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  • Lynnea Elsasser

The Filial Son-The History of Hwaseong Fortress

Updated: Aug 25, 2021

Jeongjo of Joseon, Hwaseong Fortress builder,
A portrait of King Jeongjo

Hwaseong Fortress was built by King Jeonjo (1752-1800) in the late Joseon Dynasty period. He was the 22nd ruler of the Joseon Dynasty and tried to make many reforms during his reign while fighting against political factions. Along with building Hwaseong fortress, he also established Kyujanggak, a royal library. It has also been noted that Jeongjo was known for being a king who wanted a better world for the common people.

Jeongjo was born with the name Yi San (이산). His mother was Lady Hyegyeong, who wrote a memoir of her life at court while married to Crown Prince Sado. Jeongjo, or Yi San's dad, was the infamous Crown Prince Sado, who was put to death by his own father, King Yeongjo. The Crown Prince Sado was ordered to step into a rice chest and stayed in there until he died eight days later. Sado died when Jeongjo was just 11 years old. The reasons behind his death are varied. Some say he was mentally insane while others think that he was the pawn of political factions of the time.

Haenggung Palace, Hwaseong Fortress, Joseon, procession
The eight-day procession at Haenggung Palace at Hwaseong Fortress in 1795

After Sado’s death, Jeongjo was registered into the family registrar of his father’s older brother (the first and original Crown Prince but he died in childhood). This was done to protect Jeongjo’s lineage, as King Yeongjo did not want Jeongjo to be connected to his actual father, who was thought to have been either a criminal or mentally insane. Either of these would have made him ineligible to rule.

King Jeongjo loved his late father greatly. Immediately after his accession in 1776, he immediately stated in the throne room that he was the son of Crown Prince Sado, which was in defiance of him being registered in his uncle’s family registrar. Later on, in 1789, he moved his father’s tomb from Yangju to its current location near Suwon called Yunggeolleung. It was moved here because it was thought to be the best place for tombs at the time according to the theory of geomancy.

Hwaseong Fortress, built by King Jeongjo, had three purposes. The first was to protect his father’s tomb, and thus it was seen as the greatest form of filial piety. Filial piety, which in Korean is hyo or hyo-do (효도) is based on Confucian teachings. In simple terms, Filial piety is respect for one's parents, elders, and ancestors, but in actuality, it is a lot more for than this. The second purpose for building the fortress was strategic. King Jeongjo’s intention was to move the capital from Seoul to Suwon to remove himself from some of the political powers and factions in Seoul’s court and to create reforms. Lastly, it was built as a fortress of national defense for the south.

blueprint, Hwaseong Fortress, Joseon, Jeongjo, 華城全圖
"Complete View of Hwaseong Fortress" -A blueprint of Hwaseong Fortress

Construction of the fortress began in 1794 and was finished just two years later in 1796. There are a few features of the construction of Hwaseong fortress that make it unique. First, it was built not by unpaid, forced labour, which was the norm of the time, but instead workers were paid by the government. Another feature is that compared to other fortresses of the time, it combined military defense with commercial functions. Unlike other fortresses in Korea at the time that had the wall surrounding the settlement separate from the fortress, it was all built into one with defensive elements like an arrow rampart integrated into the walls. Lastly, it was built with careful planning and incorporated ideas from both the East and the West. Some of these ideas were the newly created machines geojunggi and nokro, which were cranes and pulleys that speeded up the process of the construction immensely. This fortress also differed from fortresses found in Japan and China. Hwaseong fortress was a combination of political, military and economic functions. It is also different because it resides on both flat and mountainous terrain.

 Hwaseong Seongyeok Uigwe, Hwaseong Fortress, construction, Joseon machinery, cranes, pulleys
Images from the Hwaseong Seongyeok Uigwe that depict the machinery used to build the fort.

Before the construction of Hwaseong, Suwon was just a small settlement. In 1789, Jeongjo paid for the original Suwon settlement to relocated to its current location under Paldal Mountain. This settlement received the name of Yugyeong which means a capital with willow trees. Yugyeong became a political and economic hub. King Jeongjo, through incentives, encouraged scholars, nobles and merchants to move to the area.

The name for Hwaseong (hangeul: 화성 hanja: 華城) is derived from the settlement and mountain of where Crown Prince Sado's tomb was (Hwasan). The "hwa" in Hwasan and Hwaseong held a phonetic resemblance, but also it has been thought to mean flower. According to hanja, 華 could be translated to China rather than flower, which is 花 . Although, 華 is an alternative form of 花 . While seong (성;城) is thought to mean fortified wall, citadel, or fort. So Hwa-seong is thought to mean flower fortress.

pavillion, sketch, Suwon Yong Pond, Yongyeon, Hwaseong Seongyeok Uigwe
A sketch of the north-east Pavilion and of Yong Pond from the Hwaseong Seongyeok Uigwe

Not all that is seen today though is the original structure. During the Japanese Occupation, the Korean War, along with earlier uprisings, a lot of Hwaseong Fortress was burned or destroyed. Some of the walls were still intact though along with Naknamheon (an annex hall that is a part of the Haenggung complex). Starting in 1975, the Suwon government sought to restore Hwaseong to its former glory using the Hwaseong Seongyeok Uigwe, a detailed, ten volume record of the construction of Hwaseong Fortress that was published in 1801. The fortress was mostly restored by 1979. The whole section surrounding Paldalmun was never restored though, and instead more modern buildings filled the area. In 1997, Suwon Hwaseong Fortress was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Hwaseong Fortress, US Army tank, 1951, destroyed gate
Hwaseong Fortress in 1951


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