Tomb of King Sejong
The Royal Tomb of King Sejong the Great (영녕릉; map) rests on the northwestern edge of downtown Yeoju City (여주시; map).
UNESCO designated his and other royal tombs from the Joseon Era (1392~1897) as World Heritage Sites.
King Sejong’s remains first lay in Seoul. But in 1469, the succeeding royal family moved his tomb to his birth city, Yeoju.
King Sejong the Great
Koreans regard King Sejong (조선세종; 1397~1450) as the most consequential leader in their long history. Ruling during the Joseon Dynasty (1392~1897), he ushered in major scientific advancements by supporting inventors and thinkers like the peasant-born Jang Yeong-sil (장영실), who lived by his side in the royal palace.
During his reign, Sejong commissioned new farmer’s almanacs, astronomical calendars, and medical advancements that upgraded life in Korea.
A museum sits outside King Sejong’s Tomb. In an expansive courtyard lie the inventions created under Sejong’s rule, including:
Sejong’s Magical Alphabet
King Sejong’s greatest invention, however, was Hangul (한글), Korea’s written language system.
Before Sejong, Korea relied on Hanja (한자; 漢字), which was adapted from complicated Chinese logograms. The system required years of training at an expensive Seowon (서원; Confucian academy), Sungkyunkwan (성균관), or Hyanggyo (향교). Only monied families could train their children to learn how to read and write, creating an elite class of dynastic Yangban (양반).
So, to bring literacy to the masses, King Sejong commissioned a simple phonetic alphabet. One that sounds like it looks, where “바” means /ba/ and “노” means /nō/, no matter the context.
Korea didn’t adopt Hangul until after the Japanese Occupation (1910~1945). But in the 20th century, the simple writing system tore down the walls of inequity and brought literacy to 97.5% of Korea.
King Sejong’s burial grounds are an archetypal representation of a Joseon Dynasty-era royal tomb.
- Visitors first enter the site by passing under a hongsalmun (홍살문; wooden gate).
- Twin sacred stone paths, known as a Chamdo (참도) lead from the entrance to a jeongja gak shrine at the base of the tomb.
- The raised path (신도; sindo) is for the dead king’s ghost to walk.
- The lower path (어도; eodo) provides a walkway for living royalty.
- The jeongjagak shrine (정자각) is a wooden house that sits at the foot of the burial mound. Here, mourners prepare offerings to the king.
- The bangbun (봉분), tumulus, or burial mound, rises above the jeongjagak shrine. It contains the remains of King Sejong and his wife, Queen Soheon (소헌왕후).
Climb to the top of the bangbun and find a smaller mound flanked by octagonal lanterns. Twelve two-meter tall statues, each representing a Chinese Zodiac animal, surround.
Royal Tomb of King Hyojong
Next to King Sejong’s tomb, 700 meters down a walking path, lies the Royal Tomb of King Hyojong (영녕릉), another Joseon Dynasty ruler.
King Hyojong (조선 효종; 1619~1659) reigned only for ten years (1649~1659). The Chinese Qing Dynasty held Hyojong captive in their royal court for much of his adult life, forcing him into battle with the rival Ming Dynasty.
While in court, Hyojong met European explorers and learned progressive ideas. When Hyojong returned home to Korea, his father, King Injo, didn’t approve of his son’s newfangled, foreign notions. Legend says Injo bludgeoned Hyojong to death with a Chinese ink slab, a gift from son to father.