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Eight Surprising Things You Can Learn in a Palace

Raise your hand if you learned Korean history in school… Yeah, me neither. But what I’ve learned here is quite fascinating. This post is a history lesson. Stick with me—I did my best to make it interesting and you get to watch a video I made. (Spoiler alert: watch for the changing of the guard, and costumed visitors taking selfies)

Lesson 1. What we now call Korea was called Joseon for much of its history. It was ruled by one dynasty for about 600 years. The name “South Korea” only came into use after WWII, when the Americans and Russians carved up this peninsula as part of agreements ending the war.

Lesson 2. This dynasty had detailed systems for everything. I remember learning European history as a series of wars, military buildup and palace intrigue. While the Joseon dynasty had its share of battles and power struggles, rulers seem to have spent an enormous amount of time setting up systems that would ensure stability. There was an entire division of scholars whose job was to train the crown prince to become a king. They moved into action as soon as an heir was given the title “crown prince” and educated him about the duties of the job. There was also a group of nobles whose job was to argue with the king so that he was forced to defend his positions and it would become obvious if they were indefensible.

Lesson 3. Information was preserved for posterity. A team of historians documented every meeting the King had. Nobody, not even the king, was allowed to edit these records. They were written both as a historical record and as a tool to enable future generations to learn from. The existing books are UNESCO world heritage items.

Lesson 4. The monarchy was built on Confucian principles. As a result, Joseon invested heavily in in training its leaders to be just and fair. It also subjugated women, who were given very few rights (neither just nor fair!).

Lesson 5. These guys could have planned the Super Bowl Halftime Show. I saw a diagram of a royal procession. There were thousands of people involved, and the diagram shows where each person stood and how the entire event was choreographed.

Lesson 6. For a long time, the people here wrote in Chinese. That was a problem; Chinese has over 50,000 characters so few people were able to read. In 1446 King Sejong solved this problem by developing Hangul, the Korean alphabet, which has 24 letters. Literacy skyrocketed, and there is a national holiday and a museum dedicated to Hangul.

Lesson 7. Centuries ago, Koreans built palaces with radiant heat in the floors. Yes, you read thatcorrectly. The main rooms are slightly elevated, and the subfloor is built of stone. Hot coals heat the stone which warms the room. Today, even in modern glass and steel apartments, the heating is radiant floor heat.

Lesson 8. Palaces are “understated” compared to European palaces. While there are elaborately painted ceilings and beautifully carved rooftops, there is no gold leafed opulence. It does not compare to the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. According to historians, this shows respect for the Confucian principle of humility. However, this also is not a country with lots of natural resources or fertile farmland so it may have been a budget issue as well

Check out the video to get a sense of the experience. Let me know what you think. It means so much to me to be able to stay connected with all of you..

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