Seonjeongneung 서울 선릉과 정릉 | UNESCO Heritage Site

At the heart of the infamous Gangnam district (if you do not know the Psy's song by now or worse Hyuna's version, you must have lived under a rock without access to the Internet or the radio, bless your ears) rest two Choseon kings and one Choseon queen. Well, that is if their bodies had not been desecrated during one of the many Japanese invasions of the Korean peninsular.

We did a wonderful tour of the Seonjeongneung with the one and unique Meggie Yu. If you are into history or even just learning a bit more about Korean culture with an historical background, this tour is made for you. You will learn a lot while having a good laugh and a relaxing walk.
Most of the information below comes the notes I have from her tour with her.

Seonjeongneung is a compound word consisting of "Seolleung," where the ninth Choseon monarch King Seongjong (1457-1494) and his wife Queen Jeonghyeon (1462-1530) are buried and "Jeongneung," the tomb of their son and the 11th King Jungjong (1488-1544). The royal tombs were designated as Historic Site No. 199 by the Korean government in 1970. The site is also known as "Samneung Park" as "sam" refers to "three" while "neung" means "royal tomb" in Korean.

Map of the Seonjongneung Site (source: leaflet of the Cultural Heritage Administration)


The tombs of the Choseon Dynasty usually followed a common structure:
  • the Entrance area, for the earthly world, composed of the Jaeshil (tomb keeper`s house), the Geumcheon (forbidden stream) and the Geumchongyo Bridge. The Geumchon served as a boundary between the mortal world of the living and the sacred realm where the dead rests;
  • the Ceremonial area, where the living could and can hold memorial services for the dead king. It includs the Hongsalmun Gate (the red spiked gate), the Chamdo (divided in two paths: the Spirit/Sindo path for the dead king and the Royal/Eodo path of the living kings), the Jeongajak shrine (literally the T-shaped shrine hosting the ancestral rites) flanked with the Bigak (housing the stones steles inscribed with the name and achievements of the dead) as well as the Suragan (royal kitchen) and the Subokbang (guard's house).
  • The Sacred area dedicated to the dead stands on top of a hill, with the Burial Mound (Neungchim) surrounded first by a Nanganseok (stone fence) then  by a set of statues known as Seokho (tiger), Seogyang (sheep), Seongma (horse) Mangjuseok (two phallic pillars), Jangmyeongdeung (a lantern), Muninseok (scholars), Muinseok (soldiers). The Gokjang, a wall around the mound burial, protects the sacred area.

① Hongsalmun Gate
② Jeongjagak Shrine
③ Subokbang
④ Suragan (Royal Kitchen)
⑤ Chamdo
⑥ Stone Carved in the Shape of an Official before the Royal Tomb
⑦ Stone Carved in the Shape of a Warrior before the Royal Tomb
⑧ Jangmyeongdeung (Stone Lantern)
⑨ Tumulus

Source: KBS World Radio - Discover Korea World's Heritage
Each statue has a specific meaning:
- the tiger, a loyal deity, patron of the Neungchim, guards the tomb;
- the sheep represented obedience and repelled evil spirits;
- the soldiers, on the lowers stage, were usually depicted as generals with swords;
- the scholars and officials stood above the soldiers, to show that "the pen is mightier than the
The wall around the burial mound, known as Gokjang, would present on its sides a pattern very similar to the one found on palace buildings' back walls: this is not a coincidence. Like in many cultures, the royal tomb as the last resting place for the King would be the epitome of the palace.

The burial site could be chosen by the King during his life or by pungsu (feng-shui) experts. Once a prince accessed the throne, a coffin was made to his size, painted with a layer of lacquer paint each year. While you might wonder "why the hell would you prepare the coffin so early?!", when you look at the Choseon kings list and history, you realize that Game of Thrones is like beginner level, so we can guess that the mindset at the time would have been "better be prepared".
When the King died, his body was washed, prepared, then laid in the coffin, after pourring rice and a pearl in his mouth. For 3 days, the king's relatives would fast while the palace staff was busy with the funeral preparation. Three temporary offices in charge of 1)getting the king's body ready for the funeral, 2) the ceremony and 3) the finalization of the royal tomb were created. 
On the fourth day following the King's death, the servants wrapped the body in 19 layers of clothes and blankets. The next day, the body was then wrapped in an additional 90 layers of clothes.
The funeral would have usually been held 5 months after the death of the King.


