2012 (Pilot Project)

How “Seoul” got her name

Have you ever wondered why Korea’s capital is called “Seoul”? Below is a very well-known story of how Seoul was found and how she first got her name.

Not long after Taejo Lee Seong-gye founded the Joseon Dynasty in 1392, he ordered Muhagdaesa, a Buddhist monk and his personal advisor, to find a new site for the nation’s capital. Hanyang, as Seoul was known back then, had always been a prominent city dating back to the era of the Three Kingdoms, and Muhagdaesa was sent to see whether this city had the potential to become the nation’s new capital.

Muhagdaesa first arrived at Mt. Bukhansan north of Hanyang. It resembled the long body of a dragon, along which he walked all the way down south to Mt. Namsan. From here, he could see a flat, fertile land stretched in front of him and he quickly judged that this was the perfect place for the new capital.

Pleased with himself at his quick discovery, he lay down on the side of a road to take a break when an old man riding an ox passed by, shouting, “What a mindless ox you are, taking the wrong route here. You are as thick-headed as Muhagdaesa!”

Muhagdaesa jumped up when he heard his name. Astonished, he stared at the person who had shouted his name. Even at first sight, he knew this was no ordinary old man.

“Please sir, help me find the right place for the new capital,” begged the monk as he kneeled down before him. “I am the Muhagdaesa that you just described as thick-headed and mindless. Please help me find the way.”

The old man, after scanning the monk from head to foot with a pitied look on his face, raised his hand and said, “If you follow this road for 10 Li (approximately 5km) to the northeast, you will find what you are looking for.”

After finishing his last word, the old man hurriedly took off and disappeared into the mist. Then, Muhagdaesa realized that the spirit of Doseondaesa, the highly respected master of the Pungsu jilihag (feng shui) doctrine during the ancient Silla Dynasty, had returned to give him guidance.

When Muhagdaesa walked 10 Li northeast, he found himself at the foot of the Bugaksan mountain, the place where Gyeongbokgung, the King’s palace, sits today. Looking around, he could see that it was surrounded by three mountains, Bugaksan to the north, Inwangsan to the west, and Nagsan to the east. Moreover, a stream as clear as the east sea flowed from the north and curved its way to the east, directly running through the capital’s centre; and while Mt. Namsan to the south provided the final enclosing of the area, in the distance, the Han River flowed softly like the morning mist, offering the ideal route for transportation and trade.

“Certainly, there is no better place to hold our nation’s capital than here!” exclaimed Muhagdaesa.

Upon returning, Muhagdaesa reported his findings to the King.

“The three mountains offer an ideal protection from foreign invasion, and the Namsan mountain down South directs all traffic to the south-western plains, offering a strategic position for defence. Also, according to the doctrine of Pungsu Jilihag, Mt. Nagsan in the east carries the air of the blue dragon, while Mt. Inwangsan in the west breathes the spirit of the white tiger. The stream’s exit is hidden from outside view by Mt. Namsan as well, an ideal location for streams as defined by Pungsu Jilihag.”

Here, the stream that Muhagdaesa described to the King is what we know today as Cheonggyecheon; the doctrine of Pungsu Jilihag refers to the theoretical study of how physical geography affects the well-being of the people and their country. This study was highly respected and well-known ever since the era of the Three Kingdoms. It was believed that the specific positions of mountains, rivers, weather, fertile land, and other physical traits of the given region, and how they reconciled with each other, promised prosperity and longevity for the country and its people. Hanyang was seen as the epitome of this doctrine.

On November 29, 1394, Taejo Lee Seong-gye moved the capital to Hanyang. But the work was not yet completed; he still had to figure out where to build the walls for his new capital. After staying up all night pondering, he looked outside at the first light of day and noticed that the snow that had fallen the night before had mysteriously covered the land in an oval-like shape, as if it was surrounded by an invisible wall.

“Yes! This must be a sign from god!”

Excited, Taejo Lee Seong-gye ordered the wall to be constructed following the layout of the snow. Later, because the layout for the capital was adopted from the way the snow had covered the land, the city came to be known as “seol,” (雪)meaning snow, and “oul,” from the word “oultari,” meaning fence in Korean. Combined, they formed the word “Seoul” and that is the how our capital first got her name!

And, because Muhagdaesa had to walk 10 Li to find the new capital, the road where he walked is now known as Wangsimni (王十里), meaning “to go 10 Li.” It is a popular tourist destination lined with delicious restaurants and shopping malls.

If you are interested in learning more about how Seoul became our capital city, you can watch Daepungsu, a Korean drama that is currently being broadcast on SBS, which recounts Taejo Lee Seong-gye’s rise to power and the birth of the Joseon Dynasty.

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