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tic and supramundane vision of the state as an «earthly paradise»1. Reflecting both the natural and ideological landscape of the peninsula, pisaek ch’ongja ultimately came to represent the taste, place and identity of the Koryŏ state.


Beauty and Buddhahood For the title of a recent exhibition on the arts of the Koryŏ dynasty, Kumja Paik Kim attributes the period between 918 and 1392 as Korea’s «Age of Enlightenment»2. There are several reasons why this title befits the period in question. In the case of aesthetic philosophy and its development in the ‘modern’ West, the Enlightenment Period was precipitated by a rejection of the supremacy of «God» for a rational, secularized version of the divine3. This was ideally expressed in the cult of «Beauty» «whose inscrutability, rooted in the depth and mystery of one’s innermost feelings, was as profound as the path leading to God»4. As noted by David L. Snellgrove, it was during «the Koryŏ period that a fusion of renewed Buddhist faith and popular art styles resulted in a certain secularization of Buddhist art»5. Sumptuous in colour and finely ornamented, the body of religious art from the Koryŏ period displays the wealth and status of its patrons as much as their endorsement of the Buddhist faith. To the religious purist, the aesthetic results of this fusion may seem entirely secular but to the Koryŏ aristocrat, the pairing of self-indulgence and piety was a cooperative rather than contradictory practice. In spite of the opinion of some scholars that pisaek ch’ongja exhibits «innocence», «austerity» or even «naivety»6, the peninsula-wide production of celadon during the Koryŏ period coincides with a particularly decadent period in Korean history7. Among the more obvious examples of religious art works from this period – i. e., illuminated sutras and paintings of Amitabha – the Buddha is visualized in human form. More often than not, the ornamentation and forms of Koryŏ celadon visualize nature. Amid the popularity of animal motifs, such as cranes flying among clouds and ducks swimming in ponds, the imagery of pisaek ch’ongja is predominantly vegetal. The Korean peninsula’s indigenous tradition of nature worship formed an essential part of religious practice during the Koryŏ period. The close ties between Buddhism and nature are evident in the names of the most popular sutras at this time – the «Saddharmapundarika» («The Lotus») and the «Avatamsaka» («Flower Garland»). It must be noted that in the history of Buddhist art, expressions of the Buddha are not confined to

By addressing the aesthetics of pisaek ch’ongja (피색 총자, «jade-green celadon») from the Koryŏ dynasty (918–1392 CE), the objective of this study is not to indiscriminately apply a Western branch of philosophy onto an Eastern subject but to consider the formal aspects of pisaek ch’ongja as a matter of cultural significance. Herein, the «aesthetics» of pisaek ch’ongja refers not only to how these objects look but how their appearance conveys an ideal. In the case of Koryŏ period art, a syncretic dialogue between religion and politics defined the aesthetics of that time. Consistent in material and design, pisaek ch’ongja enjoyed a broad range of uses, not least of which was its prestige value for the powerful and educated members of Koryŏ society. Initially inspired by Chinese celadon wares, pisaek ch’ongja developed a name and an aesthetic unique to itself. Appealing to the earthly desires of the Koryŏ ruling class and their institutional support of Buddhism, the government-sponsored proliferation of pisaek ch’ongja formed a simultaneously materialis-

1 The term «earthly paradise» refers to the Koryŏ aristocracy’s materialized vision of Amitabha’s Pure Land Paradise. 2 See: Goryeo Dynasty: Age of Enlightenment (918–1392) / Еd. by Kumja Paik Kim. San Francisco: Asian Art Museum, the Center for Asian Art and Culture, the National Museum of Korea and the Nara National Museum, 2003. 3 Marra M. Modern Japanese Aesthetics: а Reader. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1999. Р. 3. 4 Ibid. P. 3. 5 Snellgrove D. L. The Image of the Buddha. London: UNESCO, 1978. P. 375. 6 Gompertz G. St. G. M. Korean Celadon аnd Other Wares of the Koryŏ Period. London: Faber and Faber, 1963. P. 3. 7 Ken Vos. Symbolism & Simplicity: Korean Art from the Collection of Won-Kyung Cho. Leiden: Hotei Publishing, 1997. P. 14.



