During the Koryo dynasty, Korean merchants traded gold silver, hemp and coveted ginseng for ivory, spices, perfumes, glassware and peacocks brought in by Arab and Chinese traders. Members of the royal court used silver chopsticks and spoons because silver becomes discolored by poison. Court women carried small-blade daggers to use for suicide or to avoid being raped during invasions.

The Koryo government used a 28-day lunar month calendar that granted days off on the 1st, 8th, 15th and 23rd days. There was daylight savings time in the summer and servants worked from 9-to-5 hours. Women were given a fair amount of freedom in the Koryo period. They were able to divorce and remarry, and husbands that "discarded" their wives for no good reason were punished. Daughters as well as sons were entitled to inherit property.

Korean homes have traditionally been heated with ondol, a system a stone flues that distributes heat underneath the floor. Used before the Three Kingdom Period (18 B.C.-A.D. 668) by the Puyo tribes living in Manchuria, ondol came into wide use in Korea during the Koryo Period (918-1392). In the old days, ondols consisted of stone slabs that were heated by logs, straw or coal briquettes called yantan. Families enjoyed sitting on the floor to enjoy the warmth and sometimes roasted sweet potatoes and chestnuts on a stove set on top of the ondol for extra warmth.

Naengmyeon, cold buckwheat noodles, is a signature dish of North Korea. Although its origin remains unclear, based on the fact that buckwheat was introduced by the Mongol Empire during the Koryo Dynasty, it is theorized that Koreans first began eating it around that time. Today its known as a summer dish, but that wasn’t always the case. It used to be enjoyed over a warm ondol floor during the freezing winter temperatures. The broth was made with the brine of dongchimi (radish water kimchi) scooped out of a large jar half-buried in the ground during the winter.

Mandu — Chinese-style dumplings made by placing a filling of ground meat and vegetables onto a round, thinly rolled wrapper and sealing the edges — dates to the Koryo Dynasty. They were initially prepared for ancestral rites or banquets and enjoyed as a special dish for cold winter days. When discussing the origin of Korean dumplings, a famous folk song called “Ssanghwajeom” (dumpling shop) from the Koryo Dynasty is frequently mentioned. The song describes how a group of Uighurs arrived and opened up dumpling shops, and also how the people of the day greatly enjoyed the dish. Some people refer to the song and joke that a Mongol who opened a dumpling shop in 1279 may have been the first foreign investor to live in Korea.

Marriage and Family in the Koryo Dynasty

According to the International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family: “Families were very different among the three historical periods of the Silla, Koryo (918–1392), and Chosun (1392–1910) Dynasties because of their religious orientation. Buddhism was introduced in Korea during the Early Kingdoms (A.D. 372) and was adopted as the state religion for a millennium. With its emphasis on rejecting worldly values and concerns, including the family, Buddhism delivered a message contrary to that of Confucianism. [Source: International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]

“But Buddhism's influence was limited to the sphere of individual self-enlightenment and discipline, and it appealed principally to the ruling class because the majority of people, who lived at a subsistence level, had few material possessions to renounce. As a result, relatively few people were affected by the self-abnegation and antifamilial monasticism that Buddhism taught (Han 1981; Park and Cho 1995a). The religion's influence declined further during the late Koryo Dynasty (918–1392) when Buddhist groups in Korea became corrupt. They constructed extravagant temples, and followers of the religion observed only superficial rituals (Lee 1973; Hong 1980).

During the Silla and Koryo period, among commoners, couples entered freely into marriage with their chosen partners (Choi 1971). This changed, however, during the Chosun dynasty; strict rules were imposed on the selection of partners, and all marriages were arranged. During the Koryo and early Chosun Dynasties, it was customary for the married couple to live in the wife's parents' household. This arrangement suggests that the status of women was then higher than it was later during most of the Chosun Dynasty. Neo- Confucian orthodoxy dictated that the woman, separated from her parents, had a primary duty of providing a male heir for her husband's family. In contrast, in the Koryo and Chosun periods, filial piety was best demonstrated in formal and ritual services, such as funeral services and worship in the Koryo and nursing in the Chosun period (see Table 2). In particular, nothing was as important as worshiping of the spirits of one's ancestors as well as one's parents in the period of Chosun (Chung and Yoo 2000).

