Friday, March 27, 2009

And so the final countdown begins. 4 more blog entries of Korea and then I'm done!

Much like with Rome, you could make the argument that Seoul is also like a outdoor museum. From the historic gates of the city to the temples and shrines, Seoul has a great offering of historical sites located right within the city. Of these cultural relics, the most frequently visited are the Five Grand Palaces of the Joseon Dynasty.

As the last royal and imperial dynasty of Korea, the Joseon Dynasty has had an significant influence on modern Korean society. Go figure, more five centuries of rule (from July 1392 to August 1910) ought have that kind of effect. With consolidated control of all Korea, the country reached the height of classical Korean culture, trade, science, literature, and technology. 

It was also during this time that Hangul, the native alphabet of the Korean language, was established so that commoners could also learn to read and write. (Prior to this, Chinese characters were used and trust me, Chinese characters are not easy. FYR, literacy in China is defined by someone who can read/write 1,500 Chinese characters. College graduates are required to know 7,000 to 10,000 characters. Think about that.)

Anyway, the Joseon Dynasty built Five Grand Palaces within their capitol of Seoul. I guess that when you're the King, you can never have enough places to live in. Out of these five, I only had a chance to visit three of them sadly. I'm not sure how I spent a week in Seoul and wasn't able to see all of them. Anyway, it's not really a big deal because all the palaces started to look the same after awhile anyway. Rather than writing about each palace individually, I decided to give a basic overview using pictures from all three places:
  • The Gate
Every palace has to have a main gate right? The main gate in the following picture (called Geunjeongmun Gate) is from Gyeongbokgung Palace. This palace served as the main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty and it's considered to be the grandest. There's a lot to see there considering that the National Folk Museum and National Palace Museum are also located on the palace grounds. I ended up going here on Lunar New Years Day. Yay for free admission!

  • The Throne Hall
Located not too far from the main gate is the throne hall used for official ceremonies, such as celebrations by royal subjects and receptions for foreign envoys. The throne hall in this picture is Injeongjeon Hall, the "greatest building" of Changdeokgung Palace (at least that's how the brochure describes it.) Now if you compare this building with the main gate from above, you might notice a striking amount of similarities in the architectural style (double tiered roof, same colors, etc). Pretty much every building in every palace looks like that:

Now if you look closely at the previous picture you might notice two rows of stones markers on each side. These are the court stones that indicated where important officials were supposed to stand during meetings of state affairs. One row was for the civil officials and the other was for the military officials. The closer you stood to the front, the more important you were. Below is a close-up of the 6th court stone (taken at Deoksugung Palace):

Deoksugung Palace was actually my favorite of the three that I visited. It's really interesting because it's the only one of the Five Grand Palaces in corporate Western architecture. (I'll have more pictures of that later.) Anyway, this next picture is a close-up of the facade of the throne hall:

  • The Throne
These next two pictures are of the interior of the the throne hall. The throne is always located in the rear central part of the building between the pillars. And they sure love that yellow/red/green paint job, huh? Apparently this color combination was reserved for royalty:

Now behind this seat is a folding screen with a picture of the sun, moon, and five mountains. (And this was the same picture at each palace.) I've read that it's symbolic of the king "becoming the pivot of a balanced universe," because when the King sat in front of the screen, he literally became the central point of the composition:

  • The Shrine
Okay, so I've thrown an extra one in here. In addition to the Five Grand Palaces, there was also a Jongmyo Shrine, a site dedicated to the memorial services for the deceased kings and queens of the Joseon Dynasty. Jongmyo is the supreme shrine of the state where the "spirit tablets" of the royal ancestors are enshrined. (The spirit tables are markers indicating where a person's spirit dwells.) When a king or queen died, mourning would continue at the palace for three years after his/her death. After then, these spirit tablets would be moved here to Johnmyo and enshrined. 

Jongmyo is also known as the located of the Jongmyo Jerye, the Royal Ancestral Rite. This rite for worshipping the late kings and queens of the Joseon Dynasty in is held every year at the first Sunday of May. (That totally makes me want to go back and photograph the ceremony.) The rite is usually accompanied with the court music playing and dance.

