Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: The long and peaceful reigns of kings Yongjo (r. 1724—76) and Chongjo (r. 1776-1800) were a time of artistic and literary creativity. The Chinese-style landscape and portrait paintings that were prized by the yangban were supplemented by a new, commoner-style "genre" painting showing ordinary people engaged in daily life. These genre paintings today are some of the most descriptive documents about Korea in the 1700s. The era also brought advances in literature written in han 'gul script.” [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

During much of the Chosun period the hangul alphabet was little used. “Korean writers, most of them yangban, had actually scorned the alphabet as too easy and too limiting, and they had continued to write in the much more difficult Chinese characters that were so hard for ordinary people to learn. It took many years and a great deal of money to learn to write Chinese well. Few people who were not yangban-class men could afford this kind of education.

“Accordingly, the few who could write Chinese were able to use literacy and their writing ability as a social barrier, protecting their privileged position while denying basic communications skills to the less fortunate. In the eighteenth century, however, the educated women who belonged to the royal family, along with other cultured women of the yangban class, began to write their own literature, not in Chinese but in the Korean han 'gul alphabet. Their works were diaries, memoirs, and stories about palace life, written in the Korean language and far more expressive of the emotions and conflicts that were so authentically part of daily life. Certain commoners also learned han'gul well enough to write stories and novels. These works survive as commentaries on the conditions and injustices of life in the yangbandominated Chosun kingdom, and by the nineteenth century, ban gul had become a tool for non-yangban to communicate and even organize rebellions against their rulers.

“Within the yangban class, too, there were spontaneous impulses to reform. The Chinese founder of neo-Confucianism, Chu Hsi (1130-1200), had taught that truth could be found through a better understanding of reality— "the investigation of things," as he called it. Certain Korean yangban were dissatisfied with the stuffy customs of their own class and they sought new ways of thinking about reality. They organized a school of thought all their own, called Silhak ("practical learning"), which became interested in Western scientific ideas that were being studied by the Chinese in Peking.

Sirhak (Practical Learning) Movement

The Confucian literati were particularly reinvigorated by an intellectual movement advocating that philosophy be geared to solving real problems of the society. Known as the Sirhak (Practical Learning) Movement, it spawned people like Yu Hyngwn (1622-73), from a small farming village, who poured over the classics seeking reform solutions to social problems. He developed a thorough, detailed critique of nearly all the institutional aspects of Chosun politics and society, and a set of concrete reforms to invigorate it. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

Chang Yag-yong (1762-1836) was thought to be the greatest of the Sirhak scholars, producing several books that offered his views on administration, justice, and the structure of politics. Still others like Yi Su-kwang (1563-1628) traveled to China and returned with the new Western learning then spreading in Beijing, while Yi Ik (1681-1763) wrote a treatise entitled Record of Concern for the Underprivileged.

A new vernacular fiction also developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, much of it taking the form of social criticism. The best known is The Tale of Ch'unhyang, which argues for the common human qualities of lowborn, commoners, and yangban alike. Often rendered as a play, it has been a favorite in both North Korea and South Korea. An older poetic form called sijo, which consists of short stanzas, became another vehicle for free expression of distaste for the castelike inequities of Korean society. Meanwhile, Pak Chi-wn journeyed to Beijing in 1780 and authored Jehol Diary, which compared Korean social conditions unfavorably with his observations of China.

Ideas brought to China by Jesuit missionaries on things like astronomy, mathematics, natural sciences, philosophy and the Christian religion made their way to Korea. Clark wrote: “The "practical learning" scholars advocated realistic answers to the problems facing Korea, suggesting applications of Western science and technology. They also went far toward adopting the Jesuits' understanding of the spiritual dimension and even founded their own branch of the Catholic religion in Seoul, which turned out to be the beginnings of Korean Christianity.”

Chosun Era Music

The term gugak, which literally means “national music,” refers to traditional Korean music and other related art forms including songs, dances and ceremonial movements. The history of music in Korea should be as long as Korean history itself, but it was only in the early 15th century, during the reign of King Sejong of the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910), that Korean music became a subject of serious study and was developed into a system, resulting in the creation of the oldest mensural notation system, called jeongganbo, in Asia.

King Sejongs efforts to reform the court music led not only to the creation of Korea’s own notation system but also to the composition of a special ritual music to be performed during the Royal Ancestral Rite at the Jongmyo Shrine””inscribed on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2001"”and Yeomillak, or “Joy of the People.” The term gugak was first used by the Jangagwon, a government agency of late Chosun responsible for music, to distinguish traditional Korean music from foreign music.