Structure of Society in the Koryo Period

In the Koryo and Chosun dynasties, until it was outlawed in 1894, society was dived between the yangban (nobility) class, comprised mainly of scholar-officials. They were largely exempt from doing the manual labor performed by commoners. Confucianism and traditions divided society further along gender lines, with men doing the heavy outside work and women doing domestic chores.

Kinship is defined by paternalism. It is not clear whether this has its roots in Confucianism or traditional Korean culture. There are over 1,000 clans, each which includes scores of lineages. The social values of contemporary South Korea reflect the synthesis and development of diverse influences, both indigenous and foreign. Probably the most important of these is the neoConfucian doctrine of the Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi (1130-1200), first introduced into Korea during the closing years of the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392). The rulers of the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910) adopted it as their state ideology. The most important Korean neo-Confucian philosopher, Yi Hwang, also known as Yi T'oe-gye (1501-70), had a great influence on later generations of Confucianists not only in Korea, but also in Japan.

Another feature that endured for centuries was the existence of a stratified social system characterized by a clear distinction between the rulers and the ruled. Under the Silla Dynasty, society was rigidly organized into a hereditary caste system. The Koryo Dynasty instituted a system of social classes according to which the rest of the population was subordinate to an elite composed of scholar-officials. By passing the higher civil service examination and becoming a government official a commoner could become a member of the elite, but since examinations presupposed both the time and wealth for education, upward mobility was not the rule. This system continued during the Chosun Dynasty. The strength of the aristocratic tradition may have been one factor contributing to the relative weakness of the Korean monarchy, in which the king usually presided over a council of senior officials as primus inter pares, rather than governing as absolute ruler. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

Religion in the Koryo Dynasty

Buddhism coexisted with Confucianism throughout the Koryo period; it deeply affected daily life and perhaps bequeathed to modern Korea its eclecticism of religious beliefs. Koryo Buddhist priests systematized religious practice by rendering the Chinese version of the Buddhist canon into mammoth woodblock print editions, known as the Tripitaka. The first edition was completed in 1087, but was lost; another, completed in 1251 and still extant, is located at the Haeinsa temple near Taegu, South Korea. Its accuracy, combined with its exquisite calligraphic carvings, makes it the finest of some twenty Tripitaka in East Asia. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

Religion's influence declined during the late Koryo Dynasty when Buddhist groups in Korea became corrupt. They constructed extravagant temples, and followers of the religion observed only superficial rituals (Lee 1973; Hong 1980). When the Chosun Dynasty succeeded the Koryo in 1392, it adopted Confucianism as the familial and state philosophy, suppressing Buddhism.

According to the Encyclopedia of Buddhism: “Supported by the court and the nobles, the Koryo sa gha enjoyed considerable economic prosperity. Large monasteries became major landowners after the donation of land and serfs by the kings and influential families, and many monasteries developed into financial powers by pursuing various commercial enterprises. The sa gha's economic power became so immense that it generated much complaint and criticism toward the end of the dynasty. Lesser bureaucrats were especially strong critics, influenced by neo-Confucianism, a new ideology introduced from Song China in the late thirteenth century. [Source: Encyclopedia of Buddhism, The Gale Group Inc., 2004]

“With the collapse of the Koryo regime, Buddhism came under further attack. The new Chosun dynasty (1392–1910), which was built upon neo-Confucian ideology, severed its official relationship with Buddhism. Land holdings were confiscated and hundreds of monasteries were disbanded. As anti-Buddhist measures grew more severe, people were prohibited from ordaining, monks were not allowed to enter the capital city, the monks' examination system was abolished, and the various Buddhist denominations were forced to consolidate. Only two denominations, Sonjong and Kyojong, were left, all others being absorbed into them. In short, Buddhism was forced out of mainstream society, and monks were downgraded to the lowest social stratum.

