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Five-years and three-months later Sungnyemun Gate is Back

Five-years and three-months later 
Sungnyemun Gate is Back

Sungnyemun Gate, South Korea’s National Treasure No. 1, is back after five years and three months of restoration work.

In February 2008, an arson committed by a disgruntled old man put the whole nation in grief. The cultural heritage of Korea had been a pride of Koreans and a legacy of nation’s long history. Of all things, the fire destroyed the nation’s No. 1 treasure and the main gate of the 600-year old capital. When the gate collapsed, it delivered a devastating blow to the people’s morale.

After the fire, plans to rebuild the gate immediately went underway. A fair amount of recoverable material from the site would be used wherever possible. And based on two years of thorough research by historians, the entire construction would follow traditional construction methods. This called for the involvement of the nation’s leading masters in this field, along with 35,000 or so carpenters and stonemasons.

After five years and three months of restoration work, Sungnyemun Gate is back. The feeling of loss that the Korean people felt was finally healed when they saw the gate standing tall in all its glory. So many prayers had been given for a successful restoration of this national treasure, both from Koreans and foreigners who have an interest in Korea’s cultural assets. Not surprisingly, a big crowd flocked to the site on May 4, 2013 when a ceremony was held to commemorate the reopening of the gate. Read on to learn more about Sungnyemun and its restoration, which was greeted with so much joy.

Learn more about Sungnyemun Gate!

1. History of Sungnyemun

▲ Evolution of Sungnyemun Gate from the early 1900s to the present _Postcard commemorating the restoration of Sungnyemun
• Photo courtesy: Cultural Heritage Administration

Sungnyemun dates back to the 14th century Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). After Hanyang (the old name of Seoul) was chosen as the capital of Joseon, construction of Sungnyemun Gate began in 1395 and was completed in 1398. Sungnyemun was built as the southern gate of the capital, thus it is also called Namdaemun (big gate in the south).

Part of Sungnyemun was damaged during the Japanese colonial rule* and the Korean War**. The gate underwent emergency repairs following the war, but the gate’s condition was still unstable. From 1961 to 1963, the gate was repaired in its entirety by mobilizing skilled woodworkers and masons. Subsequently, the gate underwent partial repair on a regular basis.

For hundreds of years, Sungnyemun remained an iconic landmark and a pride of Korea. Among all the existing gate structures, it is also the largest in scale. On December 20, 1962, it was designated as National Treasure No. 1 and was recognized for its historic and artistic value.

The backdrop of Sungnyemun continued to evolve over time and the gate soon found itself surrounded by a backdrop of cars and high-rise buildings. Construction began to install a plaza south of the gate, and in 2006, the number one national treasure was open to the public.

No sooner than when it had opened, the gate crumbled into ash due to a devastating fire in February 2008. Five years and three months later, restoration work was completed on April 30, 2013, and the ceremony to reopen Sungnyemun was held on May 4, 2013.

* Japanese colonial rule:
Korea was forcibly annexed to Japan and was under its colonial administration from 1910 to 1945.
** Korean War (The June 25th Incident):
The war broke out on June 25, 1950 between South and North Korea. In 1953, an armistice was put into place and the two sides have been in a state of armistice ever since.
Tip. During the Joseon Dynasty, Sungnyemun was a place for…
1. Announcing major national policies
2. Punishing felons
- Felons were tried, convicted and beheaded in front of the gate, with the severed head hung at the gate.
3. Announcing the beginning and end of curfew.
- A bell was rung to announce the times (10 p.m. for the beginning of curfew and 4 a.m. for the end of curfew).
4. Dedicating ceremonies to pray for the end of the rainy season or for rituals praying for rain.
5. Protect the capital during times of war, as a fortification

2. Restoration using traditional construction methods

▲ Sungnyemun Gate before the fire (left) and Sungnyemun Gate after restoration (right)

After the fire, a series of studies were made on how the gate should be restored. The goal was to look into the gate’s historical records in order to reproduce the gate in its original form when it was built 615 years ago before the fire. After going through exhaustive investigation and discussions, the nation’s top woodworkers, artisans and craftsmen knowledgeable in traditional building methods, together with finest construction materials were mobilized to rebuild the gate. A lot of time and effort went into the preparation stage prior to the start of actual restoration work.

In February 2010, two years after the fire, restoration work began in full swing. Craftsmen worked painstakingly to salvage every last part of the burned structure, and what could not be reused was recreated using traditional methods. The best woodworkers, artisans for making dancheong (colorful decorative painting), tile makers, and craftsmen with experience in important intangible cultural assets all took part in the restoration work.

All of the new clay roof tiles were produced using traditional methods, i.e. shaped by hand and fired in a traditional kiln. A forge was installed at the site, where blacksmiths heated and straightened bent nails or produced new nails and the necessary ironware. Stonemasons would use no power tools. It was hammers and chisels all the way.

