Changing of the Royal Guards: Seoul’s Imperial Hurrah


Destination Reports

An introduction to Korean palatial grandeur

Explore the pomp and grandeur present in this uniquely Korean take on how to show allegiance to a now-defunct monarchy

A tour guide explaining the storied history of Korean Palaces in Seoul

A tour guide explaining the storied history of Korean Palaces in Seoul

Royal Changing of the Guards ceremonies are grandiose throwbacks to the heritage of a (usually) bygone era, nominally held at most of the Korean palaces in Seoul. For tourists and locals, the regular 'performances' at Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung and Deoksugung are exemplars of Korean culture. This is especially the case for South Korea as the Korean Empire drew its last breath back in 1910 after the Japanese forcibly annexed the peninsula. Since then, Korea has been under the administration of governments with no direct links to either the Joseon Dynasty or its short-lived successor. 

Hence, the Changing of the Guards ceremonies in Seoul serve to reminisce the past glory of Imperial Korea and are not under the domain of an existent Korean monarchy. This sits in contrast to similar types of ceremonies held in other countries. Guard Changing ceremonies around the world, like the ones at Buckingham Palace and Puerta del Príncipe are not only held to commemorate the country’s heritage but to also pay tribute to the reigning monarch of the country in question. 

Seoul’s Changing of the Guard ceremonies are held at the Gyeongbokgung and Deoksugung Palaces. The former is the principal location for the ceremony as it used to serve as the primary residence of Korea’s now-defunct monarch. However, he (and the ceremony) had to be termporarily relocated to Deoksugung after the Japanese invaded and razed the palace in 1592. Because of this, and for historical accuracy, the ceremony is also held in front of Deoksugung Palace albeit within a smaller atrium. 

A royal guard posing for a picture at Seoul's Gyeongbukgung Palace

A royal guard posing for a picture at Seoul's Gyeongbukgung Palace

Changing of the Guards ceremonies are elaborate demonstrations of a country’s heritage. Practically, they’re meant to signify the end of a shift for a set of guards and the symbolic handing over to the next lot. They were also meant to add a degree of pomp to the job - a morale booster of sorts. In all, guards were to be imbued with a sense of ownership and responsibility, a critical requirement for anyone protecting the palace's hallowed royal grounds.

In modern times, the cultural reasons for such ceremonies are more significant as they are an actual manifestation of imperial traditions - an important act for posterity. This is critically important especially for the capitals which hold these ceremonies as many cities are gradually transforming themselves into characterless and globally homogenous metropolises. Yay globalisation. 

The beating of the Buk signifies the start of the Changing of the Guard ceremony - Deoksugung Palace

The beating of the Buk signifies the start of the Changing of the Guard ceremony - Deoksugung Palace

A beating of the Buk (Korean drum) signals the beginning of the ceremony, which calls upon the guard contingent to march out onto the square. Following them are a band of musicians which move swiftly whilst playing the musical accompaniment for the ceremony. The tunes being performed are known as Daechwita, a variant of traditional Korean music with military origins. 

Guards then proceed to the part of the ceremony where they ‘hand over’ their duties, which involves the reporting of the state of the palace gates and also a demonstration of the contingent's allegiance to the king. For those who have religiously watched Joseon-themed palace dramas, the incoming and outgoing guard officers also present their palace passes to each other as proof of identity. I don’t know why I find this fascinating. 

After the proceedings, tourists are encouraged to take pictures with some of the guards in the ceremony so stick around if you’re interested. For those looking to get shots of the guards in isolation, follow the contingent back into the palace to snag some pictures of them chatting (or using their Samsung phones). 

A musician playing the Ulla - a traditional Korean percussion instrument

A musician playing the Ulla - a traditional Korean percussion instrument

Gyeongbokgong Palace's Changing of the Guards (Sumunjang) takes place at 0935 and 1335 hrs every day. To catch it, head over to the open square just outside the palace entrance. Alternatively, head over to Hyeopsaengmun Gate to witness the Sumungun, which is a short recreation of an old Korean Gatekeeper Military Training session. Gyeongbokgong however, is closed on Tuesdays. If this is the case, the adjacent Gwanghwamun Square is still worth a visit.

The Deoksugung Palace Ceremony is held at 1100, 1400 and 1530 hrs daily, except on Mondays. Changdeokgung Palace has a ceremony as well, but it's less popular. However, it’s best to get to these locations at least 15mins earlier in order to position yourself in a good spot. At both Gyeongbokgung and Deoksugung, one can witness the Changing of the Guard ceremonies without paying the requisite entrance fee as they take place outside the official palatial grounds.

All cultural sites in Seoul (palaces and shrines) 'take turns’ to close for one day in the week and so, whilst planning, make sure you don't allocate time to visiting one palace/shrine when it is closed. Witnessing the Guard Changing ceremonies are free to the public; the parade being a unique Korean twist on the type of ceremonies that are held across the globe. Unlike other countries where changing of the guard ceremonies occur at the actual seat of power of the ruling government, the Blue House (South Korea's main government building) does not have such a performance.

A tradition worth keeping

These ceremonies and the palaces surrounding them are bite-sized doses of Korean imperial traditions, an area of history that (in my opinion) has been pushed to the peripheries of any discussion involving the history of Korea. 

Most writing about Korean history centres on the peninsula’s political and economic developments after World War 2, save for some on the post-1910 Japanese annexation of the country. Examples include the South’s ‘Miracle on the Han River’ and the North’s turn towards militarism and adoption of ‘Juche’. As such, I think that it is prudent for such ceremonies and traditions to be retained (kudos to the relevant ministries) lest we start to forget the rich heritage of a group of people that have been often relegated as colonial subjects/client states in historical accounts. 

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