Buddhism in the Koryo Dynasty

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “ By the Koryo period (918-1392), when Korea had a new united government headquartered in Kaesong in west-central Korea, Buddhism was the state religion and Buddhist monks and leaders were important figures at court. In fact, the founder of the Koryo kingdom, Wang Gon (also known as King T'aejo), gave credit for his achievement by proclaiming that "Founding our dynasty is entirely owing to the protective powers of the many Buddhas." Eventually there were more than seventy Buddhist temples in the capital city alone. By this time a debate was in progress about the "right" way to be a Buddhist. Scholars of the "doctrinal sect" believed that people should seek enlightenment outside themselves by studying external things like the Buddhist scriptures. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“During the Koryo period, the kings kept Buddhist advisors close by their thrones and the country celebrated religious piety by building large temples. Noble people donated fortunes to monasteries and the Buddhist church grew rich. Common people, burdened by heavy taxes, often "commended" themselves to temples as "temple slaves" because they could live better under the generous protection of the monks than they could as free taxpayers. Temples acquired so much property, in fact, that certain groups of monks had to be trained in military arts to protect the property, an idea that seems a far cry from the self-denial so prevalent in earlier Buddhism.”

“Scholars of the "meditative sect" thought that enlightenment, or "Buddha-nature," was part of every person from birth and was waiting for discovery in a flash of enlightenment from within the mind, something like Buddha's own experience. Though there were more than ten Buddhist denominations in the Koryo period, these two — the doctrinal and the meditative — were the main ones.

According to the Encyclopedia of Buddhism, “The long political turmoil of the late Silla period ended with the redivision of the Korean peninsula into three kingdoms and the rise of Wang Kon (ruled 918–943), a local warlord who founded a new dynasty, the Koryo (918–1392). Although the political climate had changed, the intimate relationship between Buddhism and the state did not. Buddhism became even more firmly established as the state religion. Wang Kon was a pious Buddhist and attributed his political success to the protective power of the buddhas. He was also a firm believer in geomancy, and he constructed numerous Buddhist monasteries according to geomantic principles with a view to curbing evil forces emanating from unfavorable places. Following his example, the succeeding Koryo monarchs became ardent supporters of Buddhism. During the reign of King Kwangjong (949–975), the state established a monks' examination system that was modeled on the civil service examination. Titles were conferred upon the monks who passed the examination, according to their ranks. The highest honor belonged to the royal preceptor (wangsa) and the posthumous national preceptor (kuksa). In short, the Buddhist san˙gha became part and parcel of the state bureaucracy, and the idea of hoguk pulgyo (state-protection Buddhism) became firmly entrenched during the Koryo dynasty. [Source: Encyclopedia of Buddhism, The Gale Group Inc., 2004]

“In the latter half of the eleventh century, a new school arose and changed the denominational dynamics of the Koryo sa gha. Ŭich'On (1055–1101), the fourth son of King Munjong, became a Hwaom monk at the age of eleven. At thirty-one he traveled to Song China, where he met many illustrious Chinese masters, who inspired him to establish a new order, the Ch'ont'aejong (TIANTAIschool) in Koryo, a decision rooted in his determination to resolve the severe conflict between Son and Kyo (doctrinal Buddhism) in the Koryo sa gha. Ŭich'on was critical of Son's iconoclastic rhetoric, which he believed ignored scriptural learning. He wanted his new school to balance doctrinal study (kyo) and meditation (kwan). Ŭich'on's leadership and royal background soon made Ch'ont'ae a flourishing order, but the conflict continued to intensify. Not long after Ŭich'on, the Nine Mountains school of Son began to consolidate under a new name, the Chogyejong.

“A century later, a Son monk named CHINUL (1158–1210) led a quiet monastic reform movement in order to purify the Koryo sa gha, which he believed was in a state of serious moral and spiritual decay. Convinced through his encounter with the writings of the Hwaom exegete Li Tongxuan (635–730) that Son's "sudden enlightenment" (tono) approach could also be found in Hwaom teaching, Chinul concluded that there was no discrepancy between Son and Kyo. Chinul established a comprehensive approach to Son that balanced "sudden enlightenment" with "gradual cultivation," and he permitted both a Hwaom method of "sudden enlightenment" and the "extraordinary" (kyogoe) method of hwadu (kŌan) meditation. Chinul's Son teaching, set forth in many of his writings, became the foundation for the thought and practice of Korean Son Buddhism to the present day.

“Koryo Buddhism is also noted for its monumental woodblock editions of the Chinese Buddhist canon, the first of which is said to have been commissioned by King Hyonjong (1009–1031) in the hope of protecting the country from invading Liao forces. This edition was burned by Mongols in 1232. King Kojong (1213–1259) commissioned another edition of the canon on Kanghwa Island, where he had fled after the Mongol invasion. This edition, which consisted of more than eighty thousand woodblocks, took sixteen years to complete (1236–1251); it is still preserved in the Tripi aka Hall of Haein Monastery near Taegu. Buddhism during the Chosun dynasty

Koryo Culture and Sports

Koryo Culture had both Chinese influences and aspects were more uniquely Korean. Koryo celadons (a kind of pottery with a jade green glaze) are well known and regarded as better than Chinese celadons. Korean classical literature was written in Chinese, and the late Koryo and early Chosun sijo poems dealt mainly with the theme of loyalty.

The Koryo elite admired the Chinese civilization that emerged during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The Koryo leaders actively sought to imitate the Song's advanced culture and technology. In turn, the Song looked upon Koryo as a potential ally against the tribal invaders to whom it had been forced to abandon northern China in 1127. Stimulated by the rise of printing in Song China, Koryo also made great headway in printing and publication, leading to the invention of movable metal type in 1234, two centuries before the introduction of movable type in Europe. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

Official delegations and ordinary merchants brought Koryo gold, silver, and ginseng to China in exchange for Song silk, porcelain, and woodblock books. The treasured Song porcelain stimulated Koryo artisans to produce an even finer type of inlaid celadon porcelain. Praised for the pristine clarity of its blue-green glaze — celadon glazes also were yellow green — and the delicate art of its inlaid portraits (usually of flowers or animals), Koryo celadon displayed the refined taste of aristocrats and later had great influence on Japanese potters. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

Korean prose literature can be divided into narratives, fiction, and literary miscellany. Narratives include myths, legends, and folktales found in the written records. The principal sources of these narratives are the two great historical records compiled during the Koryo dynasty: Samguk sagi (1146; “Historical Record of the Three Kingdoms”) and Samguk yusa (1285; “Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms”).

Korean wrestling has a fairly long history. In a A.D. 14th century Koryo Dynasty tumulus in Ji'an, Jilin Province, there is a fresco of a wrestling match, in which two persons are wrestling, one person presides over the match and a crowd of people watch. In the Koryo Dynasty, wrestling champions were called the equivalent of "Hercules", and were highly praised and honored. The King's bodyguards "the armored soldiers" were often wrestling champions. This measure greatly promoted the sport's popularization and development. On festive occasions or during slack seasons in farming, people have traditionally gathered and entertain themselves with wrestling.

Wood Block Printing and Movable Type Before Gutenberg

The oldest existing work completely printed with woodblocks is the Mugujonggwang Taerdaranigyong (Pure Light Dharani Sutra), Buddhist scriptures (sutras) printed sometime before the Silla monarch King Kyongdok was enthroned in A.D. 751. The oldest woodblocks have been dated to A.D. 704. They were found in Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju in October 1966.

