Architecture Sketch

The Soswaewon Garden: Korea’s Most Beautiful Hiding Place

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<Essay> Exploring Old Things

The Soswaewon Garden: Korea’s Most Beautiful Hiding Place

By Robert J. Fouser

Several days before the wedding, couples dress up in their wedding clothes for a photography session at the Changgyeong Palace in downtown Seoul. They move quickly from place to place, posing in front of the many pavilions and halls inside the Palace grounds. In Gwangju, four-hundred kilometers to the south of Seoul in South Jeolla Province, couples visit the Soswaewon, a sixteenth century aristocrat’s garden, for their wedding portraits. Unlike the couples in the ordered space of the Changgyeong Palace, the couples that visit the Soswaewon like to relax and walk around the garden, taking in its varied scenes. Absorbed in the here and now, many of these couples forget that the Soswaewon is closely intertwined with the main currents in Korean culture and history during the Joseon period (1392-1910).     

Located on the edge of Mt. Mudeung near Gwangju, the Soswaewon, designated it a National Historic Site in 1983, is one of the best-preserved private gardens from the Joseon period. The builder of the Soswaewon, Yang Sanbo (1503-1557), eldest son of a wealthy land owner in Naju County, South Jeolla Province, was a student in Seoul at the time of the third literati purge in 1519. He was studying under the brilliant and increasingly powerful literati Jo Gwangjo (1482-1519). King Jungjong (1506-1544) was captivated by Jo’s intellectual ability and rapidly promoted him to positions of great power, which angered many in the elite. As the conflict between Jo and the elite worsened, King Jungjong switched sides, out of fear for his own life, and purged Jo and his followers. Jo and his inner circle were soon put to death. These events shocked the young Yang Sanbo so much that he packed up and left Seoul, vowing never to return.

Yang returned to his home province of South Jeolla and decided to settle in the area where the Soswaewon now stands because of its beautiful scenery and auspicious location according to Korean geomancy. Having given up his desire for a career as a government official, Yang wanted to build his house and garden in a place of natural beauty where he could study in peace. He spent the rest of his life living off the land, studying and teaching Neo-Confucianism, and, of course, entertaining the many guests who came to enjoy the garden. Of the many types gardens in Korean history, the Soswaewon is the best example of a country exile’s garden in which the owner lived close to the garden and farmed the land nearby. This type of garden allowed an exiled literati to live a self-supporting life of cultured seclusion far from worldly concerns. Yang first built his nearby home and spent the next fifteen years building the garden and pavilions. His descendants continued to add details and make changes over time. Like all gardens, the Soswaewon today reflects centuries of human construction and natural evolution.

Our tour of the Soswaewon begins as we leave the busy city of Gwangju and pass through Mt. Mudeung.  In Korean geomancy, a powerful mountain should protect a grave, house, or village, and Mt. Mudeung does an excellent job of protecting Gwangju to the west and the Soswaewon to the east. Passing by a large bamboo grove in our approach to the main garden of the Soswaewon, we see a semi-walled in space with a tile-roof hall amid the trees in the center of the garden. The wall extends to the right side of the entrance to create an enclosed space. As we pass through the entrance, we see a small thatched-roof pavilion, the Daebongdae, to the right and a brook in front of us. To reach the central hall, the Gwangpunggak, from here, we walk along the path near the wall, past the Daebongdae Pavilion, over a stone bridge across the brook, and then back along the brook on the other end. This path forces us to meander through the main garden and look at it from three of the four sides of the rectangular space that makes up the garden.


Walking along the opposite side of the brook from the main gate, we come to the Gwangpunggak in the middle of the path. Here we are forced to decide either to enter the Gwangpunggak or go around it. The Gwangpunggak is a simple raised rectangular structure built with pillars that support a large tile roof. Wooden-frame windows covered with paper can be opened on all four sides of the hall by hanging them to the tile roof. The Gwangpunggak is inviting in its simplicity but intimidating in its symmetry. Unlike the inviting atmosphere of the thatched-roof Daebongdae on the other side of the brook, we have to think twice before taking off our shoes and going in.

Behind the Gwangpunggak, we see a tile-roof gate in the back wall of the garden and a tile-roof building, the Jewoldang, on the terraced hill behind. Yang Sanbo and his descents lived in this simple house with one heated floor-heated room for winter living and an open verandah for summer living. Behind the house, we find a small exterior kitchen and a large open area that was used for growing vegetables. 

Sitting in the verandah of the Jewoldang, we see the trees and roofs of the buildings in the main garden below. Further in the distance, we see the flowing contours of the valleys and mountains. As we walk back down the terraces to the main garden, the feeling of grandeur and openness gives way to the detailed and intimate feeling of the main garden. Stopping for a rest in the Daebongdae in the front part of the garden, we find that the sun has moved and that the shapes, sights, and sounds of the garden are different from when our tour began.

The design and idyllic atmosphere of the Soswaewon impressed so Kim Inhu, a close friend to Yang Sanbo, that he wrote a collection of poetry on the garden in 1542.  In one of the poems “Relaxing with Visitors Next to a Brook Shrouded in Willow Trees,” Kim described the sense of peace that world-weary visitors to the garden felt:

     Visitors come knocking on the gate in the bamboo grove

     Their rowdy singing wakes Yang Sanbo from his afternoon slumber

     Having given up public service, he is enjoying a life of bliss.

     They tie up their horses and stand by edge of the brook

More than four hundred years have passed since Kim wrote this poem, but the Soswaewon still gives visitors a chance to escape from the rigidities and worries of everyday life. The Soswaewon, however, is more than an escape from; it is an escape to a magical world of rusticity and sophistication that renews the spirit. It is this hope of renewal that makes even the busiest of newlyweds pause for contemplation, and it is this hope that will continue to draw visitors to the Soswaewon for another four hundred years or more.

_Magazine Hanok N.16