Wilted Flower

Deeply embarrassing news out of South Korea, fraught with unwelcome symbolism just as the country prepares to host the G-20 summit.   The wooden signboard of Gwanghwamun gate (Splendid/Glorious Flower Gate) at Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul has developed large, visible cracks because insufficiently-aged pine lumber was used in the gate’s recent reconstruction.

A long vertical crack is visible to the left of the Chinese character “Gwang” and cracks are also visible beneath the letter “Hwa” in the middle.

Philistines or the igno-rant might scoff at the relevance of this development by saying, “NBD, what’s a few cracks in the signboard?” Lunghu will tell ya why this is a big deal with significant portent.

In Chinese culture  –and don’t kid yourself, Korean culture is pervasively Sinified–  a structure’s signboard is more than just a label:  it is basically an embodiment of the structure’s spirit.   That’s because, in Chinese culture, what Westerners might think of as inanimate objects actually have a spiritual dimension that can exercise an unseen force influencing the course of events and outcomes in the human world.   These inanimate objects can be natural phenomena such as mountains or forests, or they can be man-made (such as buildings, roads, bridges, etc.).   In the case of natural objects, the spirit is-what-it-is, influenced and determined by the characteristics of the physical site itself (feng-shui/saju).   In the case of man-made objects, the building’s spirit can to some extent be shaped by those who created it, by means of the dedication ceremony (timed to occur on an astrologically auspicious day) which invokes a particular spiritual influence through the very act of naming.   This naming process is deemed efficacious because words themselves have spiritual force as tangible expressions of the concepts they describe and convey.   It’s a perspective that’s not quite aligned with the Nominalist school of Western philosophical thought.

In the case of Gwanghwamun, these worrisome cracks appear near or through the characters for ‘Splendid/ Glorious‘ and ‘Flower.’   Chinese or Korean soothsayers might well interpret this to mean that Korea’s half century of splendid flowering is about to encounter some serious difficulties, just when things seemed to be going so well.   If you want to read this craquelure as an omen, Lunghu himself sees multiple possibilities.   With Korea, there are always many choices:  Koreans themselves are worried about the perennial possibility of all-out war with the DPRK, and are also very concerned about domestic economic distortion caused by US/China currency devaluation policies.   And although Lunghu ain’t wishing this on anyone, it is also plausible to read the cracks on the Gwanghwamun signboard as emblematic of geologic fault lines that run through the region.   Let seismologists take note, and don’t expect much in the way of concerted action to come out of the G-20 summit.

"Splendid / Glorious"

Gwanghwamun timeline:

  • 1395: Gwanghwamun built by King Taejo, founder of the Chosun dynasty.
  • 1592: Japanese invader Hideyoshi destroyed Gwanghwamun, Gyeongbuk Palace and nearly every significant structure on the Korean peninsula.
  • 1867: King Gojong rebuilt the gate and Gyeongbuk Palace.
  • 1926: While under Japanese occupation, 85% of Gyeongbuk Palace’s 330 buildings were destroyed to make way for the Japanese Governor General’s administrative headquarters.  Gwanghwamun was spared, thanks in part to the efforts of Japanese art critic Yanagi Muneyoshi.
  • 1950: Gwanghwamun gate almost totally destroyed during the Korean War.
  • 1963: Gwanghwamun rebuilt by Park Chung-hee, using inferior materials (concrete).  (Interestingly, Gen. Park himself wrote the signboard for this renovation.)
  • 2006: Restorations begun.
  • 2010: Dedication of Gwanghwamun on August 15th, Liberation Day.  (A historically/politically significant day, but perhaps not an astrologically auspicious one.) “Its long-lost nameplate was also restored and put back on the gate’s facade.”
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