Seoul / Urban development of Seoul and its indispensable natural division


Map of Seoul(portion), late 1930s, National Library of Seoul

Cheonggyecheon highlighted as blue

Seoul grew around the Cheonggyecheon, which divided the northern from the southern half of the city.  The nobles and wealthy portion of the society usually occupy the northern part where the institutional and governmental facilities also located in.  However the southern part are occupied by the less benefited social class.  Therefore the river has always been a division line for the socual hierarchy of Seoul.  The river was fed by tributaries flowing down from the mountains around the city – twenty-three tributaries, according to the early maps. The city’s major east-west road was along the Cheonggyecheon, its north-south roads along the tributaries, and its boundaries were the fortress walls connected the mountains around it.  These rivers were often dry in the spring and fall, when there is little rain, and they tended to flood during the summer rainy season.  Between 1406 and 1412, King Taejong deepened and widened the river and built dykes to control the flooding; in 1412, 52,800 people worked to build stone embankments and stone bridges over the Cheonggyecheon and its tributaries. His successor King Sejong continued this work, digging ditches that diverted some of the water from the tributaries, to prevent flooding in the city.  This was when the stream got its early name, the Gaecheon, which means “digging out.”  At first, this was the name of the project of improving the stream, but then it became the name of the improved stream itself.  King Sejong’s advisers had two opinions about the use of the Cheonggyecheon.  The idealists believed that the water should be kept clean, following the principles of Feng Shui.  The realists believed that the growing city needed a waterway to carry out its sewage, and the Cheonggyecheon was the only option.  King Sejong finally sided with the realists and opened the Cheonggyecheon for use as a sewer. For the 500 years of the Joseon Dynasty, the tributaries supplied the city with clean water, and the Cheonggyecheon washed away its wastes.


Map of Seoul under Japanese occupation, published by Suzuki Tsunejirou and Suzuki Tsunematsu (44th year, Meiji Era)

During the Japanese occupation, the Cheongyecheon got its current name.  The new name probably originated in 1914, when the Japanese compiled a list of Korean river names, and by 1916, this name had completely replaced the name Gaecheon. Cheonggyecheon means “clear water stream,” but the Japanese sometimes called it the Takgyecheon, which means “dirty water stream,” because the river had degenerated into a polluted sewer.  Beginning in 1925, the Japanese covered many of the Cheonggyecheon’s tributaries, converting these rivers into covered sewers as part of a project to create an underground sewage system for Seoul.  And most importantly during the occupation the north part of the stream is inhabited by the colonized, and the south part being inhabited by the colonizer, where the river again behaved as a social division of the city.



Agency, U. C. (n.d.). Korea Maps. Retrieved from Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection:

The National Library of Korea. (n.d.). Retrieved from Map Catalog:

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