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24 Jun 2013

Namdaemun reborn – A little over a month ago, on the 17th of May, Hyunjin and I visited the newly rebuilt Namdaemun, or Great South Gate—one of the main gates of the old city walls and National Treasure No. 1—the superstructure of which was mostly destroyed in a fire over five years ago. I documented the aftermath here in what was more of a social and cultural commentary than I remember it being. Today’s entry will be a little more objective, simply showing you what the new gate looks like and explaining some of the things you’ll be looking at (and nitpicking some translation at the end... apologies in advance). This would have come a lot sooner, but our trip to London forced me to put a lot of things on the back burner. This was one of them. “Better late than never” is my motto.

“I would say the gate has been restored to its former glory, but in fact it surpasses its condition before the fire.”

By the way, I am doing the same thing here I did with my original Namdaemun entry: simultaneously putting up a “companion gallery” on the Imagery page. You can either go through the gallery separately and click on those photos for larger versions or, more conveniently, just click on the photos below to go directly to the larger versions. Photos in Journal entries are not usually clickable, so it’s worth mentioning at the start, just in case anyone wants to see something in more detail.

Here is Namdaemun as viewed from (roughly) the south. I would say it has been restored to its former glory, but in fact the government took this opportunity to restore the gate to a condition that surpasses its condition before the fire—more on this in a bit. One of the biggest changes to the gate, though, was not made to the gate itself but to the land around the gate. Namdaemun used to sit at the center of a busy traffic circle, cut off from all normal foot traffic. Now, however, it sits just to the south of a five-way intersection that is likely a little more difficult for cars to navigate (I don’t know—I’ve never driven the area) but that also makes the gate accessible to foot traffic, as you can see here. No longer is Namdaemun something to be gazed on from afar; it is a national treasure you can get up close to, and we took advantage of that fact.

This is the gate from head on. Even though it is the Great South Gate, it doesn’t actually face due south, but is turned slightly to the southwest. As you can see, it was a beautiful day, and the crowds were out on this lovely spring evening to see the new gate. Notice the nameboard (hyeonpan) in the center and the statuettes (japsang) on the eaves. Those are worth a closer look...

...starting with the hyeonpan. It would probably be more natural to translate this as “signboard,” but that sounds a bit too commercial to me. The word literally means “hanging board,” which doesn’t help much, but it refers to boards that contain the name of a structure (gate, temple, palace building, etc.) written either horizontally or, as in this case, vertically. Those of my readers who are familiar with classical Chinese will know that this does not in fact say “Namdaemun,” which is the colloquial name for the gate. The traditional name, and what is written here, is Sungnyemun, which roughly means “Gate of Exalted Decorum.” The calligraphy is that of Prince Yangnyeong, the eldest son of King Taejong (the third king of Joseon), but no one knows who actually painted the characters on the board—that is, whether Prince Yangnyeong himself painted them, or if someone else copied Prince Yangnyeong’s calligraphy.

This photo also gives you a closer look at the bracket system used to support the massive roof structure (to either side of the hyeonpan) and the roof tiles (below the hyeonpan). Quite a big deal was made of the fact that the bright colors of the paint were achieved with natural pigments, not chemical pigments, and that the roof tiles were shaped and fired using traditional methods. These are some of the ways in which the government has attempted to not simply restore the gate to its previous condition but to restore it to its original, pre-20th century condition.

These are the statuettes atop one of the lower eaves. These statuettes are placed on the eaves to ward off fire and evil spirits. There are nine on the upper eaves but only seven here on the lower eaves. What you may not know is that the lower eaves of the gate before the fire had eight statuettes, not seven. Apparently seven was the original number and an eighth was added later, but this mistake was corrected in the restoration process. I have not seen any explicit explanations for the original number, but I suspect it has something to do with the northeast Asian aversion to even numbers. The number four is a homonym for “death” in Chinese and languages influenced by Chinese, and in general odd numbers are considered more auspicious.

In the substructure, on the ceiling of the gateway itself, is this dragon. It differs from the original in that it seems to have a slightly more comical expression than the sombre original, but again the government claims that this is closer to how the dragon originally looked. I’ve seen old stone statues and paintings of tigers with comical—almost goofy, one might say—expressions on their faces, so I don’t find this hard to believe.

The door of the gate itself is covered in beaten iron affixed by rivets. I assume that these plates cover a wooden door beneath; I didn’t actually test the door to see how heavy it was, but I assume it’s quite heavy.

This is a close-up of some of the stones in the restored wall on the left (western) side of the gate. It’s pretty easy to tell which stones are original and which have been newly-shaped for the restoration. During the Japanese colonial period, the wall around the gate was torn down, and although the path of the old city wall nearby is now occupied by much taller modern buildings, at least now the gate looks like an actual part of the wall and not just an isolated monument. Incidentally, although very little of the southern walls remain, the city walls in the north are still largely intact or have been restored and make for a nice day hike.

Finally, this is the informational panel located near the gate—a far cry from the original sign that stood near the gate before the fire (which you can see in my previous entry mentioned above). Of course, I have to comment on the translation, which in general is decent but does bear signs of having been done by a non-native speaker of English (such as the ubiquitous parentheses issue. Parentheticals in Korean are not separated by a space from the preceding text, and every semester I have to remind my students that we do things a little differently in English). The English text is significantly longer, which is due in part to the fact that Korean is a more spatially-compact language, but information has been added to the English version as well. The original, for example, only says that the walls to the left and right were torn down between 1907 and 1908, while the English adds the explanation that this was done by the dastardly Japanese. I understand and sympathize with the reasoning behind this, as this is something foreign visitors may not know, although I think it probably could have been worded better. More puzzling is the addition of the phrase “to the nation’s great horror” in the last paragraph. Was the translator afraid that readers might not think the Korean people were sufficiently horrified by the tragedy? I don’t really see the point to it at all. The preceding clause (“almost entirely destroying the roof of the gate house”) also differs from the original (which simply says, “(the gate) was heavily damaged”) and happens to be incorrect; it wasn’t just the roof that was almost entirely destroyed, but the whole gate house.

Lastly, most of the informational panels scattered around the city (and the nation) specify dates first by using the year of the reign of whichever king was on the throne, followed by the Western year in parentheses. I’ve always been very annoyed by this in translations, because the information means absolutely nothing to most English-speaking readers; anyone who cares about this information can already read the original. So this is my plea to translators: unless the king is somehow directly involved in what is being discussed, leave out the “whatevereth year of the reign of King So-and-So.” And on the subject of unnecessary things, was “respectively” at the end of the first paragraph really needed? Did the translator really think the reader might mistakenly assume that the king would pray for rain during a flood?

Enough with the nit-picking, though—call it an occupational hazard. I probably would have tried to make better use of the space available, but, minor issues aside, it is nice to see some information about the gate posted nearby. (And, in all fairness, some of these issues might not even be the translator’s fault—I retranslated most of the informational panels in Seoul for the 2002 World Cup, and when I was finished, civil servants who were not native speakers of English or translators helpfully “corrected” my translations, much to my dismay. Update 2013.6.25: It turns out that none other than the Gypsy Scholar edited the English translation of the plaque; he notes that the no-space-before-parenthesis issue was introduced later, and that "they might even have reworded a slight bit." All I can say is that I know how it feels to work hard on something and then have that work marred in the end.)

And that concludes our brief tour of the reborn Namdaemun. I hope you have enjoyed it, and if you happen to live in or around Seoul and have not yet visited the gate, I would encourage you to pick an afternoon when the weather is nice (which may be difficult with the upcoming monsoon season, but you never know) and visit it yourself. Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but they can only convey so much.

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