Strongholds of Chosŏn, ancient Korea

Lecture by Francis Macouin, retired General Curator of MNAA-Guimet.

The history of Chosŏn extends over 500 years (1392-1897) and is marked by a fairly great political stability because there were only two episodes of war with the invasions of the Japanese in 1592 and 1597, and the campaigns Manchus in 1626 and 1636. Apart from this he had a campaign against Tsushima in 1419 and some skirmishes with the Western powers in the late 19th s. This kingdom did not have an expansive policy but rather a defensive one. This is due to the recognized vassalage relations vis-à-vis Ming China (1368-1644) then that of the Qing (1644-1912), from 1636. If the Chosŏn pays a tribute to China, that- ci also has the responsibility to ensure the security of the vassal kingdom in case of attack and it intervened, indeed, in 1593.
This defensive policy resulted in the creation of fortifications to protect the sea and land borders. A project that did not come to fruition was to build a wall that would have crossed the entire peninsula on the border with the mainland to prevent nomadic incursions.

Map of Nagan. 1872.

Chuhŭl-kwan gate. Saejae Pass.

At that time, the towns, which were the seats of the administration, were protected by fortifications, most of which have been restored. These walls generally enclose a fairly large area and follow the contours of the terrain. A good example is the town of Nagan where the wall can be seen to enclose an almost square area which includes the headquarters of the administration, the market place, arsenals, the prison, granaries, etc. The altar of earth and cereals, that of the deity of the village and that of the lonely spirits are located outside. At the end of the 16th s., there were approximately 190 administrative towns built on the same pattern. Hamhŭng, on a map from the end of the 18th s., although located on the banks of a river, has almost the same layout. The town is surrounded by walls punctuated by bastillons surmounted by pavilions.

Chuhŭl-Kwan. Saejae Pass. Water gate.

Map of Kanghwa Island. 18th c.

The different forts of the island of Kanghwa in their current state. ©F.Macouin.

Not only were the towns protected by fortifications, but to protect the country, traffic routes were blocked at strategic locations. An example is the Saejae Pass (Bird's Pass), on the road that connects the capital Seoul to Pusan, where the entire width of the pass is blocked by a wall with a single arched gate surmounted by a pavilion. . Two other gates were built at the same time in the 16th century. In order not to block the streams or the rivers, a water gate was opened in the walls which prevented the invaders from passing but let the water flow.

Coastal security was particularly important and the island of Kanghwa, located at the mouth of the Han River which flowed back to the capital, is a good example. The passage from the island to the mainland was done by ferry and a fortress protected the pass on the mainland. Opposite, the entire coast of the island was protected by fortifications dotted with forts, redoubts, camps and batteries. The height of the walls ranged from one to five meters depending on the configuration of the land. Most of the forts that are visible today are reconstructions dating from the 1970s, because these fortifications having suffered the attack of the French in 1866, the Americans in 1871 and the Japanese in 1875 were very ruined.

Namdaemun Gate (Great Southern Gate). Seoul.1904.

Hongjimun Gate and the Water Gate. Late 19th or early 20th century.

The Suŏ-changdae command post in Namhan-sansŏng. Late 19th or early 20th century.

The capital Seoul was surrounded by a rampart which was 17 km long and all the intramural space was not yet built at the end of the 19th s. The rampart was pierced by four main gates and four secondary gates. At the end of the 18th s. a fortress (Pukhansan-sŏng) was built in the mountain to the north to reinforce security and a wall connected it to the walls of the capital, barring the valley. Next to the Hongjimun gate allowing passage, was a water gate with five arches. The south of the city was also protected by a mountain citadel, on Mount Namhan. On an old map, we see that the walls are lined with advanced bastillons which allowed lateral fire. This fortress housed, in addition to the classical facilities, a temporary royal palace. In all these fortresses, the command post is an important element and is distinguished by the presence of a floor and a double roof.

The walls of Hwasŏng with the great southern gate (P'aldal-mun). 1907. Suwŏn.

