OWL Magazine Korea

Korea’s National Treasure No.1, ‘Namdaemun (Sungnyemun)’

Sungnyemun, also known as Namdaemun, is a gate located in the southern part of the Joseon-era Hanyang Fortress, which surrounded Hanyang (present-day Seoul) for 600 years. Even today, Sungnyemun stands at the heart of Seoul and is considered one of the symbols of the city.

Sungnyemun is well-known as Korea’s National Treasure No. 1. The title doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the most important national treasure, but rather that it was the first to be designated as such. However, given its significant historical value, it’s fitting that it was designated as the first.

“The Meaning of Sungnye, Elevated Etiquette”

Sungnye (崇禮) means “to elevate etiquette,” a phrase taken from one of the Confucian classics, “Chungyong.” The four major gates of the Joseon-era Hanyang Fortress were named based on the Confucian virtues of benevolence (仁), righteousness (義), propriety (禮), wisdom (智), and trust (信).

  • 君子尊德性而道問學 (A gentleman reveres virtue and cultivates his character while seeking knowledge)
  • 致廣大而盡精微 (To attend to the utmost while examining the minute)
  • 極高明而道中庸 (To reach the utmost of enlightenment while adhering to the doctrine of the Mean)
  • 溫故而知新 (To review the old and discover the new)
  • 敦厚以崇禮 (To be sincere in cultivating virtue and elevating etiquette)
  • 是故 居上不驕 爲下不倍 (Therefore, when occupying a high position, one does not act arrogantly, and when in a lower position, one does not act evasively)
    • “Chungyong,” Chapter 27

The East Gate, Sungnyemun, cultivates benevolence, while the West Gate, Donuimun, thickens righteousness. The South Gate, Sungnyemun, venerates propriety. The North Gate was originally designated as Sukjimun, emphasizing wisdom. However, instead of using the character for wisdom (智), they used the character for tranquility (靖), which also means “to plan” or “scheme.”

The last virtue, trust (信), is not placed on a gate but is given to Bosingak, located at the center of Hanyang Fortress.

“In 1398, the Construction of Sungnyemun in Hanyang Fortress”

Sungnyemun, constructed in 1398 during the Joseon Dynasty, served as the main gate for entering Hanyang, guarding the city for a long time.

However, its history is marked by hardships. During the Japanese colonial period, the dismantling of Hanyang Fortress began. This resulted in the collapse of the western and northern walls of Sungnyemun. Sungnyemun itself almost faced demolition, but it was saved because it was a gate that General Gato Kiyomasa of the Japanese army had passed through during the Imjin War.

Later, during the Korean War in 1950, a portion of the building collapsed due to bombing. Fortunately, it did not catch fire, allowing for reconstruction after the war.

“In 2008, the Sungnyemun Arson Incident”

Sungnyemun, which had been well-preserved from the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty to modern times, tragically suffered destruction in 2008 due to an arson incident caused by a citizen.

As a result, it remained covered for a while for restoration, undergoing about five years of reconstruction before revealing itself again in 2013. During the restoration process, there were some criticisms of inadequate restoration.

“The Vertical Inscription of Sungnyemun”

The calligraphy on the Sungnyemun plaque is considered excellent in itself, and due to being the main symbol of the city gate, it received attention and affection from the public. It remains one of the most representative inscriptions of the early Joseon era.

The authorship of the plaque remains unknown. It is estimated to be one of five individuals: Prince Yangnyeong, Sinjang, Yu Jin-dong, Jung Nan-jong, or Prince Anpyeong.

Unlike plaques on other city gates, the inscription on Sungnyemun is written vertically. The most widely circulated explanation is that by arranging 崇 (elevate) and 禮 (etiquette) vertically, it becomes 炎, symbolizing a ritual fire or the principle of strengthening through mutual stimulation.

There are other theories explaining the vertical inscription, but the exact reason remains unknown.

“Sungnyemun (Namdaemun) in Seoul”

  • Address: 40 Sejong-daero, Jung-gu, Seoul