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Ancient Korean Sculpture › Origins

Definition and Origins

Author: Mark Cartwright

The sculpture of ancient Korea was dominated by Buddhist themes such as figurines and monumental statues of the Buddha and his followers, and large bronze bells for temples. Gilded-bronze was the most common material used by Korean sculptors, but they also used marble, stone, clay, iron and wood. Non-Buddhist sculpture includes masks, guardian figures for tombs, and carved poles, all of which were designed to ward off evil spirits. Initially influenced by Chinese art, Korean sculptors would go on to create their own unique style and themselves influence the sculpture of ancient Japan.


The earliest known sculpture from the peninsula is a small stone figurine of a nude female excavated near Pusan which dates to the Neolithic period. At this time, pinched clay figures were also made but sculpture in any great quantity was not produced until the Three Kingdoms period (1st century BCE to 7th century CE).
In all three kingdoms of Baekje ( Paekche ), Silla, and Goguryeo ( Koguryo ), which ruled the peninsula from 57 BCE to 668 CE, Buddhism was a huge influence on sculpture with the production of wooden and metal figures of the Buddha, Maitreya (the coming Buddha) and bodhisattvas, stone lanterns for temple sites, temple roof tiles with hideous faces to ward off evil spirits, and incense burners all being particularly popular. Baekje artists also sculpted cliff faces to represent the Buddha such as at Sosan.
This period saw the production of stelae depicting Buddha and his followers which were originally created in Baekje. Four examples from the Piamsa temple near Yongi are carved from soapstone and measure just under half a metre in height. They are probably from the Silla kingdom and carry high relief sculpture of Buddhist figures and musicians set against a mandorla background. One is mushroom-shaped and has a pagoda represented on the back side. All are currently in the National Museum of Korea, Seoul.

Gilt-bronze Buddha, Goguryeo Kingdom

The most common form of Buddhist sculpture from this period is portable icons either of triad figures of the Buddha flanked by two bodhisattvas or single bodhisattva figurines. These are made in bronze and gilt-bronze. The earliest known statue dates to 539 CE and displays the flaming mandorla around the Buddha's head which was typical of the art of the Northern Wei of China. The figure is also of note for the inscription on the back which indicates the great quantity of such figures made. It reads:
In the seventh year of Yonga, the year of Kimi, the head priest of the East Nangnang Temple of the Kingdom of Koguryo wishes to cast and distribute one thousand Buddhas, of which this is the twenty-ninth. (Kim, 110)
The Baekje kingdom provides the most outstanding example of a metal incense burner, the only survivor of its kind. Made from gilt-bronze, it stands 135 cm tall. The foot is in the form of a dragon and supports a mountain in the shape of an egg which is decorated with heavenly beings and clouds. The whole is topped by a lid decorated with a phoenix.
Baekje metalworkers and sculptors passed on their skills and ideas to Japan in the mid-6th century CE when there were close relations between the two territories. From this time, Korean figure sculpture becomes more independent from Chinese influence and faces are noticeably more Korean in representation and less-rounded, helping to distinguish Buddhist sculpture from the two cultures from now on.

Baekje Incense Burner


The Unified Silla Kingdom (668- 935 CE) saw a new art form develop, that of making large bronze-cast bells ( pomjong ) which were struck from the side using a suspended wooden beam. Housed in their own pavilions, they were used in Buddhist temples to announce services. The largest example is from Pandok-sa, also known as the Emille Bell, which was cast in 771 CE to honour King Songdok. 3.3 metres tall and over 2.2 metres in diameter, it is decorated with lotus flowers and heavenly beings with a suspension loop in the form of a dragon. Weighing almost 19 tons, the bell is now on display in the GyeongjuNational Museum.
Perhaps the finest of all Korean figure sculpture is to be found in the Seokguram near the Bulguksa Temple on Mt. Toham, Gyeongju. The artificial grotto was constructed between 751 and 774 CE and contains a magnificent granite seated Buddha.3.45 metres high, he sits cross-legged on a large circular pedestal or throne, itself 1.6 metres high. The grotto is decorated with a total of 41 figure sculptures carved in high relief which depict various figures from Buddhism. They are regarded as amongst the finest ever produced in Korea.
Other monumental stone figures include a group of four outside Gyeongju. Carved on each side of a granite boulder, according to a legend recounted in the Samguk yusa , King Kyeongdeok (r. 742-765 CE) heard a voice from under the ground and on excavating at the spot he discovered the figures. A temple was also built at the site, the Kulpulsa or 'Temple of the Excavation of the Buddhas.'

