Joseon Painting

The last dynasty of Korea, the Joseon Dynasty, was characterized by the prominence arts were given. During this period, many key painters found ways to incorporate some influences from China while simultaneously creating an art style that was uniquely Korean. By borrowing elements from Chinese religions such as Taoism and Confucianism, Korean artists during the Joseon Dynasty created beautiful artwork that helped bolster a Korean identity.

Confucian art in the Joseon period depicts the important pillars of Confucianism while connecting it to native traditions. While Confucian art tends to be simple, in Ho Mok’s Munjado, he uses vibrant colors while still portraying important Confucian ideals. Munjado is a type of painting that depict the characters of the eight highest Confucian virtues: filial piety, brotherly love, loyalty, trust, propriety, righteousness, modesty, and sensitivity. In Ho Mok’s Mundjado, these characters are depicted with Chinese attributes. For example in the sixth character, righteousness incorporates symbols from a famous Chinese novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. While instead of incorporating Korean traditions he uses Chinese, this Mundjado still sets a precedent for the vibrant art style we see in later Joseon paintings.

Jeong Seon was one of the main artists who revolutionized Korean art. Instead of copying Chinese traditions, which was standard at the time, he focused on the nature Korea had to offer. He painted the beautiful landscapes of Korea, paving the way for many Korean artists after him. The Album of Mt. Geumgang solidified his importance in the sphere of Korean art. One of his more famous paintings from this album, while not as colorful as Ho Mok’s Munjado, vividly depicts this mountain. General View of Inner Mt. Geumgang shows the beauty of this mountain. While uniquely Korean, this painting captures some of the key features of Taoism, the relationship between the human and natural worlds. Since this mountain is located in North Korea, it is near impossible to see it in person now. Yet because of Jeong Seon’s work, we have a realistic image of Mt. Geumgang.

Korean painting moved towards painting humans in normal life with the works of Kim Hong-do. Kim Hong-do was appointed at the young age of 21 to serve as a member of the Dohwaseo, the painters of the Joseon court. Here he painted the Royal Heir and assisted with painting King Yeongjo. Yet later in life he was also able to paint more natural scenes, such as in his painting Dancing Boy Mudong. Here we see a depiction of a dancing boy along with men playing instruments. While in Jeong Seon’s works we see serene natural beauty, here we see the beauty of the life of ordinary Koreans.

While heavily influenced by China, Korean art in the Joseon period also moved away from Chinese traditions to create their own artistic identity. Although some Chinese aspects can be seen in many of these works, this was because Chinese traditions were heavily ingrained in Korean society at this time. The artists during the Joseon period paved the way for Korean artists in the future to continue an art style that better captured the Korean national identity.

Hyang-ak Court Music

Hyang-ak (鄕樂, “local music”) refers to classical Korean Court music distinguished from the influence of Tang Dynasty China (Dang-ak music). References to hyang-ak first came around the mid-9th century in poems by Chi Chiwon, and is often characterized as the music of Korean origin that more focuses on folk tradition and incorporates singing, dance, and instrument ensembles. It is important to distinguish, however, that the local music that is hyang-ak stems from the Silla kingdom and localized traditions, and did not formally become a staple of traditional Korean court music and the aristocracy until the Goryeo period around the beginning of the 12th century. Korean court music shares heritage with that of Japan, Vietnam, and China; the origin of the phrase hyang-ak comes from the word Aak, which is depicted using the same characters as Chinese yayue, Japanese gagaku, and Vietnamese nha nhac.[1]


Although the influx of Confucian-inspired ritualistic music became increasingly pervasive when Silla Korea formed an alliance with Tang China in the 9th century, as noted by Inhwa So, during the second half of the Joseon Dynasty, hyang-ak became the more popular style of state and royal music. Despite the popularization of more stylistically traditional Korean instrumentation and musicality, lyrics and singing tended to be markedly influenced by that of Chinese Tzu music. Western influence was also seen from the 16th century onward, as Korean court music began to be more and more divided into “garaks”—very similar to a “movement” in a Western composition.

Hyang-ak typicalhyangak2ly consists of long, horizontal string instruments (such as the Kayageum seen to the left), woodwinds (such as Joonggeum seen below and to the right), and hand drums.  Court music was often steeped in the Confucian social culture present; it was understood that music was seen as an accompaniment for praising the individual or state success. Music was also employed to preserve the auspicious nature of the seasons—ancestral shrine music would be played during the first month of each season. In traditional fashion, music would be preceded by conversing with the spirits, offering tribute and food, and then making numerous consecutive offerings of wine (and sometimes other forms of alcohol). After such strictures, music would be performed. Unique to Korean court music is the notion of nine repeated iterations of a given melody during a performance—the number nine reflects the spirits of the humanity .hyangak3

Since the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910, most hyang-ak and dang-ak music has been abolished and lost, but state institutions such as the Royal Music Department (1951) were established to help preserve the art. Today, hyang-ak is still performed, but mostly for cultural heritage concerts.

Further Reading:

Songs of the Dragons 

Copy of Yongbieocheonga displayed at the Sejong Story exhibition hall in Seoul. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

On October 9, 1446CE, one of Korea’s historical heroes, the Great King Sejong, published a text that would release the peninsula from its centuries-old dependence on the Chinese writing system. The Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the People introduces a new 28 letter, Korean script that better reflected the actual sounds of spoken Korean and extended the bounds of literacy to include the common people who had never had the luxury of mastering the difficult Chinese writing system. Though it was known by many names over the centuries, Koreans still use and refer to Sejong’s alphabet as hangul. This was one of King Sejong’s most important contributions to the consolidation of a unique Korean language and cultural identity.

