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Seoul Dongmyo Shrine

Recent Posts, Posted by Matt in Historic Korea,Seoul,Video, 12 Comments

Seoul Dongmyo Shrine


Seoul’s Dongdaemun-gu district is one of my favorite parts of the city to explore on foot. Bearing the informal name of the great gate that once marked old Seoul’s eastern boundary, Dongdaemun’s many winding alleys provide all kinds of surprises for an afternoon walkabout.

The neighborhoods just north of the Cheonggyecheon Stream and Jungang Public Market is where you can find an interesting mix of industrial supply shops, textile vendors and what’s left of an old open-air flea market.

From Dongmyo Shrine (동묘)

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Among these relatively modern arrivals to the neighborhood is a truly ancient one. Seoul Dongmyo Shrine (서울동묘), which used to be called Dongwangmyo, is designated Treasure #142. Literally translated as “Eastern Shrine,” Seoul Dongmyo was built in 1599 to honor Guan Yu, a Chinese military commander from the 3rd century. Guan Yu remains one of China’s best known historical figures, and fictionalized descriptions of his military exploits formed much of the historical novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Guan Yu’s life is relevant to Korea, because he is said to have helped the Joseon kingdom and Ming China repel Japanese forces from the Korean Peninsula after seven years of General Hideyoshi’s invasions from 1592 through 1598. At the end of the 16th century, Korea had defeated Japan, but the kingdom was exhausted. However, it was said that the spirit of Guan Yu had repeatedly appeared in battle to help Korea defeat the invading Japanese. Despite the fact that worshipping the general as a deity was inconsistent with Korea’s Neo-Confucianist ideology, Ming Dynasty officials insisted that Joseon build and maintain shrines to Guan Yu as part of the two countries’ bilateral relationship. So over the course of three years, three shrines were constructed – one to the east, one to the west and one in the north in the city. Among them, only the eastern shrine, Seoul Dongmyo, remains.

From Dongmyo Shrine (동묘)

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Today, the 9,300-square-meter shrine is surrounded by a stately stone wall. Including the front gate, the complex’s seven buildings form two courtyards, with a large peony garden forming most of one. Mature trees and leaf cover virtually the entire shrine, which creates a pleasant, cool resting spot during hot summer days. While small flocks of pigeons peck at the ground, older gentlemen recline on benches and children safely play within its walls.


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The main building’s architecture is unusual among most Korean buildings from the Joseon era in that it boasts a double-roof where the roofs of the front terrace and main shrine combine. Furthermore, the extensive use of brick on three sides lends the shrine an almost garrison-like appearance, a feel quite different from the refined elegance of most Joseon-era buildings.

From Dongmyo Shrine (동묘)

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When I visited, the main building was off limits to visitors, but through the gate I could see some of the impressive calligraphic plaques that decorate the interior. At the back, even the wooden statue of Guan Yu was visible. Inside the special chamber, he is attended by four painted statues. Apparently, the red-faced figure represents the general in his earthly form, while the yellow-faced one represents his spirit.

Rather than a must-see destination in and of itself, Seoul Dongmyo is one of those unexpected treats that come with an off-the-beaten-path exploration of South Korea’s capital. 
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For your information…

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 Closed HolidaysFree admission02-731-0535
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Jongno-gu Sungin-dong 238-2Dongmyo Station (#127/#636) on Lines 1 & 6, Exit 3website
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12 Comments

8 July 2011 10:24

lunare

hey, 오랜만이예요 ^^~ good to see you back posting really interesting pieces on Korea.

it’s pretty cool how structures like the Dongmyo shrine blend in perfectly well with the dynamic city ~ i’m curious if most locals thoroughly understand the history behind these landmarks like the way you explain it here. from a foreign perspective, the structures do look very similar to each other so it’s quite amazing how much distinction you can highlight on each particular landmark.

oh and i dunno if it’s just me but i can’t seem to comment on your Ssazmie-gil post. maybe it’s just me ~ but i thought that was a pretty good tour of the site as well.

July 09 2011 23:53 pm

Matt

Hey there, Lunare,
Thanks for writing again. Yes, it's been slow blogging lately. I've been working on some other projects.
Anyhow, thanks for your nice comments about Dongmyo. To your question, I think most Seoulites aren't very familiar with the details of various places in the city. But I think it's pretty common around the world for that to happen. I think it just makes sense that visitors or expats would learn such details as part of tours, sightseeing, or just trying to better understand their new home. Most Koreans are shocked that I've never visited the Grand Canyon, Statue of Liberty, Niagara Falls, etc...^^

Hmmm... I'll take a look at what might be going on with the Ssamzie post. Thanks for the heads up!

best, Matt

12 July 2011 00:50

Steven

Nice article. I will be visiting Dongmyo tomorrow. I noticed one mistake in your article. Donymyo shrine is not a National Treasure. It is desginated Treasure of Korea no.142. Keep up the good work

November 12 2012 02:58 am

Matt

Thanks for the catch, Steven!

15 July 2011 09:28

lunare

hi again. point well taken there~ i myself would be guilty of being a tad ignorant about local landmarks. i guess i assumed that the recent hype on Korea (owing to hallyu and then winter olympics and then some others) has pumped up its already aggressive tourism efforts and that perhaps every citizen is slowly becoming a welcome ambassador/tour guide haha ^^

i think i am reminiscing about the english tour i joined when visiting gyeongbukgung palace. the way you explained the stone sculptures, the roofing and even the construction materials used on Dongmyo is as fascinating as the content of that tour. it’s just that yours would be as you said, an off-the-beaten-path self-guided discovery ^^

July 23 2011 22:22 pm

Matt

Yeah, I often enjoy visiting the off-the-beaten-path places or the less grand destinations because you have to look a little harder into the significance behind the architecture, the placement, etc. I should read up a lot more on Korean history, Confucianism, Korea's mountain spirit worship tradition, etc., to make those visits all the more interesting!
Thanks again for your note!
Best, Matt

10 August 2011 09:58

mike

hey, matt, nice blog. i was looking to open a bakery/patisserie/coffeeshop combo in korea and was wondering if you could offer some advice. thanks!

7 September 2011 09:18

crossmr

The main building is still off-limits? I went there 2 years ago and they were doing renovations and you couldn’t really access anything. Any idea when it will be finished?

September 13 2011 08:59 am

Matt

Hi there,
No idea. Honestly, it didn't look like they had plans to open it up. You can peak between the wooden slats and get a decent view, but I didn't see anyone staffing the park.

Best, Matt

25 October 2011 15:20

Doug Haynes

The market there is a lively place and lots of fun to shop for this and that or just look around.

17 May 2012 14:20

SEOUL Weekly: July 12, Issue No. 485

[...] clouds rolling over the granite peaks of Bukhansan National Park. Ah, the underappreciated (IMHO) Dongmyo Shrine, a very interesting piece of Seoul’s history. Well, this tour program seems rather nice. [...]

5 November 2012 22:33

Daniela

hi. i like very much all your articols about Korea.

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