no corresponding Hanja or Chinese characters. For the longest time, Chinese speakers continued to use Hanseong 漢城 to refer to Seoul – since there was no equivalent Chinese character. In the mid 2000s, however, the Seoul Government finally suggested the name 首尔 “shou-er”, a transliteration of Seoul in Mandarin Chinese – and the name has been used ever since.
Today, contemporary Seoul is an enigmatic creature, being one of the most modern, high-tech cities in the world, and yet also one of its most historic. Traces of its imperial past – whether Joseon, Daehan or Japanese cling on splendiferously alongside the forest of skyscrapers that have become the new norm in this confident metropolis.
Alongside these pieces of architectural heritage, two of the other interesting attractions include an ancient stream that used to run through the city, was built over in the mid 1900s, and in the 2000s, has been once again revealed and restored to become a living, green heart cutting through the city centre. This is the Cheonggyecheon Stream – now a very popular Park and the city’s equivalent of New York City’s High Line.
The other attraction is of course, Korean cuisine, which is known for being fiery and hearty – think kimchee and beef barbecues – and also wildly adventurous – think sannakji, or live baby octopus, the tentacles of which one crunches in one’s mouth still writhing.
It’s a heady experience.