At Gyeongbokgung, visitors have the chance to watch Yeonhyang, a reenactment of a royal state banquet complete with a variety of traditional Korean performances. It’s held on Gyeonghoeru, a pavilion used for state banquets during the Joseon Dynasty. The event lasts from March 28 to 30. Gyeonghoeru dates back to 1395, just three years after the foundation of the Joseon Dynasty. Initially it was a simple pavilion built on a manmade islet in a rectangular garden pond, but in 1412 it was expanded by King Taejong to a much grander structure supported by stone pillars. It is remarkable for its perfect symmetry, and was designated as National Treasure 224. It became the venue for state banquets to welcome foreign diplomats during the Joseon era. For the second year of the Yeonhyang performance, the event focuses on the history of Gyeongbokgung and Gyeonghoeru through traditional song and dance accompanied by dramatic lighting and special effects such as laser projections that project animated rain and flying creatures onto the pavilion’s roof and nearby trees. Visitors watch from across the water on a platform with white-cloth-covered chairs.
Gyeonghoeru is built in the middle of a rectangular pond.The program is divided into two parts with a brief prologue featuring a media art show depicting the foundation of the Joseon Dynasty and Gyeongbokgung. The first half is themed on the expansions of Gyeonghoeru and the state banquet for foreign envoys. It opens with a military dance, followed by the entrance of the king and queen, with a eulogy performed dramatically by Kim Na-ri. Next is a solo performance on a daegeum, or large bamboo flute, by Go Jin-ho, who performs a song titled “Tunes of High Sounds.” He sits on the bank of a small tree-covered island in the pond, while the trees lining the pond are brilliantly lit with colorful lights. After that, the Jeongjae Society performs two dances. The first, titled “Peony Dancers,” features 20 dancers dancing around a vase full of peony flowers to pray for the king’s longevity. Their second performance, “Joy of Boating,” features a dance around a pole connected with colorful fabric ribbons as they sing a song for fishermen. The court dance is designated as Important Intangible Cultural Heritage 41. The second half of the performance celebrates the reconstruction of Gyeongbokgung in 1867, 270 years after its destruction during an invasion by Japan. It begins as a boat comes into view from behind Gyeonghoeru carrying An Sook-seon, one of the most recognized modern pansori singers. Pansori is a musical genre performed by one or two singers telling a story through song, accompanied by a drummer playing an hourglass-shaped drum called a janggu. Only five original pansori stories survive to this day. Ahn performs “Sugungga,” the same selection that had been performed for King Gojong in celebration of the restoration of Gyeonghoeru. It tells the story of a rabbit who is invited to a royal banquet of the Dragon King, who wants to eat the rabbit’s liver. Next is a drum dance by the Jeongjae Society to celebrate the warming of the earth in spring, followed by a chorus of singers led by Kim Hye-ran performing “Gyeongbokgung Song” from the island.
Colored spotlights and green lasers are used to light up the island in the pond. The show ends with a comedic acrobatic performance on a tightrope extended between two poles. The actors playing the king and queen rise from their thrones to get a better look as the performer struts and bounces across the rope. The performance is put on by Anseong Municipal Namsadang Baudeogi Pungmuldan. At the end of the performance, all the performers come out to stand on the pavilion below the king and queen to bow for the audience. Afterwards, spectators can wander through the palace grounds toward the exit, taking the time to enjoy the night view of the traditional structures.
Geunjeongjeon, the central building of the palace complexMeanwhile, Changdeokgung offers the Moonlight Tour, a rare event that happens only a few times a year. Visitors got a tour of the palace grounds under the cover of dark, leading to the Secret Garden for a traditional music concert. This tour will be offered regularly in April and continue until October. Changdeokgung was built in 1412 under the reign of King Taejong, less than 20 years after the building of Gyeongbokgung. It was the seat of government until the reconstruction of Gyeongbokgung in 1872. After Japan annexed Korea, the palace became the residence of Emperor Gojong, the last emperor of Joseon, until his death in 1919. The palace was inhabited by the last remaining descendants of the royal family until as recently as 1989 with the death of Princess Bangja. Unlike other palaces, Changdeokgung is asymmetrical, its structures built in harmony with the landscape. By eschewing the conventional symmetrical, gridlike design typical of most palaces, Changdeokgung revolutionized Korean architecture, royal gardens, and landscaping. “The palace itself is quite lovely,” said blogger Matt Burnett, who went on Tuesday night, “very different from Gyeongbokgung, but equally special and interesting.”
The tour begins at the front gate, Donhwamun, which is illuminated by powerful lights to bring out the vivid colors in the wood painting.Because of the dark, the path to Huwon, the Rear Garden, is lined with cloth-covered lanterns to guide the way. Visitors are also offered handheld LED lanterns to carry with them to help light the way on the sometimes uneven paths, and guides are always attentive to make sure nobody trips and gets hurt. The lanterns are modeled after traditional cheongsachorong, which were originally lit by candles.
Visitors get a rare opportunity to visit Nakseonjae, the hall where Princess Bangja had lived from 1963 to 1989.When visitors enter the garden, they are greeted by a solo gayageum player. The tour winds up at Yeongyeongdang, an audience hall, for an hour-long performance. The first song is an instrumental performance by the Rageum Orchestra, featuring a variety of drums and string instruments. Next, the band is joined on stage by a solo dancer to perform Chunaengjeon, a royal court dance characterized by graceful feminine movements. It was created by Crown Prince Hyomyeong in 1828 when he was inspired by the song of a nightingale sitting on a branch on a warm spring day. Very slow moving, performances are judged based on the execution of difficult dance steps and the performer’s ability to maintain a bright smile throughout.
Next is a daegeum performance by Kim Bang-hyeon. He performs Daegeum Sanjo, a song that was developed in the 1920s and passed down through the generations. He is accompanied by a janggu drummer.
The final performance of the night was a duet of “Sarangga” (Love Song) from the most popular pansori, “Chunhyangga.” They are joined by the janggu drummer, who punctuates their vocals with short, quick exclamations known as chuimsae. Audience members are also invited to encourage the performers with their own chuimsae.
“I have seen a hundred of these performances before, but never in such a beautiful and traditional setting,” said Burnett. “It really made the whole thing come alive.”
Afterwards, the palace workers escort the visitors through the moonlit garden back to the front gate, Donhwamun.
The two events were offered to give visitors -- both domestic and foreign -- a look into the Joseon Dynasty during its heyday, and welcome foreign diplomats to Korea with ceremonies fit for a king.
By Jon Dunbar