In an attempt to distance themselves from the former Koryô court and rejuvenate the country, the rulers of the new Chosôn dynasty (1392–1910) severely curtail the practice of Buddhism and embrace Neo-Confucianism as the official state ideology. The systematic repression of Buddhist institutions, which were associated with the fall of the Koryô dynasty, and the withdrawal of official patronage of the religion leads to a decline in the number of Buddhist adherents and the production of Buddhist sculpture and painting. The commitment to Neo-Confucian educational and governmental policies, based on the influential school of Confucian philosophy and statecraft in China established by the Southern Song scholar Zhu Xi (1130–1200), is especially widespread among the newly influential yangban, or literati class, who come to dominate both the civil and military branches of government.
After the establishment of the Chosôn dynasty, the Korean ceramics industry is reinvigorated, and white porcelain as well as punch’ông wares are produced. While porcelain will continue to be manufactured throughout the dynasty, the production of punch’ông ceases at the end of the sixteenth century, due in part to the devastating invasions of the peninsula led by the Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–1598).
During the reigns of T’aejo (Yi Sông-gye; r. 1392–98), founder of the Chosôn dynasty (1392–1910), and his fifth son, T’aejong (Yi Pang-wôn; r. 1400–1418), increasingly stringent restrictions are placed on the Buddhist church and many of its properties are confiscated as well. These measures effectively undercut the societal influence of both the Buddhist hierarchy and the old aristocracy, thereby clearing the way for the new hereditary elite that will dominate Korea socially, culturally, and politically throughout the half-millennium of Chosôn rule. This new elite—known collectively as yangban (officials of the “two orders”)—consists of the literati, or educated, class that over time is able to monopolize civil and military posts in the national bureaucracy. Success in the civil service examinations constitutes the primary gateway to the bureaucracy and, as in contemporary China, requires strict adherence to a Neo-Confucian perspective on the part of the candidate. Official position within the bureaucracy, especially the civil order, which is more highly regarded than the military order, confers prestige and financial security within Chosôn society. Since yangban families are exempt from the corvée as well as from the payment of taxes, their male children have greater opportunity to obtain the thorough Neo-Confucian education necessary for success in the civil service examinations, which are nominally open to all freeborn males.
In all aspects of their life, the yangban cultivate such Confucian virtues as simplicity and frugality. This restraint is expressed, for example, in the furnishings and implements of the sarangbang, or study, the domain of the male head of a yangban household. Objects in the sarangbang—such as writing implements, ceramics, calligraphy, and paintings—exemplify the scholar’s social and political status as well as his moral standards and refined aesthetic sensibilities.
Landscape painting, practiced by professional painters as well as the literati, develops in a new direction in the early Chosôn period. Drawing on the native painting tradition of the preceding Koryô dynasty (918–1392) and adapting recently introduced styles from China’s Ming dynasty (1368–1644), Korean artists begin to produce landscapes with more distinctly Korean characteristics. The preeminent landscapist of the time is the court artist An Kyôn (active ca. 1440–70). His style, inspired by Chinese monumental landscapes, particularly those of the Northern Song master Guo Xi (ca. 1000–ca. 1090) and his followers, exerts tremendous influence in his own time and will continue to do so in later generations.
The Neo-Confucian orientation of the early Chosôn court and bureaucracy has important repercussions for the dynasty’s foreign relations. The emphasis on hierarchy basic to this philosophy prompts Korean kings to regard loyalty (the concept of sadae, or “serving the great”) as a positive virtue in their relations with the emperors of China’s Ming dynasty. The Chosôn government dispatches regular official embassies to Ming China each year—to offer felicitations at the New Year, congratulate the Ming emperor on his birthday, honor the birthday of the crown prince, and mark the death of a ruler and the succession to the throne of a new emperor. While their main purpose is political, these embassies stimulate trade and cultural exchange. Korea exports to China such items as horses, ginseng, fur, and ramie cloth, and imports porcelain ware, silk cloth, books, and medicines.
The continued threat posed by Japanese marauders, although diminished by the end of the preceding Koryô dynasty, leads King Sejong (r. 1418–50) in 1419 to order an attack against the island of Tsushima, off the southeast coast of the Korean peninsula, which serves as the base for the marauders. The Chosôn government subsequently agrees to grant the Japanese limited trading privileges, opening three ports to them along the southeast coast. Trade relations are severed in 1510 following a Japanese uprising in the ports, but resume in 1512 under a new, more restrictive treaty. Among the Korean articles exported to Japan during this period are rice, cotton, hemp, ramie cloth, inlaid lacquerware, and porcelain, as well as Buddhist sculptures and sutras and Confucian texts. The Japanese in exchange provide copper, tin, and sulfur along with luxury items for the elite Korean consumer such as spices and medicines.
Although officially out of favor, Buddhism remains the chief religion among upper-class women and the common people, and continues to be an important cultural force in Korean society. Buddhist images, some cast in bronze but many carved in wood and then gilded or lacquered, are produced for private devotion as well as placement in temples and monasteries. Buddhist paintings of the Chosôn period consist mainly of murals and large hanging scrolls. In contrast to Koryô Buddhist paintings, they tend to be brighter in color and less refined in execution. The use of hemp or linen as a painting medium, in place of the more costly silk used during the Koryô period, likewise reflects the change in patronage.