Neungchim of King Seongjeong

Jeongjagak Shrine and Bigak of King Seongjong

The Seolleung, the royal tomb of the ninth Choseon King Seongjeong and his third wife, Queen Jeonghyeon, was built in a style called Dongweognigangneung, which means a tomb with double mounds on separate hills with one Jeongjagak.
The burial arrangement was possible at the time because the first queen died without a son and the second one was deposed (see a bit of history below).
King Seongjeong was buried in 1495 while his wife, Queen Jeonghyeon was buried on the adjacent hill in 1530. This is the reason why the statues around her tomb are much more detailed, with for instance a general whose traits might have been inspired by a real general dear to the queen's heart. It is also to be noted that the queen's tomb shows much more buddhist elements than the one of her husband.


Neungchim of Queen Jeonghyeon

Honnyuseok and Jangmyeongdeun of Queen Jeonghyeon


Hongsalmun gate with Chamdo and Jeongjagak of King Jungjong

Jeongjagak and Burial site of King Jungjong

Close-up on Neungchim of King Jungjong

The tomb of King Jungjong was initially buried at the Huireung, Goyang, in 1545. In 1562, his tomb was moved to the eastern hill of the Seolleung. His second wife, Queen Munjeong, who led the relocation, was later buried in the Taereung, most likely because of a flood reaching up to the Hongsalmun gate prevented her burial next to her husband. He therefore rests alone in Jeongneung.


King Seongjeong (1457-1494) - 9th King of the Choseon Dynasty.

He was the second son of the prematurely deceased Crown Prince Uigyeong, successor to the King Sejo. Uigyeong's brother became King Yejo after fighting rebellion but succumbed to his illness 14 months only after accessing the throne. It is then, that with the support from key members at the court, King Seongjeong was crowned at only 12 years old.
Since he was too young to reign, his grandmother, Queen Jeonghee, and his mother, Queen Insu, ruled in his name. In 1476, at the age of 19, he began to govern in his own name. His reign was a prosperous one, economically as well as artistically. While he was a strong and competent ruler, he was also an artist and a scholar. The monarch's acadrmic efforts resulted in such accomplishments as the promulgation of the Grand Code of State Administration. For the first time since the great Kind Sejong (who created Hangeul, the Korean alphabet), he brought many liberal Confucian scholars to his court, whose political views went against those of the conservative officials. In this way, he made his rule more effective by appointing able administrators regardless of their political views. His policy resulted in many positive innovations, increasing his number of supporters. 
Very fond of poetry, he had his retainers compose poems for him and wrote some himself to present to those he loved. Records on his interest in poetry are frequently found in the royal chronicle of his reign:
Last time His Majesty presented Prince Wolsan with a poem on Pungwoljeong (Pavilion of Wind and Moon) and Han Myeong-hoe with verses for Apgujrong (pavilion of Making Friends with Birds). Both of them were inscribed on plaques and hung in the respective pavilions.
(September 28, 1477)
He also dedicated a poem to his Queen Grandmother, praying for her longevity:
I came here today to throw a banquet for my grandmother
In my mind I wish to do more than the filial son Lao Lai-Tzu
I drank wine wishing her a long life and even got drunk
But I will never be able to return her kindness
I will pay my respects to her, morning and evening, for a long time to come.
(December 13, 1489) 

Queen Jeheon/Lady Yun

She was the second wife of King Seongjong. A very beautiful woman, it is said that it is her appearance that attracted the monarch's attention after the premature death of his first wife. In 1476, she gave birth to a son, Yi Yung/Prince Yeonsan.

Unfortunately, the King's affection drifted towards another concubine, Lady Kwon. Jealous and afraid for her position, the queen plotted against the new concubine along with a "mudang" (shaman) to have her rival removed from the palace.

Her plan worked out and the concubine was exiled from the palace along with her young son. However, Seongjong kept on sending her messengers, inquiring about her well-being. Upon learning that the affection of her husband was still turned to Lady Kwon, the queen orchestrated her assassination. Unfortunately for her, the assassination attempt was foiled by one of the king's servant.