Traditional Korean music is typically classified into several types: the “legitimate music” (called jeongak or jeongga) enjoyed by the royalty and aristocracy of Chosun; folk music including pansori, sanjo and japga; jeongjae (court music and dance) performed for the King at celebratory state events; music and dance connected with shamanic and Buddhist traditions such as salpuri, seungmu, and beompae; and poetic songs beloved of the literati elite such as gagok and sijo. Of the numerous folk songs, Arirang””inscribed on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2012"”is particularly cherished by the common people as there are many variations with special lyrics and melodies devised to touch their hearts.

Royal Ancestral Rituals in Jongmyo Shrine and its Music

Royal Ancestral Rituals in Jongmyo Shrine and its Music were placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage of Humanity List in 2008. Jongmyo Jerye is a national ceremony held for the kings and queens of the Chosun Period in Jongmyo Shrine where the ancestral tablets are preserved. The ritual is conducted by chief priests who dressed formely for the ritual and prepared food and achohol for the ancestors. The ritual service is considered as an important symbol which is the foundation of national survival and the spirit of Korean, demonstrating filial peity toward the deceased, one of the valued concept in confucianism and a sense of unity of the whole nation. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

Jongmyo Jeryeak, Royal Ancestral Ritual Music, was performed when the royal family held a ceremony for the repose of their ancestors in the Shrine, simply named 'Jongmyoak.' Traditional Korean instruments are used following the order of the ritual. According to UNESCO: “The Jongmyo Shrine in Seoul is the setting for a Confucian ritual dedicated to the ancestors of the Joseon dynasty (14th to the 19th century) that encompasses song, dance and music. The ritual is practised once a year on the first Sunday in May and is organized by the descendants of the royal family. It offers a unique example of a Confucian ritual, which is no longer celebrated in China. The tradition is inspired by classical Chinese texts concerning the cult of ancestors and the notion of filial piety. It also includes a prayer for the eternal peace of the ancestors’ spirits in a shrine conceived as their spiritual resting place. The order of the ceremony was defined in the fifteenth century and most elements have remained unchanged until today. [Source: UNESCO]

“During the rite, the priests, dressed in ritual costume with a crown for the king and diadems for the others, make offerings of food and wine in ritual vessels. The Jongmyo Jerye is music played to accompany the rituals and is performed on traditional instruments, such as gongs, bells, lutes, zithers and flutes. The dances are performed by 64 dancers in 8 lines representing the opposing yet complementary forces of Yin and Yang as set out in the Confucian texts.The Munmu dance, accompanied by the harmonious and soothing Botaepyong music, is characterized by a first step to the left. While the Munmu dance symbolizes the force of the Yang, the Mumu dance, accompanied by Jeongdaeeop music and characterized by a movement to the right, represents the force of the Yin. The ancestral ritual is nowadays often considered to be devoid of meaning, especially in the context of the growing importance of Christianity. However, the ritual and its music are protected through the National List of Intangible Heritage and the 1982 Law for the Protection of Cultural Property.

Early Chosun Literature: 1392–1598

According to With the establishment of the Chosun dynasty in 1392, two major, contrasting themes emerged in Korean literature. On the one hand, Chong To-Jon and Kwon Kun enlisted literature in the task of creating a Korean nation. In reaction to the songs composed by those men, which praised the great new dynastic undertaking, others such as Kil Chae and Won Ch’on-Sok, who had retired from public life, wrote poems in which they reflected upon the Koryo dynasty and professed fidelity to it while deploring the present situation. King Sejong, who during his reign (1419–50) surmounted the disorder that accompanied the founding of the Chosun dynasty and established a system of governance, invented Hangul (hangul), the alphabetic system used to write the Korean language—thereby making possible a vernacular literature. This was the epochal development in the history of Korean literature. [Source: Du-Hwan Kwon, Byong-Wuk Chong, Peter H. Lee,]

Yongbi och’on ka (1445–47; “Songs of Flying Dragons”), a dynastic narrative poem that praises the heroic achievements of the founders of the Chosun kingdom, and Worin ch’ongang chigok (1447; “Songs of the Moon’s Reflection on a Thousand Rivers”), a narrative poem that concerns the life of the Buddha, are the first examples of Korean literature written in Hangul, and their significance is great. The form known as akchang emerged at this time, of which Yongbi och’on ka is an example; these texts, which were intended to accompany court music and to celebrate the inauguration of the new dynasty, were composed in the vernacular and culminated in the work of Chong To-Jon and Sangjin. The Confucian emphasis on ordering one’s behaviour necessitated instructional books, and these, along with Buddhist scriptures translated into Korean, were also published during this period. They demonstrated the ease of composition in Korean and the language’s possibilities for use in literary texts. The kyonggi-style poem was inherited by early Chosun literati, who produced such works in that genre as “"Sangdae pyolgok"” (“Song of the Censorate”) by Kwon Kun and “"Hwasan pyolgok"” (“Song of Mount Hwa”) by Pyon Kye-Ryang, both written in the early 15th century. At first these works performed the functions of the akchang, but gradually they were transformed into poems that described affairs of personal interest. The kyonggi-style poem became increasingly diffuse, so much so that by the middle of the Chosun period all traces of its original features had vanished and the genre essentially ceased to exist.

