Over the centuries Korean artist have produced great sculptures, woodwork, needlework, calligraphy lacquerware, inkstones, and ceramics. Folk art crafts have included totem polls, paper making, penis sculptures, totem poles, lava grandfather statues, women’s toiletry cases, naturally dyed fabrics, embroidered accessories, Korean mulberry paper dolls, masks, straw baskets and shoes. Korean lacquerware has a 3,000 year tradition. Common mother-of-pearl inlay motifs include twin phoenixes, twin dragons, turtles, lotus blossoms, bamboo, deer and pine trees. In 1962, the Korean government adopted a system to preserve "authentic" forms of Korean culture with the designation of skilled performers and artist as "intangible cultural treasures."

Choong Soon Kim wrote in “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “A variety of implements and objects of industrial arts is available. Most popular are manufacturing replicas of the Koryo and Yi dynasty celadons. Lacquerware and items with mother-of-pearl inlay are popular. "Knots" with silk thread for accessories are another product, manufactured using ancient arts. Most of these are sold domestically, but some limited quantities are made for export.One of the nicest pieces at the National Folk Museum of Korea is an exquisite two-tier wooden chest used for storing clothes is lavishly decorated with a motherof-pearl inlay design. [Source: Choong Soon Kim, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East / Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

In the past Korean craftsmen and women developed a wide range of techniques to produce the items they needed at home. They made pieces of wooden furniture such as wardrobes, cabinets and tables marked by a keen eye for balance and symmetry, and wove beautiful baskets, boxes and mats with bamboo, wisteria or lespedeza. They used Korean mulberry paper to make masks, dolls and ceremonial ornaments, and decorated diverse household objects with black and red lacquer harvested from nature. Later they developed the art of using beautifully dyed oxhorn strips, and iridescent mother-of-pearl and abalone shell to decorate furniture. Embroidery, decorative knot making (maedeup) and natural dyeing were also important elements of traditional Korean arts and crafts, which were widely exploited to make attractive garments, household objects and personal fashion ornaments. [Source: Korea.net]

The highest price ever paid for a bottle was US$376,500 for a rare Korean Punch'ong bottle sold by Christie's of New York in November 1993. On record-breaking sales of Korean art at a Christie’s Auction in March 2003, Souren Melikian wrote in the International Herald Tribune: “Next was a 3,500-year-old piece of stoneware. “The Punch'ong stoneware bottle with squat horizontal body and rounded extremities reproduces a model that goes back to Antiquity. It was already produced in gray earthenware by the potters of Han China around the first century B.C. The Korean piece of the 15th or 16th century B.C. owes its character to the artful roughness of the stoneware. Visible firing cracks and imperfections and the freely painted blackish-brown vine branches on the off-white ground give it an appearance of natural spontaneity immensely admired in Korea as in Japan. It shot up to US$567,500.” [Source: Souren Melikian, International Herald Tribune, March 29, 2003]

Kkoktu: Extraordinary Funerary Objects of Ordinary Koreans

In 2007, the Korea Society in New York hosted an exhibition called “Korean Funerary Figures: Companions for the Journey to the Other World” that was unusual it that the objects created for ordinary people rather than for aristocrats or the wealthy. Martha Schwendener wrote in the New York Times: “The other thing about these wooden figures, called kkoktu, is that unlike much somber and forbidding mortuary art, many are fun and friendly — even kind of cute. The Western objects they most resemble might be the kachina dolls carved by the Hopi Indians, although their purpose was different — kachina dolls were given to children to teach about spirits and ancestors — and the kachinas have become popular collectibles, while the kkoktu are rarely collected, even in Korea. [Source: Martha Schwendener, New York Times, August 17, 2007]

“But they were meant to eye-catching. In Korea under the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910), when rules for exhibiting social status were strictly enforced, funeral biers — used to transport coffins to ancestral burial grounds in the mountains — were one area where an elaborate display was acceptable. Carved and brightly painted clowns, acrobats and animals were fitted onto the bier to accompany the dead into the next world, to ease their journey and provide a bit of consolation for the mourners.