This consciousness of being distinct, of being Korean comes through in the opening lines of his book: 

“Because the speech of the country is different from that of China, it (the spoken language) doesn’t match the (Chinese) letters. Therefore, even if the ignorant want to communicate, many of them cannot achieve their intent. Because I am saddened by this, I have newly made 28 letters. It is my intention that everybody learn the letters easily so that they can conveniently use them everyday.


In conjunction with this linguistic project, King Sejong was also seeking to legitimize his own reign in the line of the Joseon (1392-1910CE) through artistic declarations. Sejong ordered the compilation of Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, the oldest extant work using his newly introduced phonetic script. Its importance as a keystone of Korean cultural identity can not be understated, as scholar James Hoyt explains in his introduction to the English translation: 

“Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven was compiled to establish the legitimacy of Sejong’s lineage, but it is now recognized as a monument to the cultural independence of Korea from China, a most important source for the study of the Korean language, and the beginning of Korean national consciousness and of vernacular literature.” (30) 

The following excerpts from the compact, 125 canto work are part comparative Sino-Korean history, part royal exhortation to the Great King Sejong. The cantos are riddled with allusions to classical Chinese and Korean history that strike even the most learned as elaborate. These needn’t bog down our focus, however, on the divine mandate of rulership (the so-called “Mandate of Heaven” to rule) that Sejong was after for him and his Korean predecessors in searching to emphasize the notion of an independent Korea. 

Further reading:

* Young-Key Kim-Renaud.  King Sejong the Great: the Light of Fifteenth Century Korea.  Honolulu: International Circle of Korean Linguistics, 1992.



Sijo, or shijo, is the most popular and most Korean of all poetic forms (including all modern forms circulating abroad). It was originally called tanga (like the Japanese tanka). The actual designation sijo was not adopted until sometime during the 1920s. The form originated during the latter part of the Goryeo period (936-1392CE) when scholar-officials sought a new mode of expression beyond classical Chinese forms. To make them more Korean, sijo were written in a local script, thehanmun. They were more lyrical, musical and accessible than Chinese poetry. The years of study necessary to understand and write Chinese verse were avoided in these verses by the accessibility of Korean spellings, syntax, diction and vocabulary.

Sijo, though decorated with the occasional Chinese allusion, are unique in their directness of expression of intense feelings, regrets, sorrows and love. Folk influences are to be found in their rhythms and diction. There is no rhyme, but a strong sense of musicality is preserved in syllabic cadences, alliteration, assonance and a necessary caesura (pause) in every line.  The poems are composed of three lines containing a total of 45 syllables and broken down into one of two major structures that vary according to the location of caesuras:

(I) L1: 3 4 3 4              (II)       L1: 6-9 6-9 
     L2: 3 4 3 4                          L2: 5-8 6-9 
     L3: 3 6 4 3                          L3: 3 5-8 4-5 3-4

There is considerable variation in the structure of the final line.  Usually the first line of the poem declares a theme, the second reinforces it and the last line closes it with a twist. The following is an example of this form from one of the most famous sijo by Chong Mong-ju (1337-1392CE):

Introduction: “Though this frame should die and die, though I die a hundred times,” 
Reinforcement: “My bleached bones all turn to dust, my very soul exist or not—”
Twist: “What can change the undivided heart that glows with faith toward my lord?”

Further reading:


* O’Rourke, Kevin, ed.  The Book of Korean Shijo.  Cambridge: Harvard East Asian Monographs, 2002




Namdaemun, The Great South Gate

Layout of the Fortress Wall of Seoul and Gates

Layout of the Fortress Wall of Seoul and Gates

In 1392, King Taejo of the Joseon Dynasty made Seoul the center of government. National security was prioritized, resulting in the construction of a fortress wall spanning 11.3 miles to encompass the city. The wall has eight gates of entry with four great gates being on the points of the compass and four gates in between. The wall is about 20 ft at the base and ranges between 3m and 7m in height. The wall was built in 98 sections of 600 paces each and each section is given a label according to the 90 characters of the Chinese primer.

After its construction in 1398, the wall underwent extensive repairs in 1422. Shortly before the Japanese colonial occupation in 1907, portions of the wall were torn down by Prince Yoshihito who refused to honor the tradition of passing through the gate itself reserved for visiting dignitaries.

Although the wall in impressive, once described by Percival Lowell in his 1886 book, Choson: Land of the Morning Calm as “some great python, it lies coiled about the city, stretched in lazy slumber along the very highest points—over peaks where it can, along passes it must,” it is actually the gates that are more admired because of their architecture, history and origins.

Of the eight gates, the south gate Namdaemun or “The Gate of Exalted Ceremonies” was declared the first National Treasure of South Korea and is probably the most celebrated. Construction on the gate began in 1365 and it was completed in 1398. In ancient times, every foreign visitor had to pass through the gate and adjacent to the gate is the Namdaemun market which continues to operate today. Today, the gate stands in the middle of a busy intersection of streets with no connecting walls.

The architecture of the gate began with much simpler designs through the influence by the Neo-Confucianism beliefs of early Joseon leaders who favored practicality, frugality, and harmony with natures. However, these beliefs began to fall out of favor by mid 16th century so more ornamentation is observed on gates built at a later time. Namdaemun is the largest gate built in the pagoda style. The ornate, dark grey roof tiles and sweeping upward curve of the roof distinguishes the style from Chinese architecture.

In 2008, the pagoda sitting atop the gate was destroyed by a fire set by an arsonist in 2008. Before the 2008 fire, Namdaemun was the oldest wooden structure in Seoul. The gate was reopened in May 2013.