Korean potters, using techniques adopted from the Jingdezhen kilns in southeastern China, begin to produce white porcelain (paekcha). High-quality, undecorated white porcelain ware is favored by the Chosôn court for both daily use and ritual ceremonies. According to the Yongjae ch’onghwa, the collected writings of the Chosôn scholar-official Sông Hyôn (1439–1504), white porcelain is used exclusively in the royal household of King Sejong (r. 1418–50). The preference for this ware at Sejong’s court may be attributed in part to the influence of the Chinese Yongle emperor (Chengzu; r. 1403–24), whose fondness for white porcelain is well known. However, its popularity among the Korean ruling elite and aristocracy also reflects the austere tastes associated with Neo-Confucianism, the official ideology of the new dynasty.
The best grade of porcelain, reserved for the use of the court and aristocracy, is manufactured primarily at the official kilns called Punwôn in Kwangju-gun, Kyônggi Province, near modern-day Seoul. These kilns are relocated every few decades in order to ensure a constant supply of firewood, enormous quantities of which are required to produce the high temperatures (in excess of 1200°C) needed for firing porcelain.
Punch’ông ware, the development of which is a result of early Chosôn potters’ attempts to adapt and expand upon the Koryô celadon tradition, is produced throughout much of the Korean peninsula during this period. The modern term punch’ông (powder green) refers to stoneware made of a grayish clay that is covered with white slip and coated with a transparent glaze. The glaze, which contains a small amount of iron oxide, turns a bluish green color when fired. Potters of this distinctive ware employ a variety of decorative techniques, including stamping, inlay, incising, sgraffito, and underglaze iron-brown painting. Punch’ôngwares, especially teabowls, are widely appreciated for their aesthetic appeal in Japan, where the great tea master Sen no Rikyû (1522–1591) helps to create a taste for their rustic forms and bold designs.
The production of punch’ông ceases at the end of the sixteenth century with the growing popularity of porcelain and the devastating invasions of the peninsula led by the Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–1598), which results in the forced relocation of Korean potters to Japan.
The reign of King Sejong (r. 1418–50) marks the cultural high point of the early Chosôn dynasty. One of Sejong’s most notable achievements—motivated largely by the intent to further the education of the entire Korean populace—is the introduction in 1446 of the indigenous Korean writing system hunmin chôngûm (proper sounds to instruct the people), known today as han’gûl. This simple phonetic alphabet is perfectly designed for the writing of spoken Korean and, as such, is an ideal medium for the many who, unlike the yangban males, have neither the opportunity nor reason to become proficient in the more difficult Chinese writing system, initially adopted by the Koreans between the first century B.C. and the second century A.D.
Blue-and-white ware—porcelain decorated with a design painted in underglaze cobalt blue—is manufactured on the Korean peninsula by the second half of the fifteenth century. Records indicate that domestic cobalt oxide, which is less costly than that imported from China, is successfully employed in Korea in the decoration of porcelain for the first time in 1465. The technique of underglaze iron-brown painting also appears in the fifteenth century.
The greater prestige accorded civil over military officials in the early Chosôn period, attributable in part to the Chosôn rulers’ promotion of Neo-Confucian values, engenders a chronic decline in the government’s ability to protect itself against aggression from without or insurrection from within. By the end of the sixteenth century, after many years of neglect, the strength and preparedness of Korea’s military forces have seriously deteriorated. It is at this juncture that in Japan the military leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–1598) brings centuries of internecine war to an end and assumes overall command of the archipelago’s battle-hardened armed forces. Faced by the potential peril posed by a vast and idle military, Hideyoshi conceives the notion of conquering Ming China and therefore requests that the Chosôn court allow his armies free passage through the Korean peninsula. Both common sense and Neo-Confucian loyalty to the Ming argue against Korean acquiescence, with the result that, in 1592 and again in 1597, desolating Japanese attacks are loosed against the peninsula. Striking from the south, the first attack sweeps north as far as P’yông’yang (in present-day North Korea), but the second is stopped before advancing half that distance.
The Chosôn court’s loyalty to the Ming is rewarded by the dispatch of Chinese armies to Korea, where they live off the land and frequently join in the fight against the Japanese. Between the initial onslaught of Japanese troops in 1592 and their final withdrawal in 1598, the invaders maintain themselves within massive fortifications erected along the peninsula’s southern coast while they, too, live off the backs of the Korean peasantry.
During the bitter years of Japanese occupation, large areas of southern Korea are thoroughly pillaged. Among the vast quantities of booty borne off to the Japanese archipelago are many treasures plundered from Buddhist monasteries, including paintings, sculptures, stone lanterns, and large bronze temple bells. Numbers of Korean potters are also carried off to Japan, where masters of the increasingly popular tea ceremony (chanoyu) have acquired a profound appreciation for Korea’s punch’ông ceramics. The labor of skilled Korean potters at Japanese kilns not only benefits the production of high-fired, glazed stonewares in the Kyushu region, but also significantly hastens the development of porcelain production in the archipelago.
“Korea, 1400–1600 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=08®ion=eak (October 2002)