Funerary practices differed from one part of Korea to the next. The kkoktu differed in various provinces. The 74 kkoktu here, all from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, also reveal a great deal about the culture that produced them. Dr. Ockrang Kim, who has collected over 20,000 kkoktu and whose foundation lent this selection to the Korea Society, writes that she became interested in the figures because they were a way to connect with traditional Korean culture. (Ms. Kim’s essay is titled “How Kkoktu Changed My Life.”)

Ms. Kim calls it “a tribute to our ancestors’ optimism and humor” that they would want the deceased “to journey into the beyond accompanied by boys, girls, men, women, clowns and acrobats.” She’s got a point. We’re all joining that party eventually, and it might be nice to have a few clowns and acrobats, even a monk on a turtle leading the way.

Kkoktu: Roles of Guides to the Afterlife

Kkoktu are anthropomorphic figures. With specific functions and identified by key characteristics, they weren’t considered human but instead intermediaries between the material and supernatural worlds. Martha Schwendener wrote in the New York Times: “The “guide” rides an animal or mythical creature and leads the soul of the deceased into the other world. Versions here include a government official riding a mythical beast, a Buddhist monk straddling a turtle (one of the four celestial animals and a symbol of longevity) and a nobleman riding a horse. A frontal view of the nobleman’s face has been painted on three sides of a relatively two-dimensional plank of wood to create the illusion of three dimensions. [Source: Martha Schwendener, New York Times, August 17, 2007]

“The guard, who protects the soul from evil spirits, might take the form of a fierce-looking warrior, an army officer or, in later days, a police officer. Among the 12 guard figures there is also a Confucian scholar with a pointy beard who looks like a scowling schoolmaster. Women, unsurprisingly, were given the role of the caregiver. As with the other kkoktu, details of clothing and hairstyle offer important cultural clues. One female attendant wears a vermilion skirt and yellow jacket and a long, single braid, signifying that she is unmarried; a pair of attendants with their hair done in double topknots can be identified as young girls; another figure wears a bridal costume, a green jacket and red skirt.

“Then there is the entertainer, whose purpose is to console the dead and distract mourners from their grief. Dancers, clowns, acrobats doing handstands and musicians playing drums or riding animals are among this mix. In addition to the humanoids there are phoenix, dragon and goblin figures that would be attached to the front, back and top of the funeral bier. Some of the most intricate are the phoenixes, intertwined with flowers or a pine tree. A bell attached to a tassel hanging from the phoenix’s beak would ring if the bearers jostled the bier, reminding them to be more careful. Long horizontal dragons rode along the top of the bier, while dragon or goblin plates on the front and back warded off evil spirits. Looking at these, you’re reminded of the fearsome visages of Greek Gorgons, Mayan masks or European gargoyles.

“A one-tenth-scale funeral bier modeled on a late-18th-century original from Tongyoung in South Kyongsang Province gives a sense of how large the full-size versions would have been. A few small photographs in a gallery handout show a dozen or so people carrying one; larger photographs installed in the galleries might have provided a bit more context. The brightly colored replica also gives an idea of how the kkoktu would have looked when they were new and makes clear how much effort went into constructing a bier. Instead of burning them as tradition dictated, many communities hung onto them for use in future burials.”

Korean Lacquerware

Traditional Korean lacquerware is known for it mother-of pearl inlay, and “knots” with silk thread. The famous Japanese maki-e technique by contrast mainly use images created in gold against either red or black lacquer backgrounds and covered with transparent layers of more lacquer. Korean lacquerware has a 3,000 year tradition. Common mother-of-pearl inlay motifs include twin phoenixes, twin dragons, turtles, lotus blossoms, bamboo, deer and pine trees.

