Sunday, October 30, 2011

Of Walls and Gates

What comes to your mind instantly, when someone mentions the word ‘Namdaemun’ to you? Namdaemun Market? No, I was thinking of something more valuable, like a National Treasure.

I believe you must be curious to hear about the legend of the Mugunghwa from last week, so I shall not waste any more time and tell you about it now.

Mugunghwa 01

The Legend of Mugunghwa

There once lived a beautiful and warmhearted woman. Not only was she pretty, but she was good at writing poetry, calligraphy, painting and singing. Many of the men in the village were in love with her and wanted to marry her, but she chose to marry a poor, blind man. Everyone was curious as to why she chose to marry this blind man when she could have had any man in the village. As they were poor she had to go out to work doing the menial tasks but she never even complained. She was a good wife and took very good care of her husband. The villagers took pity on her with all the hardship she had to suffer. The story of the beautiful woman and her blind husband spread widely until it reached the ears of the village administrator. He decided to see for himself and sent for her. When he saw her, he was completely smitten by her. She was so beautiful and well behaved that he wanted to marry her immediately, although he knew that she was already married. He made her a proposal of marriage, but the woman refused, and told him that she could not do so as she was already married.

He pleaded with her and promised her that he would do anything for her if she would marry him. He even tried to lure her in many ways but she cried and pleaded to go home. However much she cried it was of no avail, instead the administrator got angry and threatened her that if she didn’t obey him, he would kill her. He just couldn’t believe that she would want to go back to a blind man.

Then she cried out that she couldn’t marry him even if she were to die and that she would rather die which angered him even more. He immediately ordered her to be killed. Before she died she requested that she be buried under the fence of her house.

The following year, a flower plant grew up under the fence where the innocent woman was buried. This plant surrounded the fence and gave bloom to very beautiful flowers. This is the Mugunghwa, The Rose of Sharon. To take care of the blind husband, she was reborn as a tree. All the people thought of this Rose of Sharon as the spirit of the beautiful woman who died for her husband. It’s only a legend so it’s up to you to believe it or not.

Namdaemun Gate before the 2008 Fire

This was the answer I was expecting to get from you with regards to my question earlier on, the Namdaemun Gate. One of the most iconic South Korean landmarks, it is located right in the center of downtown Seoul, in Jung-gu between Seoul Station and Seoul City Plaza, just next door to the Namdaemun Market. But, there can’t be a gate unless there’s a wall, so today I shall be taking you back to the early 14th Century in the history of Korea to find out more about the gate and the wall.

King Taejo, the first king of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) was a man of vision. He moved his capital to Seoul in 1394. A city wall was in the mind of the king even before he picked the capital city for his new kingdom. He said that “a city wall was a country’s fence that kept out violent enemies and protected the people. Thus, it should be erected.” After he announced that Hanyang (present-day Seoul) would be the new capital later that year, Taejo ordered the construction of Jongmyo, a shrine for ancestors and Gyeongbok Palace, a home for himself. And to complete his vision, he initiated the building of a protective city wall. Taejo ordered experts to find a good site for the wall. Seoul is blessed in that it is surrounded by mountains, on its four sides, the Bugaksan to the north, Namsan to the south, Naksan to the east, and Inwangsan to the west. The wall was built connecting these four mountains. Stone walls were built on the mountains themselves and earthen walls on the flatlands between them. Most of this original wall was completed in 1396, although it was a few years later that all the gates were completed. It was 18.2 kilometers long and 6.1 meters high. Four major gates and four smaller ones were also built to control passage in and out of the capital.

With modernization and the beginning of Japanese colonial period, (1910-1945) the city wall became an obstacle to progress. When the Japanese officially annexed Korea in 1910, they set about devising plans to modernize Korea, and as a result nearly all the city wall that stood on flatland was torn down. Today only small parts of its remnants remain.

The Namdaemun Gate was constructed in 1398 during the reign of King Taejo in the early Joseon Dynasty. The structure was rebuilt in 1447 during the reign of King Sejong. A major construction on the gate was done in 1479 during the reign of King Seongjong and has been renovated several times since.

It was once one of the three major gateways through Seoul's city walls, the others being the East Gate (Dongdaemun) and the now-demolished West Gate in the Seodaemun-gu district, named after the old gate.

Before the 2008 fire, Namdaemun was the oldest wooden structure in Seoul. The city gate made of wood and stone was originally used to greet foreign emissaries, to control access to the capital city, and to keep out tigers in the area. The meaning of Sungnyemun, its original name, is Gate of Exalted Ceremonies whereas Namdaemun means Great Southern Gate. The gate is located in the center of the stone wall, and a two-storied pavilion with five compartments on the front and two compartments at the sides was constructed on top of the gate.

