Jeonju – Home of King Taejo, the First King of the Joseon Dynasty


Since I’m watching the drama Deep Rooted Tree at the moment, which is set near the beginning of the Joseon period, I thought it would be a good idea to go back to one of my favourite places in Korea – Jeonju 전주 – the home of King Taejo, the first king of Joseon. Jeonju has lots of history connected to Joseon and it’s also very famous for its good food, so eating and soaking up the local history – perfect. 

It takes between 3 and 4 hours (depending on traffic) to get there by express bus. We got there in 4 hours and came back in 3! There’s lots to see but  this time we saw 1. Gaeksa 객사 (an early Joseon traditional tourist inn)  2. Jeonju Sago 전주사고 (the building where copies of official documents were kept), 3. Gyeonggijeon Jeongjeon 경기전 정전 (where King Taejo’s portrait was enshrined), and the portrait museum with info on the rituals needed for enshrining a portrait of a monarch – it’s not easy.

Jeonju seems to be very proud of its local history and in the town even the bus stops and telephone boxes have traditional roofs. So cute.    

 1. Gaeksa

On one of the main streets next to regular modern buildings was Gaeksa. This was an inn built at the beginning of the Joseon period. But it doesn’t look like just anyone could stay here – only officials on business from the court and other VIPs.

 2. Jeonju Sago – building to store historical archives

The Joseon Dynasty was very into keeping detailed records of what went on each day. And sagwans 사관 were official writers who kept records of daily meetings and events at the court and government offices. (We can often see the sagwans in Joseon sageuk dramas sitting in meetings with the king writing detailed notes with calligraphy brushes.) There were all kinds of different records, but when a new king came to the throne, books were published about the reign of the previous king and these books were called Sillok 실록. The Sillok were kept in special buildings called sago (below).

The first Sillok, Taejo Sillok (15 volumes), was published during the 9th to 13th year of King Taejong’s reign (1409 – 1413). At first, only two copies of the Sillok were made. But during the reign of King Sejong there was concern about losing the records to fire or other disasters so two more sagos were built. So 4 copies of the Sillok were stored each in a different places around the country: Chunchukwan 춘추관 in Seoul (Seoul was called Hanyang 한양 at the time), Chungju, Seongju, and here at Jeonju. Yes, it must have been a nightmare trying to keep important paperwork safe and in order before computers came along… And in fact during the Japanese invasion in 1592 fires destroyed all the Silloks except the one at the Jeonju Sago. So good thinking, King Sejong.


Jeonju Yangban

Apparently, there are still many families in Jeonju today that are ancestors of the Joseon yangban, aristocracy. There’s a hanok village 한옥 마을 (left) – many of the houses have been made into shops and restaurants for tourists – but we can also see old hanuk houses that are private homes and have probably been in families for generations. Some ancestors of King Taejo’s Lee (이 李)family  still carry out memorial services at Gyeonggijeon, (below) which is where the king’s portrait was enshrined.


3. 경기전 정전 Gyeonggijeon Jeongjeon Portrait Shrine

Gyeonggijeon was built by King Taejo’s son, King Taejong (King Sejong’s father). And throughout the Joseon period there were special buildings built around the country where portraits of the Joseon kings were enshrined. But unfortunately fire and wars destroyed a lot of the buildings and portraits.

Gyeonggijeon was built in 1410 but it was destroyed by fire during the war at the end of the 16th century and then rebuilt in 1614. King Taejong actually had 5 places built for his father’s portraits but this is the only one that survived. At the entrance is a stone sign hamabi, which indicates that horse riders should dismount here before entering the shrine! Then we pass under the red posts called hongsalmun and then through other gates called naesammun and oesammun before reaching jeongak where the portrait is enshrined.

We are supposed to stop at the little red fence (see below) and look in at the portrait hanging inside the shrine. Actually it was so dark inside here that I could only see a dim outline of the portrait inside. But I don’t think that seeing the portrait is the point of coming here. After all, it can’t be an original painting anyway. (Not anymore) The portraits of the Joseon kings are so precious now because there are so few that have managed to survive. Coming here is more about the atmosphere I think.

Next to the portrait shrine is a collection of buildings where preparations for memorial services at the shrine could be carried out. Special dishes for the food served at memorial services were kept here and the food could be prepared here too. There’s a well and various storage rooms.

How where the portraits enshrined?

After strolling around the shrine we went into the new portrait museum which has some interesting info on all the pomp and circumstance that surrounded the enshrining of the portrait of the king. The actual portrait was transported in a special palanquin in a long procession through the town. At the front of the procession on a horse was the most important official of Jeonju. He was followed by other important people as they walked to Gyeonggijeon. The rituals to be carried out and the layout of the procession – who walks where, who wears what, and who carries what were all written in detailed books called uigwe 의괘 (Protocols of the Joseon Dynasty) and these rules were made and followed carefully throughout the Joseon dynasty.

A page from the uigwe shows how the portrait enshrining procession should lookThese paper figures in the portrait museum depict the portrait enshrining procession.

But even after the portrait was enshrined it wasn’t always safe. So if there was an emergency – an enemy attack or something – the portrait could be taken down and rolled up and hidden somewhere for safe-keeping in this wooden case (below left). There were several copies of King Taejo’s portrait made and probably thanks to all the efforts made to protect the portraits, an original portrait of King Taejo still exists today. And was recently on display at the National Museum.  Below right is a palanquin specially made for transporting portraits.

 The museum also has some modern interpretations of portraits of several Joseon kings because, as I’ve mentioned before, most of the portraits have not survived. Here’s an interpretation of King Taejo’s portrait. (left). I’ve got more info on the portraits of Joseon kings here.

After the museum, we were ready for something to eat and I wanted to go for a hanjeongsik 한정식 traditional Korean set dinner. But I’ll save all about that for the next post.



3 thoughts on “Jeonju – Home of King Taejo, the First King of the Joseon Dynasty

  • May 30, 2012 at 12:14 am

    WoW! Thx for making this site for us that cant get to Korea! This is kewl ..Im watching my fav KDrama, “The King and I” for the 2nd time and will check out Deep Rooted Tree next!

  • July 13, 2012 at 1:44 am

    if you finished Tree with Deep Roots, do you think that it has the best martial arts ever? I do. I was sad that both main characters died but hey, she didn’t seem to care for him in a romantic way (especially after having lived close to the king for so long- powerful aphrodisiac).

    • August 15, 2014 at 10:26 pm

      Next time at least warn about the spoiler! Don’t give away the ending like that. I wanted to check into Tree with Deep Roots, but now I probably won’t.


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