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Culture of Korea

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Culture of Korea

Dancheong, decorative paintings on a building at Gyeongbok Palace
Lotus lantern festival

The traditional culture of Korea refers to the shared cultural heritage of the Korean Peninsula. Since the mid-20th century, the peninsula has been split politically between North and South Korea, resulting in a number of cultural differences.[1][2][3][4] Before Joseon Dynasty, the practice of Korean shamanism was deeply rooted in the Korean culture.[5][6]


  • Traditional arts 1
    • Dance 1.1
    • Painting 1.2
    • Crafts 1.3
    • Ceramics 1.4
    • Music 1.5
  • Lifestyle 2
    • Homes 2.1
    • Gardens 2.2
    • Clothing 2.3
    • Cuisine 2.4
    • Tea 2.5
    • Festivals of the lunar calendar 2.6
    • Beliefs 2.7
  • World Heritage sites 3
    • Jongmyo Shrine 3.1
    • Changdeokgung 3.2
    • Bulguksa 3.3
    • Tripitaka Koreana and Haeinsa 3.4
    • Hwaseong 3.5
    • Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa sites 3.6
    • Gyeongju Area 3.7
    • Complex of Goguryeo Tombs 3.8
    • Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty 3.9
    • Historic Villages of Korea: Hahoe and Yangdong 3.10
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6

Traditional arts


Jinju geommu

As with music, there is a distinction between court dance and folk dance. Common court dances are jeongjaemu (정재무) performed at banquets, and ilmu (일무), performed at Korean Confucian rituals. Jeongjaemu is divided into native dances (향악정재, hyangak jeongjae) and forms imported from Central Asia and China (당악정재, dangak jeongjae). Ilmu are divided into civil dance (문무, munmu) and military dance (무무, mumu). Many mask dramas and mask dances are performed in many regional areas of Korea.[7] The traditional clothing is the genja, it is a special kind of dress that women wear on festivals. It is pink with multiple symbols around the neck area.

Traditional choreography of court dances is reflected in many contemporary productions.

Taekkyeon, a traditional Korean martial art, is central to the classic Korean dance. Taekkyeon, being a complete system of integrated movement, found its core techniques adaptable to mask, dance and other traditional artforms of Korea.


Korean Horse Back Archery in 5th-century

The earliest paintings found on the Korean peninsula are petroglyphs of prehistoric times. With the arrival of Buddhism from India via China, different techniques were introduced. These techniques quickly established themselves as the mainstream techniques, but indigenous techniques still survived.

There is a tendency towards naturalism with subjects such as realistic landscapes, flowers and birds being particularly popular. Ink is the most common material used, and it is painted on mulberry paper or silk.

In the 18th century indigenous techniques were advanced, particularly in calligraphy and seal engraving.

Arts are both influenced by tradition and realism. For example, Han’s near-photographic "Break Time at the Ironworks" shows muscular men dripping with sweat and drinking water from tin cups at a sweltering foundry. Jeong Son’s "Peak Chonnyo of Mount Kumgang" is a classical Korean landscape of towering cliffs shrouded by mists.[8]


Blue and White Porcelain Peach-Shaped Water Dropper from the Joseon Dynasty 18th century
Lacquer drawer with mother-of-pearl inlay, at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul

There is a unique set of handicrafts produced in Korea. Most of the handicrafts are created for a particular everyday use, often giving priority to the practical use rather than aesthetics. Traditionally, metal, wood, fabric, lacquerware, and earthenware were the main materials used, but later glass, leather or paper have sporadically been used.

Ancient handicrafts, such as red and black pottery, share similarities with pottery of Chinese cultures along the Yellow River. The relics found of the Bronze Age, however, are distinctive and more elaborate.

Many sophisticated and elaborate handicrafts have been excavated, including gilt crowns, patterned pottery, pots or ornaments. During the Goryeo period the use of bronze was advanced. Brass, that is copper with one third zinc, has been a particularly popular material. The dynasty, however, is most prominently renowned for its use of celadon ware.

During the Joseon period, popular handicrafts were made of porcelain and decorated with blue painting. Woodcraft was also advanced during that period. This led to more sophisticated pieces of furniture, including wardrobes, chests, tables or drawers.


