Dongdaemun-gu was once called the "Outskirts of Seoul"
Scholars differ with respect to the original location of Habuk-wirye-seong built in the very early days of Baekje, and have not produced a single, commonly accepted theory on the matter. Nevertheless, the majority of the scholars who have searched for the location of the castle or studied relevant historical evidence agree that it must have been located in east of Samgaksan, near Jungnangcheon.
This agreement reflects that the present-day Dongdaemun-gu area must have been a natural defense stronghold and a fertile ground that supported a large population since the ancient times. During the Goryeo Dynasty, the entire northeastern area in and around the present-day Dongdaemun-gu was mentioned as a strong candidate site for Namgyeong or the ‘southern capital’.
The capital city, complete with walls, began to be built in the fifth year (1396) of King Taejo’s reign, only a year and a half or so after he founded the Joseon Dynasty and established Hanyang (present-day Seoul) as the nation’s capital. The walls surrounding the capital city had a total of eight gates, three of which were major gates and the remaining five were minor. The three major gates also had their own hierarchical importance: the gate of the first importance was Sungnyemun and the second gate was Heung-inmun. Sungnyemun, also commonly referred to as Namdaemun (Major South Gate), means a gate of ‘worshipping propriety’. Heung-inmun, commonly referred to as Dongdaemun (Major East Gate), means a gate designed to ‘make the perfect virtue prosper’. There is almost no one, however, who still calls the gate ‘Heung-inmun’, and ‘Dongdaemun’ is a much more familiar name to the Koreans. Other major cities or villages in Korea also had gates that they referred to as ‘Nammun’ or ‘Dongmun’. There is another ‘Namdaemun’ found in Gaeseong. No other city in Korea, however, has a ‘Dongdaemun’, though. Dongdaemun, therefore, has become a proper noun referring to only one gate in Korea.
During the period of the Joseon Dynasty, Dongdaemun was a common gateway to Gangwon-do and the three southern provinces, toward which people had to cross Salgoji Bridge along the Han River bank after they leave Dongdaemun. Even travelers to Hamgyeong-do in the north chose Dongdaemun over Dongsomun and walked through Anam-dong and Jong-am-dong. The east is where the sun rises. The east, thus, was thought to be the common ‘homeland’ for humankind and the most fertile center of the agrarian society. King Taejo Lee Seong-gye, who founded the Joseon Dynasty, remarked that he "came to forget all worries" by choosing the site at the end of Donggyo as his own gravesite. The gravesite of the last king of the dynasty is also located at the end of Donggyo. These practices reflect the Korean tradition of worshipping ‘the east’ and the origin of life it was thought to provide.
Donggyo, located outside the walls of the capital city, was not only a spiritual homeland for Koreans, but was also a piece of very fertile land. Seonnongdan, an altar dedicated by the royal family to the god of agriculture, was located only thirty minutes walk away from Dongdaemun. The practice of worshipping at Seonnongdan continued until May 5, 1910, three months before Korea was entirely colonized by Japan. The lyrics of the first of the three verses composing ‘the Song of Chingyeong’, a song the subjects of the Joseon Dynasty sang together at the time of Chingyeong under Emperor Sunjong of Korea at Dongjeokjeon at Seonnongdan is as follows.
The Beomseong of Dongdaemun-gu today is not that large. Dongmyo, which used to belong to the jurisdiction of Dongdaemun-gu, now belongs to another district. Dongdaemun-gu, however, still hosts various sites rich in history, including the vestiges of Rimun; Baebongsan, the original site of Prince Sado’s grave; the lush forest surrounding Hongneung; King Sejong the Great Memorial Hall; Cheongnyangsa; and Seonnongdan site, proudly serving as the stronghold of local history and traditions.
Working towards a new improvement
Every place on earth is rich in its local characteristics and culture. Even within the same city of Seoul, the areas of Jongno and Jung-gu differ significantly in terms of their outer appearances and cultural significance. The outer regions lying outside Dongdaemun and Seodaemun are also quite different from each other. Seongdong-gu and Seongbuk-gu, surrounding Dongdaemun-gu, look completely different. Jungnang-gu and Dongdaemun-gu, facing each other with just Jungnangcheon in between them, are almost incomparable in their appearances.