A number of works written in the kasa form, such as Chong Kuk-In’s “"Sangch’un kok"” (“Hymn to Spring”) and Cho Wi’s “"Manbun ka"” (“Song of Fury”), both of the 15th century, assumed prominent places in the literature of the scholar-bureaucrats. The kasa form developed in various directions, treating such themes as retirement from public life, banishment, and travel, and reached its zenith in the works of the 16th-century poet Chong Ch’ol: “"Songsan pyolgok"” (“Song of Mount Star”), “"Kwandong pyolgok"” (“Song of Diamond Mountains”), “"Sa miin kok"” (“Hymn to Constancy”), and “"Sok miin kok"” (a continuation of “Hymn to Constancy”).

While early sijo were preoccupied with reflecting on the Koryo dynasty and other historical subjects (largely political and military), longer sijo cycles developed as well. These longer works were best exemplified by Yi Hyon-Bo’s Obu sa (“Song of the Fishermen”). Poems such as Chu Se-Bung’s “"Oryun ka"” (“Song of the Five Relations”) and Chong Ch’ol’s “"Hunmin ka"” (“Song to Instruct the People”) paved the way for instructive sijo that sang of Confucian morals, while 16th-century works such as Yi Hwang’s “"Tosan shibi kok"” (“Twelve Songs of Mount To”) and Yi I’s “"Kosan kugok ka"” (“Nine Songs of Mount Ko”) established a tradition that glorified the truths to be found in nature. Hwang Chin-I and Yi Mae-Ch’ang pioneered a new realm of sijo that described love in emotive terms.

Literature in Chinese became reestablished in the early Chosun period. So Ko-Jong compiled Tongmun son (“Anthology of Korean Literature”) and Tongin shihwa (“Remarks on Poetry by a Man from the East”), in which he summarized and commented on poetry dating from Unified Silla onward. Song Hyon’s Yongjae ch’onghwa (“Miscellany of Yongjae”) established the tradition of courtier literature, in which various factions at court (the moralist faction, the Neo-Confucian faction) inveighed against each other. So Kyong-Dok and Yi Hwang, jointly inquiring into the principles of moralist literature, enhanced literature’s intellectual depth. Kim Shi-Sup, who had an outsider’s temperament, wrote defiant heterodox poetry as well as fictional narratives such as Kumo shinhwa (“New Stories from the Golden Turtle”). At the same time, the poets Yi Tal, Paek Kwang-Hung, and Ch’oe Kyong-Ch’ang established a poetic style that heartily expressed the emotions of life. Ho Nansorhon was one of the few women of the time who achieved fame as a poet; she wrote during the second half of the 16th century. The kajon form of pseudo-biography that had prospered during the late Koryo period was continued in such works as Kim U-Ong’s Ch’ongun chon (“Tale of the King of Heaven”) and Im Che’s Susong chi (“Record of Victory over Worry”). Shim Ui’s Taegwanjae mongyu rok (“Record of a Dream Visit to Taegwanjae”) and Im Che’s Wonsaeng mongyu rok (“Record of Won’s Dream Adventure”) were experiments in a new form known as the dream record, while such works as So Ko-Jong’s T’aep’yong hanhwa kolgye chon (“Peaceful and Humorous Stories for Leisure”), Kang Hui-Maeng’s Ch’ondam hae’i (“Humorous Stories from the Country”), and Song Se-Rim’s Omyonsun (“Sleep-Forestalling Shield”) mark the appearance of bawdy folktales written in Chinese. Though also written in Chinese, Kim Sisup’s Kumo shinhwa (“New Stories”), which incorporates legends involving dream meetings of spirits and dream journeys, is considered the first example of a Korean fictional narrative.