Tip. Must-see features in Sungnyemun
1. Walls surrounding the gate
- The original walls surrounding the gate on both sides had been destroyed during the Japanese occupation. During restoration work, the walls were rebuilt to its original form.
2. Signboard bearing the name of the gate
- The old signboard at the front of the gate had been a makeshift one restored after the Korean War. Historians found rubbed copies of the signboard that were made after the gate was completed in the Joseon Dynasty. Based on records found, the signboard was restored to its original form.
3. Painting on the ceiling of Hongyemun (arched gate)
- The arched gate of Sungnyemun is generally called Hongyemun*. The dragon painting on the ceiling is one of the greatest features of Sungnyemun. The master dancheong artisan only used natural pigments to reproduce the painting to make it as close to the original form as possible based on various historical records.
Hongye refers to rainbow. The term is given due to the resemblance of the gate’s half-moon shape to a rainbow.

3. Newly installed features

▲ A management booth and fire prevention facilities installed around the area

A few lessons were learned from the fire and restoration of Sungnyemun: cultural assets have genuine value and power and it takes active and realistic measures to protect them.

These lessons learned were reflected in the new Sungnyemun. First, a management booth was installed near the entrance to the gate to oversee the premise, and the booth is staffed by dedicated managers. Also, 18 CCTVs were installed in and around the premise, as well as 16 fire detectors and 152 sprinklers to ensure that the same tragedy does not happen again. Fire extinguishers and hydrants were installed where they can be easily reachable. And part of the roof was covered with fire-resistant fabric that can survive a heat of 1,000 degrees Celsius for ten minutes.

The current Sungnyemun also features lightning protection facilities, and the tiled roof was designed in such a way that the tiles do not fall down under vibration. The number of lighting facilities was also increased, with 90 new lights of six types installed around the gate and underneath the walls.

“Sungnyemun, opening a new era of cultural renaissance”

1. Ceremony commemorating the reopening of Sungnyemun

▲ May 4, 2013, the day when the ceremony was held to commemorate the reopening of Sungnyemun Gate
• Photo Courtesy: Cultural Heritage Administration, Heritage Channel

Sungnyemun is back in all its past glory thanks to careful reconstruction based on thorough investigation of Joseon Dynasty records. After two years of preparation and three years and three months of reconstruction, the gate reopened to the public following a commemorative event on May 4, 2013.

The ceremony started at 2pm and was attended by President Park Geun-hye, leaders from various fields, celebrities, citizens, and international tourists. Under the slogan “Opening a New Era of Cultural Renaissance,“ the ceremony comprised of a Cheondo ritual to drive away bad luck, a report on the proceedings, unveiling of the gate’s sign, a children’s choir performance, a parade, and a variety of traditional folk performances at Gwanghwamun.

The bitterness and feeling of loss felt on the day of the fire were healed this day.

2. Sungnyemun is still National Treasure No. 1

▲ Sungnyemun by day and by night

▲ President Park Geun-hye gives a commemorative speech in front of Sungnyemun Gate
▲ Crowds flocked to Sungnyemun to congratulate its reopening
• Photo Courtesy: Cultural Heritage Administration, Heritage Channel

After Sungnyemun Gate came down in a devastating fire, many people were saying that the value and history of Korea’s first national treasure may have been lost forever.

For over 600 years, Sungnyemun had undergone several repair works. In some cases, a substantial part of it was repaired, so much so that it could well have been a reconstruction. At other times, only minor parts were repaired. The fire in 2008 damaged 10% of the first floor and 90% of the second floor. Thus, in the sense that the restoration did not involve building from scratch, the value of Sungnyemun as a national treasure is still intact.

The reason for restoring the gate is important. However, isn’t it more important to know how the gate was restored?

▲ Tourists view the gate after its reopening.

In addition to woodworkers, artisans, and masons, so many people joined in the effort to restore Sungnyemun. Some donated their precious wood (pine trees), while others volunteered to lend a helping hand at the construction site. Some living in a faraway country also sent in money for donation. But there were also those who, during the five years and three months of restoration work, thought about Sungnyemun and wished that the gate would return in all its glory.

The restoration work did not just involve recovering what had been lost. It was a process of remembering the forgotten history of the gate. Never before had people had such an interest in the history of Sungnyemun, how it had looked like in the past, and what function it had served.

Though the fire should never have taken place, it did leave us with many lessons learned such as revisiting the value of our cultural assets, recognizing the need for a systematic preservation of cultural assets, and the need to enhance the quality of repair. But more importantly, people came to see Sungnyemun with a different mindset. Rather than being just visitors, we should now be a keeper of cultural assets and show that preservation of cultural heritage begins with the people.

More info

Sungnyemun Gate

☞ Address:
29 Namgdaemun-ro 4-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul (40 Sejongdae-ro, Jung-gu)
☞ Date of restoration:
April 30, 2013 * Ceremony marking the restored gate on May 4, 2013
☞ Hours of operation:
09:00–18:00 * Closed on Mondays
☞ Special viewing
※ Access to Mullu (upper story of the gate)
Saturday 11:00, 13:00, 15:00 Apply online (20 people per day, first-come, first-served basis)
Sunday 13:00, 14:00, 15:00
☞ Admission:
Free of charge
☞ Website:

Cultural Heritage Administration (Korean, English, Japanese, Chinese)
Seoul City Government, Culture & Tourism (Korean, English, Japanese, Chinese)
☞ Seoul Dasan Call Center:
+82-2-120 -> 9 (Korean, English, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Mongolian)
☞ Korea Travel Hotline:
+82-2-1330 (Korean, English, Japanese, Chinese)
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Date 07/10/2013

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