The Manchu invasions of the Korean peninsula and the subsequent establishment of the Qing dynasty in China during the first half of the seventeenth century shape the Chosôn elite’s view of its own culture. Scholars and officials increasingly take an interest in Korea’s history, geography, agriculture, literature, and art. The new strain of research, now commonly termed sirhak, or “practical learning,” is in vogue through much of the two centuries between 1600 and 1800. It is manifested in practical legislation that seeks to control and enhance the government’s bureaucratic workings and the lives of the general population, especially the peasants.
Culturally, a similar strain of interest in things Korean finds expression in works of art that explore native vernacular, geography, and social customs. Fiction written in han’gûl (Korean writing) explores nontraditional themes that fall outside of yangban (literati) interests, and are often authored by people of the lower classes. Paintings of the eighteenth century depicting famous sites in Korea and the daily lives of people—known as “true-view” landscape painting and genre painting—evidence the vibrant and “Korean” artistic expressions of this period. Ceramic production, having suffered setbacks following major Japanese and Manchu invasions of the peninsula, reemerges with fresh creativity by the second half of the seventeenth century and through the eighteenth century.
Attention to Korea’s history and culture does not mean indifference to foreign stimuli. On the contrary, there is enduring, if selective, interest in and relations with the world outside, alongside discoveries of native potentials. Diplomatic and cultural exchanges with China and Japan continue, despite ambivalence and mistrust, and contribute significantly to shaping Chosôn culture. Sporadic and largely accidental contact with the West sparks the two worlds’ awareness of each other.
Hô Kyun authors Hong Kiltong chôn, considered the first Korean vernacular novel (written in han’gûl, the Korean alphabet). It tells the story of Hong Kiltong, the son of a prime minister and his slave-maid, who leaves home to escape discrimination and becomes the leader of a band of outlaws who harasses corrupt officials and fights poverty, ultimately building a utopia outside Korea. The novel offers a critique of the social inequities of Chosôn society.
At the request of the Tokugawa shogunate, the Chosôn court enters into official diplomatic relations with Japan, just a decade after the devastating invasions of Korea by the previous Japanese warlord, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Subsequent emissary visits between the two governments, intended to foster both political and cultural exchange, include leading figures from literary and art circles.
Ch’angdôk (lit. “illustrious virtue”) Palace, originally constructed in 1405, is rebuilt following its destruction during the Japanese invasion of 1592. It serves as the official residence for thirteen kings of the Chosôn dynasty.
The Manchus, who will soon topple the Ming and establish their own Qing dynasty (1644–1911) in China, invade the northern part of the Korean peninsula. The reason for the Manchu attacks lies in their displeasure with Chosôn’s pro-Ming, anti-Manchu policy. The invasion ends with the surrender of King Injo (r. 1623–49) to the Manchu emperor. The Chosôn court is forced to recognize Manchu suzerainty, and Injo’s two eldest sons are taken as hostages. War with the Manchus reinforces Korean hostility toward the northern “barbarians” and solidifies the conviction in the cultural and moral superiority of Chosôn as the true Confucian state.
A Dutchman, Jan J. Weltevree, is shipwrecked on Korean shores. He later marries a Chosôn woman and becomes a naturalized citizen. In 1645, Crown Prince Sohyôn, who was in China as a Manchu hostage, returns to Korea with books on astrology and Catholicism given by the Jesuit priest Adam Schall von Bell. In 1653, Hendrik Hamel and Dutch sailors land on Cheju Island, the southernmost area of Korean territory. Hamel remains in Korea involuntarily for another thirteen years. After returning to the Netherlands, he records his experiences in Korea in Hamel’s Journal, published in 1668. Koreans thus come into sporadic and accidental contact with the West during the seventeenth century.
Kim Myông-guk (1600–after 1662), an important painter of the seventeenth century, twice accompanies the Chosôn embassy to Japan, where he becomes instantly and widely famous. Several contemporary documents record the extreme demand for Kim and his paintings during these visits. His powerful expressionistic style is in ample evidence in his best-known landscape painting, Returning in the Snow, as well as in the celebrated Sôn (Zen) figure painting, Dharma (painted in Japan).