The city wall became an obstacle to progress and sections of the wall were demolished, ostensibly "to make the traffic system more efficient."

Namdaemun was extensively damaged during the Korean War and was given its last major repair in 1961, with a completion ceremony held on May 14, 1963. It was designated  "National Treasure No.1" on December 20, 1962. 

The Gate was renovated again in 2005 with the building of a lawn around the gate, before being opened once again to the public with much fanfare on March 3, 2006.

A fire broke out on February 10, 2008 and severely damaged the wooden structure at the top of the Namdaemun gate. It was a case of arson

So you can see that the Namdaemun Gate played an important role in the history of Korea. But now it will no longer be known as the oldest wooden structure in Seoul anymore.

Since we are in the vicinity we might as well pay a visit to the Namdaemun Market.


Namdaemun Market is the largest traditional market in Korea with over 10,000 stores that line the streets around Namdaemun Gate. Namdaemun Market is renowned for its vast size and the variety of goods it offers. Namdaemun Market opens from 11:00pm to 3:00am.You can find almost anything under the sun here and if you can’t find what it is you’re looking for here, chances are you won’t find it anywhere else in Seoul.

Namdaemun Market  Fabrics and Traditional Handcrafts

Namdaemun Market sprawls over 24 blocks, with each block featuring a different specialized shopping zone, the market's clothing zone being the largest. More than 6,000 of the 10,000 shops that make up the market are clothing and accessories stores. Because many domestic retailers and foreign buyers come here to purchase goods at wholesale prices to resell in their stores, Namdaemun Market is considered to have a huge influence on the fashion industry. The ladies’ wear section is particularly popular, offering quality fashions in casual wear, formal wear, leisure wear and much more. But ladies’ wear is not the only type of clothing that is widely available; as much as eighty percent of all children’s wear traded in Korea goes through the children's wear section in Namdaemun Market. If you want to shop for children’s wear, it is best to arrive early since the shops here close at about 3 or 4 p.m.

Although the shops are small, most of them produce the goods they offer themselves, allowing for customers to purchase goods directly from the manufacturers at wholesale prices. As there are many shops selling the same things it is best to compare prices before making your purchases, so that you’ll get the best deals.

Namdaemun Market Street Shops & Stands 02

Namdaemun Market is an absolute haven for street shoppers. The area’s myriad walkways are flanked with streams of shops and cluttered stands selling everything from inexpensive clothing, accessories and glasses to cameras, imported foods and tableware. Much of the market is outside, but there are also many stores which line the streets. With all this selection and discount prices, it is no wonder why Namdaemun attracts the crowds.

Namdaemun Market  Undergrund

Still haven’t seen anything you like? Why not try the shops in the  underground shopping area?

At the north of the market (the entrance from exit 5, line 4 Hoehyeon station), there are stores lining the street selling imported goods and accessories. This is a particularly good area to buy souvenirs, so it will be packed with tourists.

Namdaemun Market  where to eat

And no shopping experience can be complete without a little eating. All this walking deserves a good rest and what better than to take in the experience of Korean eateries, or pojangmachas, and sample some traditional delicacies like kimbap, noodles and a host of delicious pan-fried foods.

And with this I bid you happy shopping and don’t get lost. I nearly forgot, it’s best you carry cash with you, as most of the shops here don’t take credit cards. See you again next week.

Special thanks and appreciation to the following:
Photos and articles © courtesy:




Saturday, October 22, 2011

National Symbols

Hi everyone, how have you been? Good? Are you ready for your first history lesson? Come on don’t give me that look. I promise you, it will not be boring. So please stay around for a while. But before I begin, I am going to ask you 3 very basic questions about South Korea. Can you tell me the name of the national flag, the national anthem and the national flower? If your answers are Taegeukgi, Aegukga and Mugunghwa then you are correct. But do you know the history behind them? So, today I’m going to tell you something about them.
The Taegeukgi became the official flag of the Republic of Korea in 1948. The name was derived from the taeguk circle in the center. The flag has a white background in the center of which is the taegeuk, or yin-yang symbol, around which are arranged four trigrams. The circle is divided equally and in perfect balance. The red upper section represents the yang and the blue lower section stands for the yin. According to traditional Oriental Philosophy, the two symbolize the great cosmic forces, which oppose each other but yet achieve perfect harmony and balance.
The white background of the flag symbolizes the purity of the Korean people and their peace-loving spirit. White also reflects the Koreans' traditional affinity for this color. The flag as a whole is symbolic of the ideal of the Korean people to develop forever together with the universe.
The four trigrams that surround the taegeuk circle in the four corners denote the process of yin and yang going through a spiral of change and growth. The three unbroken bars in the upper left-hand corner denote geon(heaven - justice), the three broken bars in the lower right-hand corner denote gon(earth - fertility), the two broken bars with one unbroken bar in the middle in the upper right-hand corner denote gam( water - life), and the two unbroken bars with a broken bar in the middle in the lower left-hand corner denote ri(fire - wisdom). Collectively the Taegeukgi represents universal harmony and unity.
And to show their patriotism to their country the Koreans will recite a pledge which goes like this, “Before this proud Taegeukgi, I firmly pledge my loyalty and will devote my body and soul to the eternal glory of my country and people."