Map of the city of Hwasŏng. Suwŏn.

Illustration of the Hwasŏng sŏngyŏk ŭigwe detailing a lifting machine. ©BNF.

Hwasŏng Fortress in Suwŏn was built between 1794 and 1796 on the orders of King Chŏngjo (1752-1800) with the participation of Chŏng Yak-yong who belonged to the movement Sirhak (practical studies). This encouraged the use of science and industry.

A book, Hwasŏng sŏngyŏk ŭigwe  (Protocol Rules for the Construction of Hwasŏng Fortress) was published in 1800, shortly after the death of King Chŏngjo. Consisting of ten volumes, it was an indispensable source for reconstruction efforts in 1970 following the destruction of the Korean War. This is how we see the adoption of cranes and pulleys, as well as the use of bricks as a building material.
Today, the fortress is completely surrounded by the modern city, whereas at the beginning of the 20th s. you can see that there were areas cultivated inside the walls. In the Hwasŏng sŏngyŏk ŭigwe, there are boards that detail all the construction elements. Some bastillons have openings that allow a top-down shot. The doors are protected by barbicans for which bricks have been used. The south gate P'aldal-mun is one of the two most imposing and has a double-roofed wooden superstructure to mark its importance. The wall was also pierced with five posterns (hidden openings) built of brick. The city was crossed by a stream which was closed by the northern and southern water gates. The northern one is surmounted by a small pavilion which could also have an ornamental function because it overlooks an artificial pond. Quadrangular bastillons punctuated the wall which made it possible to install cannons and also served as guard posts.

Illustration of the Hwasŏng sŏngyŏk ŭigwe showing the Changan-mun gate. ©BNF.

The Great South Gate P'aldal-mun in its present state. Hwasŏng-Suwŏn. ©F.Macouin.

North postern in its current state. Hwasong. Suwŏn. ©F.Macouin.

Some of these bastillons, built of brick, had three floors where gunboats were fitted. Another peculiarity of this enclosure is the presence of hollow towers built in brick on granite bastillons. The northeast one has the particularity of being built at the back of the rampart and of having an interior spiral staircase. There were two command posts, east and west, the latter having a floor and a double roof. As in all fortresses, there are also alarm fires with five chimneys to make signals with fire or smoke; a single lit chimney meant "peace", two chimneys "the enemy was seen", three "the enemy is approaching the border", four "the enemy is attacking", and five "the enemy has crossed the border" . The Panghwasuryu-chŏng pavilion, built on a height, features complex architecture and served as a place for contemplation of a pond.

Illustration of the Hwasŏng sŏngyŏk ŭigwe detailing a drum set. ©BNF.

Northern Water Gate, Hwahõng-mun. Late 19th – early 20th century. Hwasong. Suwŏn.

Hwasŏng Fortress in Suwŏn features innovative military architecture; the care taken in its construction, the solemnity of the entrance gates, the care for the decor or the presence of leisure pavilions, gives the impression that the city was designed to be more than a stronghold. King Chŏngjo was credited with the desire to move the capital to Suwon. The death of the king, shortly after the completion of the work, meant that the city only had the destiny of being a military and administrative headquarters. This earned him to fall more or less into oblivion and, perhaps, to have survived and now find himself listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Western command post. Late 19th – early 20th century. Hwasong. Suwŏn.

Tower of alarm lights in its current state. Hwasong. Suwŏn. ©F.Macouin.

Illustration of the Hwasŏng sŏngyŏk ŭigwe showing the Panghwasuryu-chŏng pavilion. ©BNF.

This review of the military architecture of Chosŏn highlights the traditional aspect of the fortifications and, even if in the 18th s., we tried to adapt the defensive systems to the new armaments, we feel that there has been a lag with the development of firearms from foreign countries. Thus, this citadel, which was built at the very end of the 18th s., still has loopholes for archery and facilities for crossbow shooting. As in China and Japan, Korean fortifications were not designed to withstand heavy artillery fire.


Enter a text and press Enter to search