Later Chosun Literature: 1598–1894

According to The Japanese invasion of 1592 and the Manchu invasion several decades later had a profound impact on Korean literature. Yi Sunsin’s Nanjung ilgi (“Diary of the War”) and his sijo, Pak Il-Lo’s Sonsangt’an (“Boat-Passage Lament”), Yu Song-Nyong’s Chingbi rok (“Record of Learning from Mistakes”), and Kang Hang’s Kanyang nok (“Record of a Shepherd”) all recount the Japanese invasion and illustrate its trials and tribulations. Works such as Sansong ilgi (“Diary Written in a Mountain Fortress”) by an anonymous woman of the Chosun court, sijo by Kim Sang-Hon and the trio known as the Three Scholars, and Yun Kye-Song’s Talch’on mongyu rok (“Record of a Dream Visit to Talch’on”), P’isaeng mongyu rok (“Record of P’i’s Dream Journey”), and Kangdo mongyu rok (“Record of a Dream Visit to Kangdo”) keenly express the situation at the time of the Manchu invasion and its aftermath. [Source: Du-Hwan Kwon, Byong-Wuk Chong, Peter H. Lee,]

Literature in Chinese evolved in two directions: one represented an attempt to shake off traditional social norms and standards while the other sought to restore them. The literary activities of Kwon P’il and Ho Kyun developed in the former direction, while those of Yi Chong-Gu, Sin Hum, Yi Sik, Chang Yu, and other scholar-bureaucrats writing in Chinese evolved in the latter direction. The sirhak (“practical learning”) school, which included Pak Chi-Won, turned its attention to contemporary realities and introduced a lively writing style. Among the sirhak group, Chong Yak-Yong strove to produce verse with a folk song flavour, while Shin Wi used individualized expression in an attempt to breathe new life into poetry written in Chinese.

During this period a new movement emerged that aimed to produce poetry about the customs and contemporary realities on the Korean peninsula. This movement was reflected in the writings in Chinese of those groups—government functionaries, petty clerks, village residents—collectively known as the wihangin. The wihangin, among them Chong Nae-Gyo, Chang Hon, and Cho Su-Sam, formed fellowships of poets and composed poetry with great enthusiasm. They referred to their poems as p’ungyo (“poems of the people,” also called talk songs) and published a number of collections of these works (e.g., Sodae p’ungyo [1737; “Poems of a Peaceful People”]).

Great changes took place in how literature was viewed. Ho Kyun discarded the moralist views evident in his early work and advocated a literature of natural sentiment, and Kim Man-Jung argued that folk songs sung by woodcutters and laundry women held more worth than literature written in Chinese. During the 18th century, Hong Man-Jong, in his Sihwa ch’ongnim (“Collection of Remarks on Poetry”), ventured to critique vernacular poetry, and Hong Tae-Yong set forth a new theory of literature in his Ch’ongi ron (“Theory of Nature’s Secrets”). Pak Chi-Won sought in literature a method for criticizing the realities of the times.

Sijo continued to be composed by scholar-bureaucrats. Yun Son-Do wrote poems marked by beautifully refined language but also a blunt sensibility toward contemporary realities. Another scholar-bureaucrat, Kwon Sop, concentrated solely on sijo at the expense of other poetic forms; his works show a never-ending awareness of self and custom. Yi Chong-Bo wrote of the pleasure of removing oneself from worldly cares. Quite a few of his works take up the theme of love—a rarity in the poetry of scholar-bureaucrats. Yi Se-Bo, a member of the royal family who wrote some 450 sijo, wrote on varied subjects and themes, including matters of government.

The active participation of the wihangin in the creation and performance of sijo during the 18th century resulted in an expansion of the class of people responsible for the form’s production. Professional singers who were among the wihangin formed singing groups, developed principles for composing sijo, and produced sijo collections. These collections—examples of which include Kim Su-Jang’s Haedong kayo (“Songs of Korea”) and An Min-Yong’s Kagok wollyu (“Anthology of Korean Songs”) as well as Kim Ch’ong-T’aek’s Ch’onggu yongon (“Songs of Green Hills”)—contained poems that had previously been transmitted only orally as well as songs that had in the past been recorded in book form. These collections also included new works by contemporary authors and, overall, contributed greatly to the elevation of the sijo form. Kasa, for its part, became more complex and diverse. Unlike early Chosun kasa, which were comparatively lyrical, during the 19th century there appeared long kasa concerning travel, such as Hong Sun-Hak’s “"Yonhaeng ka"” (“Song of a Journey to Beijing”). Long kasa of manners, such as “"Nongga wollyong ka"” (“Farmers’ Works and Days”), “"Hanyang ka"” (“Song of Hanyang”), and “"Ubu ka"” (“Song of Three Foolish Men”), were popular. There were in addition quite a few examples of ch’onju kasa, or poems concerned with religious doctrine. Kyubang kasa also appeared; this genre, written by anonymous women, treats a variety of matters, such as family etiquette, the instruction of children, and the loves and sorrows of family life.