A celadon incense burner from the Goryeo Dynasty with Korean kingfisher glaze

The use of earthenware on the Korean peninsula goes back to the Neolithic. The history of Korean Ceramics is long and includes both Korean pottery a later development after the traditional use of coils and hammered clay to create early votive and sculptural artifacts. During the Three Kingdoms period, pottery was advanced in Silla. The pottery was fired using a deoxidizing flame, which caused the distinctive blue grey celadon color. The surface was embossed with various geometrical patterns.

In the Goryeo period jade green celadon ware became more popular. In the 12th century sophisticated methods of inlaying were invented, allowing more elaborate decorations in different colours. In Arts of Korea, Evelyn McCune states, "During the twelfth century, the production of ceramic ware reached its highest refinement. Several new varieties appeared simultaneously in the quarter of a century, one of which, the inlaid ware must be considered a Korean invention."[9] Neither the Chinese nor the Japanese had produced inlaid celadon, which was unique to Goryeo wares. William Bowyer Honey of the Victoria and Albert Museum of England, who after World War II wrote, "The best Corean (Korean) wares were not only original, they are the most gracious and unaffected pottery ever made. They have every virtue that pottery can have. This Corean pottery, in fact, reached heights hardly attained even by the Chinese."[10]

White porcelain became popular in the 15th century. It soon overtook celadon ware. White porcelain was commonly painted or decorated with copper.

During the Imjin wars in the 16th century, Korean potters were brought back to Japan where they heavily influenced Japanese ceramics.[11] Many Japanese pottery families today can trace their art and ancestry to these Korean potters whom the Japanese captured by the thousands during its repeated conquests of the Korean peninsula.[12][13][14]

In the late Joseon period (late 17th century) blue-and-white porcelain became popular. Designs were painted in cobalt blue on white porcelain.



There is a genre distinction between folk music and court music. Korean folk music is varied and complex, but all forms maintain a set of rhythms (called 장단; Jangdan) and a loosely defined set of melodic modes. Korean folk musics are Pansori (판소리) performed by one singer and one drummer. Occasionally, there might be dancers and narraters. They have been designated an intangible cultural property in UNESCO's Memory of the world,[15] and Pungmul (풍물) performed by drumming, dancing and singing. Samul Nori is a type of Korean traditional music based on Pungmul, and Sanjo (산조) that is played without a pause in faster tempos. Nongak (농악) means "farmers' music".

Korean court music can be traced to the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty in 1392. Korean court musics include A-ak, Dang-ak and Hyang-ak. Korean music is still played and sang a lot.



Traditional house, hanok (한옥)
Traditional farmer's house; Folk Village, Seoul

Korean traditional houses are called Hanok (Hangul:한옥) .Sites of residence are traditionally selected using traditional geomancy. Although geomancy had been a vital part of Korean culture and Korean Shamanism since prehistoric times, geomancy was later re-introduced by China during the Three Kingdoms period of Korea's history.

A house should be built against a hill and face south to receive as much sunlight as possible. This orientation is still preferred in modern Korea. Geomancy also influences the shape of the building, the direction it faces and the material it is built of.

Traditional Korean houses can be structured into an inner wing (안채, anchae) and an outer wing (사랑채, sarangchae). The individual layout largely depends on the region and the wealth of the family. Whereas aristocrats used the outer wing for receptions, poorer people kept cattle in the sarangchae. The wealthier a family, the larger the house. However, it was forbidden to any family except for the king to have a residence of more than 99 kan. A kan is the distance between two pillars used in traditional houses.

The inner wing normally consisted of a living room, a kitchen and a wooden-floored central hall. More rooms may be attached to this. Poorer farmers would not have any outer wing. Floor heating (온돌, ondol) has been used in Korea since prehistoric times. The main building materials are wood, clay, tile, stone, and thatch. Because wood and clay were the most common materials used in the past not many old buildings have survived into present times.


Hyangwonjeong, a garden in Gyeongbokgung, Seoul

The principles of temple gardens and private gardens are the same. Korean gardening in East Asia is influenced by primarily Korean Shamanism and Korean folk religion. Shamanism emphasizes nature and mystery, paying great attention to the details of the layout. In contrast to Japanese and Chinese gardens, which fill a garden with man made elements, traditional Korean gardens avoid artificialities, trying to make a garden "more natural than nature".