There were not many differences between the areas of Seongbuk, Dongdaemun, and Seongdong until the later days of the Joseon Dynasty. Seongbuk-gu had Bukhansan, while Dongdaemun-gu lacked such a major mountain. Both, however, were peaceful areas primarily founded upon agriculture. The stark differences found among these localities were developed in the modern period, after Korea was colonized by Japan.
Although the three areas were all located in the eastern part of Seoul, the area directly surrounding Dongdaemun was modernized at a much faster pace than the areas of Seongbuk and Seongdong.
The first physical impact of modernization in Dongdaemun-gu became palpable in 1897, the year in which the national funeral of Queen Myeongseong was held and her grave was established. It was this gravesite of Hongneung located within the area that caused both Emperors Gojong and Sunjong to travel to the area often. On May 18, 1899, the first streetcar ever to be introduced to Korea ran to Cheongnyangni. The thoroughfares of Seoul at the time had seen only some bicycles and rickshaws. They had never seen a carriage or a coach, let alone an automobile. The introduction of the streetcar, thus, was an epoch-making event. Considering that it was only in 1914 that Dapshimni saw its first streetcar and 1941 that Don-am-dong, the center of Seongbuk-gu, saw its streetcar, the areas of Sinseol-dong and Cheongnyangni in Dongdaemun-gu were developed at a much faster rate than other areas of Seoul.
Modern-styled street trees were planted along the road from outer-Dongdaemun to Cheongnyangni in the late 1890s. It was the first of its kind in Korea as well.
The operation of Cheongnyangni Station began in 1914 as Gyeongwon Railway opened, while the operation of Seongdong Station on Gyeongchun Railway began much later in 1939.
The building for the College of Arts at the Imperial College of the Capital in the site currently occupied by Miju Apartment Complex had its inauguration ceremony on May 10, 1924. The Seoul factory of Jongyeon spinning company was also established in sinseol-dong November, 1925. The opening ceremony of Gyeongseong racecourse in sinseol-dong was held in September, 1928.
The concentration of population was a phenomenon that commonly occurred throughout Seoul in the period immediately after the national liberation. Dongdaemun-gu, however, was unprecedented in its massive population growth. The areas of sinseol, Yongdu, jegi, and Jeonnong, and Cheongnyangni were filled with houses, barely leaving an empty space, by the late 1960s, a phenomenon that went on to expand in the areas of Dapshimni, Huigyeong, Hoeki, and Yimun throughout the 1970s. The speed of the population influx and construction of family homes in the areas of Dapsimni, Jeonnong, Hwigyeong, Hoegi and Imun was rather too rapid that Seoul barely had a time to plan systematic development of these areas. The rapid concentration and settlement of population in the area surrounding Cheongnyangni Station was largely due to the convenience of the area in terms of transportation and education systems.
Most of the houses that were built in this area between the late 1960s and 1970s, however, are small, confined, ill-planned spaces. As the national GNP per capital has exceeded $10,000 recently, the area is in a dire need for redevelopment.
There are certain areas within Dongdaemun-gu that were newly developed according to the guhoekjeongnisubeop(redevelopment rule). The early 1960s was the time in which the redevelopment project of the Dongdaemun area began, especially in and around sinseol-dong. The houses that were built in this period as part of redevelopment, however, are now old and aged and require further redevelopment and construction.
Although the area of Jang-anpyeong was largely redeveloped in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the area actually redeveloped was quite narrow, failing to bring about an overall change in the appearance of the overall Dongdaemun-gu.
The same phenomenon can be observed in the area’s industry as well. The markets in the area, including Gyeongseong Market, Cheongnyangni Market, Fish Market, and Fruits and Vegetables Wholesale Market, are, indeed, the best and biggest markets in Korea in terms of the volume and diversity of goods they trade. There is perhaps no Korean who has never heard of ‘Gyeongdong Market’ near Cheongnyangni station in Seoul. Gyeongdong Market, however, is an example of traditional Korean markets, and it badly needs modernization.
Simply speaking, almost all houses and industrial facilities within the area of Dongdaemun-gu are now old and aged. Their current status is perhaps an inevitable outcome of the tension between traditions and rapid development.
There is an undeniable current of redevelopment in various areas of Dongdaemun-gu. These developments will transform and reinvent these areas in one decade or two from now on, supported by the strong local spirit of the 500,000 or so residents inhabiting these areas.
People in Dongdaemun-gu continue to live their life with dignity and work ethic, still in expectation of seeing a much more beautiful and livable environment realized in the future transformation of Dongdaemun-gu.