Managed to come back to Singapore in time to see Asian Civilizations Museum’s special exhibition Joseon Korea: Court Treasures and City Life! I think anyone interested in anything Korea probably got their start from Korean pop culture: either Kpop or Kdramas. For me, it was kdramas that did me in. ;) Many Korean historical dramas are set in the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), which was Korea’s longest and most prosperous dynasty. The exhibition features artifacts from the Joseon court and others used by the upper class people ranging from paintings, clothing, furniture, letters, and other forms of decorative arts.
| Cover picture: The Sun, Moon, And Five Peaks, 19th or early 20th century, six-fold screen; colour on silk |
The cover picture of this post is my favourite exhibit, located right at the opening of the exhibition. The motif of the sun, moon, and five peaks was specific to the Joseon court, and a screen with this design was always installed behind the king wherever he went. The various elements of the motif have different symbolism: the moon and sun being yin and yang, the five peaks representing the five elements of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water, the water waves as a smooth circulation of the five elements, and finally the pine trees to represent the longevity of the king and the long reign of the Joseon dynasty.
Reproduction of jeogui, queen’s ceremonial robe, early 20th century, silk
Accessory case and hairpins
This elaborate and gorgeous robe was reserved for the queen to wear on the most formal occasions including her wedding, the wedding of the crown princess, and other state events. The hairpins accompany the look and were used to hold elaborate hairpieces. Confucianism formed the dominant ideology in Joseon Korea, and the designs of some of the hairpins are imbued with Confucian virtues. In fact, Confucianism discouraged material excessiveness and women didn’t accessorize much, apart from hairpins and rings.
Celebrating the Birth of Crown Prince Yi Cheok, 1874, ten-fold screen; ink and colour on silk
Reception of Japanese Envoys, 18th century, ten-fold screen; ink and colour on paper
I really liked looking at these screens! They are much bigger in real life than they appear in these pictures. It’s really nice tracking the narrative from one end to the other and seeing all that detail that spans the screen.
Rank badges: Crane and Tiger-Leopard, 19th century, silk on damask
Rank badges were worn on the front of court officials’ robes. Civil officials wore rank badges with birds that were associated with literary elegance, while military officials had rank badges with tigers or leopards that represented courage. I just really like how people back in the day incorporated these somewhat-subtle and intricate designs in their culture to communicate their taste and refinement.
Gathering of Literati with Deep Friendship, 1857, album; ink and colour on paper
Jeongnija type blocks, 1796 and 1858, bronze
The Hangul Edition of Minor Learning, printed in 1875, woodblock-printed book
Writing is of course a crucial component of a country’s history, and the invention of hangeul by the beloved King Sejong remains as Korea’s pride and joy. Back then, only the highly educated could learn to read and write in classical Chinese. The invention of hangeul allowed the vernacular language to be produced in a written script that people of all social classes could easily pick up.
That is a point that still remains today – the Korean language is considered an “easy” language to learn because learning the alphabet means that you can read and pronounce any Korean character (compared to say, Chinese characters). Although in my experience, learning any language also requires you to tackle grammar and vocabulary which didn’t make my Korean learning all that easy after all, LOL.
Mountain-shaped brush holder, 19th century, porcelain
I’d never expected brush holders to be so fancy! These kinds of brush holders were found on the desks of Joseon scholar-officials, essentially a highly educated man of the highest societal class, the yangban. The house on the mountain would have been seen as an existence away from worldly concerns which many literati desired and strived for.
Bookshelves, 19th or early 20th century, ten-fold screen; colour on silk
I need this in my future home next to a reading area or home library! (Yes, I like to dream big.) This great idea of having screens depicting bookshelves, called chaekgado, is believed to have been initiated by King Jeongjo known for his love of books and scholarship.
Im Huiji, Orchids, late 18th or 19th century, album leaf; ink on paper
I always love an ink painting simply created with a few strokes. Looks so carefree and easy, but probably very hard to execute in reality.
Bridal robe, late Joseon dynasty, embroidery on silk; Two wedding geese, early 20th century, wood
This hwarot (flower robe) is one that was worn by commoners on their wedding day, following the style of the embroidered overcoat usually worn by princesses. It’s definitely not as grand as the jeogui seen earlier, but still very pretty!
Norigae, early 20th century, embroidered silk
The norigae is an essential part of Joseon women’s dress. The hanbok originated in the Joseon dynasty and is now considered the traditional Korean costume. The women’s hanbok is made up of the top (jeogori) and skirt (chima) and the norigae is worn at the top of the chima along the side.
Norigae originally referred to “pretty and playful objects” but the term came to be used for these tasselled accessories. The norigae on the far left is probably the most standard form, while the one in the middle has an attached tiger claw design that is meant to drive away evil and protect the wearer from dangerous animals. The one on the far right has a pendant that is used as a perfume case!
Three-part norigae, early 20th century, silk with metal, jade, coral, amber, and malachite
This three-part norigae is the most elaborate form of norigae, with the three components representing harmony between heaven, earth, and man. While the ones above could be worn for everyday use, this three-part norigae was likely used for special occasions.
Child’s jacket, early 20th century; Headdress for first birthday, late 19th century, both embroidered silk
I love the cute jacket! The jacket was worn by children for traditional holidays and on their first birthday. The first birthday is an important occasion in Korean culture, with the highlight of the doljabi during which the kid chooses an item out of a range of objects (e.g. money, pencil, stethoscope) and this choice of item is meant to predict their future careers. I find this idea really fun and cute actually!
The rainbow-coloured (saekdong) sleeves also symbolize harmony and protection for the child to have a long, healthy, and prosperous life.
Ran Hwang, Becoming Again; Coming Together, 2017
After you’re done at the main exhibition hall on the second floor, you can head over to see Ran Hwang’s special installation held in conjunction with Joseon Korea located on the first floor. A video projection shows a couple in the middle of a marriage ceremony, and motifs of flowers, phoenixes, and more are auspicious symbols that indicate a happy marriage. Watch the video to see more!
This special installation by Ran Hwang is free for all museum visitors, while the main exhibition has paid entry. They are both showing till 23rd July 2017. Head over to their website to find out more details. In any case, most of the exhibits are on loan from National Palace Museum of Korea and National Museum of Korea, both located in Seoul. So you know where to go if you want to see more! :D