Gilt-bronze Maitreya

Some large figure sculptures were made using cast iron with parts made separately and then assembled and painted or covered in plaster. It is still small-scale sculpture, though, that provides the finest examples of craftsmanship. Figurines of the seated Maitreya display finely modelled facial features, realistic body proportions, languorous postures (usually one leg crossed over the other), and deep folds in the figure's robes. Figures of the Buddha of Medicine (Bhaisajyaguru) and Vairocana Buddha, with his distinctive gesture of the fingers of the right hand holding the index finger of the left, were also popular. The former figures possibly gained popularity following an extended period of bad harvests and rampant banditry in the 9th century CE. Again, although iron and stone were commonly used, the material of choice for the finest pieces was bronze which was then gilded with gold leaf and a mercury amalgam. When heated the mercury evaporated, and the figure was then polished.
Folk art of the period provides some interesting sculptural forms. The changsung were tall thin posts topped by a human face.Set in the ground in pairs at village entrances, they were carved from stone or wood and thought to act as guardians.Sometimes the wooden versions were carved from an entire tree trunk, and the roots were left so that when placed in the ground upside down they looked like the hair belonging to the brightly painted demon face. A common superstition was that if anyone removed a changsung, then a man would die in the village. Food offerings were hung from them and chestnuts sometimes buried at the foot. Changsung were also fertility symbols prayed to by women and sometimes even placed in front of Buddhist temples; the oldest dates to 759 CE. Another popular form of folk sculpture which combined a fertility and guardian function was harubang. These were stone sculptures of human figures of all types which were stood outside tombs to ward off evil spirits. A third type of guardian pole was sottae, which were poles topped by a carved bird. Finally, a popular wooden sculpture was kirogi. These were wooden ducks given as a replacement to the earlier tradition at weddings where the bridegroom gave a goose to the bride's mother to guarantee his fidelity.

Buddhist Stele, Unified Silla Kingdom


Goryeo (Koguryo) ruled Korea from 918 CE to 1392 CE, and its sculptors used a variety of mediums including marble, stone, terracotta (lacquered or gilded), and metal. Figures of Buddha as Maitreya continued to be popular, and some are massive such as the 17.4-metre-high one at Paju and the 18.4-metre-tall figure at the Kwanchok temple in Nonsan, which were both carved out of natural boulders in the 11th century CE. These statues have only the bare essentials of detail and are much more abstract than metal figures. Many of them wear unique tall hats, and this may represent a link with shamanism, long-practised in ancient Korea. Large-scale metal statues were still being made too, as in the Silla kingdom, such as the 'Kwanggju Buddha,' which stands 2.88 m tall.
Another area of metalwork was the production of bells for Buddhist temples. Smaller than the giant bells made by the earlier Unified Silla kingdom, Goryeo bells can still be up to 1.7 metres tall and were cast in bronze and decorated with dragons and heavenly figures, amongst others. One unique feature is the lotus medallion cast at the point where the bell was struck.Handbells, temple gongs, incense burners, and vases were also cast in bronze and sometimes embellished with very fine silver and gold inlay.

Maitreya Buddha, Kwanchok, Korea

Standing figures of soldiers or officials were commonly placed in pairs outside tombs, as per the China model. Wooden masks are another example of the non-Buddhist sculpture of the period. Created for traditional mask dances, they have deep-set eyes and long straight noses, which suggest a Central Asian influence. Masks had long been produced in Korea and were worn by shamans or used to ward off evil spirits in tombs and houses. In the second half of the period, sculptures are mostly small-scale and made with gilt-bronze and begin to show an influence of the Yuan artists who arrived with the Mongol occupation of Korea from the 13th century CE.
This article was made possible with generous support from the British Korean Society.

