The Great Wall, not of China, but of South Korea: Hwaseong Fortress

It was cold winter.

The temperature was dropping to 0 degrees Celsius.

The good thing about this kind of weather was the coldness. I would not get sweaty and I would be very comfortable to move around. The bad thing about it was also the coldness: moving was limited and it ironically it was also uncomfortable.

This was the situation during my second visit to Seoul in February 2019.

As a tourist in this South Korean cosmopolitan city, the good thing about this travel – only a few tourists competed with me and my colleague Bryan as we strolled different sites of interest, especially Seoul’s World Heritage Sites.

On the other hand, winter was not the most pleasant time to do some sight-seeings: everythings seemed dead.

Nonetheless, the spectacle of the monochromatic drama of nature blended almost perfectly with the colorful walls, columns, ceilings and floorings of Seoul’s temples, shrines and palaces.

Seoul is a popular destination for many. This was the reason why Bryan and I also asked our Korean friend Charlie to bring us somewhere else. We did not want to be entangled with several tourists doing the same sight seeing in popular Seoul destinations. So Charlie brought us to Suwon, some 35 km south of Seoul, to visit the infamous Hwaseong Fortress, another UNESCO World Heritage Site in South Korea.

My colleague Bryan Viray reading the UNESCO inscription opposite the South Gate of the Fortress (PHOTO: SAPT)

Located in Suwon, the nearest city to the south of Seoul, Hwaseong Fortress is a fortification built between 1794 and 1796. Like the other heritage sites in South Korea, the fortress was constructed by another powerful figure belonging the Joseon dynasty: King Jeongjo to commemorate and to use as the final resting place of his father, Prince Sado.

The wall is infamous because of Sado, who was executed by his own father King Yeongjo after failing to obey a command: to commit suicide.

Charlie noted that Sado was asked to commit suicide after he threatened to kill the son of the highest official (the Royal Consort Yeong) closest to his father Yeongjo. In the summer of 1762, Sado had a heated argument with this official. Sooner, rumors about Sado trying to enter the upper court to outwit Yeongjo spread like wildfire. However, the court rules indicate that the emperor/king could not kill a direct heirby his own hands. With this, Sado was ordered to climb into a large wooden rice chest. But according to the same friend, some historians claim that Sado died due to mental illness. However, in the memoir of Sado’s wife, she contradicted this claim and narrated a court conspiracy against him.

Walking along the fortress going to the Western gate (PHOTO: SAPT)
The fortification located at the Southwestern area of the Fortress (PHOTO: SAPT)

According to UNESCO Website, Hwaseong Fortress is a piled-stone and brick fortress of the Joseon Dynasty that surrounds the centre of Suwon City, of Gyeonggi-do Province. Its inclusion as a WHS is based on its  representation of the pinnacle of 18th century military architecture, incorporating the best scientific ideas from Europe and East Asia brought together through careful study by scholars from the School of Practical Learning. More importantly, the fortress had a great influence on the development of Korean architecture, urban planning, and landscaping and related arts. In this regard, the fortress exhibits an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design (or criteria ii for selection).

Also, the inscription is based on how the Koreans combined traditional fortress building methods with an innovative site layout that enabled it to deliver defensive, administrative and commercial functions. This means, the fortress bears a unique or at least an exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared (or criteria iii for selection).

When we visited the site, it reminded me so much of the Great Wall of China, except that the wall at Suwon is 5.74 kilometres (3.57 mi) in length and varies between 4 to 6 metres (13–20 ft), originally enclosing 1.3 square kilometres (0.5 sq mi) of land as stated in the brochure. Obviously, the Great Wall of China is much longer than this wall. But this does not mean, Hwaseong could not compete in terms of magnificence and grandiosity.

En route the North Gate (PHOTE: SAPT)
The massive inside of the North Gate (PHOTO: SAPT)
The magnificent South Gate (PHOTO: SAPT)
A view from the rear of the South Gate (PHOTO: SAPT)
The Western Gate (PHOTO: SAPT)
Pigeons gracefully dancing over the Western Gate (PHOTO: SAPT)

The Hwaseong Fortress has only four gates (or entrance routes): Janganmun (north gate), Hwaseomun (west), Paldalmun (south) and Changnyongmun (east). Janganmun and Paldalmun are the largest of the four main gates. These gates resemble the architectural motif of the Namdaemun, or the south gate found in the Great City Wall of Seoul, one of the list of tentative world heritage sites of South Korea. [Side comment: in 2022, the World Heritage Convention will be discussing the possible inclusion of the Great City Wall of Seoul in the UNESCO World Heritage Site]. During my visit, I was not able to see the eastern gates. During my time at the Western Gate, I witnessed an enchanting dance of pigeons celebrating its magnificence. For sure, the eastern gate is equally magnanimous as the three gates.

Both the north and south gates are topped with two-storey wooden pavilions, while Hwaseomun’s and Changyongmun’s, have only one storey. The four main gates are encircled by miniature fortresses which were manned by guards. Meanwhile Changyoungmun was greatly destroyed during the Korean War and it was restored in 1978, according to our Korean friend who accompanied us in Suwon.

My friend and I were also informed that once upon a time, there was a plan to transfer the seat of power from Seoul to Suwon but then, the Korean War came to the picture.

Our Korean friend, Charlie, who stayed in the Philippines for two years, posing at the impressive guard post of the North Gate (PHOTO: SAPT)
Of course, an obligatory pose at the massive North Gate

After the trip, I wondered why the Philippines never had these kinds of megaliths. I did not realize I was speaking out loud along the way back to Seoul. Charlie, who stayed in the Philippines for two years way back in 2010 and 2011, responded: “what do you call your baroque churches? They’re beautiful megaliths, aren’t they.”

Then there was an awkward silence.

He continued: “and we both shared a history of slavery!”

The car was filled with awkward laughter.

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