James C. Y. Watt and Barbara Brennan Ford of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “In Korea, it is known that lacquer surfaces were decorated with metal foil inlay more or less contemporaneously with the Tang dynasty in China, during Korea's Unified Silla period. In the subsequent Goryeo period, however, perhaps following the lead of southern China under the Song dynasty, mother-of-pearl inlay became the dominant decorative technique for Korean lacquer, and it has continued as such to the present day. Although lacquers of the Goryeo period exhibit some marked similarities to a certain class of mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquer produced in Song China, gradually Korean lacquer evolved a distinctive national style. The finest lacquerware of the late Goryeo and early Joseon periods makes rich use of mother-of-pearl inlay, often in combination with tortoiseshell, and gives an impression of great sumptuousness." [Source: James C. Y. Watt and Barbara Brennan Ford, East Asian Lacquer (1991), Department of Asian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

High-quality lacquerware pieces take a long time make because many layers of lacquer are applied and each takes a long time to dry. When the process is finished the lacquer is polished to a brilliant shine. Once lacquer becomes hard it is inert and extraordinarily durable. Contrary to what you would think, lacquer dries best in a humid atmosphere. Some craftsmen place their objects for several days after each lacquer application in special closets with the temperature set at 23̊C and the humidity is 80 percent. The most common colors of lacquer are amber, brown, black and red. Additives can used to make violet, blue, yellow and even white lacquer. Green and violet shades can be achieved with reeki pigments developed in Japan in the early 20th century.

Korean Lacquer craftsmen squeeze lacquer from a cloth. They try not to waste the material as only about 150 grams can be obtained from a 15-year-old lacquer tree. One Korean craftsman told the Yomiuri Shimbun: "Doing lacquerwork in the exact same way our ancestors did doesn't mean only preserving traditions," Jun said. "I believe artists should reflect not only the past but also the present in their work. So I want to keep exploring various possibilities using lacquer."

Korean Pottery and Ceramics

Korea is famous for its wonderful celadon (green porcelain made with a slip and glaze, sometimes with incised and inlaid decorations), blue-and-white porcelain and punch’ong stoneware (made with a white slip and glaze like celadon but more simply decorated); glass from the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392); and porcelain from the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910). Particularly beautiful are the delicate blue-green celadons, some of which are more than a thousand years old, and white porcelain from the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910). Korean artist were very skilled at etching patterns of clouds and cranes into the porcelain.

Korean pottery, which nowadays attracts the highest praise from international collectors, is typically divided into three groups: Cheongja (blue-green celadon), Buncheong (slip-coated stoneware), and Baekja (white porcelain). Celadon refers to Korean stoneware which underwent major development in the hands of Koryo potters some 700 to 1,000 years ago. Celadon pottery is marked by an attractive jade blue surface and the unique Korean inlay technique used to decorate it. Gangjin of Jeollanam-do and Buan of Jeollabuk-do were its two main producers during the Koryo Period (918-1392). [Source: Korea.net]

White porcelain ware represents the ceramic art of the Chosun Period (1392-1910). While some of these porcelain wares display a milky white surface, many are decorated with a great variety of designs painted in oxidized iron, copper, or the priceless cobalt blue pigment imported from Persia via China. The Royal Court of Chosun ran its own kilns in Gwangju, Gyeonggi-do, producing products of the very highest quality. The advanced techniques used in the production of white porcelain wares were introduced to Japan by Chosun potters kidnapped during the Imjin Waeran (Japanese Invasion of Korea, 1592-1598).

The third main group of Korean pottery, Buncheong, was made by Koryo potters after the fall of their Kingdom in 1392. This type of pottery is characterized by its slip-coated surface and delightfully simple decorative designs created using several different techniques.

