Separated from Changdeokgung to the west by a perimeter wall, Changgyeonggung (창경궁) tends to split visitors into two camps – those who marvel at its history and the relatively natural beauty of its interior, which is far greener than Seoul’s other palaces, and those who feel that there’s a little less to see.
King Sejong built Changgyeonggung in 1418 as a resting place for his father, the recently abdicated King Taejong. At its peak the palace had a far greater number of buildings than are visible today, but these were to suffer badly from fires and during the Japanese invasions. Almost the whole of the complex burned down in the Japanese attacks of 1592, and then again during a devastating inferno in 1830, two events that sandwiched the murder of a crown prince by his father. When the Japanese returned in 1907, they turned much of the palace into Korea’s first amusement park, and included a botanical garden, kindergarten and zoo, as well as a museum – the red brick exterior and pointed steel roof were very much in keeping with the Japanese style of the time, and pictures of this can still be seen around the palace entrance. The building and zoo themselves were tolerated for nearly a century before finally being ripped down in 1983, whereas the botanical garden still remains today.
Considering its turbulent history, the palace is a markedly relaxed place to wander around. The buildings themselves are nowhere near as polished as those in the Gyeongbok or Changdeok palaces, which helps accentuate their validity; the history of each structure is chronicled on information boards. Be sure to look for Myeongjeongjeon, the oldest main hall of any of Seoul’s palaces – it was built in 1616, and somehow escaped the fires that followed. From here, a number of paths wind their way to a pond at the north of the complex, many of which are highly beautiful, with some full of scent from herbs planted along the way. Near the pond are a couple of herb gardens, while also visible are the white-painted lattices of the Japanese-built botanical garden. If you still have energy left you can head to the far southwest of the complex, where a footbridge crosses over to Jongmyo shrine.
The murder of Crown Prince Sado
The murder of Crown Prince Sado
In 1762, a sinister event occurred in the grounds of Changgyeonggung, one whose story is, for some reason, omitted from the information boards that dot the palace grounds – a royal murder. A young prince named Sado was heir to the throne of King Yeongjo, but had been born mentally ill, with a rather unfortunate habit of killing people unnecessarily. Fearing dire consequences if the nation’s power were placed into his son’s hands, Yeongjo escorted Sado to Seonninmun, a gate on the eastern side of the palace, and ordered him to climb into a rice casket; his son obeyed, was locked in, and starved to death. Sado’s wife, Hyegyong, held the secret until after Yeongjo’s death in 1776, at which point she spilled the beans in a book, Hanjungnok (published in English as The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong). Sado’s son Jeongjo became king on the death of Yeongjo, and built Hwaseong fortress in Suwon to house his father’s remains. Jeongjo went on to become one of Korea’s most respected rulers.