The Brain behind Cheonggyecheon Stream, King Taejong

(2) King Taejong who constructed the artificial waterway Cheonggyecheon Stream…a look into Taejong’s farsightedness in city planning

Taejong as portrayed in The Great King Sejong (2008)

On the eighth day of the eight month, 1410, heavy rain caused Cheonggyecheon Stream to overflow, causing a big flood that destroyed Gwangtonggyo Bridge. The king at that time, Taejong, agreed with his officials’ suggestion to build a stone bridge to replace the original structure made from earth and wood. The stones used to construct the bridge were unusual. They were made up of the stones dug up from Jeongneung. Jeongneung was the royal tomb of Taejo’s second queen consort and Taejong’s stepmother, Queen Sindeok of the Kang clan. It was originally located in the vicinity of Deoksugung Palace but moved to its current location in Seongbuk-gu Jeongneung-dong after Taejong ascended the throne.

Despite Taejong’s continuous plea for her to help him become the Crown Prince, Queen Sindeok refused to do so; instead, she suggested her own son, (Yi) Bang-seok for the position. The enraged Taejong rose to power through the First and Second Strife of Prince, and his hate towards Queen Sindeok reached the maximum level. It showed how much Taejong hated her for him to dig out the stones used to adorn the late queen’s tomb and turn them into building blocks for the bridge.

Taejong wanted Queen Sindeok’s ki (energy) to be crushed under the steps of the citizens crossing the bridge. That was not the end of it. He intentionally arranged for the tombstones to be upside down. It was probably because of this reason, the scale of Jeongneung was comparably smaller than other royal tombs.

Hence, Gwantonggyo Bridge crossing Cheonggyecheon Stream was more than a bridge; it was an example and a symbol of the power struggle to strengthen the royal authority in early Joseon.

Cheonggyecheon is a familiar waterway to every citizen of Seoul. There are some people who think that it is a natural river, but Cheonggyecheon was an artificial, man-made stream which is a 600-year old source of pride. It was built in 1405 under the enthusiastic commande of Taejong in the process of organizing the city after he moved back to Hanyang.

There were twists and turns happening before Hanyang was chosen as the site for the capital of the newly founded Joseon. Back when Joseon was established in the seventh month of 1392, the capital was still in Gaeseong (Gaegyeong) but thanks to Yi Seong-gye’s strong will, the capital was moved to Hanyang two years later, on the 28th day of the 10th month, 1394. Although it was chosen as the new capital in 1394, Hanyang momentarily lost its status as the capital when the newly appointed king, Jeongjong, moved the capital back to Gaeseong in the third month of 1399. Taejong only made the decision to move the capital again to Hanyang in 1405, five years after he took over the throne in 1400.

Hanyang was situated at the center of the Korean peninsula and the Han River flowing to the West Sea made it a strategic geographical location. It was also surrounded by mountains like Naksan, Inwangsan, Mokmyeoksan (Namsan), and Bukaksan from four directions, making the basin-like topography of the city ideal for both defense and management of the citizens.

Of course, there was a weakness too. With Mount Namsan situated directly directly under Han River, water could not flow freely when it reached downtown that was Hanyang. The water would be blocked by the mountain and it could not possibly flow upstream into Han River, hence Hanyang would be hit by flood with huge casualties when heavy rain poured down.

Hence, the pressing concern for Taejong when he returned to Hanyang was to find a way to prevent the flood from happening. the construction for Gaecheon begun in the first month of 1406. Gaecheon was the name given to the waterway in Joseon, and Cheonggyecheon only came into usage after Japanese colonial period. 600 workers were put under the Capital Bureau (Hanseongbu) to start digging the stream that would be the basis for today’s Cheonggyecheon Stream.

Despite the step taken by the government, the capital would continue to be flooded each time there was heavy rain. On the 27th of the fifth month, 1407, the main waterway and the ditch were overflowing with water after a heavy downpour. Another flood happened on the eighth of the fifth month, 1409, causing the bridges to collapse and two people to drown. The whole city was flooded on the 17th of the seventh month in the following year, disconnecting the people on the East side of the city near Jongnu with the Honginmun side of the city.

The concern to avoid the flood only grew worse, and Taejong started to find the root cause and the way to solve it.  After pondering over and over again, Taejong came upon the decision to carry out the construction in a large scale despite the risks he had to face. He proclaimed his decision in front of his ministers on the first day of the 12th month, 1411.

“During the monsoon season every year, the city would be flooded and the houses were submerged. It becomes a source of worry and the plan to open up Gaecheon’s water path has been long overdue. Will this work of digging up Gaecheon possess harmful effects on the citizens? Will this step become a basis for a better life for the future generations?”