The diverse yadam form includes stories of individuals involved in historical events. After the appearance of Yu Mong-In’s Ou yadam (“Tales of Ou”) in the 17th century, numerous yadam were edited and compiled in collections such as the anonymous Ch’onggu yadam (“Tales from the Green Hills”), Yi Hui-Jun’s Kyeso yadam (“Tales of Kyeso”), and Yi Won-Myong’s Tongya hwijip (“Tales from Korea”), all published during the 19th century.

Fictional narratives in Chinese, which began with Kumo shinhwa, led to Ho Kyun’s “"Chang Saeng chon"” (“Tale of Mr. Chang”) and “"Namgung Sonsaeng chon"” (“Tale of Mr. Namgung”) in the 16th and 17th centuries. Also appearing at about this time were kajon (pseudo-biographies) that personified emotions, such as Chong T’ae-Je’s Ch’ongun yonui (“Exposition on the King of Heaven”). Such works as Ch’angson kamui rok (“That Goodness Be Manifest and Righteousness Prized”), Kuun mong (1687–88; “A Dream of Nine Clouds”), and Ongnu mong (“Dream of the Jade Chamber”) achieved popularity in both Chinese and Hangul editions. Pak Chi-Won’s “"Yangban chon"” (“Tale of a Yangban”) and “"Ho Saeng chon"” (“Tale of Mr. Ho”), each a short narrative in Chinese with a carefully arranged structure and distinct themes, give voice to social criticism. Both take as their focus members of the yangban, the highest social class during the Chosun dynasty. The works of Yi Ok, who was writing in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, show a similar level of workmanship.

Hanjung nok (1795–1805; “Record of Sorrowful Days”) is an elegant account of the tragic experiences of Lady Hong, princess of Hyegyong Palace, and carries on a tradition of palace memoirs written by Korean women. Pak Tu-Se wrote stories in the vernacular that describe contemporary manners. Vernacular fiction began with Ho Kyun’s Hong Kil-dong chon (“Tale of Hong Kil-Dong”), which was written in the early 17th century. Widely read in the 18th and 19th centuries were such fictional works as Cho Ung chon (“Tale of Cho Ung”) and Yu Ch’ung-Nyol chon, stories set in China that depict the struggles of heroes to save that country; and Sukhyang chon (“Tale of Sukhyang”), in which the female protagonist overcomes various trials. Within this latter tradition, which has its origins prior to the 18th and 19th centuries, there accumulated works with a serious thematic awareness and refined expression; Kim Man-Jung’s Kuun mong and Sa sshi namjon ki (c. 1689–92; “Madame Sa’s Journey to the South”) are well-known examples. Works of fiction such as Nam Yong-No’s Ongnyon mong (“Dreams of Jade Lotuses”) appeared, and the publication of series of linked fictions, such as Myongju powolbing (“Treasure of Bright Pearls in the Moonlight”), testify to the mass popularity of such works in the 18th and 19th centuries. Vernacular fiction was widespread and was commercialized in woodblock editions.

Responding to popular tastes, the oral narrative known as p’ansori was transformed in the late 17th and early 18th centuries from a narrative performance that incorporated shamanistic chants into a vehicle for treating popular customs and everyday life. The professional entertainers known as kwangdae quickly took up this developing form as their livelihood. The p’ansori repertoire consisted originally of 12 madang, or song cycles, but by the time of King Kojong, the final Chosun monarch, who abdicated in 1907, the p’ansori enthusiast Shin Chae-Hyo had compiled these songs into six cycles: Ch’unhyang ka (“Song of Ch’unhyang”), Hungbo ka (“Song of Hungbo”), Shim Ch’ong ka (“Song of Shim Ch’ong”), Sugung ka (“Song of the Water Palace”), Karu chigi t’aryong (“Ballad of a Ghost’s Revenge”), and Chokpyok ka (“Song of the Red Cliff”). On the surface, the p’ansori works seemed generally to promote such customary virtues as loyalty, filial piety, and female virtue, but they also used satire to implicitly criticize contemporary society. Following the increasing popularity of vernacular fiction during the 18th century, p’ansori works reappeared in fictional form, as in Hungbu chon (“Tale of Hungbu”) and Shim Ch’ong chon (“Tale of Shim Ch’ong”). Forms of traditional folk drama—narrative shaman chants, puppet plays, and mask plays—likewise used satire to criticize contemporary society. Also appearing during this period were works such as “"Hapkangchong ga"” (“Song of Hapkang Arbor”) and “"Koch’ang ka"” (“Song of Koch’ang”), which occupied a middle ground between folk song and kasa and featured rebellious, antagonistic content. Du-Hwan KwonPeter H. LeeThe Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica Transitional literature: 1894–1910

By the time of the 1894 reforms, enough social and intellectual change had occurred to suggest the beginnings of a division between traditional and modern literature. But, just as conservatism did not favour sudden changes in the political and social structure, literature too faced a period of transition toward its modern transformation. Schools were established by the educational ordinance of 1895, and the organization of learned societies and “enlightenment” movements followed soon after. Vernacular publications, the Tongnip sinmun (“Independent”) and the Cheguk sinmun (“Imperial Post”), along with the establishment of the Korean Language Institute and the scientific study, consolidation, and systematization of Korean grammar, also helped open the way for the modern literary movement.

