The nineteenth century is a period of significant political, social, and cultural change as Korea lurches into the modern era and world order. Much political jostling occurs among the royal in-law families, creating drama but little stability or visionary leadership. Socially, the class system weakens considerably, even within the so-called elites, as more and more “fallen” yangban (literati) demand greater equality and recognition. Culturally, exciting developments occur in all the arts, including visual, literary, and performing arts.
Dubbed the “hermit kingdom,” Korea is known especially to the West for its reluctance to engage in relations with the outside world. This stands in stark contrast to China and Japan, with whom the Europeans enjoy trade and cultural exchange, if at times antagonistic. By the late nineteenth century, however, Korea, as a result of both internal politics and external pressure, signs formal treaties with the U.S. and various European nations. Around the same period, the Korean peninsula becomes a targeted territory of the Japanese, whose new and “modern” Meiji government develops increasingly imperialist ambitions, competing with other global powers boasting empires or colonies, notably Britain, France, Russia, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain (the U.S. coming into the game late with the acquisition of the Philippines from Spain in 1889).
With the accession of the ten-year-old King Sunjo, the era of the so-called in-law governments begins. From this point until the end of the Chosôn dynasty in 1910, a succession of weak kings encourages the consolidation of power in the hands of royal in-law families.
The Catholic Persecution of 1801. Known as “Western Learning,” Catholicism was tolerated during King Chôngjo’s reign (1776–1800). During the first half of the nineteenth century, however, severe anti-Catholic persecutions alternate with periods of more relaxed policies. In large part, the threat of Catholicism to the traditional Confucian Chosôn society lies in its tenet of equality.
Painting and calligraphy witness another era of vitality with the great artist Kim Chông-hûi (1786–1856). A highly educated yangban, he holds high government positions in addition to being a noted sirhak (“practical learning”) scholar. An extremely accomplished and influential painter and calligrapher, he is especially renowned for his ink paintings of sparse landscapes and orchids and his brilliant calligraphy.
The life of painter Chang Sûng-ôp. Famous as much for his eccentric personality and free-wheeling lifestyle as for his prodigious artistic talents, he shows brilliance in a range of subject matter, including landscape, figures, and the Four Gentlemen (bamboo, plum, orchid, and chrysanthemum). Some of his paintings feature fantastic landscapes or strange-looking figures that reveal the influence of new styles adopted from Qing Chinese painting.
A religious and social movement known as Tonghak, or “Eastern Learning,” begins to be advocated by its founder Ch’oe Che-u (1824–1864). An amalgam of select ideas from Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, and even Catholicism (though supposedly developed in opposition to the latter), it appeals primarily to the grieved peasantry.
King Kojong (r. 1864–1907) ascends to the throne at age twelve. His father and de facto regent Yi Ha-ûng (1821–1898)—better known as Taewôn’gun—wields considerable political power between 1864 and 1873. In reinstating royal authority that had been imperiled as a result of the “in-law governments,” he antagonizes a large segment of the Confucian literati. In foreign policy, Taewôn’gun is a staunch isolationist, a position increasingly out of sync with world affairs in the late nineteenth century. Beside his political reputation, Taewôn’gun also makes a name as a literati artist: he is especially celebrated for his calligraphy and ink paintings of orchids.
Distinguished achievements in literary and performing arts. The Anthology of Korean Poetry, an impressive compilation of mostly sijo poetry (a major genre of native literature), is published in 1867. The art of p’ansori, one-person performances of stories adapted from earlier Korean vernacular novels, flourishes. Masked dance, whose primary audience is the common people and whose performance includes shamanistic characteristics, also gains popularity.
The Treaty of Kanghwa, Korea’s first modern treaty, is signed with Japan. The preceding year, the Japanese Meiji government dispatched the navy vessel Unyô into the waters off Kanghwa, forcing the Koreans to open fire, then used this attack as a pretext to demand formal treaty negotiations. Although many Chosôn government officials oppose entering into negotiations with Japan, King Kojong is persuaded by a few to reconcile with Japan and sign the Treaty of Kanghwa. This marks the beginning of Japan’s imperialist designs on the Korean peninsula, which will ultimately result in the formal annexation of Korea under Japanese rule in 1910.
The “Corean-American Treaty of Amity and Commerce” is signed at Inch’ôn. This is the first treaty that Korea, long known as the “hermit kingdom,” signs with a Western nation. Similar treaties follow with Britain (1883), Germany (1883), Italy (1884), Russia (1884), France (1886), and Austria-Hungary (1889).
The official court kilns, known as punwôn, are privatized. First established in the second half of the fifteenth century, the punwôn manufactured decorated and plain white ware, or porcelain, primarily for the royal court. In truth, by the late Chosôn dynasty, those with financial means seem to have been active consumers of punwôn porcelain as well. By the mid-nineteenth century, imported porcelain from both China and Japan push domestic porcelain production into the fray, contributing to the decline of punwôn.
A large-scale Tonghak uprising, with thousands of peasants joining forces, attempts to overthrow the corrupt Min oligarchy (the powerful Queen Min and family) and banish the imperialist Japanese presence already taking root in Korea by this time.
A series of sweeping sociopolitical reforms, known as the Kabo Reforms (kabo refers to the year 1894), are launched. Aimed at modernizing Korea, they are decreed by the Korean government and instigated and encouraged by the Japanese. The initiatives take place in the context of the Sino-Japanese War. Some key provisions include the introduction of a modern judiciary system and a new monetary system, reform of the highest levels of government, and abolition of the social status system.
The assassination of Queen Min, King Kojong’s consort, who, along with her clan, wielded much political influence. With mounting Russo-Japanese tensions, and with the Korean peninsula as a coveted territory, the Japanese minister in Korea masterminds a plot to eliminate the queen and her anti-Japanese (and, by extension, pro-Russian) faction.
“Korea, 1800–1900 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=10®ion=eak (October 2004)