Fearing for her safety, the King ordered the concubine to be back at the palace. The news drove the queen into a furious state, so much that she threw a table full of dishes at her husband and scratched his face.

The king deposed her, exiled her from the palace and eventually, deemed her too much of a threat; she was presented with a cup of sayak (poison made from monkshood or wolfsbane) on August 29, 1482. Her last words were that her son, Prince Yeonsan, would avenge her death.

Prince Yeonsan, Choseon's Ramsay Bolton?

Prince Yeonsan was crowned in January 1494, becoming King Yeongsangun, the tenth ruler of the Choseon dynasty. At that time, he seemed to have been unaware of the circumstances surrounding his mother's death (see above, Lady Yun). His rule was then described as wise and beneficial to his people. However, he was already known for having a fierce temperament.
Homer Hulbert describes one instance:
Some time before the last king's death [King Seongjong], while he was walking in the palace ground with his son, a tame deer had come and rubbed its nose on his arm. The youth in wanton cruelty brutally kicked the animal and was sharply reprimanded for it by his father. Now that he had become king, he sent for the harmless beast and drove a spear through with his own hand.
1905, The History of Korea
 In 1504, the monarch was presented with his mother's bloody handkerchief and told of her dying wish. This is when he started a campaign to avenge her death and led two purges: all the ones closely or remotely linked to her murder were decapitated and dismembered. If some had already passed, he had their bodies dug up, the bones broken into pieces and scattered.

His lust for blood was not his only known excess. Seonggyeongwan (the royal university) and the Wongak-sa temple were transformed into his own private brothels filled with young women his agents had kidnapped across the peninsula (this is the plot of the 2015 movie "The Treacherous"). To escape him, some women went to extreme lengths: it is said that the beautiful young wife of a minor official was summoned to the palace: knowing that this moment would come, she had always kept two slices of rotting meat readily accessible; when the summons came, she slipped the slices under her arms. Disgusted by her scent, the king sent her away.
The king also evicted 20,00 residents from areas in the capital, to use them as his own private hunting grounds, where it is said he was not only hunting animals.

Of course, the population and Court officials started to voice dissent. King Yeonsangun abolished the Office of Censors and the Hongmoongwan (a library and research center that advised him with Confucian teachings). He ordered Court officials to wear a sign that read "A mouth is a door that brings in disaster; a tongue is a sword that cuts off a head. A body will be in peace as long as its mouths is closed and its tongue deeps within".

A group of officials still managed to launch a coup against the despotic ruler on 2 September 1506, deposed Prince Yeonsan and exiled him to Gyodongdo, a small island near Ganghwa. His favorite consort was beheaded and his four sons were all executed by sayak. He died two months later. The cause remains unknown.

This king has been described as the most ruthless tyrant from the Choseon dynasty, but these tales might have been told merely to make him a villain. While royal records do have details of his tyranny, they could have been written in a way to present this image of the king. We may see in the future a rehabilitation of the deposed King if new sources shed a new light on his reign and explain why he would be depicted that way.

King Jungjong (1501544) - 11th King of the Choseon Dynasty

On the day King Yeonsangun was deposed, soldiers surrounded the house of Prince Jinseong who was about to kill himself (he thought the King would have tried to kill him). His wife managed to dissuade him, he was then pushed to sit on the throne by the coup leaders and become the eleventh Choseon ruler.

He worked hard to undo the crimes and changes enforced by his predecessor: he reopened the Seonggyungwan and the Office of Censors and gave back usurped land. However, the beginning of his reign his shadowed by the ones who put him on the throne. It is only after the death of the coup leaders, eight years later, that he could assert his authority with the help of Jo Gwang-Jo.
He promoted Confucian writings by having them translated into Hangeul and distributed, pursued land reforms that would redistribute the land more equally between the rich and the poor, and introduced a new system for recruiting talents from all social strata to the government.

Of course, such reforms were opposed by conservatives nobles who plotted against Jo Gwang-jo and managed to force the king to have him exiled and to lead the Gimyo massacre of scholars in 1519, leading to a final stop of all reforms.

Source: 2006 
Chae-ŏn Kang, Jae-eun Kang, "The Land of Scholars: Two Thousand Years of Korean Confucianism", p. 267


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