Characteristics of Society Under the Dynasties

South Korea Table of Contents

Cultural Expression

Koreans, like the other East Asian peoples, have a highly developed aesthetic sense and over the centuries have created a great number of paintings, sculptures, and handicrafts of extraordinary beauty. Among the very earliest are the paintings found on the walls of tombs of the Koguryo Kingdom (located in what is now North Korea) and around the China-North Korea border area. These paintings are colorful representations of birds, animals, and human figures that possess remarkable vitality and animation. Similar, though less spectacular, tombs are found around the old capitals of the kingdoms of Paekche and Silla in present-day South Korea. A number of gold objects, including a gold crown of great delicacy and sophistication dating from the Three Kingdoms period, have been found in South Korea.

Buddhism was the dominant artistic influence during the later Three Kingdoms period and the Silla and Koryo dynasties. Themes and motifs that had originated in India passed to Korea through Central Asia and China. A number of bronze images of Buddha and the Bodhisattvas were made during the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries. The images are not mere copies of Indian or north Chinese models, but possess a distinctly "Korean" spirit that one critic has described as "as indifference to sophistication and artificiality and a predisposition toward nature." The striking stone Buddha found in the Sokkuram Grotto, a cave temple located near Kyongju in North Kyongsang Province, was carved during the Silla Dynasty and is considered to be the finest of Korean stone carvings. During the centuries of Buddhism's ascendancy, a large number of stone pagodas and temples were built, one of the most famous being the Pulguksa Temple near Kyongju.

The Koryo Dynasty is best remembered for its celadons, or bluish-green porcelains, considered by many specialists to be the best in the world, surpassing even the Chinese porcelains upon which they were originally modeled. Many have intricate designs of birds, flowers, and other figures rendered in light and dark-colored clay on the blue-green background; some are delicately formed into the shapes of flowers, animals, and objects. Choson 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.

During the Choson Dynasty, 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.

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.

A distinctive position in traditional Korean literature is occupied by a type of poem known as the sijo--a poetic form that began to develop in the twelfth century. It is composed of three couplets and characterized by great simplicity and expressiveness:

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.
This poem is by Chong Mong-ju (1337-92), a Koryo Dynasty loyalist who was assassinated at the foundation of the Yi Dynasty. The poet refers to his political choice not to side with the new government.

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.

The development of a Korean alphabet (today known as han'gul), in the fifteenth century gave rise to a vernacular, or popular, literature. Although the native alphabet was looked down upon by the yangban elite, historical works, poetry, travelogues, biographies, and fiction written in a mixed script of Chinese characters and han'gul were widely circulated. Some vernacular literature had what could be interpreted as social protest themes. Probably the earliest of these was The Tale of Hong Kil-tong by Ho Kyun. The protagonist, Hong Kil-tong, was the son of a nobleman and his concubine; his ambition to become a great official was frustrated because of his mother's lowly background. He became a Robin Hood figure, stole from the rich to give to the poor, and eventually left Korea in order to establish a small kingdom in the south. Other vernacular writers included Kim Man-jung, who wrote The Nine Cloud Dream, which dealt with Buddhist themes of karma and destiny, and The Story of Lady Sa. Pak Chi-won's Tale of a Yangban gave a realistic account of social life in eighteenth-century Korea. In 1980 Korean scholars discovered a nineteenth-century vernacular novel that told of the complicated relationships among members of four yangban and commoner clans over five generations in a very detailed and realistic manner. At 235 volumes, this work is one of the longest novels ever written.

P'ansori combine music and literary expression in ballad-form stories, which are both recited and sung by a performer accompanied by a drummer who sets the rhythms--a kind of "one-man opera" in the words of one observer. P'ansori usually are inspired by myths or folk tales and have Confucian, Buddhist, or folkloric themes. In the 1970s and 1980s, dissident students often drew on the techniques of traditional folk drama to satirize contemporary politics.

Korean folk tales are closely tied to religious traditions and usually have shamanistic, Buddhist, or Confucian themes. While Confucian tales tend to be moralistic and didactic, Buddhist and shamanistic tales are highly imaginative and colorful, depicting the relationships among spirits, ghosts, gods, and men in many different and often humorous ways.