The Tripitaka Koreana (housed in a repository at Haeinsa Temple) is a set of 80,000 wooden printing blocks regarded by some scholars as the first examples of large-scale printing. Completed in 1252 after 26 years of work by an army of monks, the blocks contain the entire catalogue of Buddhist sutras at that time, and are one of the most comprehensive compilations of Buddhist scriptures in the world. The Tripitaka Koreana woodblocks are admired for their craftsmanship and scientific advancement. They were made by monks who repeatedly carved the wood and dipped it in salt water to preserve it. Despite their age the blocks are in perfect condition today and can still be used for printing.

The oldest printing with movable type was done in Korea in 1160, nearly 300 years before Gutenberg printed his first Bible. The world's oldest existing book made with movable metal type, the Pulch'o Chikchi Shimch'e Yojol, was printed in 1377. It is now in a collection of the Paris National Library.

"For a brief interlude Koreans were actually the most advanced printers in the world," wrote historian Daniel Boorstin in “The Discoverers”. "Printing with wooden blocks in the Chinese manner had been well developed in Korea by the eighth century. By the early twelfth century the kings of the Koryo dynasty had set up a printing office in the national college, and they too were collecting Buddhist documents, not for education but to establish a standard text."

The development of movable type was brought about in part by a scarcity of certain kinds of wood. "Although Korea was rich in pine forest useful for making ink," wrote Boorstin, "she was poor in the hard cross-grained woods (jujube, pear, or birch) best for printing blocks, and so had to import them from China. Why not try metal? They ingeniously adapted the mold they were using to cast coins into a novel device for casting type. A character carved in boxwood was pressed onto a trough containing clay to leave the impression for the type about the size and thickness of coins."

Some historian have suggested that the Korean experiments with movable type may have influenced Gutenberg, but there is no concrete evidence to support this. "In Korea itself," wrote Boorstin, "the pioneer experiments in movable metal type proved a dead end. Korean printers supplied familiar texts to those who already knew them. Most editions counted only two hundred copies, and none exceeded five hundred. Without commercial circulation, there was no incentive to widen the range of titles or increase the numbers printed. There was no effective demand for books printed in the vernacular."

Early Koryo Literature

According to Unified Silla eventually weakened, and, as power struggles among aristocrats of the Later Three Kingdoms—as Silla, Paekche, and Koguryo came to be known in the 9th and 10th centuries—intensified, myths and legends were revived in which figures credited with nation founding and other supernatural powers overcome ordeals and adversity. But these legends, like those of the Three Kingdoms period, differ from ancient ones in their incorporation of human protagonists. In a Koryo legend, for example, Wang Kon, the founder (in 935) of the Koryo dynasty, is the most important figure, although his forefathers are depicted as having mythical origins that extend back several generations. [Source: Du-Hwan Kwon, Byong-Wuk Chong, Peter H. Lee,]

The Koryo kingdom inherited Silla literature, and early Koryo works, like those of previous periods, embodied Buddhist and Confucian ideologies. But the literature of the early Koryo is sufficiently distinctive that it can be considered of a separate period. The early Koryo period was also a time during which literature in Chinese thrived and prospered while literature in hyangch’al faded, with the hyangga of Silla surviving only until the beginning of the 10th century. The monk Kyunyo wrote the last hyangga, “"Pohyon shibwon ka"” (“Ten Vows of Samantabhadra”). Works such as “"Toi changga"” (“Dirge for Two Great Generals”) by King Yejong, which memorializes Shin Sung-Gyom and Kim Nak, who were two subjects at the time of the founding of the Koryo kingdom, and “"Chong Kwa-Jong kok"” (“Song of Chong Kwa-Jong”), in which the exiled poet Chong So pines for the king Uijong, also provide a glimpse of the last vestiges of hyangga.

During the reign (929–975) of Kwangjong, the civil service system established by that king contributed greatly to the development of literature in Chinese by emphasizing authors’ comprehension of the Confucian canon and skill in poetic composition. The best among the literati of this period—Ch’oe Sung-No, Ch’oe Ch’ung, and Pak In-Nyang—composed excellent prose and poetry. Kim Pu-Shik strove to write in the classical mode and took as his model the Confucian canon. In contrast, Kim Hwang-Won and Chong Chi-Sang sought a literature that stressed beautiful fervent expression.