Ancient Korean Coinage › Origins

Definition and Origins

Author: Mark Cartwright

The coinage of ancient Korea (pre-13th century CE) first employed Chinese coins, known locally as the oshuchon. Korean rulers began minting their own metal coins from the late 10th century CE, first in copper and iron, and later in bronze. These coins never really gained wide circulation, though, and it would not be until the 17th century CE that coinage fully replaced the barter system prevalent throughout the peninsula. Another form of currency, in use from the 12th to 14th century CE, was the unbyong silver vase, stamped by the state and given an official rate of exchange with staple commodities such as rice; it was shaped like the peninsula of Korea.


In early Korea, the system of exchange was principally one of barter where goods were calculated as having a certain value in relation to fundamental commodities such as grain, rice, and cloth. The latter was first hemp and then more typically cotton cloth, known as cloth currency or pohwa. The first known currency used in ancient Korea which was made of metal was knife money ( ming-tao-chien ), so called because of the crescent, bladelike shape. This came with settlers from China during the Warring States period (475-221 BCE) and has been excavated at sites in the Pyongan and Cholla provinces. The Chinese also introduced coins to Korea when the Han dynasty invaded the north at the end of the 2nd century BCE. These coins became the official currency and were known as wuzhu in Chinese or oshuchon in Korean, meaning 'five-grain'. The oshuchoncontinued to be used by the two kingdoms of Goguryeo and Silla up to the 10th century CE. They are commonly found in the tombs of the Nangnang (Lelang) region.


It was during the Goryeo Dynasty (918 – 1392 CE) that Korea first produced its own coins. These early coins, minted from 996 CE, imitated those of the earlier Chinese Tang dynasty (618 – 907 CE) and were made of iron and copper. Even the 'heavy coin of the Qianyuan period' inscription was translated from the Chinese ( Qianyuan zhongbao ) to the Korean Konwon chungbo. They did add an identifying 'Eastern kingdom' ( Tongkuk ) on the reverse side of the coin. As with Chinese coins, the Korea coins had a square central hole.
In 1097 CE and 1102 CE copper coins were minted by the Goryeo king, Sukjong. These carried uniquely Korean inscriptions but still continued with the distinctive Chinese square hole design. Marked on one side with the familiar tongbo ('circulating treasure') or chungbo ('heavy treasure'), the other side carried one of the following possible legends identifying them as of Goryeo Korea:
Tongguk tongbo – 'Coin of the Eastern Kingdom'
Tongguk chungbo – 'Heavy coin of the Eastern Kingdom'
Haedong tongbo – 'Coin of the Land East of the Sea'
Haedong chungbo – 'Heavy coin of the Land East of the Sea'
Samhan tongbo – 'Coin of the Three Hans'
Samhan chungbo – 'Heavy coin of the Three Hans'
These legends were written in four types of script – the clerical, regular, seal, and cursive. Once again, tombs (eg at Kaesong) have been the best source of ancient coins for archaeologists and historians to study.


An alternative to coins as a form of payment was the unbyong (aka hwalgu ) silver vases which were made from 1101 CE. The vases took the shape of the Goryeo empire and were marked as legitimate currency by having the official state seal engraved on them. Naturally, the vases contained a great deal of silver (600 g or one kun ) and so were only useful for large payments.Historians also suggest that they were used primarily by aristocrats and for bribing officials. Unfortunately, no examples survive, but we do know from a 1282 CE law that the value of one unbyong was fixed at between 2,700 and 3,400 litres of rice.Despite their impracticality for smaller transactions, the vases continued to be used over the next two centuries, until King Chungyol permitted rough or broken pieces of silver to be used instead at the end of the 13th century CE. By 1331 CE the small vases shaped liked Korea itself were no longer in use.

Bronze Korean Coin, Goryeo Dynasty


No further coins were minted in Korea until the 15th century CE, and as in earlier periods, Chinese coins were imported and used instead. The Sinan shipwreck, which was discovered in waters off the coast of South Korea in 1976 CE, dates to the Song Dynasty (10th - 13th century CE) and contained 26,775 kg of Chinese coins destined for use in ancient Korea.
The Korean state did produce paper money in the 14th century CE, but it was never issued. Another attempt was made in the 15th century CE when notes were made from the high-quality hanji paper for which Korea was famous throughout Asia.Traders also accepted Chinese banknotes during the Middle Kingdom period. However, banknotes were generally only used to pay taxes, and they struggled to catch on in Korea, where metal coins were used, and trusted, far more widely. No paper money survives from this period.
This article was made possible with generous support from the British Korean Society.

