The South Korean government awarded Namdaemun, officially called Sungnyemun (숭례문, "Gate of Exalted Ceremony"), the honor of "National Treasure No.1," on December 20, 1962. Also known as the Great South Gate, Namdaemun is considered an excellent example of Yi Dynasty architecture. When originally built, Namdaemun towered over the palaces and low-standing buildings of Seoul. Now, skyscrapers dwarf the gate, giving the viewer the sense of standing between two ages.
Although Seoul has four large gates and five minor gates, only Namdaemun has been designated a National Treasure. It was designated South Korea's National Treasure #1 because in 1962, when the South Korean government inaugurated the establishment of National Treasures, Namdaemun constituted the zenith of Confucian architecture. The Great South Gate, imposing and impressive by the time King Sejong rebuilt it in the 1470s, greeted all Chinese and Japanese dignitaries coming to visit the King. That is the only gate they could enter.
Confucianism had been woven into the fabric of Korean society before the Yi Dynasty but afterwards it reigned supreme. In a sense, Namdaemun symbolizes both the sovereign power of the Korean empire and the dominant place of Confucianism in Korean politics, culture, and religion.
Seoul, the capital of Korea from the founding of the Joseon Dynasty in 1392 C.E. until today, had been a walled city with nine gates allowing traffic in and out of the city. The city founders constructed four main gates and five minor gates. The four main gates faced the four cardinal directions: North, south, east, and west. The south, east, and west gates opened at dawn and closed at dusk at the signal of the city bell. The north gate remained closed and was reserved for the king's escape to Pukhan Sansong or more distant fortifications during times of trouble. Namdaemun was the "southern gate." Yi T'aejo constructed all nine city gates along with the Namdaemun gate in the fourteenth century C.E.
Namdaemun is the oldest surviving wooden structure in Seoul. The construction of this gate began in 1395 C.E. during the fourth year of the reign of King Taejo of Joseon and was finished in 1398. Taejo directed architects to build Namdaemun facing Kwanak-san as a way of warding off the effects of the fire energy associated with that mountain and protecting the Kyǒngbok Palace.
King Sejong (the 4th king of the Yi Dynasty) tore down and rebuilt the gate, poorly built originally, in 1447 C.E. Prince Yangnyǒng, the elder brother of King Sejǒng, wrote the calligraphy for the three Chinese characters (崇禮門) that designated the gate. (These Chinese characters have been interpreted as "Gate of Exalted Decorum" and "Admire Virtue Gate.") The name board disappeared in 1592 C.E. during Hideyoshi's invasion of Korea and turned up in a ditch during the reign of King Kwanghae (1609-1623). King Seongjong renovated Namdaemun further in 1479 C.E., during the tenth year of his reign.
In 1899 C.E., during the reign of Gojong, the city walls on both sides of the gate were removed to make way for a new streetcar line. Between 1907–1908, the Japanese occupation government closed off the passageway through the gate, purportedly to allow for the easier flow of automobile, pedestrian, and streetcar traffic around the gate.
Namdaemun suffered damage from bombing during the Korean War (1950-1953). Repairs carried out in 1956 failed to restore the Gate to safety or splendor. The city government debated demolishing the structure but opted to reconstruct the gate in the spring of 1962. During the repairs, workers discovered hidden records under a ridge beam of the second roof which placed the precise date of the original construction as 1396 C.E. The record went on to report that 6,817 soldiers were conscripted from Chǒnju in Chǒlla-do to perform the manual labor. The roster listed twenty-eight stonecutters, forty-four carpenters, sixty-three riveters, and five sculptors, along with 1,400 laborers. The record even detailed the feast at the beam-raising ceremony: 10,700 bottles of soju (Korean rice-based grain liquor), 3,800 barrels of takchu (traditional Korean wine), and 1,500 head of cattle.
Namdaemun has a paljak-shaped roof (a roofing style with hip rafters attached to the four corners) that gracefully curves in double eaves.
The gate stands in the middle of a traffic circle located halfway between Seoul Station and Seoul City Plaza in Jung-gu, Seoul. It is majestic and well-built, a fitting image of Seoul for over 600 years. Although Seoul has four large gates and five minor gates, only Namdaemun has been designated a National Treasure. When originally built, Namdaemun towered over the other palaces and low-standing buildings of Seoul. Now, skyscrapers dwarf the gate giving the viewer the sense of standing between two ages.
Namdaemun opened for pedestrian traffic for the first time in 100 years on March 3, 2006. Until 2006, traffic roared around Namdaemun which served more as a guidepost than a monument of gigantic historical proportions. Situated in one of the busiest intersections in Seoul, cars still swarm around the gate, leaving little time for the drivers to grasp the historical significance of the landmark as they hurry to their next appointment.
Sungnyemun Square, a grassy knoll surrounding Namdaemun, has restored tranquility to the city’s fortress gates. The Square serves as a convenient gateway to Namdaemun market, a traditional twenty-four hour market that has been operating since the 1600s. Sungnyemun Square now serves as part of a pedestrian walkway connecting Gwanghwamun, Seoul City Hall Square, and Seoul Station, the center of Seoul.
In 2008, the wooden pagoda atop the gate was severely damaged by arson. Restoration work on the gateway started in February 2010 and was completed in April 2013. It was officially reopened on May 5, 2013.
All links retrieved November 5, 2018.
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