Korean Identity

That the Korean kingdoms were strongly affected by Chinese civilization and its institutions was not surprising. Not only were the Chinese far more numerous and often more powerful militarily than the Koreans, but they also had a more advanced technology and culture. Chinese supremacy in these realms was acknowledged not only by the Koreans, who were militarily inferior, but by those who were powerful enough to conquer China, such as the Kitan Liao, who ruled parts of northern China, Manchuria, and Mongolia between 907 and 1127; the Mongols who ruled China from 1279 to 1368; the Jurchen tribes, who later seized northern Manchuria; and the Manchus, who ruled China between 1644 and 1911. The adoption of Chinese culture was more than simply an expression of submission to China, it also was the indispensable condition of being civilized in the East Asian context. This situation continued until the inroads of Western civilization substantially altered the political and cultural map of Asia in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

The adoption of Chinese culture and institutions by the Korean kingdoms, however, did not obliterate the identity of the Korean people. Koguryo had risen against the Chinese conquerors, and Silla had stubbornly resisted Chinese attempts to turn it into a colony. While Silla and subsequent dynasties were obliged to pay tribute to the various Chinese, Mongol, and Jurchen dynasties, and although Korea was subjected to direct overlordship by the Mongols for a century, the Korean kingdoms were able to survive as independent entities, enabling their citizens to maintain an identity as a separate people.

Further contributing to the maintenance of this identity was the Korean language, which linguists generally agree belongs to the Altaic language family of Inner Asia. There is no doubt that the indigenous language was deeply affected by the country's long contact with China. Not only did its written form rely on Chinese characters until the fifteenth century, but about half of its vocabulary was of Chinese origin. Nevertheless, the language is very different from Chinese in its lexicon, phonology, and grammar. Although at one time the ruling classes were set apart from the rest of the population by their knowledge of Chinese characters and their ability to use Chinese in its written form, since the unification of the peninsula by the Silla Dynasty all Koreans have shared the same spoken language.

Political and Social Institutions

Despite the fact that Korea would undergo numerous reforms, palace coups, and two dynastic changes after the Silla period, many of the political and social systems and practices instituted during the Silla Dynasty persisted until the nineteenth century. Their Chinese inspiration, of course, had much to do with the durability of these systems. One lasting principle was that of centralized rule. From the time of the Koguryo, Paekche, and Silla states of the Three Kingdoms period, royal houses always governed their domains directly, without granting autonomous powers to local administrators. The effectiveness of the central government varied from dynasty to dynasty and from period to period, but the principle of centralization--involving a system of provinces, districts, towns, and villages--was never modified.

Another feature that endured for centuries was the existence of a stratified social system characterized by a clear distinction between the rulers and the ruled. Under the Silla Dynasty, society was rigidly organized into a hereditary caste system. The Koryo Dynasty, which succeeded Silla, instituted a system of social classes according to which the rest of the population was subordinate to an elite composed of scholar-officials. By passing the higher civil service examination and becoming a government official a commoner could become a member of the elite, but since examinations presupposed both the time and wealth for education, upward mobility was not the rule. This system continued during the Choson Dynasty. The strength of the aristocratic tradition may have been one factor contributing to the relative weakness of the Korean monarchy, in which the king usually presided over a council of senior officials as primus inter pares, rather than governing as absolute ruler.

During the Choson Dynasty, family and lineage groups came to occupy tremendous importance. Because one's social and political status in society was largely determined by birth and lineage, it was only natural that a great deal of emphasis was placed on family. Each family maintained a genealogical table with meticulous care. Only male offspring could prolong the family and clan lines and theirs were the only names registered in the genealogical tables; therefore, the birth of a son was regarded as an occasion of great joy. The Confucian stress on the family reinforced the importance Koreans attached to the family.

The Confucian principle of Five Relationships governing social behavior became the norm of Korean society. Righteousness toward the sovereign, filial piety, deference to older and superior persons, and benevolence to the younger and inferior became inviolable rules of conduct. Transgressors of these rules were regarded as uncultured beings unfit to be members of society. Whether in the family or society at large, people in positions of authority or occupying superior status commanded respect.

Still another enduring feature of traditional society under the Choson Dynasty was the dominance of the yangban class. The yangban not only held power but also controlled the national wealth in the form of land. The court permitted the yangban to collect revenues on the land as remuneration for their services. Because much commercial activity was related to tributary missions to China or to government procurements, the wealth of the merchants often was dependent upon the discretion of the yangban.

Finally, because under the Choson Dynasty one could enter into the scholar-official elite by passing examinations based on Confucian writings and penmanship, the entire society stressed classical education. The arts of war were accorded a lesser status, even though the founders of both the Koryo and Choson dynasties were generals and despite the fact that the country had suffered from numerous foreign invasions.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress