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  • Memory of the World
    Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity
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    Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple | Haeinsa Temple Janggyeong Panjeon, the Depositories of the Tripitaka Koreana Woodblocks | Jongmyo Shrine | Changdeokgung Palace Complex | Hwaseong Fortress | Gyeongju Historic Areas | Gochang, Hwasun, and Ganghwa Dolmen Sites | Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes | Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty | Historic Villages of Korea: Hahoe and Yangdong | Namhansanseong | Baekje Historic Areas
    Hwaseong Fortress vodview
    Joseon King’s New Architectural Experiment

    From antiquity, Korea has built so many fortresses that it is not an exaggeration to call it “a country of fortresses.” Throughout its five thousand years of history, Korea had to withstand warring rivalries between regional forces as well as numerous invasions by foreign countries. Almost all the states that existed across the Korean peninsula built fortresses to fortify their defense, and in the process, Koreans acquired advanced fortress construction techniques. During the Three Kingdom’s period (first century B.C.-A.D. seventh century), an especially large number of fortresses were built, which later provided important protection against invaders in a series of national crises during the Goryeo (918-1392) and Joseon (1392-1910) dynasties.

    Hwaseong Fortress, located in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, is a notable outcome of this long tradition of fortress construction. Being both beautiful and functional, Hwaseong has been praised as the quintessence of Korea’s fortress architecture. The defense stronghold is unrivaled by any other Korean fortresses, featuring an array of merits adopted from various fortresses of the then contemporary states of China and Europe. It is considered to be an outstanding work of military architecture making excellent use of military construction techniques from both the East and West.

    Hwaseong Fortress was completed in two and a half years from 1794 to 1796 under King Jeongjo’s reign (1776-1800). Hwaseong generally refers to the rampart that runs for 5.7 kilometers and the attached facilities of various configurations and functions. However, it also refers to the entire city - Korea’s first planned city - that King Jeongjo constructed as part of his efforts to bring reform to his nation and open up a new era based on his political ideals.


    Jeongjo’s Reformist Ideals Result in Korea’s First Planned City

    Before he took the throne, King Jeongjo was educated and trained to be a monarch under the loving protection of his grandfather, Yeongjo (r. 1724-1776), who would set the record for the longest reign (52 years) in the history of the Joseon Dynasty. Jeongjo was fortunate to have his grandfather’s support, but he also suffered from guilt and grief over the tragic death of his father Crown Prince Sado (1735-1762). The former heir to the throne had become entangled in a destructive power struggle, which eventually led his own father to kill him by locking him up in a rice chest.

    “I am the son of Prince Sado,” declared King Jeongjo in front of all his retainers immediately after he succeeded his grandfather to the throne. For the new king, getting over the trauma of his father’s tragic demise and restoring his father’s honor was a task critical to reinforcing his royal authority. In 1789, as the first step to carry out the task, Jeongjo moved his father’s tomb from Mt. Baebong in Yangju (currently, Jeonnong-dong in Seoul) to Mt. Hwa to the south of Suwon, and renamed it Hyeollyungwon (Memorial Garden of Prosperity). Since his father’s tomb was to be constructed at a site that the Suwon Military Command Office (dohobu) occupied, Jeongjo planned to construct a walled city in the vicinity, and move the military office to the new town, promoting it to Suwon Magistracy (yusubu).

    Most of all, the construction of Hwaseong Fortress embodies the filial piety of King Jeongjo. He built the fortress to protect his father’s tomb in Mt. Hwa as well as the new temporary palace at the heart of the fortressed city. (Hwaseong Haenggung was where the king stayed when he made visits to his father’s tomb, and it was the largest in size among all the temporary palaces built in the Joseon Dynasty.) Furthermore, the fortress was part of the king’s ambitious plan to bring about reform in politics by strengthening regal power and breaking down factional politics.

    With regards to Hwaseong’s military purpose, the fortress played a significant role in reinforcing the defense of the capital city Hanyang (today’s Seoul). The impregnable fortress equipped with advanced military facilities built to the south of the capital city could fortify the existing defense network, which had been relatively vulnerable to an attack from the south. In addition, Jeongjo stationed 5,000 troops as the Outer Unit of the Royal Guards Garrison (Jangyongyeong) in Hwaseong, displaying his military power to his enemies in and out of the country.