In the area of legend, several notable works were produced. During the reign of the 11th-century king Munjong, a former governor in Kumgwan region collected legends, histories, and folklore and published it as Karak kukki (“Records of the Karak State”). Sui chon (“Tales of the Extraordinary”), a collection from Silla times probably revised by Pak Il-Lyang, records many legends of the supernatural. Samguk sagi (1146; “History of the Three Kingdoms”), compiled by Kim Pu-Shik, departed from the practice of stressing supernatural legend over human history; Samguk sagi attempts to use the methods of what might be considered modern historiography in its efforts to establish a Confucian-based ideology of governance. Nevertheless, Samguk sagi uses legends as source material, and many legends are also included in the yolchon, or biography, section of this work.

Later Koryo Literature

According to Even after the period of Koryo military rule, which lasted from the late 12th century to the mid-13th century, literature in Chinese continued to prosper. It revolved around Kim Kuk-Gi and the group known as Chungnim Kohoe (“Eminent Assembly in the Bamboo Grove”), which was established by O Se-Jae, Yi Il-Lo, Yi Kyu-Bo, and others. This group was integral to the emergence and proliferation of literary criticism during this period. Yi Il-Lo, in his P’ahan chip (1260; “Jottings to Break Up Idleness”), defends the value of literature and praises the beautifully chiseled sentence. Yi Kyu-Bo’s Paegun sosol (“Jottings by Old Man White Cloud”) contains a vigorous debate on literary theory and artistic creation. He counters Yi Il-Lo’s emphasis on beauty, declaring that content takes precedent over ornamentation in literature and that creativity is important above all else. Works such as Ch’oe Cha’s Pohan chip (“Collection to Relieve Idleness”), Ch’oe Hae’s Tongin chi mun (“Writings of the Eastern People”), and Yi Che-Hyon’s Yogong p’aesol (“Lowly Jottings by Old Man Oak”) illustrate the views on literature of the newly risen scholar-bureaucrats active in this period. [Source: Du-Hwan Kwon, Byong-Wuk Chong, Peter H. Lee,]

The creation of Buddhist literature, centred on Son (Zen) Buddhism, enlarged the sphere of later Koryo literature. It featured the writings of the monk Chinul as well as the monks Hyeshim, Ch’ungji, Kyonghan, Pou, and Hyegun.

Yi Kyu-Bo’s Tongmyong wangp’yon (“Saga of King Tongmyong”) re-created the founding of the Koguryo kingdom. Kakhun’s Haedong kosung chon (1215; “Lives of Eminent Korean Monks”) departs from the historiographical standards of the Samguk sagi but also shows a stronger awareness of the history of the ordinary citizen, something echoed in other works of the period. An epic poem, Yi Sung-Hyu’s Chewang ungi (1287; “Songs of Emperors and Kings”), contrasts the Korean people’s history with that of the Chinese.

Another feature of the later Koryo period is the considerable amount of literature in Chinese devoted to the chon, an account of a person’s life. Yi Saek, for instance, wrote accounts of individuals who never achieved public recognition for their accomplishments during their lifetimes, and Yi Kyu-Bo and Ch’oe Hae wrote t’akchon, accounts that praised the author himself but referred to him by a fictitious name. And a new form appeared, the kajon, or fictional biography, which treated objects as people and told their life stories. Works such as Im Ch’un’s Kongban chon (“Tale of Master Coin”) and Kuksun chon (“Tale of Master Malt”), Yi Kyu-Bo’s Kuk Sonsaeng chon (“Tale of Sir Malt”), Yi Kok’s Chuk Puin chon (“Tale of Madame Bamboo”), and Yi Ch’om’s Cho Saeng chon (“Tale of Yangban Paper”) relate their narratives via the device of personifying their title objects.