The first literary forms to appear after the 1894 reforms were the sinsosol (“new novel”) and the ch’angga (“song”). These transitional literary forms were stimulated by the adaptation of foreign literary works and the rewriting of traditional stories in the vernacular. The ch’angga, which evolved from hymns sung at churches and schools in the 1890s, became popular upon the publication of the “Aeguk ka” (“National Anthem”) by Yi Yongu and “Tongsim ka” (“A Boy’s Mind”) by Yi Chungwon in an issue (1896) of the Tongnip sinmun. Songwriters still used such traditional verse forms as the sijo and kasa or a song form, the predominant pattern of which (seven and five syllables) showed the influence of popular Japanese songs (shoka). Most songs denounced corruption in the government and stressed independence, patriotic fervour, and modernization.

Three distinctly traditional elements were inherited by the sinsosol. First was the basic moral stance of reproving vice and rewarding virtue. Owing to the prevailing atmosphere of the “enlightenment” period, advocates of modernization were cast as virtuous while the wicked were cast as conservative. Second, the development of the plot was governed by coincidence, and events that lacked causality were nevertheless arbitrarily connected. Finally, the dialogue and the accompanying narrative were fused into one expository structure. The pioneering aspects of the sinsosol, however, were that it was written wholly in prose, whereas a considerable part of traditional fiction had been in verse, and the sinsosol tried to depict a plausible human existence with backgrounds and events that more closely resembled reality than was the case in traditional fiction, which tended to follow certain model stories with their established plot lines and stereotyped characterizations. Writers of sinsosol also tried to unify the spoken and written language. Typical writers and their works are Yi Injik, Kwi ui song (1907; “A Demon’s Voice”); Yi Haejo, Chayujong (1910; “Liberty Bell”); and Ch’oe Ch’ansik, Ch’uwolsaek (1912; “Colour of the Autumn Moon”). In their works these writers advocated modernization, a spirit of independence, contact with Western countries, study abroad, the diffusion of science and technology, and the abolition of conventions and superstition.

Sijo Poetry

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.

A sijo poem by Chong Mong-ju (1337-92), a Koryo Dynasty loyalist who was assassinated at the foundation of the Chosun Dynasty, refers to his political choice not to side with the new government. It goes:
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.
[Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

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.

Chosun Dynasty Art

During the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910), 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 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. [Source: Library of Congress]

The influence of Buddhism didn’t die out completely. According to the Asian Society: “Buddhism flourished until the Chosun dynasty (1392 – 1910), when Neo-Confucianism became the state ideology. Buddhism, however, remained a spiritual force in Korean society, and private devotional objects and works for monasteries and temples continued to be made throughout the centuries. Large-scale banner paintings, for example, were popular during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when Buddhism was more widespread, in part because of the loosening of government prohibitions against it. The size and iconography of this painting suggest that it came from a worship hall of the highest level of sanctity, that is, one that enshrined an image of Shakyamuni Buddha. “

On an exhibition called the “Art of the Korean Renaissance: 1400-1600” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times: “Change was the essence of the Chosun dynasty, which was founded in 1392, around the time the Renaissance began in Europe, and lasted for more than five centuries. Chosun means “fresh dawn,” and the dynasty perceived itself as a broom sweeping the country clean of tired old ways, which in its early phase it did. The end of the 14th century was a heady time in East Asia. In 1368 China finally rid itself of Mongol occupiers and established the Ming dynasty. In the process it revived neglected art traditions and asserted neo-Confucian thinking, with its concepts of philosopher-kings, government by scholar-officials and a code of ethics based on loyalty to state, community and family. [Source: Holland Cotter, New York Times, March 19, 2009]

“Three decades later a similar shift happened in Korea. An old governing aristocracy was pushed aside to make way for a state-trained bureaucratic elite known collectively as yangban. Institutional Buddhism, a political and spiritual force for the better part of a millennium, was officially suppressed in favor of Confucian secularism. As in China, traditional art forms were revived and revamped to convey new meaning.

