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    Source: The Library of Congress Country Studies


    Kyongbok Palace, Seoul
    Courtesy Oren Hadar

    Koreans, like the other East Asian peoples, have a highly developed aesthetic sense and over the centuries have created a great number of paintings, sculptures, and handicrafts of extraordinary beauty. Among the very earliest are the paintings found on the walls of tombs of the Koguryo Kingdom (located in what is now North Korea) and around the China-North Korea border area. These paintings are colorful representations of birds, animals, and human figures that possess remarkable vitality and animation. Similar, though less spectacular, tombs are found around the old capitals of the kingdoms of Paekche and Silla in present-day South Korea. A number of gold objects, including a gold crown of great delicacy and sophistication dating from the Three Kingdoms period, have been found in South Korea.

    Buddhism was the dominant artistic influence during the later Three Kingdoms period and the Silla and Koryo dynasties. Themes and motifs that had originated in India passed to Korea through Central Asia and China. A number of bronze images of Buddha and the Bodhisattvas were made during the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries. The images are not mere copies of Indian or north Chinese models, but possess a distinctly "Korean" spirit that one critic has described as "as indifference to sophistication and artificiality and a predisposition toward nature." The striking stone Buddha found in the Sokkuram Grotto, a cave temple located near Kyongju in North Kyongsang Province, was carved during the Silla Dynasty and is considered to be the finest of Korean stone carvings. During the centuries of Buddhism's ascendancy, a large number of stone pagodas and temples were built, one of the most famous being the Pulguksa Temple near Kyongju.

    The Koryo Dynasty is best remembered for its celadons, or bluish-green porcelains, considered by many specialists to be the best in the world, surpassing even the Chinese porcelains upon which they were originally modeled. Many have intricate designs of birds, flowers, and other figures rendered in light and dark-colored clay on the blue-green background; some are delicately formed into the shapes of flowers, animals, and objects. Choson Dynasty pottery tended to be simpler and more rustic and had a great influence on the development of Japanese artistic appreciation from the late sixteenth century on. After the attempted Japanese invasions of Korea in the 1590s, Korean potters were taken back to Japan.

    During the Choson Dynasty, Buddhism was no longer a source of artistic inspiration. The art, music, and literature of the yangban were deeply influenced by Chinese models, yet exhibited a distinctively Korean style. Korean scholar-officials cultivated their skills in the arts of Confucian culture--Chinese poetry, calligraphy, and landscape painting. Poetry was considered to be the most important of these arts; men who lacked poetic ability could not pass the civil service examinations. Scholars were expected to refine their skill in using the brush both in calligraphy, the ornamental writing of Chinese characters that was considered an art in itself, and in landscape painting, which borrowed Chinese themes and styles. However, scholarly calligraphers and landscape painters were considered amateurs. Professional artists were members of the chungin (see Glossary) class and were of low status, not only because their painting tended to diverge from the style favored by the upper class but because it was too realistic. Particularly among the yangban, Chinese dominance of cultural expression was assured by the fact that Korean intellectual discourse was largely dependent on Chinese loanwords. Scholars preferred to write in Chinese rather than in native Korean script.

    One uniquely Korean style of painting that developed during this period was found in the usually anonymous folk-paintings (minhwa), which depicted the daily life of the common people and used genuine Korean rather than idealized or Chinese settings. Other folk paintings had shamanistic themes and frequently depicted hermits and mountain deities.

    A distinctive position in traditional Korean literature is occupied by a type of poem known as the sijo--a poetic form that began to develop in the twelfth century. It is composed of three couplets and characterized by great simplicity and expressiveness:

    My body is mortal, commonly mortal. My bones end in dust, soul or no soul. My lord owns my heart, though, and that cannot change.
    This poem is by Chong Mong-ju (1337-92), a Koryo Dynasty loyalist who was assassinated at the foundation of the Yi Dynasty. The poet refers to his political choice not to side with the new government.

    Many of these poems reveal a sensitivity to the beauties of nature, delight in life's pleasures, and a tendency toward philosophical contemplation that together produce a sense of serenity and, sometimes, loneliness. Frequently the poems reveal a preoccupation with purity, symbolized by whiteness:

    Do not enter, snowy heron, in the valley where the crows are quarreling. Such angry crows are envious of your whiteness, And I fear that they will soil the body you have washed in the pure stream.

    The development of a Korean alphabet (today known as han'gul), in the fifteenth century gave rise to a vernacular, or popular, literature. Although the native alphabet was looked down upon by the yangban elite, historical works, poetry, travelogues, biographies, and fiction written in a mixed script of Chinese characters and han'gul were widely circulated. Some vernacular literature had what could be interpreted as social protest themes. Probably the earliest of these was The Tale of Hong Kil-tong by Ho Kyun. The protagonist, Hong Kil-tong, was the son of a nobleman and his concubine; his ambition to become a great official was frustrated because of his mother's lowly background. He became a Robin Hood figure, stole from the rich to give to the poor, and eventually left Korea in order to establish a small kingdom in the south. Other vernacular writers included Kim Man-jung, who wrote The Nine Cloud Dream, which dealt with Buddhist themes of karma and destiny, and The Story of Lady Sa. Pak Chi-won's Tale of a Yangban gave a realistic account of social life in eighteenth-century Korea. In 1980 Korean scholars discovered a nineteenth-century vernacular novel that told of the complicated relationships among members of four yangban and commoner clans over five generations in a very detailed and realistic manner. At 235 volumes, this work is one of the longest novels ever written.

    P'ansori combine music and literary expression in ballad-form stories, which are both recited and sung by a performer accompanied by a drummer who sets the rhythms--a kind of "one-man opera" in the words of one observer. P'ansori usually are inspired by myths or folk tales and have Confucian, Buddhist, or folkloric themes. In the 1970s and 1980s, dissident students often drew on the techniques of traditional folk drama to satirize contemporary politics.

    Korean folk tales are closely tied to religious traditions and usually have shamanistic, Buddhist, or Confucian themes. While Confucian tales tend to be moralistic and didactic, Buddhist and shamanistic tales are highly imaginative and colorful, depicting the relationships among spirits, ghosts, gods, and men in many different and often humorous ways.

    Data as of June 1990

    NOTE: The information regarding Korea, South on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Korea, South CHARACTERISTICS OF SOCIETY UNDER THE DYNASTIES information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Korea, South CHARACTERISTICS OF SOCIETY UNDER THE DYNASTIES should be addressed to the Library of Congress.

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