    The area around Hwaseong and Mt. Paldal was not only an important strategic point for the defense of Hanyang, but also a major transportation point that connected the capital city to Chungcheong, Gyeongsang and Jeolla provinces. Furthermore, the rapid development and expansion that was taking place in Hanyang, triggered by economic prosperity during the early reign of Jeongjo, called for the creation of a new city in its vicinity.

    Against this backdrop, the king constructed a new city in Suwon and changed its name to Hwaseong. By promoting it to the level of military magistracy, attracting residents and turning it into a commercial center, the king hoped to transform it into a great city, second only to Hanyang. With the construction of Hwaseong, the capital city was now surrounded by four military magistracies in four directions - Gaeseong to the north, Ganghwa Island to the west, Hwaseong to the south and Gwangju to the southeast - and altogether, they formed a gigantic metropolitan area similar to metropolitan areas in the Han and Tang dynasties in China.

    King Jeongjo did not spend the national budget on the construction project but used the money from the royal treasury, and the king personally took part in the designing of the city. All the spending related to the new city - including the wages of the officials working at his father’s tomb, the cost for the king and his entourage’s travel to Hwaseong, and the city’s administrative expenditure - was paid for by the royal household, not by the people through their taxes.
    The king wished to create “a new utopian city where ordinary people could lead a happy life” to prove that he was a benevolent ruler comparable to Yao and Shun, the ideal emperors in the ancient legends of China. The construction of Hwaseong Fortress was the largest public work since the transfer of the capital to Hanyang exactly 400 years earlier in 1394. By constructing a new city as great as the capital in such a short period of time, this ambitious project heralded a new era of social change, in which a strong sovereign power would unite the nation.

    King Jeongjo played a leading role in the construction project, overseeing its every step including overall designing and policy-making. In this process, a group of reformist scholars contributed to implementing detailed plans and supervising actual work on the site. They were scholars who supported the School of Practical Learning (Silhak), a scholarly movement that sought to extend their inquiries to embrace broader areas of learning, such as geography, natural science, agriculture and many other academic subjects. The most trusted of them all was Jeong Yak-yong, a young scholar at age 31.
    Having received a royal order to take charge of the entire construction process, he dedicated himself to building an ideal fortress using the best technologies available at the time.


    Combination of Advanced Technologies from the East and the West

    The wall of Hwaseong Fortress forms an oval configuration with the city nestled at the heart of the enclosure. From the summit of Mt. Paldal, the wall runs down southward along the ridges while embracing and accommodating the natural surroundings. In some sections, the wall runs uphill and downhill through the mountain, and in others, runs across a stretch of flatland. A fortress enclosing both mountainous areas and a flatland is a unique form of architecture rarely found in the neighboring countries like China and Japan.

    The circumference of the fortress wall is measured at about 5.7 kilometers, and its height is 5 meters on average. There are 1.2-meter-high battlements (crenellated parapets for firing weapons while protecting soldiers from enemy fire) constructed atop the wall. Viewed from the outside, the walls stand tall revealing the entire height from top to bottom, but the inner base of the walls was reinforced by dirt banks making the most of the natural terrain in composition. The battlements are built of bricks, and each of the merlons has an embrasure to allow shooters to fire against the attackers.

    Hwaseong has four main gates: Janganmun to the north, Paldalmun to the south, Hwaseomun to the west and Changnyongmun to the east. Each of the gates is protected by another layer of curved wall, a semi-circular chemise attached to either side of the gate. Apart from these four main gates, there are five secret exits along the wall. Additionally, there are two floodgates across Suwon Stream, which flows from the north to the south. One of them is Hwahongmun, the northern floodgate, with a beautiful pavilion structure on the top.

    Both the north and south gates have a guard platform (jeokdae) on their either side, which allowed the guards to observe enemy movements and attack the flanks of the enemies approaching the wall. Along the fortress wall, there are two platforms for arrow launchers (nodae), one on the west and the other on the east, and three observation towers (gongsimdon), which are hollow structures with ladders and a stairway spiraling up the interior wall. The archer’s platform and observation tower were completely new features which had never been applied to other fortress structures before.

