By Wu Jinhua
Photos = Wu Jinhua
Amid the peak of autumn with a cool breeze, a reception for foreign diplomats of the Korean Empire (1897-1910) on Oct. 20 at 2 p.m. was held at Jeonggwanheon Pavilion of Deoksugung Palace in Seoul’s Jung-gu District.
This reenactment of the event was held twice a day by the Royal Palaces and Tombs Center of the Cultural Heritage Administration and supervised by the Korea Cultural Heritage Foundation. This year, the program was held from Oct. 20-22.
Staged as a theatrical play, the reception saw Emperor Gojong, who reigned from 1963 to 1907 as the second-to-last king of the Joseon Dynasty and the first ruler of the Korean Empire, meet diplomats from countries like the U.S., France, U.K. and Russia. Participants saw a scene from 1902 as the emperor marked the 40th anniversary of his rule.
The venue of Jeonggwanheon, which features the architectural styles of a traditional Korean home and a Western-style building, is where the emperor hosted meetings with diplomatic envoys.
The reception began with two officers from the empire’s police force. In their witty talk, they explained that it was a time of when the empire longed to be free from its longstanding diplomacy with China, conduct diplomacy on equal terms with Western powers, and show the dignity of the empire and its intent to modernize.
Under a serious atmosphere, Emperor Gojong appeared and had a short chat with the official who organized the ceremony before meeting the foreign envoys. This offered a glimpse of the ruler’s concern for his people’s safety and commitment to the independence and self-authority of the empire.
Each diplomat entered the venue for an audience with the emperor. Instead of the traditional Korean bow, they bowed their heads three times in a ceremonial step designed to consider their unfamiliarity with Korean customs but that remained in line with the nation’s traditional etiquette.
After the reception, an after-party was held for the envoys, who enjoyed the event and continued their conversations to pursue the national interests of their respective countries. This showed how the Korean Empire maintained subtle yet unusual ties with Western powers at the time.
After the play came the reenactment of an after-party at the front garden of Jeukjodang Hall combining Eastern and Western cultures. The Korean Empire at the time had a custom of holding a reception under official procedures, followed by an after party at another place and time.
A concert by a modern military band performed Western songs like “Vienna March” and “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” as well as performances of traditional Korean dances such as geommu (sword) and pogurak (traditional dance based on a ball game).
Bongsan talchum (mask dance) received the best responses that day from the audience, many of whom burst into laughter in seeing exaggerated gestures and comic performances by actors wearing a white lion suit.
“I learned about the event by chance on the internet and was lucky to be chosen to attend,” said Kim Yi Seon, who visited the event with her daughter. “It was a proud moment for me as a citizen of the Republic of Korea as I learned about the Korean Empire’s history in a new light and its independence as pushed for by Emperor Gojong.”
Launched in 2010, the reenactment of the reception until 2019 focused mainly on reproducing the event’s protocol but was revamped into a theatrical play last year.
Jeong Yewon, a staff member of the cultural heritage promotion team under the foundation’s Department of Cultural Heritage who organized the event over the past two years, said, “I hope the audience can feel the atmosphere of the time a bit by taking a closer look at the speech and facial expressions of the cast portraying the complicated yet subtle diplomatic ties between Korea and the West at the time of the Korean Empire.”
“I hope that public interest in our cultural heritage and history continues.”