The so-called Pusan kiln is established within the waeguan (“Japanese station”) at the port city of Pusan. A range of made-to-order ceramics for the Japanese market, including teabowls, is produced at this kiln. The primary beneficiary of this operation is the warlord family of Japan’s Tsushima Island. Specific orders regarding type, style, and quantity of ceramics are received from Japan. The kiln ceases operation in 1717.
The operation of punwôn, the official court kilns of the Chosôn dynasty, begins to recover around this time, following the destructive Japanese and Manchu invasions of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. However, because of difficulties in obtaining cobalt—an expensive import from China—the manufacture of blue-and-white ware (porcelain painted with underglaze cobalt-blue decoration) at the court kilns is severely curtailed. Instead, at both punwôn and regional kilns, porcelain painted with underglaze iron-brown emerges as a popular and less expensive alternative during the seventeenth century.
The life of Yi Ik (Sôngho), one of the most prominent scholars of the sirhak (“practical learning”) movement, a dominant philosophy of the Chosôn elite between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Characteristic of sirhak scholars, Yi is deeply concerned with pragmatic solutions to the realities of Korean social conditions. He chooses not to hold public office and is opposed to factionalism and excessive elitism. His main works are Essays of Sônghoand Record of Concern for the Underprivileged.
The kilns of punwôn, which during much of the seventeenth century are relocated periodically in search of better raw materials, move to Kûmsa-ri. By this time, the manufacture of porcelain with underglaze cobalt-blue decoration is again flourishing. The quality of blue-and-white ware produced at Kûmsa-ri is particularly exceptional. In 1751, the court kilns move for the last time to Punwôn-ri, where they remain in operation for over 130 years before being privatized.
Chông Sôn (1676–1759), a giant among Chosôn painters and the leading exponent of the “true-view” (Korean: chin’gyông) painting tradition, executes his tour-de-force, Complete View of Mount Kûmgang. At once realistic and inventive, this work epitomizes the trend toward actual and artistic explorations of famous sites in Korea, particularly Mount Kûmgang, in the eighteenth century. Chông’s Mount Kûmgang combines innovative conceptual framework and compositional devices with traditional Chinese brushwork techniques. His Clearing After Rain on Mount Inwang(1751) is another masterpiece that demonstrates his vision and artistry.
Kang Se-hwang, an influential poet-calligrapher-painter and art critic of the eighteenth century, paints his Album of a Journey to Songdo. A truly novel work, the album effectively captures Kang’s firsthand impressions of the unusual scenery. It also evidences the artist’s wide-ranging interests in stylistic sources, including true-view landscape style, Chinese Southern School style, and Western perspective and shading.
This period witnesses the flourishing of genre painting, led by the two influential painters Kim Hong-do and Sin Yun-bok. Kim, an extremely versatile artist whose works range from landscape to figural paintings, is best known for his Album of Genre Painting. It comprises simple yet powerfully descriptive portrayals of the daily life of commoners. Sin, on the other hand, paints primarily the romanticized leisure life of yangban and courtesans, as exemplified by his Genre Painting Album by Hyewon.
King Chôngjo (r. 1776–1800) establishes the Kyujanggak library within Ch’angdôk Palace. The name derives from “Kyusuk,” the spirit of literature and one of the twenty-eight lunar mansions. The primary function of the library is to house the writings of Chosôn kings, but it is also instrumental in publishing and acquiring important books.
Yi Sûng-hun is baptized by a Western Catholic priest during a trip to Beijing. The number of converts in Korea increases rapidly around this time, and by 1795 reaches around 4,000. Catholicism presents numerous challenges to Confucian ideology and practice, particularly ancestor worship and related rituals. Despite a proscription of the religion in 1785 and a death sentence to a yangban in 1791 for neglecting his ancestral duties, Catholicism is tacitly tolerated during King Chôngjo’s reign (1776–1800).
Construction of Suwon castle and fortification begins and is completed two years later. Situated in Kyônggi Province, Suwon is an ancient city not far from present-day Seoul. The building project incorporates traditional Korean and Chinese techniques of castle construction, as well as new scientific advances like the pulley mechanism. Much of the city wall remains today and is considered an important example of early modern castle construction technology in Korea.
“Korea, 1600–1800 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=09®ion=eak (October 2003)