Although the construction for Gaecheon was a much needed project, Taejong still took his citizens into consideration, weighing whether it would be a burden to them. Hence, the king’s advisor, Ha Ryun, gave his reply to the king.

“These people were the ones who could handle things at the right time with the morality from before. Opening the reserves to distribute provisions, carrying out the work during daytime and resting at night, and ensuring the citizens would not be down with sickness would be good.”

Ha Ryung suggested that with enough compensations, the citizens would be satisfied even with the construction going on. Seong Seok-rin, Jo Young-mu, and other officials suggested, “Since digging the channel is something we cannot avoid any further, the Gaecheon construction project could be made into jobs? as it was in the middle of the summer, which is the off-season for farming.” With that, Taejong’s plan was received favourably.

In the following month, Taejong set up Gaecheondogam (a temporarily office for water management), and the three southern provinces were mobilized as a source of workforce for the project. As per Taejong’s order, the construction work would begin right after the dawn bell (Paru – where the bell was struck 33 times in the morning around 4 AM) and ended when the evening bell rang (Injeong – the bell was struck 28 times to mark the beginning of night curfew at 10 PM). If the supervisors failed to abide by the rules (for instance forcing the workers to work overtime), they would be punished.

In addition, the related offices like Jeonuigam (Palace Medical Office), Hyeminseo (Public Dispensary), and Jesaengwon (Public Welfare Agency) were ordered to produce medicine in advance. In case of any disease breakout during the construction period, the king specifically instructed for the related offices to spare no expense in giving treatments. Although the workforce for the project were made of the compulsory manual labourers from the provinces, they were not forced to work under constraint and their health and needs were considered top priority.

The heart of Cheonggyecheon was a dredged trench to hold water flowing from the four mountains.  It was connected to Jungnangcheon, a tributary stream of Han River that would bring the flowing water to the river. Perhaps, it was due to Taejong’s strong will and encouragement which made it possible for the project to be completed quickly. The Annals of King Taejong recorded on the 15th day of the second month, 1415, that the Gaecheon stream project came into completion one month after it was started.

“The project of digging Gaecheon has been completed. From the entrance in Janguidong to the ditch from Jongmyodong, stones were lined up in front of the gates of Munsojeon Shrine and Changdeokgung Palace, while trees were used to build the dikes along Jongmyodong and Sugumun Gate.”

There were also losses experienced through the construction work. A total of 64 people were killed while working on the project, and Taejong provided compensation to the deceased’s families by exempting the family members from compulsory manual labour and giving supplies of grains like beans and rice. After the project ended, Taejong expressed his thoughts, “Now that the work of digging the waterway has been completed, my heart can finally be at peace.”

During King Sejong’s reign, a member of Seoul Magistracy who was also the Mayor, Jeong Jin, submitted an appeal in which he spoke highly of Taejong’s achievement.

“In the year of Shinmyo (1411), the King Former (Taejong) realized that water could not flow through the city without digging a ditch and became worried, hence he ordered to have the existing waterway dug up to make it bigger, opening up the waterway. The foundation of the country became stronger as a result of this, while the citizens received happiness without having to worry (about flood) when they sleep at night. It was a thought filled with devotion and a move to prepare for the future trouble in the years to come.

The waterway project propelled by Taejong continued to benefit the people under Sejong’s reign, and the follow-up work was continued to dig up small tributaries to become supplementary branches for the dredges which cannot be widened. The trench were dug from Jongno to downstream of Gaecheon to widen it and a flood gate was erected near Dongdaemun. Since Gaecheon grew wider, more stone bridges were built across the stream.

Leading the two consecutive Strife of Princes in 1398 and 1400, Taejong faced several twists and turns before he rose to power. In order to strengthen the royal authority in the new capital, he organized the centralized government system, which would become a major benchmark for the government administration of the new country. The relocation to Hanyang in 1405 was also a way for Taejong to stabilize the royal authority. In place of the Prime Minister centered bureaucracy, he enforced the independent administration system of Six Ministries (where ministries would report directly to the King instead of going through the Prime Minister). The hopae tag system, which is a predecessor to today’s identification card system, was used to manage the citizens and it became a part of the centralized system. Taejong was also the king who installed the big drum sinmungo, where the citizens could come and complain about the unfairness they experienced. The construction of Cheonggyecheon mobilize the nation’s administrative systematically and eventually provided the basis for the stability of the citizens’ lives.

Cheonggyecheon’s construction business is one way of saving the city of Hanyang, thanks to Taejong’s discerning eyes which propelled it to be started. The stream provided a foothold for the capital to flourish into a huge city by avoiding Hanyang’s weakness that was the flood. Taejong’s work was continued 350 years later by Yeongjo through digging and deepening works of the stream. Because of that, Cheonggyecheon Stream continues to become a representative space for the city of Seoul today.

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