The sogak kasa, or popular song texts, introduced in the chapters on music in the Koryo sa (“History of Koryo”) and handed down in the Akchang kasa (“Collection of Courtly Songs”), are another late Koryo genre. These songs were sung at court. Among them are songs that deal with the traditions of the Three Kingdoms period, such as “"Chongup sa"” (“Song of Chongup”) and “"Ch’oyong ka"” (“Song of Ch’oyong”), but the majority are reworkings of folk songs. Well-known examples are “"Tongdong"” (“Ode on the Seasons”), a song of longing for the beloved sung at monthly observances; “"Kashiri"” (“Would You Now Leave Me?”), “"Isang kok"” (“Frost-Treading Song”), “"Manjon ch’unbyol sa"” (“Spring Overflows the Pavilion”), and “"Sogyong pyolgok"” (“Song of the Western Capital”), all of which take love between men and women as their subject, and “"Ch’ongsan pyolgok"” (“Green Mountain Song”), which describes the hopes of the wanderer and the despair of the intellectual. Apart from these, there are short songs referred to as tanjang—examples include “"Yugu kok"” (“Song of Pigeons”) and “"Sangjo ka"” (“Song of the Pestle”)—and long songs called yonjang. Soakpu (“Little Song Book”), compiled by Yi Che-Hyon and Min Sa-P’yong, consists of poems in Chinese similar in content to folk songs.

While members of the new class of scholar-bureaucrats were assuming positions of leadership in literature, the kyonggi-style poem first emerged in the form of songs boasting of the elegance of these men. “"Hallim pyolgok"” (“Song of the Confucian Academicians”), a joint composition of literati during the reign of Kojong (1213–59), was the first kyonggi-style poem. An Ch’uk wrote two others, “"Chukkye pyolgok"” (“Song of the Bamboo Stream”) and “"Kwandong pyolgok"” (“Song of Diamond Mountain”). These poems are in both Korean and Chinese, with Chinese words and phrases used to describe objects and locales and to express the authors’ pride and interest in literati society and in themselves as officials. Sijo and kasa, which would become the leading poetic genres in the Chosun period, also originated at this time. “"Sungwon ka"” by the monk Hyegun, transcribed in hyangch’al, explains Buddhist doctrine and confirms the emergence of the kasa form at the end of Koryo period. The sijo, consisting of three lines, followed a lyrical path and spoke of human nature and natural beauty. Only a few examples, by such men as U T’ak and Yi Cho-Nyon, survive today.

Poetry in the Koryo Period

The oldest poetic form is the hyangga, poems transcribed in the hyangch’al system, dating from the middle period of the Unified Silla dynasty to the early period of the Koryo dynasty (935–1392). The poems were written in four, eight, or 10 lines; the 10-line form—comprising two four-line stanzas and a concluding two-line stanza—was the most popular. The poets were either Buddhist monks or members of the Hwarangdo, a school in which chivalrous youth were trained in civil and military virtues in preparation for state service. Seventeen of the 25 extant hyangga are Buddhist in inspiration and content.

The pyolgok, or changga, flourished during the middle and late Koryo period. It is characterized by a refrain either in the middle or at the end of each stanza. The refrain establishes a mood or tone that carries the melody and spirit of the poem or links a poem composed of discrete parts with differing contents. The theme of most of these anonymous poems is love, the joys and torments of which are expressed in frank and powerful language. The poems were sung to musical accompaniments chiefly by women entertainers known as kisaeng.

