Taking Tradition Forward with Aspirations for an Imperial Capital
At the beginning of the 19th century, Western ships which the Korean people called ‘alien shaped vessels’ appeared along the coast of Joseon. As the pressure from external forces became a reality, new movements began to stir within Korea. Progressive scholars turned their attention toward more practical matters such as science and technology, astronomy, geography, and industry. As a great scholar Park Ji-won formed the Northern learning (Bukhak) school of thought, his grandson Park Gyu-su inherited the practical thoughts and contributed to the formation of enlightenment thought and bringing together scholars. Many young intellectuals living in Bukchon became versed in matters and culture from around the world and learned the ideology of enlightenment as they frequented Park’s home. Able to learn about the world at such an early date, these men later grew into a core power group that pushed ahead with the government’s enlightenment policy.
In the wake of the signing of the Korea-Japan Treaty of 1876, foreign powers were a key factor that influenced the direction of change in Joseon society. The government initially sought to refer to and learn from the experience of Japan and China as they opened their doors to the West. The government suppressed opposition and expanded trade relations with powers such as America, Russia and Britain. From the mid-1880s, foreign settlements formed around Seoul, which led to foreign population growth. There were also Koreans returning home after traveling overseas. Seoul became known across the globe, and information about other cities around the world made its way to Seoul. Exotic elements gradually began to establish themselves in spaces around the city and the lifestyles of the people of Seoul.
In 1897, King Gojong officially proclaimed the country’s new name the Korean Empire and adopted the title Gwangmu. The Korean Empire sought to remain a traditional Asian empire, while at the same time adopting a modern imperial look that recognized the Elements of International Law. National rituals were overhauled, and modern education, industrial and traffic facilities were expanded. This was accompanied by a project to turn Seoul into a city that befit the capital of an empire. From the 1880s, Jeong-dong became the city’s hub as the location of legations from many countries, modern schools and religious facilities. Several Western buildings were also erected in Gyeongungung Palace, the heart of the Korean Empire. Gyeongungung Palace and Jeong-dong were symbolic places embodying the empire’s reformist ideology in pursuing harmony between both Asian traditions and Western modernity.
In 1896, the government greatly improved the aesthetics of Jongno and Namdaemunno in the center of Seoul. The modern Tapgol Park was created on the site of Wongaksa Temple and streetcar rails were installed in Jongno in 1898. A number of telephone poles and streetlights were installed along the street. Western-style buildings such as Hanseong Electricity Co. and the YMCA were continuously built on Jongno streets, and new cultural artifacts also filled the area. Regardless of age, gender, and social background, people used streetcars. Concepts of time and speed were restructured based on automatic devices. Although the confusing state with the complex political situations continued with Korea squeezed between foreign powers, the people of Seoul began to take on the perceptions of modern people as they experienced the fruits of modern civilization.