Now that you know the meaning of the flag, do you know how and when it should be flown?
When and How to Fly the Flag
Days on which the Flag is flown

  • January 1 - New Year's Day
  • March 1 - Independence Movement Day (Anniversary of the IMD in 1919)
  • July 17 - Constitution Day
  • August 15 - Liberation Day
  • October 1 - Armed Forces Day
  • October 3 - National Foundation Day
  • October 9 - Hangeul Day 
    (The anniversary of the promulgation of the Korean alphabet in 1446)
Other days the government designates as national holidays
  • The flag may be flown on days local autonomous governments or provincial or city councils designate as local holidays.
  • The flag is flown at half-mast as a sign of mourning on Memorial Day (June 6), during periods of national mourning, and for state or public funerals.
Places Where the Flag is Flown All Year Round
  • It is obligatory to fly the flag every day at national and local government offices, public organizations, schools, and military installations.
  • It is recommended that the flag be flown at places where international events are held such as hotels, large buildings, and parks where large crowds assemble, along walls of government buildings and anywhere flag polls are installed.
  • Private homes and other places may display the national flag all year round if the residents so wish.
Raising and Lowering the Flag
  • The flag may be flown 24 hours a day, but if flown at night, it must be illuminated.
  • Schools and military units are required to fly the flag only during daylight hours.
  • The flag should not be flown if there is any possibility that it might be torn or damaged by wind or rain.
How to Fly the Flag
Flag at full mast
On national holidays and ordinary days, it should be flown at full-mast.
Flag at half mast
On days of mourning, it should be flown at half-mast.
Position of flag if odd nos
When the flag is flown in a line with other flags in threes or
in other odd numbers, it is placed in the center.

Position of flag if even nos 
When the number of flags is even, the flag is flown on the left end as viewed from the front.

* When the flag is flown in Korea together with the U.N. flag and flags of other countries, they should be flown in the following order: the U.N. flag, the Korean flag and flags of other countries in alphabet order.
Order of Raising or Lowering the Flag
  • When the flag is flown along with other flags, it should either be raised first or simultaneously with the others.
  • When the flag is lowered with other flags, it should either be lowered last or simultaneously with the others.
Safekeeping and Care of the National Flag
  • The flag must be folded with great care and stored in a flag box or other container for safekeeping. Additionally, the box or container must be stored in plain sight and be easily accessible.
  • If the flag is dirtied or wrinkled, it may be washed and ironed but care should be taken to ensure its original form is not distorted.
  • If the flag is damaged or worn out, it should not be discarded casually or used for other purposes; it should be burned in a discreet place.
And now we shall go our next topic, the National Anthem of South Korea. Korea's national anthem is called the "Aegukga," which means “The Song of Love for the Country” or "The Patriotic Song." The original words of Aegukga appeared in written form around 1907 to inculcate allegiance to the nation and foster the spirit of independence as the country faced threats of foreign annexation. Over the years, the lyrics went through several changes until they were adopted as the national anthem in the present form in 1948.
Before the birth of the Republic in 1948, the words were often sung to the tune of the Scottish folk song, Auld Lang Syne. Maestro Ahn Eak-tay (1905-1965), then living in Spain, felt that it was inappropriate to sing this patriotic song to the tune of another country's folk song. So, he composed new music to go with the lyrics in 1935, and the Korean Provisional Government in exile adopted it as the national anthem. While Koreans outside the country sang the anthem to the new tune, those at home continued to use Auld Lang Syne until Korea was liberated in 1945.
At a ceremony celebrating the founding of South Korea on 15 August 1948, the Scottish tune was finally replaced by the Finale of Korea Fantasia that Ahn Eak-tae had composed. The new "Aegukga" was later adopted by the Presidential Decree of 1948 by the then President Syngman Rhee (or Lee Seungman).
Mugunghwa, Nar Flower of Korea

And finally the national flower of South Korea. According to records, the Koreans have treasured the rose of Sharon as a heavenly flower since ancient times. In fact, the Silla Kingdom called itself Mugunghwa Country. Even the ancient Chinese referred to Korea as "The land of gentlemen where Mugunghwa blooms." Love for the flower was further heightened when Mugunghwa samcheolli hwaryeo gangsan" ("Rose of Sharon, thousand miles of beautiful mountain and river land!") was written into the national anthem in the late 19th century. As the rose of Sharon has been an important part of the Korean culture for centuries, it was only natural that the government adopted it as the national flower of Korea. There are about 200 cultivars, of which 100 are indigenous to Korea. Of these, the government designated the Dansim, single types of flowers, as the national flower in 1990.