The lotus pond is an important feature in the Korean garden. If there is a natural stream, often a pavilion is built next to it, allowing the pleasure of watching the water. Terraced flower beds are a common feature in traditional Korean gardens.

The Poseokjeong site near Gyeongju was built in the Silla period. It highlights the importance of water in traditional Korean gardens. The garden of Poseokjeong features an abalone-shaped watercourse. During the last days of the Silla kingdom, the king's guests would sit along the watercourse and chat while wine cups were floated during banquets.


Hwarot, bridal robe

The traditional dress known as hanbok (한복, 韓服) (known as joseonot [조선옷] in the DPRK) has been worn since ancient times. The hanbok consists of a shirt (jeogori) and a skirt (chima).

According to social status, Koreans used to dress differently, making clothing an important mark of social rank. Impressive, but sometimes cumbersome, costumes were worn by the ruling class and the royal family. These upper classes also used jewellery to distance themselves from the ordinary people. A traditional item of jewellery for women was a pendant in the shape of certain elements of nature which was made of precious gemstones, to which a tassel of silk was connected.

Common people were often restricted to undyed plain clothes. This everyday dress underwent relatively few changes during the Joseon period. The basic everyday dress was shared by everyone, but distinctions were drawn in official and ceremonial clothes.

During the winter people wore cotton-wadded dresses. Fur was also common. Because ordinary people normally wore pure white undyed materials, the people were sometimes referred to as the white-clad people.

Hanbok are classified according to their purposes: everyday dress, ceremonial dress and special dress. Ceremonial dresses are worn on formal occasions, including a child's first birthday (doljanchi), a wedding or a funeral. Special dresses are made for purposes such as shamans, officials.

Today the hanbok is still worn during formal occasions. The everyday use of the dress, however, has been lost. However, elderly still dress in hanbok as well as active estates of the remnant of aristocratic families from the Joseon Dynasty.


Rice is the staple food of Korea. Having been an almost exclusively agricultural country until recently, the essential recipes in Korea are shaped by this experience. The main crops in Korea are rice, barley, and beans, but many supplementary crops are used. Fish and other seafood are also important because Korea is a peninsula.

Fermented recipes were also developed in early times, and often characterize traditional Korean food. These include pickled fish and pickled vegetables. This kind of food provides essential proteins and vitamins during the winter.

A number of dishes have been developed. These can be divided into ceremonial foods and ritual foods. Ceremonial foods are used when a child reaches 100 days, at the first birthday, at a wedding ceremony, and the sixtieth birthday. Ritual foods are used at funerals, at ancestral rites, shaman's offerings and as temple food.

A distinguishing characteristic of Temple Food is that it does not use the common five strong-flavoured ingredients of Korean cuisine--(garlic, spring onion, wild rocambole, leek, and ginger), and meat.

Kimchi is one of the famous foods of Korea. Kimchi is pickled vegetables which contain vitamins A and C, thiamine, riboflavin, iron, calcium, carotene, etc. There are many types of kimchi including cabbage kimchi, spring onion kimchi, cucumber kimchi, radish kimchi, and sesame kimchi.

For ceremonies and rituals rice cakes are vital. The colouring of the food and the ingredients of the recipes are matched with a balance of yin and yang.

Today, surasang (traditional court cuisine) is available to the whole population. In the past vegetable dishes were essential, but meat consumption has increased. Traditional dishes include ssambap, bulgogi, sinseollo, kimchi, bibimbap, and gujeolpan.


Originally tea was used for ceremonial purposes or as part of traditional herbal medicine. Some of teas made of fruits, leaves, seeds or roots are enjoyed. Five tastes of tea are distinguished in Korea: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and pungent.

Festivals of the lunar calendar


The traditional Korean calendar was based on the lunisolar calendar.[16] Dates are calculated from Korea's meridian, and observances and festivals are rooted in Korean culture. The Korean lunar calendar is divided into 24 turning points (절기, jeolgi), each lasting about 15 days. The lunar calendar was the timetable for the agrarian society in the past, but is vanishing in the modern Korean lifestyle.

The Gregorian calendar was officially adopted in 1895, but traditional holidays and age reckoning are still based on the old calendar.[16][17] Older generations still celebrate their birthdays according to the lunar calendar.