Tea in Ancient China & Japan › Origins

Ancient Civilizations

Author: Mark Cartwright

Tea, still probably the world's most popular prepared beverage, was first drunk by Chinese monks to aid meditation and those who valued its medicinal qualities, but it quickly grew in popularity, spreading to other East Asian cultures, especially Japan.An elaborate ceremony for its preparation and consumption developed which sought to foster the appreciation and beauty of life's simple luxuries. In addition, tea drinkers were able to discreetly display their good taste and wealth not only by serving what was a relatively expensive commodity but by reserving their very best porcelain for drinking it.
With books written by tea experts on how to conduct oneself and appreciate the tea fully, along with poems eulogising the beverage, tea drinking was developed into an art form. The tea ceremony, thus, became a simple way to escape for a moment the tribulations of one's often hectic everyday life, a function drinking tea still has for many people today.

Japanese Tea Ceremony


In both Chinese and Japanese tradition, the discovery of tea is credited to the Indian sage Bodhidharma (aka Daruma), the founder of Zen Buddhism. Bodhidharma, travelling to spread the word of his new doctrine, founded the Shaolin temple in southern China (Shorinji to the Japanese). There he meditated while sat facing a wall for nine long years. At the end of that period his legs had withered away and, just on the verge of reaching enlightenment, he fell asleep. Enraged at missing this last step, he ripped off his own eyelids and threw them to the ground. From these a bush grew, the tea plant.


Tea goes by various names: cha in Chinese and Japanese or chai in Hindi and Urdu. The English name probably derives from the pronunciation of the drink ( the ) in the province of Fujian, south-east China. The drink is made by adding hot water to the young leaves, leaf tips, and leaf buds of the plant Camellia sinensis which is native to south-west China.
The drink was first used by Buddhist monks from around the 2nd century BCE to support them while they meditated and to ward off sleep. Tea was also thought to possess medicinal qualities, curing a hangover being one of them. By the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) tea had spread beyond the monasteries and become a popular drink with the gentry who were the only people who could afford such an expensive drink. Tea became an important element of the economy, with large estates in the south-east of the country cultivating the plant and providing the government with valuable tax revenue on its sale. Tea merchants, who were now exporting it to other Asian countries, were amongst the richest businessmen in China.


The trend for tea-drinking also created a boom in the fine ceramics people preferred to use to brew, mix, and drink it from, and the elegant jars they used to store their tea leaves in. One of the most highly-regarded producers of teapots was Yixing in Jiangsu province. In a culture where ostentatious displays of wealth were frowned upon as vulgar, the use of a simple but expensive ceramic tea bowl was all that was needed to show one's prosperity.

Chinese Tea Bowl & Stand

Tea drinking became such an integral part of the Chinese culture that it began to appear in art and literature. One famous poem by Lu Yu appeared in his 8th-century CE treatise on the forms and conventions which should be applied when drinking tea. The poem is a thank you note after Yu had received a gift of a packet of freshly picked tea.
To honour the tea, I shut my brushwood gate,
Lest common folk intrude,
And donned my gauze cap
To brew and taste it on my own.
The first bowl sleekly moistened throat and lips;
The second banished all my loneliness;
The third expelled the dullness from my mind,
Sharpening inspiration gained from all the books I've read.
The fourth brought forth light perspiration,
Dispersing a lifetime's troubles through my pores.
The fifth bowl cleansed ev'ry atom of my being.
The sixth has made me kin to the Immortals.
The seventh is the utmost I can drink -
A light breeze issues from my armpits.
(in Ebrey, 95)


Along with other cultural practices, tea drinking was passed on from China to neighbouring East Asian countries such as the Silla kingdom of Korea but nowhere did it become more popular than in Japan from the 6th or 7th century CE. In Japan, too, it was Buddhist monks who first drank tea, and it did not become fashionable until around 1200 CE. As China cultivated better tea plants than those available in Japan, these too were imported and not just the cut leaves.
In Japan, tea was usually prepared by pounding the leaves and making a ball with amazura (a sweetener from grapes) or ginger which was then left to brew in hot water. Eventually, again from 1200 CE, specialised tea schools were opened and people reserved their finest porcelain for tea drinking.