“But history is rarely cut and dried. As often as not, it’s a story of coexistence, not replacement; of retreat, not defeat. So it was in Korea. Buddhism didn’t go away. Like a pilot light on a stove, it may have been hard to see, but it kept burning, its flame sustained primarily by the ruling elite that had banned it. And it is Buddhist art of the early Chosun that gives the exhibition its flashes of color and spectacle. A large hanging scroll painting of the Healing Buddha, his skin gold, his robes purple, his throne wreathed by a tangle of celestial bodyguards, is especially magnetic. It looks both old and new. Prototypes for it go back centuries in China and Korea, but details of the Buddha’s persimmon-shaped face — the tiny slit eyes, the beanlike mouth — blend Chosun and Ming styles, making the painting very much of its 16th-century time. It was of its time too in being both illegal and a royal commission, paid for by an avidly Buddhist dowager queen whose son was a neo-Confucian king.”

The exhibition itself is small and made up of small things, “with four dozen objects. Most of them — ceramic jars, lacquer boxes, scroll paintings — are compact enough to be stashed in a closet. What the show lacks in grandeur, though, it makes up in fineness, and in rarity. All of the art dates from a period of cultural efflorescence and innovation in Korea. Experimental art was on the boil; utopian ideas were in the air. Yet much of what was produced then was lost in the series of invasions and occupations that began at the end of the 16th century. For practical reasons the Chosun court declared fealty to the Qing... At the same time Korean artists and scholars pondered, more intently than before, the lineaments of Korean culture — what it was, had been, could be — and turned their hands to advancing a national art.”

Book Art and Painting in the Chosun

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. The literati elite of Chosun 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.

Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times: “An industry of books in Hangul flourished. In a beautiful painting of a Buddhist narrative in the show, lines of white-painted Hangul script trickle down like curtains of soft rain. The tale depicted seems to be one invented in Korea, and certain forms of art are specifically Korean in content or style too. One type of painting — there are three examples in the show — is the equivalent of a class-reunion photograph of government bureaucrats who had taken their rigorous civil-service exams in the same year. [Source: Holland Cotter, New York Times, March 19, 2009]

“In each picture the men, often elderly, attending the reunion are portrayed enjoying one another’s company in breezy pavilions, with their names, biographical updates and occasional sentiments (I’m still working hard, I miss so-and-so, old age is hell) written below in Chinese. Many identical paintings were made so that each scholar could carry home a souvenir.

Korea in the 18th century saw the arrival of two great artists, Kim Hong-do and Sin Yun-bok, both of whom developed a passionate interest in depicting the daily activities of ordinary people in their work. Kim Hong-do preferred depicting a kaleidoscope of people in various situations and scenes of everyday life, whereas Sin Yun-bok, for his part, devoted his efforts to capturing erotic moments in works that were surprisingly voyeuristic for the period.

Chosun Pottery

Chosun 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.

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). 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. [Source:]

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)

Chosun Tombs

Chosun dynasty tombs usually have a red gateway with a yin/yang medallion and a stone pathway that leads from the entrance to a T-shaped pavilion where memorial services are conducted. Nearby is usually a stone pavilion with a stelae that lists the achievements of the deceased ruler. The grassy mound with the tomb inside is behind the pavilions. Around the mound are stone figures of sheep (yin) and tigers (yang) and their accompanying horses.

The Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009. According to UNESCO: The Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty form a collection of 40 tombs scattered over 18 locations. Built over five centuries, from 1408 to 1966, the tombs honoured the memory of ancestors, showed respect for their achievements, asserted royal authority, protected ancestral spirits from evil and provided protection from vandalism. Spots of outstanding natural beauty were chosen for the tombs which typically have their back protected by a hill as they face south toward water and, ideally, layers of mountain ridges in the distance. Alongside the burial area, the royal tombs feature a ceremonial area and an entrance. In addition to the burial mounds, associated buildings that are an integral part of the tombs include a T-shaped wooden shrine, a shed for stele, a royal kitchen and a guards’ house, a red-spiked gate and the tomb keeper’s house. The grounds are adorned on the outside with a range of stone objects including figures of people and animals. The Joseon Tombs completes the 5,000 year history of royal tombs architecture in the Korean peninsula.

The natural surroundings of the Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty, shaped by the principles of pungsu, create a delicate setting for the living tradition of ancestral worship and its associated rites. The royal tombs, with their hierarchical ordering of areas from the profane to the sacred, and their distinctive structures and objects, are an ensemble that resonates with the historic past of the Joseon Dynasty. Within the context of Confucian cultures, the integrated approach of the Royal Tombs of Joseon to nature and the universe has resulted in a distinctive and significant funeral tradition. Through the application of pungsu principles and the retention of the natural landscape, a memorable type of sacred place has been created for the practice of ancestral rituals.

