Seoul has been the capital city of Korea since 1394 when the founder of the Joseon Dynasty, Yi Seong-gye, moved the capital to then Hanyang, two years after he overthrew Goryo. Joseon was ruled by Yi and his descendants with the same family name until it was annexed to Japan in 1910, becoming one of the longest-lived dynasties ruled by a single family in the world. It is also called the Yi Dynasty for this reason.
The National Palace Museum of Korea, located in the complex of the Gyeongbok Palace in central Seoul, is exclusively devoted to the dynasty, particularly its royal lifestyle and culture. The museum reopened early in August after six-month renovation, with revamped interiors and facilities, upgraded displays and more high-tech capabilities, including augmented reality using iPads.
A special exhibition is underway to mark the reopening under the title "Royal Seals and Symbols of the Joseon Dynasty," featuring royal seals and related accessories and documents. A total of 229 items, including 63 seals of kings, queens and princes, are on display until the end of September.
The exhibition offers a rare chance to learn about the royal seals of Joseon, most of which are enshrined in the section of Jongmyo, the Confucian shrine dedicated to the memorial services for the deceased kings and queens of the Joseon Dynasty, which is not open to the public.
The royal seals represent the dignity and authority of the dynasty and royal family during Joseon. There were two types of royal seals: the "guksae" used by kings for administrative purposes and the "eobo," personal seals of royal family members.
Kings, queens and princes were bestowed with respectful titles when they were installed in positions of authority or when their deeds were reappraised during their lives or posthumously. Eobo seals were sculpted with the respectful titles and presented to them during state rites such as the crown prince investiture ceremonies and the rites for the bestowal of posthumous titles.
Royal family members were also presented with the "eochaek," books of admonishment for kings and queens, and "gyomyeong," letters of appointment, along with the seals.
When kings and queens died, their eobo seals as well as the eochaek and gyomyeong were enshrined and preserved at Jongmyo.
Most of the royal seals have been relatively well preserved for this reason. Among the 369 eobo seals yet confirmed, 41 are missing, including those belonging to five of the 27 Joseon kings.
Decorated with beautiful dragon- or turtle-shaped handles, the royal seals are also excellent works of craft of that time. Unlike guksae seals, which come in more diverse forms, all eobo seals have turtle-shaped handles. They are made of jade, silver or other metals plated with gold. The seals are square, measuring around 10 centimeters in width and length. They usually measure 7-10cm in height.
The exhibition at the National Palace Museum is divided into four parts.
The first part is an introduction to royal seals of Joseon, featuring both the eobo for personal use and the official guksae, while the second part showcases the use of eobo seals in various state rites.
The third section features the process of manufacturing and packaging the seals. There was a government agency that manufactured seals. The seals were made with different materials in different forms depending upon the position of the future owner.
A variety of accessory items were also created for the purpose of protecting the seals, including different types of container boxes, wrapping materials, strap ties, keys and locks.
The seals were first wrapped in a cloth, and then tied with a string. They were then placed in three container boxes-"botong," a small metal box, "borok" and "hogap," both made of leather.
The hogap, the outer container box, consists of two boxes connected by leather strips, each holding an ink pad and the seal. One of the hogap manufactured in the latter part of Joseon is on display at the current exhibition. It is the first time that the item is open to public view.
The last section is devoted to the enshrinement of royal seals. The Jongmyo room where the seals are preserved was reproduced to help visitors better understand the royal custom. Also on display are various documents concerning the state rites of Joseon, including the original list of articles enshrined in Jongmyo and a folding screen with illustrations depicting royal ancestral rites held in the shrine.
The museum is holding special lectures on royal seals during the exhibition period, which are open to all visitors. On Sept. 20, Chang Jongsoo, director of the museum, and two other curators will speak on the Joseon kings and their seals.
The restructured galleries of the National Palace Museum offer an extensive view of the royal life of Joseon, featuring about 2,000 artifacts in 10 exhibitions on three floors.
Each of the exhibitions handles different themes -- from kings, palaces and court life to state rites, court music, painting, and even science and astrology.
The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays and from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekends and holidays. It is closed on Mondays, except when a national holiday falls on a Monday. Admission is free. Free guided tours are offered in Korean (11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.) Chinese (10 a.m.), Japanese (1 p.m.) and English (3 p.m.). (Yonhap)