    Other notable features of the fortress include the bastion (chiseong), a portion of the wall projecting outward to form a walled terrace, facilitating active defense against assaulting troops. Along the enclosure of the fortress, there are nine bastions, some of which have cannon platforms (poru) hidden behind battlements and some others have roof structures (poru, a homonym of the previous poru) to hide the movements of the soldiers stationed there. There are also sentry towers in the form of a wooden pavilion (gangnu) built high on the corners of the wall to have an unobstructed view of the outside.

    The fortress has two buildings on its western and eastern sides, which were used as military command posts (jangdae). There are also five beacon towers (bongdon) at which torches were fired to create smoke signals for emergency communication with the adjacent fortresses or other military facilities nearby. A different message was delivered according to the number of smoke strands rising from the round chimneys.

    The fortress originally had 48 military facilities along its wall, which served a wide variety of purposes including surveillance, attack, command and communication. Currently, there are 41 facilities left with seven of them destroyed by floods and wars. No other fortresses in Korea have been constructed with such a large number of defense facilities. Moreover, while most of the fortresses before it served exclusively for defense, Hwaseong was equipped with more features for attack.

    Among the numerous buildings in Hwaseong Fortress, the northeastern sentry tower, known more widely as Banghwasuryujeong, is especially noted for its architectural elegance. Placed on a high and narrow platform, the small building has a unique style that did not stick to established architectural rules, yet its elegant simplicity epitomizes the beauty of Korean pavilions. Overlooking a pond underneath it, which is lined with weeping willows, the pavilion is in perfect harmony with its surroundings.

    It is said that King Jeongjo frequently emphasized aesthetics during the construction of the fortress. An anecdote has it that one of his retainers asked, “Your Majesty, a fortress does fine as long as it is strong enough to defend against enemy attacks. So, why do you try to make it so exquisite?” The king replied, “Beauty can easily subdue the enemy.” The king’s aesthetic awareness resulted in a military fortress which is also praised for its aesthetic qualities.

    The construction of the fortress was successfully completed in the summer of 1796. Aided by ground-breaking inventions and technologies, the project took an unusually short period of time to finish - two and a half years. In February 1795, when the construction was in its final phase, the king visited Hwaseong with his mother Lady Hyegyeong to hold a banquet to celebrate her 60th birthday. The new city was selected as the venue for the grand event, which is estimated to have been the most splendid and sumptuous of all the birthday celebrations of the royal family held in the Joseon Dynasty. The long and magnificent procession with the king and his mother in their respective sedan chairs left Seoul accompanied by high-level officials and troops, and crossed the Han River at Noryangjin before they finally reached Hwaseong. The royal trip to Hwaseong was recorded in detail in a royal protocol entitled, Wonhaeng eulmyo jeongni uigwe (The Royal Protocol on King Jeongjo’s Visit to His Father’s Tomb in the Year of Eulmyo), which remains intact today. Every year in October, the Suwon municipal government holds the Hwaseong Culture Festival, in which the 18th-century royal procession is reenacted based on this document.

    The fortress was restored to its original shape, after the damage and destruction inflicted during the Japanese colonial rule and the Korean War was repaired, based on another court document, Hwaseong seongyeok uigwe (The Royal Protocol on the Construction of Hwaseong Fortress). The protocol collected various kinds of official documents and also recorded the construction process in great detail, including the design, actual shape, size and characteristic features of every building, as well as the sources and uses of various building materials, their treatments, personal information about the hired workers, and the calculations of wages and other expenditures. The meticulous record enables posterity to have detailed information about the construction process, while giving modern people a glimpse of how the Joseon Dynasty appreciated the value of record keeping.

    A truly original, practical and aesthetic work of architecture, Hwaseong Fortress is the epitome of the Joseon fortress, inheriting tradition while reflecting changing social ideals. Standing across a stretch of land that encompasses hills and flatland, the fortress has features characteristic of both mountain and flatland fortresses. Other qualities unique to this fortress include its scientific, reasonable and practical structural design as well as the construction techniques that made use of a variety of building materials such as stone, brick and wood. Likewise, this military citadel is acclaimed not only for its defensive capacity but also for its aesthetic qualities. In 1997, Hwaseong Fortress was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
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