Sometimes it can be difficult for university students to find a place to relax, a place that makes them feel free them from their daily routines for a few hours. Strange as it may seem, they may be just able to find this tranquility around the royal tombs of the old kings and queens… The Royal Tombs, called reng in Korean, are located throughout the whole country, including in the Seoul vicinity. In this article, The UOS Times will introduce three Royal Tombs that are easily accessible for students at the University of Seoul (UOS). Not only do these sites have a calming effect, they also tell different stories and have unique architectural characteristics.
What are the “Royal Tombs”?
A reng (a royal tomb) refers to a tomb of a king and/or queen, people who were part of the royal family during the dynastic period of Korean history. The rengs vary depending on the era in which they were built. All three Royal Tombs explored in this article were built during the Joseon Dynasty, the last period in which kings and queens ruled the Korean peninsula. By virtue of their relatively recent existence, these tombs are in better condition than the others. In addition, a great amount of documentation concerning their construction and other rituals remains with us today.
According to UNESCO, the Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty followed specific rituals connected to Korea’s history. Furthermore, the Royal Tombs were created to harmonize with the nature surrounding them. They were built based on an underlying knowledge of Feng-Shui, a theory that emphasizes the placement of mountains, rivers and other things found in nature around the structure. They were subsequently designated as a UNESCO World Heritage in 2009.
There are 40 Royal Tombs in South Korea. They are scattered among 18 regions, with most located in the Gyeonggi-do and Seoul areas because there was a law during the Joseon Dynasty that stated that tombs should be built within a 4-to-40 kilometer radius of Hanyang, the Joseon Dynasty’s capital (now modern-day Seoul).
Common Features of the Royal Tombs
The architectural style of the Royal Tombs is classified into six categories based on how many hills were dug, how the tombs were arranged, and the number of tombs at each site. There are, however, similar annexes that all of tombs have in common. First, there is a place called a Jae-sil. When the royals and officials from the court performed ancestral rites at the Royal Tombs, they needed several instruments. The Jae-sil was built to store these tools. Also at the Jae-sil, participants made food to use for the rituals. The second shared characteristic is a big door called a Hongsal-mun, which literally means ‘the door with red bars’. It is located at the entrance of the Royal Tombs to notify people that this is a holy place where ancestors are buried. Under the Hongsal-mun, there are roads that lead directly the tomb. These roads have two parts. The left road is particularly notable because it was created for the ghosts of ancestors who were buried there. Therefore, living people should use only the right section of the road. Third, in every Royal Tomb, there is a small building called a Jeongjagak. In this place, people perform rituals for their ancestors. It is located directly in front of the tomb. Also, there are stone statues around the tomb. People believe that these statues will protect the ancestors buried inside.
These are the main and common characteristics that the Royal Tombs share. However, each Royal Tomb has a distinct feature due to its location, owner (the one who lay), and many other reasons. From now, The UOS Times will introduce the marked features of three specific Royal Tombs. It would be helpful, while reading, to keep in mind the information given above.
Ui-reng, a Royal Tomb damaged by modern history
Ui-reng is the closest Royal Tomb to UOS. Take bus number 120, 1222, 261, or 147 at Tteokjeon-gyo (Tteokjeon Bridge) and get off at the Korea National University of Art, also known as Hanyejong. After getting off the bus, there is a street sign that will direct you to the entrance of Ui-reng. Even if you cannot see this sign, there is no need to worry. Just cross the road and go straight. As an alternative route, you can also use the subway. Bus 120 is also located at Dolgoji Station (Line 6). Transfer to the bus, get off at the same station, located just across the road, and walk straight.
Ui-reng is the tomb of King Gyeongjong and his wife, Queen Seonui. Gyeongjong lived only four years after his ascension to the throne. Seonui died a little bit later, just 6 years after becoming queen. Due to his short reign, stories about Gyeongjong are not well known. However, Jang Hui-bin, Gyeongjong’s mother, is a very famous woman in Korean history. Jang Hui-bin was not her real name. Rather, it was her title among the consorts in the palace. Jang Hui-bin shows up a lot in Korean historical dramas as a femme fatale. Because of her character, she has many rumors surrounding her. There is even a rumor related to her and Gyeongjong. Because of both political circumstances and her strong temper, King Sookjong, the father of Gyeongjong, forfeited her queenship and sentenced Jang Hui-bin to death. During the Joseon Dynasty, some high-ranking officials were allowed to drink poison when they were given a death sentence, and Jang Hui-bin was one such case. After drinking poison, she was so angry that she put a curse on her own son, the one who became Gyeongjong. Some said that this curse is the reason why Gyeongjong had such a short lifespan. Although many historians have said that this story is unsubstantiated, it also made Jang Hui-bin and Gyeongjong famous. Although the curse may have just been a rumor, Gyeongjong actually did die at a much younger age than most of the other kings.
Sadly, Ui-reng has been damaged by modern history. Around the 1960s, there was the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) beside Ui-reng. People working there build an artificial lake and waterfall, damaging the resting place of Gyeongjong. The lake and waterfall have since been removed, although the KCIA building still remains.