Mugunghwa 05
Mugunghwa 02
The flower's name in Korean is Mugunghwa meaning 'immortal flower', Koreans call the Rose of Sharon (Botanical name Hibiscus Syriacus L.) the Mugunghwa, as it flowers endlessly. Every year from July to October, a profusion of mugunghwa blossoms graces the entire country. Unlike most flowers, the Mugunghwa is remarkably tenacious and able to withstand both blight and insects. The flower’s symbolic significance stems from the Korean word mugung, meaning immortality. This word accurately reflects the enduring nature of Korean culture, and the determination and perseverance of the Korean people.

Mugunghwa 04

Ever heard of the legend of the Mugunghwa? No? Do you want to hear about it? I’m sorry it will have to wait till next time as there's not enough space here. Bye for now.

Special thanks and appreciation to the following:
Photos and articles © courtesy:
http://prkorea.com/engnews/index.cgi action=detail&number=793&thread=10r01

Monday, October 17, 2011

I’m back!


Hi everybody, how are you? Looks like my blog has been left idle for the past 3 months or so. OMG, I didn’t even realize that it was that long. Sorry about that as I was very busy looking after a friend’s restaurant business while she was away visiting her children studying abroad. I was so tired by the time I came home that I just had no inclination to write at all. I tell you the hours are very long, there’s always work to be done. Then when this fried came back, another good friend asked me to go back to my hometown some 250 miles away to keep her mother company, as she would be alone in the house, while this friend and her husband went to visit her-mother in-law in Australia for a month. In a way I was glad, because they had a beautiful house by the sea, so it would be a sort of holiday for me and I needed the rest too after the hectic time I had at the restaurant. But the real reason I wanted to go back was the food. I haven’t been back for quite a while and I was missing all that yummy food I grew up on. I really had a good time meeting up with old friends and the lunch and dinner dates we had. On most days we ended up cooking all our favorite dishes.

I would have come back to work on my blog earlier if not for a big disappointment I suffered. All my friends know how much I wanted to go to Korea. Being a contest buff, I will always enter any contest offering a free trip to Korea as a prize in the hope that I will win it and visit the place that I love so much. In one such contest I came so close to it. I managed to get the 2nd prize, but a miss is as good as a mile. All my friends were congratulating me saying that something was better than nothing. But I was only interested in the free trip to Korea and not the other prizes. How disappointed I was and I couldn’t help feeling a bit depressed. How nice if I had won it, as the trip would be during the autumn with all the colorful red and gold autumn leaves. It has always been my wish to visit Korea in the autumn.This depressed mood gave me an excuse to work in my garden. Some of my plants had suffered during my absence and some had even died. So I began to repot the plants that were spared.and within 2 weeks my garden became alive again, with the flowers blooming everywhere. Gardening   proved  good therapy  for my depression.  One night I was reading my scrapbook collection of quotations when I came across this one “Things always happen for a reason.” That jolted me out of my reverie instantly. Yes, I was thinking, there must be a reason why God didn’t want me to go to Korea at this time. All negative thoughts began to flood my mind.

I told myself, I had to put an end to my procrastination. So today, I literally forced myself to sit at my computer table and start typing on the keyboard. Like they say, it’s now or never! I only hope that I can manage to come up with something. If you don’t see this being published then you’ll know that I’ve failed. Anyway, today I won’t be writing anything about Korea, this is just a warm-up, so to speak, and to get back on my feet once again.

All of us who are blogging about Korea and all things Korean have one thing in common, and that is our passion for Korea. What do you readers love about Korea? I love Korea for many reasons, its beautiful scenery, Its wonderful shopping, Its k-drama and k-pop. But most of all I love Korea for its rich heritage and culture which comes with an outstanding 5,000 year old history, I have always been interested In history since my school days and that is why I love watching period/costume dramas be it Korean or otherwise. So I was thinking that why don’t I write about all these things that I love so much. Do you think that it might be too boring to those of you who are not too keen on this? I hope that you all can share my enthusiasm for all things cultural and historical. Mind you culture can mean a lot of things like Hangeul, Hanbok, Hanok, Hanji, Hansik, Hanguk-Eumak, Korean Food and the UNESCO WORLD Cultural Heritage. Yes, I think I shall enjoy that much better than writing about pop-stars and pop-music, I shall leave that to the younger generation to do that. History can be fun really, I’ll try not to be too boring. So please bear with me and keep the feedback coming so that I know if you all enjoy it or not.. I guess that’s about all for now. So hope to see you all again soon.