Although the ritual and ceremony which developed when serving tea originated in China, it is the Japanese who have made it synonymous with their culture. The Japanese Tea Ceremony is called chanoyu, meaning 'hot water for tea', or chado or sado, meaning 'way of the tea'. Tea parties began as rather rowdy affairs where guests tried to guess the type of tea they were drinking but the 15th-century CE shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa put a stop to all that and made the whole thing a much more sober and subdued event, offering the ruling class a perfect setting for discrete conversation on sensitive subjects.
The ceremony typifies the Japanese aesthetic principle of wabi, which is the value given to the appreciation of beauty and simplicity in everyday things. The application of wabi to the tea ceremony is credited to the 16th-century CE tea master Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591 CE). Rikyu was master of the tea ceremonies of the warlords Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and he also promoted the use of carefully arranged flowers ( ikebana ) to create just the right atmosphere of calm when drinking tea. Rikyu's masters did not always listen to him it seems for Hideyoshi famously threw a tea party for 800 guests to celebrate his victory in Kyushu in 1587 CE. Still, the monk had more success with subsequent generations as the tea ceremony gradually became more and more genteel and intimate.

Tea House at Koishikawa by Hokusai

The first thing to do when drinking tea was to put oneself in the right place and for the Japanese that was the dedicated chashitsu or tea room, also known as a sukiya or 'house of the imperfect', alluding to the structure's original simple architecture and basic materials. Roofs were in bamboo and thatch, supporting columns were unworked, and the walls made of earth. This rustic building was quite separate from the main residence (immediately stamping an aristocratic requirement on the ceremony as only those with money could obviously afford such a thing). Thus, the drinker or drinkers were immediately detached from the everyday living space and so, by extension, their everyday lives. Three original tea rooms still exist today and are listed as National Treasures of Japan. They are to be found in the Myoki-an of Yamasaki, within the Shinto shrine of Minase-gu, and at the Saiho-ji monastery in Kyoto.
The tea room was small, only three metres square usually; Rikyu is credited with downsizing the previously larger rooms. It had minimal decor and services: a toilet and a tsukubai, which consists of a stone basin ( chozu-bachi ) outside for cleaning the hands before entering along with several irregular stones placed nearby in an aesthetically pleasing manner. Another feature is a stone, free-standing lantern, also outside. Ideally, the tea room should stand in its own small garden ( cha-niwa ) which has a stepping stone path ( tobi-ishi ) leading from the main house. The desired greenery was evergreens rather than flowers, and moss or grass underfoot to begin the calming effect of the ceremony before even entering the tea room.
The doorways of tea rooms were usually small, only around 90 cm (3 ft) high, which was meant to show that all were of equal status once inside. Some historians believe the door prevented swords being taken into the tea room in another way to demonstrate rank and occupation were to be abandoned while drinking tea. Windows and paper screens gave plenty of light to the interior.
The details and etiquette of how the tea was brewed and served using a special ladle or the restrained gestures one should employ all depended on which school of tea ceremony one adhered too, and there were many. Water was usually boiled over charcoal in an iron kettle, and the tea was strong, green and bitter. Common, too, to all ceremonies was the requirement to use the finest porcelain one could, especially the tea bowl or chawan, actually used to drink from.


Tea was so widely consumed and had become such a big business by the 16th century CE that it eventually interested European traders, notably the Portuguese and Dutch. Tea was introduced to Europe in 1607 CE and, by the 19th century CE, the drink had become so popular in Europe that drinkers could choose from Chinese, Indian, and Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) tea. Tea from the latter two countries was stronger and so was preferred, especially with the British who had encouraged its cultivation in colonial India. Even so, tea made up 80% of China's total exports to Europe in the early 19th century CE.


Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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