Memorable pieces seen at the National Museum of Korea include Celadon Melon-shaped Bottle (Koryo, 12th century); Celadon Jar with Peony Design (Koryo, 12th century); White Porcelain Bottle with String Design in Underglaze Iron (Chosun, 16th century); Buncheong Bottle with Lotus and Vine Design (Chosun, 15th century). The remains of ancient kilns can be seen in Gangjin, Jeollanam-do, which was one of the main producers of celadon wares during the Koryo period.

The Japanese were taken with the Korean ceramics and glasswork introduced to the country after the invasion of Korea in the 1590s. Korean art greatly influenced Japanese tea ceremony art. Korean tea bowls were highly valued by the Japanese for simplicity and subtlety, concept which dovetailed nicely with Zen philosophy.


Korea is famous for its wonderful celadon, a bluish, grayish green porcelain made with a slip and glaze, sometimes with incised and inlaid decorations. It is associated with both China and Korea. Soyoung Lee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The term celadon is thought to derive from the name of the hero in a seventeenth-century French pastoral comedy. The color of the character Céladon’s robe evoked, in the minds of Europeans, the distinctive green-glazed ceramics from China, where celadon originated. Some scholars object to such an arbitrary and romanticized Western nomenclature. Yet the ambiguity of the term celadon effectively captures the myriad hues of greens and blues of this ceramic type. [Source: Soyoung Lee, Department of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2003]

Porcelain evolved step-by-step from 5,000-year-old painted pottery through a process of refining materials and manufacturing. A greenish glaze applied to stoneware was developed in the early Han (206 B.C. to A.D. 220) dynasty. A glaze that resembled the sort used on porcelain was made in the early Sui dynasty. Celadons evolved during the Six Dynasties period (A.D. 220-589).

Some of the most beautiful porcelain ever produced was made during the Song dynasty (960-1279), when world-famous monochrome porcelains, including celedon, were produced. Ju ware, a kind of celadon from the Northern Song dynasty that ranges in color from blue to green, is the rarest of all forms of porcelain. Only 65 pieces of it exist and 23 of them are possessed by the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

Korean Celadon

Soyoung Lee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: Celadon represents a major technological and conceptual shift in the history of Korean ceramics. The high-fired gray stoneware of the preceding Unified Silla dynasty (668–935) and Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C.–668 A.D.) had set the stage for the manufacture of celadon, but the technology of the celadon glaze and of the kiln structure, adapted from China, was an important advance. Just as significant is the conceptual change. [Source: Soyoung Lee, Department of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2003]

With the advent of celadon, particularly the highly refined pieces used by the royal court, there is a palpable aesthetic dynamic driving what ceramics should look like. Color becomes an important element in this transformation, as do interpretive designs in form and decoration. Memorable pieces possessed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art include 1) a gourd-shaped ewer with decoration of waterfowl and reeds, 2) a melon-shaped ewer with decoration of bamboo; 3) an oil bottle with decoration of peony leaves; 4) a bottle with decoration of chrysanthemums and lotus petals; and 5) maebyeong with decoration of cranes and clouds

The celadon colour is classically produced by firing a glaze containing a little iron oxide at a high temperature in a reducing kiln. The materials must be refined, as other chemicals can alter the color completely. Too little iron oxide causes a blue colour (sometimes a desired effect), and too much gives olive and finally black; the right amount is between 0.75 percent and 2.5 percent. The presence of other chemicals may have effects; titanium dioxide gives a yellowish tinge. Pieces made with a celadon glaze are themselves often referred to as "celadons". [Source: Wikipedia

Koryo Celadon

Soyoung Lee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “During the nearly five centuries of the Koryo dynasty (918–1392), celadon constituted the main type of ceramics produced on the Korean peninsula. This exquisite ware typically appears gray-green in hue. The color of Koryo celadon owes much to the raw materials—specifically, the presence of iron in the clay and of iron oxide, manganese oxide, and quartz particles in the glaze—as well as to the firing conditions inside the kiln. Temperatures were commonly around, or below, 1150ºC, and the level of oxygen within the kiln was dramatically reduced at some stage of the firing; this is known as a reducing, rather than an oxidizing, atmosphere. Koryo celadon ranges from a plain, undecorated type to objects with incised, carved, mold-impressed, or inlaid designs, and to vessels embellished with colorful compounds like iron oxide (black or brown) and copper oxide (red), and also with gold. [Source: Soyoung Lee, Department of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2003]