The biggest festival in Korea today is Seollal (the traditional Korean New Year). Other important festivals include Daeboreum (the first full moon), Dano (spring festival), and Chuseok (harvest festival).

There are also a number of regional festivals, celebrated according to the lunar calendar. See also Public holidays in North Korea and Public holidays in South Korea.


The original religion of the Korean people was Shamanism, which though not as widespread as in ancient times, still survives to this day. Female shamans or mudang are often called upon to enlist the help of various spirits to achieve various means.

Buddhism and Confucianism were later introduced to Korea through cultural exchanges with Chinese dynasties. Buddhism was the official religion of the Goryeo dynasty, and many privileges were given to Buddhist monks during this period. However, the Joseon period saw the suppression of Buddhism, where Buddhist monks and temples were banned from the cities and confined to the countryside. In its place a strict form of Confucianism, which some see as even more strict than what had ever been adopted by the Chinese, became the official philosophy.[18]

Throughout Korean history and culture, regardless of separation, the traditional beliefs of Korean Shamanism, Mahayana Buddhism and Confucianism have remained an underlying influence of the religion of the Korean people as well as a vital aspect of their culture.[19] In fact, all these traditions coexisted peacefully for hundreds of years. They still exist in the more Christian South[20][21][22] and in the North, despite pressure from its government.[23][24]

World Heritage sites

There are a number of designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Korea.

Jongmyo Shrine

The Jongmyo Shrine was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list in 1995 and is located in Seoul. The shrine is dedicated to the spirits of the ancestors of the royal family of the Joseon Dynasty. It is heavily influenced by Korean Confucian tradition. An elaborate performance of ancient court music (with accompanying dance) known as Jongmyo jeryeak is performed there each year.

When it was built in 1394 it was to be one of the longest buildings in Asia. There are 19 memorial tablets of kings and 30 of their queens, placed in 19 chambers. The shrine was burnt to the ground during the Imjin wars, but rebuilt in 1608.


Changdeokgung is also known as the "palace of illustrious virtue". It was built in 1405, burnt to the ground during the Imjin wars in 1592 and reconstructed in 1609. For more than 300 years Changdeokgung was the site of the royal seat. It is located in Seoul.

The surroundings and the palace itself are well matched. Some of the trees behind the palace are now over 300 years old, besides a preserved tree which is over 1000 years old. Changdeokgung was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1997.


Seokguram Grotto

Bulguksa is also known as the temple of the Buddha Land and home of the Seokguram Grotto. The temple was constructed in 751 and consists of a great number of halls. There are two pagodas placed in the temple.

The Seokguram grotto is a hermitage of the Bulguksa temple. It is a granite sanctuary. In the main chamber a Buddha statue is seated. The temple and the grotto were added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1995.

Tripitaka Koreana and Haeinsa

Haeinsa is a large temple in the South Gyeongsang province. It was originally built in 802 and home to the Tripitaka Koreana wood blocks, the oldest Buddhist wooden manuscripts in the world.[25] The carving of these wood blocks was initiated in 1236 and completed in 1251. The wood blocks are testimony to the pious devotion of king and his people.

The word Tripitaka is Sanskrit and stands for three baskets, referring to the Buddhist laws of aesthetics. The Tripitaka Koreana consists of 81'258 wood blocks and is the largest, oldest, and most complete collection of Buddhist scripts. Amazingly there is no trace of errata or omission on any of the wood blocks. The Tripitaka Koreana is widely considered as the most beautiful and accurate Buddhist canon carved in Hanja.

The site was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1995.


A frontal view of the west gate and watch tower

Hwaseong is the fortification of the city Suwon south of Seoul in South Korea. Its construction was completed in 1796 and it features all the latest features of Korean fortification known at the time. The fortress also contains a magnificent palace used for the King's visit to his father's tomb near the city.

The fortress covers both flat land and hilly terrain, something rarely seen in East Asia. The walls are 5.52 kilometres long and there are 41 extant facilities along the perimeter. These include four cardinal gates, a floodgate, four secret gates and a beacon tower.

Hwaseong was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1997.

Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa sites

The sites of Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa were added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage in 2000. These sites are home to prehistoric graveyards which contain hundreds of different megaliths. These megaliths are gravestones which were created in the 1st century B.C. out of large blocks of rock. Megaliths can be found around the globe, but nowhere in such a concentration as in the sites of Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa.

Gyeongju Area

The historic area around Gyeongju was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage in 2000. Gyongju was the capital of the Silla kingdom. The tombs of the Silla rulers can still be found in the centre of the city. These tombs took the shape of rock chambers buried in an earthen hill, sometimes likened with the pyramids. The area around Gyeongju, in particular on the Namsan mountain, is scattered with hundreds of remains from the Silla period. Poseokjeong is one of the most famous of these sites, but there is a great number of Korean Buddhist art, sculptures, reliefs, pagodas and remains of temples and palaces mostly built in the 7th and 10th century.

Complex of Goguryeo Tombs

The Complex of Goguryeo Tombs lies in Pyongyang, Pyong'an South Province, and Nampo City, South Hwanghae Province, North Korea. In July 2004 it became the first UNESCO World Heritage site north of the 38th parallel.

The site consists of 63 individual tombs from the later Goguryeo, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. It was founded around northern Korea and Manchuria around 32 BC, and the capital was moved to Pyongyang in 427. This kingdom dominated the region between the 5th and 7th century AD.

Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty

Historic Villages of Korea: Hahoe and Yangdong

See also


  1. ^ "See "Same roots, different style" by Kim Hyun". Retrieved 2012-07-15. 
  2. ^ The Koreas: A Global Studies Handbook - Mary E. Connor. Google Books. Retrieved 2012-07-15. 
  3. ^
  4. ^ [3] Archived August 1, 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ Eckersley, M. ed. 2009. Drama from the Rim: Asian Pacific Drama Book (2nd ed.). Drama Victoria. Melbourne.p54,
  8. ^ "A rare glimpse into a closed art world". Korea Is One. Retrieved 2010-06-01. 
  9. ^ Evelyn McCune, The Arts of Korea: An Illustrated History
  10. ^ Korea and East Asia: The Story of a Phoenix - Kenneth B. Lee. Google Books. Retrieved 2012-07-15. 
  11. ^ "Pottery in Japan". Retrieved 2010-06-01.  "For example, Japan's famous Hagi ware originated when Korean potters were brought back to Japan during the "pottery wars" of 1592 AD and 1597 -1598 AD."
  12. ^ Purple Tigress (August 11, 2005). "Review: Brighter than Gold - A Japanese Ceramic Tradition Formed by Foreign Aesthetics". BC Culture. Retrieved 2008-01-10. 
  13. ^ "Muromachi period, 1392-1573".  
  14. ^ John Stewart Bowman (2002). Columbia Chronologies of Asian History and Culture. Columbia University Press. pp. 170p.  
  15. ^ Pansori' was designated as intangible cultural property in UNESCO's Memory of the world."'". Maeil Business Newspaper. 2003-11-08. 
  16. ^ a b [4]
  17. ^ Life in Asia, Inc. "Korean Holidays". Retrieved 2012-07-15. 
  18. ^ Buddhism in Korea, Korean Buddhism Magazine, Seoul 1997
  19. ^ Asia Society - Historical and Modern Religions of Korea
  20. ^ "About Korea - Religion". Retrieved 2012-07-15. 
  21. ^ "South Koreans". Every Culture. Retrieved 2012-07-15. 
  22. ^ "Culture of SOUTH KOREA". Every Culture. 1944-09-08. Retrieved 2012-07-15. 
  23. ^ "Culture of NORTH KOREA". Every Culture. Retrieved 2012-07-15. 
  24. ^ "CIA The World Factbook - North Korea". Retrieved 2012-07-15. 
  25. ^ "Tripitaka Koreana at Haeinsa Temple". Cultural Properties Administration of South Korea. Retrieved 2008-02-21. 

External links

  • Korea Society Podcast: The Origins of Koreans and Their Culture - Part I
  • Korea Society Podcast: The Origins of Koreans and Their Culture - Part II
  • Online gallery specialized on introducing North Korean artists
  • Early photographs project showing public scenes, behavior, buildings 1895-1930
  • Brief Explanation of Korean Customs (general customs, respect, marriage, dining)
  • ulsan Korea
  • Korean Style And Fashion
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