The sijo is the longest-enduring and most popular form of Korean poetry. Developed in the twelfth century, it is composed of three couplets and characterized by great simplicity and expressiveness. Although some poems are attributed to writers of the late Koryo dynasty, the sijo is primarily a poetic form of the Chosun dynasty (1392–1910). Sijo are three-line poems in which each line has 14 to 16 syllables and the total number of syllables seldom exceeds 45. Each line consists of groups of four syllables. Sijo may deal with Confucian ethical values, but there are also many poems about nature and love. The principal writers of sijo in the first half of the Chosun dynasty were members of the Confucian upper class (yangban) and the kisaeng. In the latter part of the Chosun dynasty, a longer form called sasol sijo (“narrative sijo”) evolved. The writers of this form were mainly common people; hence, the subject matter included more down-to-earth topics such as trade and corruption as well as the traditional topic of love. In addition, sasol sijo frequently employed slang, vulgar language, and onomatopoeia.

Art During the Koryo Period

It was during the Koryo period (918–1392) that landscape painting—and painting in general—blossomed rapidly as an art form in its own right. This evolution paralleled developments in Song dynasty China (960–1279). Song and Koryo shared a close relationship of frequent diplomatic and cultural exchanges. As in the paintings of Northern Song, monumental landscape painting—pictures that portrayed colossal mountains and conveyed a sense of awe in nature—became popular in Koryo. Unfortunately, relatively few examples of landscape painting from this period survive, which makes it difficult for us today to assess fully its development and achievements.

The artists of Koryo (918-1392) were interested in capturing Buddhist icons and bequeathed some great masterpieces, while the literati elite of Joseon was more attracted to the symbolism of plants and animals, such as the Four Noble Lords (Sagunja, namely, the orchid, chrysanthemum, bamboo, and plum tree) and the Ten Creatures of Longevity (Sipjangsaeng), as well as idealized landscapes.

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) and glass from the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392). Koryo treasures found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art include a gourd-shaped ewer with decoration of waterfowl and reeds, a melon-shaped ewer with decoration of bamboo, an oil bottle with decoration of peony leaves, a bottle with decoration of chrysanthemums and lotus petals and a Maebyeong with decoration of cranes and clouds.

Korean pottery is typically divided into three groups: Cheongja (blue-green celadon), Buncheong (slip-coated stoneware), and Baekja (white porcelain). Korean celadon 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).

Koryo treasures found at the National Museum of Korea include a celadon melon-shaped Bottle from the 12th century; a celadon Jar with peony design from the 12th century); (Source:National Museum of Korea). 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.


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. One of the main celadon kiln sites was in Gangjin, Jeollanam-do.

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]

“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.

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. 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.

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.

Kangjingun Kiln Sites

The Kangjingun Kiln Sites were placed on the Tentative List of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1994. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “ During the Koryo period, there existed two groups of earthenware and celadon kiln sites: Kangjin-gun in Chollanam-do and Puan-gun in Chollabuk-do. To date, about 400 kiln sites have been discovered in these two areas. In particular, some 188 kilns, the highest record in Korea, are distributed in the region of Yongun-ni, Kyeyul-li, Sadang-ni, and Sudong-ni of Kangjin-gun. Well-conserved, 98 of them were designated as historic sites by the Korean government. [Source: Office of Cultural Properties, Republic of Korea; Location: Coordinates: Taegu-Myon, Kangjin-Gun, Chollanam-Do Long.126°26' — 47' East Lat. 34°29' — 31' North]

“Some 37 kilns remain in Yongun-ni today in generally good condition. Most of the kilns are early kilns established from the 10th century through the 11th century. Fragments that are considered to be related to the ancient Chinese kilns have been found in the kiln sites of this region.

Some 29 kilns remain in Kyeyul-li. Although some fragments of the same style as those found in Yongun-ni were also discovered in Kyeyul-li, most of the kilns date from the 11th to the 13th centuries. Many fragments of conventionalized inlaid celadon ware were found here.

Some 27 kilns remain in Sadang-ni. Of those, kilns of Tangion village dating from the early 12th century to the 13th century are representative of the Koryo ceramic kilns which were used when Koryo celadons, known for their superior kingfisher color and inlay technique, were at their peak. Some f~ve or six kilns remain in Sudong-ni dating from the 14th century. Most have been destroyed through river erosion and farming.

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, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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