A Fortified Town

Suwon (28 September 2013)

Joseon in the late 18th century was ruled by King Jeongjo. He however did not succeed his father. He succeeded his grandfather King Yeongjo instead. His father was Prince Sado who was apparently a depraved man. Yeongjo had to get rid of his son but could not shed the blood of his own child under the conventions of the time. So on a hot day in July he ordered his son into a rice chest where he was locked up for 8 days before finally suffocating to death.

Jeongjo’s life was adapted into a drama serial very creatively titled “Yi San”. That was the king’s name at birth while Jeongjo is his posthumous name following Eastern Asian (essentially Chinese) naming conventions for monarchs. In the show he lost his father when he was still a little boy through court intrigue and was thrown into the cruel world of political machinations where one wrong step could cost him his life royalty or not. Sado was portrayed in the show as a good crown prince who was framed by the evil people fighting for power in the royal court. Yi San had to brave the same evil people, which included the young queen (his step-grandmother) and his own aunt, who were part of the gang that had done his father in. The man would take the throne eventually anyway after something like 50 episodes of political manoeuvrings from each side.

One would have thought that things would all be fine and dandy after the man was finally placed on the throne and the villains were all dealt with. But no! Even the king was no match for politics in the royal court and he still had to watch his back all the time. I could not stomach the last 10 episodes or so of the serial after that. It just got to a point where the scheming became too annoying, especially when the women in his harem started their own cat fights too.

According to official history however, Jeongjo was a visionary who did his country a lot of good. He was also a filial son and built Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon in honour of his father who was buried nearby. There however also seems to have been a more strategic reason to build the fortress. Jeongjo had considered moving his capital to Suwon away from Seoul (called Hanyang then) and the political strife in the old capital so that he could better concentrate on reforming the country.

The fortress is really a city wall of about 5.5 kilometres in length surrounding old Suwon. It was built using both Korean and Chinese fortress designs. It is possible to walk an almost full circuit on the wall although it involves quite a bit of uphill climbing in many places especially on that part of the wall on Paldalsan. It was definitely quite a challenge for me on that hill!

Hwaseongjangdae, a command post on Paldalsan

Hwaseomun and Seobuk Gongsimdon, an observation tower next to it

Walking towards a lookout pavilion

Hwahongmun with the Suwoncheon flowing under it

Paldalmun, the south gate

Sentry post


Within the fortress is a haenggung, a palace for royal visits outside the capital, where Jeongjo would stay when he was in Suwon. This was also the place where his mother, Lady Hyegyeong, celebrated her 60th birthday.

Entering the haenggung

A corner of the haenggung

Lady Hyegyeong in her chamber

A shrine, Hwaryeongjeon, was built next to the haenggung, after Jeongjo’s death in his honour. There is a portrait of the famous king in there.

Portrait of King Jeongjo in the Hwaryeongjeon

Punghwadang in Hwaryeongjeon

I visited Suwon on a Saturday and there was a food festival going on. I decided to try some of the traditional Korean dishes there but I ended up buying 5 huge sticks of barbecued chicken instead. The food at the festival was bought with coupons and I got 5 coupons thinking that they would work for all the stalls. The first 2 sticks were wonderful. By the time I was halfway through my third however, the law of diminishing marginal utility became so real for me. But since I did not want to waste food I finished up all 5 sticks. I no longer had any appetite for any other dishes after that of course.

Suwon is a nice day trip even if only to visit the fortress. It was also a good place to reflect on the events in the drama serial about the apparently amazing man who had built that fortress.

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