The Royal Tombs of Joseon are an outstanding example of a type of architectural ensemble and landscape that illustrates a significant stage in the development of burial mounds within the context of Korean and East Asian tombs. The royal tombs, in their response to settings and in their unique (and regularized) configuration of buildings, structures and related elements, manifest and reinforce the centuries old tradition and living practice of ancestral worship through a prescribed series of rituals. The Royal Tombs of Joseon are directly associated with a living tradition of ancestral worship through the performance of prescribed rites. During the Joseon period, state ancestral rites were held regularly, and except for periods of political turmoil in the last century, they have been conducted on an annual basis by the Royal Family Organization and the worshipping society for each royal tomb.

Chosun Tombs in the Seoul Area

Tonggurung (five kilometers from Seoul in the northwestern suburbs of Seoul) contains the largest concentration of Chosun tombs in Korea. Surrounded by pine and deciduous tree forests, the site contains the tombs of seven kings and 10 queens buried beneath nine mounds, including the tomb of the Chosun dynasty founder Taejo (died 1398) and monarchs from the 15th through the 19th century. The last monarch buried here, King Honjong, was layed to rest in 1849.

Royal tombs of the Chosun Dynasty interred with kings and queens, as well as monarchs that were posthumously granted the title of king or queen. These sites are located mostly in lush green spaces around the suburbs of Seoul, providing visitors with a wonderful opportunity to enjoy nature in an urban setting. Of all the royal tombs of Korea’s past dynasties, the tombs of the Joseon Dynasty are in the best condition, and their locations were chosen based on geomantic traditions and Confucian beliefs. They could not be located on any mountain or in any field, but were carefully selected to be housed in a place considered a divine space, isolated from other areas that were already in use by surrounding mountains or other topographical features. For the same reason, the majority of the royal tombs are found in or near Seoul, which was called ‘Hanyang’ back then, believing the spirit of the kings and queens continued to have a positive influence over the nation’s dynastic capital. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

As a result, among the 40 royal tombs, a number close to a half are found in the capital city of Seoul, including Seolleung / Jeongneung, Jeongneung and Uireung; Seooreung, Donggureung, Gwangneung, Yungneung / Geolleung and Yeongneung / Nyeongneung in Gyeonggi-do; and lastly Jangneung royal tomb is located in Gangwon-do, which is further east of Seoul.

Main Chosun Tombs

Seonjeongneung, the name of the site which comprises Seolleung and Jeongneung Royal Tombs, is famous for its tranquil and pleasant promenades. As it is conveniently located in Samseong-dong, downtown Seoul, couples and office workers often go there for a leisurely walk. Most people see the place as a peaceful area to relax. The Seoulites often call the place 'Samneung Park' (meaning "three tomb park") as a more friendly nickname. Even after the hardships of Korea's history, the tombs were well cared for and managed in memorial of King Seongjong (r. 1469-1494), his wife Queen Jeonghyeon (r. 1480-1494), and King Jungjong (r. 1506-1544) of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

Yeongneung, in Yeoju of Gyeonggi-do, was the first joint royal tomb of the Joseon Dynasty, and houses the 4th ruler of the Joseon Dynasty, King Sejong the Great (1397-1450, r. 1418-1450), who is respected for the invention of Hangeul (Korean language), and his wife Queen Soheon (1395-1446).

Seooreung is the second largest royal burial site of the Joseon Dynasty after Donggureung. In Korean, it means five tombs ('Reung' refers to the tombs of the Kings and Queens) located to the west ('seo' means west in Korean) of Seoul. The place relates to memories of the crown prince Uigyeong (1438-1457), who unfortunately died young due to an ailment and was put to rest in Gyeongneung Tomb. The rest of the five tombs consist of Myeongneung, Changneung, Ingneung and Hongneung Royal Tombs.

Donggureung, on the other hand, is a historical venue set in the eastern part of Seoul. The site features nine royal mausoleums and they are observed to be comparatively larger than others, where total of 17 kings and queens are entered. Gyeongneung Royal Tomb is especially worth noting due to the interchanged burial positions between queens and kings as well as being the only burial site that entombed two wives of one king, King Heonjong (r.1834-1849), together in one place.

Jangneung is the tomb of Danjong, the 6th king of Joseon (r.1452-1455) whose throne was abdicated by his uncle. Leaving the royal palace upon exile, the king spent the later years of his life in Yeongwol until his death. To mourn and commemorate his unfortunate life, the tomb was built; however, unlike most of the royal tombs, it was enshrined at the farthest point from the capital. But thanks to its geological distance, it benefited by being unharmed by external forces. The area is surrounded by green and has been guarded by a sacred gate called Hongsalmun (meaning ‘gate with red arrows’ in Korean), adding extra care in protection.

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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