This is a picture of the Jaegung Area where the king and crown prince made their preparations for the Royal Ancestral Rite. They would enter through this main gate and stay here to purify their minds and bodies before heading to the main hall of Jongmyo:

And this is Jeongjeon, the central building of Jongmyo where all the spirit tables are enshrined. As you can tell, the overall architecture here at Jongmyo is simpler. There isn't that same lavish adornment seen in the palace architecture. I guess it's supposed to exhibit the dignity and solemnity of the place...or something like that. Anyway, this particular building is the longest independent building in Korea. And obviously as the number of enshrined kings and queens grew, they had to keep expanding the facility. Currently there are 19 spirit chambers with a total of 49 tablets:

Anyway, that's it for now. I've got one more entry about palaces and then a couple about Lunar New Years in Korea!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Yesterday, I went to the Hong Kong Flower Show. Spending a Sunday around orchids, tulips, and cosmos may not sound like an ideal weekend adventure, but I enjoyed myself in spite of the unfavorable conditions:

  • After a long night of drunken singing at KTV for my friend's birthday, I was left exhausted the following day. I'm still not sure how I managed to wake up so early and get myself out to Hong Kong for the flower show.
  • The event was smaller than I expected and jam-packed full of people. That's what I get for going on the last possible day of the show. And I'm a guy who despises being stuck in crowded areas.
  • The weather wasn't exactly uncomfortable: it was incredibly hot and humid. Wearing a t-shirt and shorts didn't do much to keep me cool. It probably didn't help that I was lugging around about 10 pounds worth of camera equipment.
  • Despite being there for about 5 hours, I ended up not even having lunch. Come to think of it, all I had while I was there was some sports drink. None of the real food looked appetizing to me so I just didn’t eat.
Like I said, I had a great time despite all of that. Things have been pretty stressful lately and it's been taking a toll on me mentally and physically. Photographing the flower show on Sunday was the type of break that I've been needing. I won't deny that it was also great just to get out of China and head to Hong Kong. But mostly, I've needed to get out and spend some serious time shooting. In those five hours of taking pictures of flowers, I was re-reminded of one of the main reasons why I love photography so much.

Taking pictures just takes a load off my mind. All the crap that I've been dealing with at work and in my personal life just temporarily disappeared during those five hours. When I get into the zone and start hitting my stride, there’s no better escape. And when it comes to macro photography and flowers, it's even better. Flowers don't move and you can't give them direction or tell them how to pose. It’s pretty much just going to sit there prettily. So it takes more concentration from the photographer because you can't control the flower, but you can really control the camera. Thus for me, it requires me focus even more to figure out the right angle, composition, depth of field, exposure, etc.

And that's one of the main reasons I love photography. I love that I can become so totally engrossed in taking a picture that I forget about what's bothering me. I know it's not a long lasting permanent solution, but sometimes all I need is a break, even if it's only for five hours.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

So I ran into an old "friend" today. I don't like the guy and I've just been trying to avoid him lately. I've knew eventually I would have to face him again, but I didn't think it would happen so soon. I was getting off an MTR (Mass Transit Railway) train in Hong Kong and there he was. Before I even had a chance to react, he said with a devilish grin, "Glad to see me again?" It was like taking a swift punch to the gut.

DAMN YOU HUMIDITY! (The humidity is supposed to be at 90~95%. Seriously.)

During the last couple of months, it's been great; the weather has been pretty cool and dry. Shenzhen is in the subtropical part of China, so we don't have freezing cold, snowy winters like in Beijing. But lately it's just been getting hotter and more uncomfortable here. I've had to turn on the AC in my room everyday this week; I can't remember the last time I had to use it before then. I know that Spring/Summer are coming, but it's only late March! Come on, gimme a break.

That means it's time to start rolling up those sleeves and stop wearing jeans. It's back to showering twice a day so I don't feel disgusted with myself. The hardest part is going to be re-teaching myself to just accept being sweaty and feeling sticky. There's nothing you can really do to escape the humid, hot summers.