OWL Magazine Korea

The Imperial Sacrificial Altar: Hwangudan in Seoul City Hall

“Hwangudan” is a place where ceremonies are held to offer sacrifices to the heavens. The ritual ceremonies in Korea are believed to have begun with the development of agricultural culture, and it is thought to have been a national ritual ceremony since the Three Kingdoms period.

This altar is dedicated to the Heavenly Emperor and the Five Directions, which are central figures in Confucianism. “Hwangu” refers to the celestial offering that the Heavenly Emperor, as recorded in the ancient rites, should perform. The main altar for this ceremony is called “Hwangudan.”

“The Hwangudan in Euljiro, Seoul”

Hwangudan is a place where Chinese emperors conducted ceremonies according to Confucian rites. Chinese dynasties believed that only their own sovereigns, and not rulers of foreign countries, could build Hwangudan and perform ceremonies to the heavens. However, countries like Korea, which adopted Confucianism and had a similar system of veneration of the outside king and inside lord, all built Hwangudan and conducted ceremonies to the heavens.

Unlike typical traditional East Asian architecture, Hwangudan is often circular or octagonal, resembling a circle or close to a circle. This is because there was a concept in East Asia that the sky is round and the earth is square, so regular buildings on the ground were mostly rectangular. However, since this is a building for conducting ceremonies to the heavens, it was constructed in a circular shape. This is why in Korea, Hwangudan is also referred to as “Won Gudan,” where “won” means ‘circle.’

“The Remaining Hwangudan, Witness to Imperial History”

Remnants of Hwangudan from the time of the Korean Empire can be found in front of The Westin Chosun Seoul in Sogong-dong, Jung-gu. Originally designated as a sanctuary of the Korean Empire with a grand scale, it was demolished by the Japanese in 1913 to build a hotel. As a result, the main altar of Hwangudan disappeared, and only ‘Hwanggungu,’ the symbolic structure of Hwangudan, remains.

“Korean Empire Ritual at the Imperial Altar, Place of Imperial Enthronement”

Ceremonies are held at Hwangudan every Saturday, under the name “Korean Empire Ritual at the Imperial Altar, Place of Imperial Enthronement.” The ceremony is held twice, at 10:30 AM and 2:30 PM, every Saturday. The duration is about 30 minutes, starting from the main gate of Hwangudan (next to Seoul Orphanage, east side of Seoul High School for the Arts).

As one of the hidden relics you may not easily discover unless you intentionally visit, it is a secluded gem in Seoul, exuding a tranquil atmosphere amidst the high-rise buildings.

“Seoul City Hall, Hwangudan”