Ui-reng has several unique archaeological features. First, while most Royal Tombs were built with two tumuli in a row, Ui-reng’s tumuli were built from back to forward. The reason is because the ancestors wanted to place the tombs in the best topographical location. Due to the limited space they had to work with, those tombs have a special characteristic. Ui-reng’s Jeongjagak also has a unique design. Its columns have white stripes at the bottom. When it is foggy, this section harmonizes remarkably well with the weather, and makes it appear as though the tomb is floating in the air. This makes Ui-reng seem like a more sacred place. Ui-reng is not huge, but it is great to walk around there due to the surrounding forest. Also, it is not far from UOS, taking only about 20 minutes. It would be the best place for people looking for a place for a gentle walk.
Seon-reng, a Royal Tomb located in the center of Seoul
Seon-reng is a familiar place to people who live in Seoul. This is because there is a station named Seon-reng on Line Number 2. Obviously, Seon-reng is located near Seon-reng Station. Come out of Exit 8 and go straight about 200 meters. Seon-reng is located there in the middle of several tall buildings.
Seon-reng is the tomb designated for King Seongjong and his wife, Queen Jeonghyeon. Unlike Gyeonjong, Seongjong is famous among Korean people due the many things he achieved during his reign. The most famous accomplishment of Seongjong was the completion of Gyeonggukdaejeon’s codification, the basic code of law during the Joseon Dynasty. From the beginning of the dynastic period, there had been law books. However, these books had many flaws. For example, some of the articles were contradictory. Therefore, there was a need for a new type of law book that served as final clarification for these types of contradictions. Although his grandfather, Sejo, had already begun the codification work, Seongjong successfully finished it. The Gyeonggukdaejeon Law Books had an immense importance during the Joseon Dynasty. It created a distinct order during a time when Chinese order was usually followed. It also served as the core for all other laws until the end of Joseon Dynasty.
Unlike other Royal Tombs, Seon-reng has a sad story. Due to Japanese grave robbery during the invasion of Korea in 1592, Seongjong and Queen Jeonghyeon’s bodies went missing. Also, due to a massive flood, Seon-reng was rebuilt on a high hill that prevents it from further damage in the future. Seon-reng has a unique characteristic: that king’s and queen’s tumulus are not located together. They are actually located a little far away from each other. There is another distinguishable feature of those tombs. There is no folding screen made from rock around the queen’s tomb, and statues in the queen’s tomb are much more elaborate and sophisticated.
Many rengs are located in the suburbs of Seoul, resulting in silent surroundings. Seon-reng, however, has a unique circumstance in this regard. Seon-reng is surrounded by tall buildings. When development took place in the area of Gangnam where Seon-reng is located, the reng was designated a cultural property so any construction around the structure was forbidden. Therefore, this special combination of modern buildings and ancient tombs is still accessible. There were a lot of people walking around Seon-reng when The UOS Times visited. People think Seon-reng is great place to rest and an escape from the tall buildings and hustle-bustle of Seoul. Visiting this place will be the best remedy for people who are exhausted from busy city life.
Jeong-reng, tomb of the first queen of the Joseon Dynasty
This tomb is located at Jeong-reng Station on the Ui-Sinseol LRT. The first station on the Ui-Sinseol LRT is Sinseoldong Staion, a part of Line Number 1. Therefore, from UOS, students can easily reach Jeong-reng by subway in only around 30 minutes. After coming out of Exit 2, there is sign that indicates where Jeong-reng is located. It is takes about 10 minutes to walk there from Jeong-reng Station.
Jeong-reng was the very a tomb for Queen Sindeok, the first queen from the Kang family during the Joseon Dynasty. King Taejo was the first king of the Joseon Dynasty and she was his second wife. The story about how Taejo and Queen Sindeok met is interesting. Taejo had a great ability to shoot arrows and hunt. On the day when they met, Taejo was hunting as usual. Because he was thirsty, he searched for a well. There was a woman nearby the well, so he asked her for some water. The woman gave him a cup of water with a willow leaf floating in it. Taejo asked why, and she said it was because she was worried that if he drank too fast, he might get an upset stomach. Due to her kindness, Taejo fell in love with her and she helped Taejo to become king. Eventually, she also became the first queen of Joseon Dynasty.
Taejo truly loved her. After her death, he even designated his future resting place to be directly beside her tomb. He wanted more than anything to be buried there. However, his dream could not be fulfilled. As mentioned above, Queen Sindeok was Taejo’s second wife. Taejo’s first wife died before the start of Joseon Dynasty. However, she also bore sons. One of them became the third king of Joseon Dynasty, Taejong. Taejo wanted his son from Queen Sindeok to succeed him on the throne, so he staged a coup and expelled his opponents. Because of these reasons, Taejong hated his stepmother Queen Sindeok and relocated Taejo’s reng to another place. He even used stones from Jeong-reng for the construction of a bridge on the Cheonggye-river.
Jeong-reng’s archaeological feature is based on this story, too. Unlike other Royal Tombs, Jeong-reng is the only tomb where someone is buried alone, similar to Queen Sindeok’s tomb. Also, Jeong-reng is smaller than other Royal Tombs so it will be a good place for people who do not want to walk around for a long time.
Each Royal Tomb has a unique story and distinct archaeological features. Those Royal Tombs introduced in The UOS Times are not far away from UOS, so students can visit and relax inside all of them.