Some of the most outstanding achievements in Korean art and culture date to the Koryô dynasty (918–1392), which rules the peninsula for nearly 500 years. Buddhism, even more lavishly patronized by the court and aristocracy during this period than in the preceding Unified Silla period (676–935), is a major creative force in the arts, exemplified in part by the proliferation of temple complexes in the new capital Songdo (modern Kaesông) and elsewhere in the peninsula, with their elaborate stone pagodas, exquisite paintings, stone and gilt bronze sculptures, and refined ritual objects in lacquer, ceramic, and bronze. The production of elegant green-glazed ceramic ware, highly praised by contemporaneous Chinese and later known and appreciated in the West as celadon ware, represents the outstanding achievement of Koryô potters. The invention and use of cast-metal movable type in Korea in the early thirteenth century predates by two centuries Gutenberg’s invention of metal movable type in Europe.
Relations between the Koryô court and the mainland are not always friendly. In the northern part of the peninsula, Koryô engages in border struggles with northern China’s conquerors, the Khitan and Jurchen tribes, and suffers three invasions by the Khitan between 993 and 1018. Between 1231 and 1257, Korea is ravaged by invasions by the Mongols, who will rule China under the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368). By the mid-fourteenth century, the Mongol Yuan dynasty begins to lose control in China, and in 1368 is ousted by the Chinese rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). In 1388, a weakened and divided Koryô court sends a military expedition to invade Manchuria, in response to a Ming government declaration that it intends to claim Koryô’s northeastern territory. One of the expedition commanders, Yi Sông-gye (1335–1408), who favors a pro-Ming policy, leads his troops back to the capital and seizes control of the government. In 1392, having consolidated his power, he founds a new dynasty, Chosôn (1392–1910).
Motivated in part by the attempt to solidify the authority of Buddhism as the state religion, and in part by the desire to invoke the protection of Buddhist deities in response to armed incursions from the mainland by the Khitan, founders of the Liao dynasty (907–1125), the Koryô court orders the carving of woodblocks for printing a complete edition of the Buddhist canon (Tripitaka). This monumental undertaking, begun in the early years of the reign of King Hyônjong (r. 1009–31), is not completed until 1087, long after peace with the Liao has been established.
Buddhist painting, known in Korea as t’aenghwa (literally “hanging painting”), achieves an extraordinary artistic and religious importance in Korea during the Koryô period. State and private religious activities ensure a constant demand for images to serve as objects of worship. Buddhist paintings, executed on silk in intense color and embellished with gold, are commissioned by members of the court and aristocracy, who spare no cost in their production. Extant examples of Koryô Buddhist paintings date from the thirteenth century.
With the adoption of celadon production techniques used at the Yue kiln complex in southeastern China, Korean potters have by the ninth to tenth century perfected the high-fired glaze techniques that enable them to undertake the manufacture of celadon ware. The Koryô celadon industry reaches its pinnacle both technically and artistically between the early twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, when it achieves the celebrated translucent glazes, refined forms, and naturalistic designs that win high praise from the Chinese, one of whom pronounces Korean celadons as “first under Heaven.” It is during this period that Koryo celadon ware acquires a character independent of its Chinese counterparts, developing distinctive features in shape, design, color, and decoration. While potters employ several methods to decorate these wares, including incising and carving, the use of white and black inlays (sanggam) is the most innovative and highly regarded technique.
The Chinese scholar-official Xu Jing (1091–1153) visits the Koryô capital as a member of a diplomatic mission from the court of the Northern Song emperor Huizong (r. 1101–25). Xu Jing’s written account of his one-month visit to Korea, entitled Xuanhe fengshi Gaoli tujing (Illustrated Record of the Chinese Embassy to the Koryô Court during the Xuanhe Era), is the earliest known and most concise commentary on the production of Koryô celadon ware.
The first of Korea’s two earliest surviving histories, Samguk sagi (Histories of the Three Kingdoms), compiled under the direction of the Confucian scholar-official Kim Pusik (1075–1151), is presented to the Koryô king Injong (r. 1122–46). The compilers use as their sources earlier documents that have now been lost.
Cast-metal movable type is invented in Korea in the early decades of the thirteenth century, some two centuries before Gutenberg’s invention of metal movable type in Europe, to facilitate in particular the distribution of Buddhist and Confucian texts. The skill of Korean paper- and ink-makers in producing sufficiently strong and thick paper and an oilier grade of ink is crucial to the success of this new printing technique. One of the earliest recorded works printed in metal movable type is a volume concerning Confucian ritual published in about 1234. A Buddhist text published in Korea in 1377 (now in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris) is the oldest extant book printed in this manner.
The Mongols, who occupy large portions of northern China and will rule all of China under the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), launch six invasions into the Korean peninsula during this period. In 1231, the Koryô court flees the capital of Songdo (modern Kaesông, North Korea) and takes refuge on nearby Kanghwa, a large island just offshore in the Yellow Sea, where it remains in exile for the next forty years.
The Koryô court orders the preparation of another set of woodblocks for printing the Buddhist Tripitaka, which is intended both to gain protection against the Mongol invaders and to replace the earlier eleventh-century set that had been destroyed by the Mongols in 1232. Known as the Tripitaka Koreana, this set of more than 80,000 woodblocks is completed in 1251. (Today it is preserved intact at Haein-sa temple, in South Kyôngsang Province.)
By this date, peace has been negotiated with the Mongol invaders, and the Koryô court enters an era lasting more than a century of close relations (including royal intermarriage) with the Mongol emperors of China’s Yuan dynasty.
The Buddhist monk Iryôn (1206–1289) compiles the Samguk yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms), the second of Korea’s two earliest surviving histories. Most of the text consists of Buddhist legends from the Silla period.
Neo-Confucianism, a reformulation of Confucian teachings developed in China during the Song dynasty (960–1279) that is the conceptual basis for China’s civil service examinations, is introduced into Korea toward the end of the Koryô dynasty through the efforts of Korean scholars. Many of the early advocates of this philosophy in Korea come to question the domination of Koryô society by Buddhist clerics and a small number of aristocratic families.
The disintegration of the Mongol regime in China during the late fourteenth century, which culminates in its replacement by the indigenous Chinese dynasty known as the Ming (1368–1644) causes substantial turmoil at the Koryô court. Conflict between those who believe that Korea ought to remain loyal to the Yuan and those who favor alignment with the emerging Ming precipitates the Koryô dynasty’s downfall. In 1388, Yi Sông-gye (1335–1408), founder of the succeeding Chosôn dynasty, ousts the reigning Koryô king and the leading officials responsible for the court’s anti-Ming policy.
After the last Koryô monarch is deposed in 1392, Yi Sông-gye is proclaimed king of the new Chosôn dynasty (1392–1910) and the capital is moved to the site of modern Seoul. The change in dynasty spurs major social and cultural transformations. Yi (like the first Koryô king, known by the posthumous title of T’aejo, or Grand Founder; r. 1392–98) and his immediate successors move aggressively to augment the power of the royal government. Particularly noteworthy are their efforts to reduce the wealth and influence of both the Buddhist establishment and the noble families that had been prominent at the Koryô court, and their adoption of Neo-Confucianism as the new official state ideology.