Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty

Sejong's Tomb 2Location: Yeoju, Gyeonggi-do Province, South Korea
Visited: October 3, 2011

Opinion and Background: 
This was definitely more interesting to me than it would be to the average person who doesn’t really know Korean history (or lived in Korea for that matter). I must note that this is a bit of a cheat. The UNESCO inscription includes all 40 tombs of the Joseon Dynasty, scattered all over Korea in 18 different sites. While I have visited other Joseon tombs, I decided to review only this site that includes three tombs because:

a) It contains the most important king in Korean history (Sejong the Great).
b) It is easier to give an assessment about something that is in a single location.
c) It is the best of the Joseon Tombs that I have visited.

The tombs are very well kept and the entrance is full of replicas of accomplishments by King Sejong. However, most of the things displayed are not originals, as they have been lost by repeated Japanese invasions. In addition, considering that King Sejong is THE most important historical figure in Korean history, I expected this site would have more, grandeur.

King Sejong was born in 1397 and became king in 1418. During his 32 year reign, he improved many things in Korea (called “Joseon” at the time), both technologically and culturally. Technologically, he improved Korean knowledge of the stars, weaponry, and weather analysis. Culturally, he called for the caring of all Koreans, rich or poor, and expanded the idea of respecting ones elders. He is however, mostly remembered as the inventor (along with many scholars) of “Hangeul” the Korean alphabet. This phonetic and simple system broke away from the old Chinese script (“Hanja”) and made it easy for less educated Koreans to become literate.

King Hyojong the Great rose to power in 1619 and is mostly noted for solidifying Korea as both a military and economic power. He introduced a system of currency to replace the bartering system. He also fortified Korea with a vast network of fortresses with trained soldiers to combat the belligerent Qing (Manchu) Dynasty of China.

Evaluation:

1) Completeness and Originality (14/15): Given how many times the Japanese have invaded, it is a minor miracle that all 43 tombs remain. Furthermore, 40 of the 43 are in South Korea.

2) Extensiveness of the Site (4/15): It  is difficult to grade this as it has multiple locations. Most tombs look almost exactly the best and can be viewed in about an hour or 90 minutes. To see them all would take at least a week, but unless you have no job and live in Seoul, just pick one or two.

3) Cultural Significance (9/25): The Korean people owe their entire language and its relative ease (compared to Chinese script) to this single man. Unfortunately, as great as Sejong was, the scope of this doesn’t expand to a global scale. Nonetheless, it is amazing such a site survived given Korea’s history.

4) Personal Impact (3/15): Maybe I expected too much. It is definitely worth a look, but there is a reason I have yet to meet a Korean who knows of this site. It is nice and peaceful, like a desolate park.

5) Logistics (7/10): It was pretty cheap at 3000 Won (<3 USD). However, buses stop before the site even closes. This is highly unusual in Korea for a bus to end services before 5PM. Furthermore, no cabs are available because it is so out of the way. I had to walk back from the site to the bus station in Yeoju, which took more than an hour. Despite this being bad timing in my part, getting to Yeoju is done by bus only (from Seoul), few people in town speak any English at all, and the site itself is not that popular (so you can’t “follow the crowd”). In fairness however, these are much harder to get to places in the world. [Based on King Sejong’s Tomb. Other tombs are much easier to reach.]

6) Uniqueness (2/20): Looks like pretty much any common person’s tomb on a mountain. I know it is part of the culture, but expected something more grandiose for a king.

 

Combined Score: 39/100

Is this a good score? Find out how it compares in our rankings.

Related Articles / Useful Links on this Sites:

1) Three Things to do in Southern Seoul [Near this place] (pt.1)

Related Articles / Useful Links on other Sites:

1) Official Korean tourism site (best resource)

2) Sejong the Great Wikipedia

3) Google Map

4) Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty Wikipedia

5) UNESCO info on the Royal Tombs

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Julio Moreno

Julio is a California native who has lived abroad since 2009 as an expat in South Korea and New Zealand. He is especially passionate about experiencing other cultures and visiting as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites as possible.
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5 thoughts on “Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty

  • March 12, 2014 at 5:48 am
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    The “grandeur” of a Korean tomb is largely determined by the son as he assumes the throne, following the previous King’s death. Therefore, as one might expect King Sejong’s father (Taejong) rests in the largest and most grand Joseon royal tomb. Located in Southern Seoul, Heolleung Cluster.

    Yet, it is important to note Joseon Royalty were Confucian (even more than China), and in palace and tomb design modesty, harmony with nature, and simple yet elegant structures were prized far more than grandiose “arrogant” designs. Indeed, Confucian King’s in Korea would have thought Chinese and Japanese tomb locations were inferior based on geomancy principles. Flamboyant designs were avoided, but extreme care was taken to choose the location of Joseon tomb. The Gwangneung cluster & Donggureung cluster tomb locations are particularly beautiful.

    Reply
    • March 12, 2014 at 11:55 pm
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      I have been to Taejong’s tomb and quite honestly, didn’t notice a difference in size or grandeur of any kind. I did however, learn about the modesty stuff (after I wrote this article).
      The last tomb I saw was Donggureung, where king Taejo is buried, and was amazed that they have 16 tombs in that size. However, I particularly liked the nearby Gongreung. The guard told me I was the only one who came by that day, and didn’t mind that I climbed to the top as long as I didn’t touch anything. It is by far the most peaceful Reung Ive been to.
      How about you? Have you seen them all? I got to about half by the time my gf said “no more reung!” haha

      Reply
      • March 13, 2014 at 12:51 am
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        I visited exactly half (9/18 tomb clusters), nearly all the major ones. I visited most of them in 2008 (some in 2011), before most restrictions were in place. The Royal Joseon Tombs became a world heritage site in 2009. Therefore, I walked up to most of the burial areas. Donggureung, Heolleung, Gwangeung, and Gangeung are probably the most worthwhile tomb clusters to visit.

        *Donggureung Cluster – King Taejo (15th century and on) largest cluster of tombs

        *Heolleung Cluster – King Taejong and his Queen (joint tomb) (15th century)

        *Gwangneung Cluster – King Sejo (15th century) located in a Unesco Biosphere Reserve

        *Taereung Cluster – includes the Gangneung tomb

        *Seolleung Cluster – King Seongjong (15th, 16th century)

        *Yeongneung Cluster – King Sejong (15th century)

        *Hongyureung Cluster – King Gojong (19th, 20th century)

        *Sareung Cluster – minor tombs adjacent to Hongyureung

        *Seooreung Cluster – large cluster, but mostly minor tombs

        Reply

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