“Initially, Koryo potters learned much of the technical expertise from the celadon traditions of Song-dynasty (960–1279) China, particularly of its southern coast. A Song envoy, Xu Jing (1091–1153), who visited the Koryo capital, Gaeseong, in 1123, noted the resemblance of Koryo ceramics to the celadons of China’s Yue and Ru kilns. We see in early Koryo examples a conscious emulation of certain stylistic features of Chinese wares—such as the shapes of bottles and bowls , and standard decorative motifs including lotuses, peonies, flying parrots, and scenes of waterfowl by the pond.

By the mid-twelfth century, Koryo potters and patrons turned to articulating native tastes. This coincided with the consolidation of major celadon industries near the southwestern coast of the peninsula, in Jeolla Province—the Buan and Gangjin regions especially. The latter remains, today, the center of modern celadon production and of revivals of Koryo traditions. The culmination of Koryo celadon can be seen in inlaid (sanggam) celadon, a rarity in China. The delicate technique of sanggam involves etching the desired motifs on the dry clay body and filling in the carved space with black and/or white slip, after which the translucent glaze is applied and the vessel fired. The best of Koryo inlaid celadon is breathtaking in its splendid presentation of clean form, vibrant design, and subtle yet alluring color combination of white, black, and green.

Chosun Pottery

Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910) 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.

White porcelain ware represents the ceramic art of the Chosun Period. While some of these porcelain wares display a milky white surface, many are decorated with a great variety of designs painted in oxidized iron, copper, or the priceless cobalt blue pigment imported from Persia via China. [Source: Korea.net]

The Royal Court of Chosun ran its own kilns in Gwangju, Gyeonggi-do, producing products of the very highest quality. The advanced techniques used in the production of white porcelain wares were introduced to Japan by Chosun potters kidnapped during the Imjin Waeran (Japanese Invasion of Korea, 1592-1598). Treasures from this era include White Porcelain Bottle with String Design in Underglaze Iron (Chosun, 16th century) and Buncheong Bottle with Lotus and Vine Design (Chosun, 15th century)

Buncheong Stoneware

Buncheong is a kind of slip-coated stoneware. Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times: “The most distinctively Korean art forms were developed in ceramics, specifically in the stoneware now called buncheong. At the start of the Chosun era buncheong was the luxury ware favored by an elite clientele. Its novel refinements are evident in the show in a set of funerary dishes, replete with an inscribed memorial tablet, covered with feathery white crosshatch patterns stamped on a gray-brown background. On loan from the Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul, South Korea, the set is, for obvious reasons, registered as a national treasure. [Source: Holland Cotter, New York Times, March 19, 2009]

“After a few decades court-controlled kilns began to turn out a rival product, an exquisite white porcelain that quickly became, in aristocratic circles, the thing to have. Buncheong, its prestige diminished, passed into the general market.

“Maybe because of its release from the restraints of class decorum, this stoneware became the fantastically zany art that it is. Based on squat everyday items like water flasks and baskets, buncheong forms tend to look squashed and bashed, their glazes slathered and spattered on, their surfaces dug-into and scarred with abstract scribbles like those in a Cy Twombly painting.

“Buncheong was a hit, but by the end of the 16th century it had more or less ceased production. A lot of art started to disappear. In 1592 a Japanese army attacked Korea and stayed to loot and pillage; Buncheong potters were shipped back to Japan to make tea-ceremony wares. Some 30 years later the Manchus invaded Korea for the first time on their way to conquering the Ming dynasty in China and setting up one of their own, the Qing.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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