human form. Upon achieving Final Enlightenment (bodhi), the Buddha embodied an ideal; henceforth, his presence or ‘spirit’ could assume a wealth of earthly manifestations beyond the corporeal1. In light of this concept, pisaek ch’ongja and its naturalistic imagery deftly illustrates the Koryŏ period’s aesthetic expression of Buddhahood. The collaboration between earthly beauty and divinity also stems from the Buddhist concept of alamkara (Korean: chang’om) which signifies «adornment, decoration, glorification, …glorious decorations or manifestation, but can also be interpreted as “sacred splendour”»2. Declared by Wang Kŏn, the founder of the Koryŏ dynasty, as the official religion of the state, Buddhism and the concept of Buddhahood were expressed in a gamut of artistic forms from metalwork and lacquerware to ceramics. This is not to suggest that Koryŏ celadon wares were expressly intended as religious objects. The abundance of surviving examples in the form of bowls, dishes, ewers, pillows, brush stands and cosmetic boxes indicates how these objects were as present in the home as they were in the temple. More to the point, the distinctive aesthetic unifying the range of Koryŏ celadon shows that the boundaries between the sacred and the secular were less than clearly defined. The implications of this ambiguity on the aesthetic of pisaek ch’ongja are elaborated below. Pisaek Ch’ongja and Nationhood Although jade-green celadons are the most well known examples, the range of Koryŏ celadon encompasses nine different types: 1) undecorated celadon (somun ch’ongja, 소믄), 2) celadon with incised, carved, and openwork decoration (ŭmgak ch’ongja, 음갘), including impressed and molded ornamentation (yanggak ch’ongja, 양갘), 3) inlaid (sanggam ch’ongja, 상감) and reverse-inlaid (yŏk-sanggam ch’ongja, 역 상감) celadon, 4) celadon with underglaze copper-red decoration (chinsa ch’ongja, 친사), 5) celadon with underglaze white-slip decoration (toehwa ch’ongja, 토화), 6) gilt celadon (hwagŭm c’hongja, 화금), 7) marbled celadon (hŭk’yu chagi ch’ongja, 흑유), 8) celadon with underglaze iron-painting decoration (ch’ŏlsa ch’ongja, 촐사), and 9) celadon with underglaze iron-coating (ch’ŏlhwa ch’ongja, 촐화). Pisaek ch’ongja and the period of its manufacture mark a singular phase in Korea’s ceramic history. This tradition of green-glazed ceramics or «greenwares» originated in China as early as the IVth century. Celadon was first introduced to the Korean peninsula by way of China during the Tang dynasty (618–906 CE). Koryŏ potters developed their expertise in celadon over the course of the eleventh and twelfth-centuries. It was during this time that Korea’s ceramic culture underwent a burst of technological and stylistic achievement.

A selective repertoire of motifs ranging from the floral to the bestial appears on pisaek ch’ongja. Among the frequently occurring plant motifs are the gourd, chrysanthemum, bamboo, lotus, pine, peony, peach and grape. Equally popular motifs include the crane, scrolling cloud, ducks and children. Appearing singly or in varied combinations, these motifs were applied as decorations on the surface of vessels and imitated in the forms of the vessels themselves. Certain forms such as the bottle gourd and lobed melon appear with noticeable regularity. Whether in the shape of a lobed, rounded melon or cinched bottle, the gourd form is consistently presented as an ewer. The popularity of this motif and its integration with a pouring vessel is significant for several reasons. While the gourd motif is far from unique to Koryŏ porcelain, the frequency with which it appears in pisaek ch’ongja is one of the main features distinguishing these wares from those of neigbouring China and the tradition of Korean ceramics overall. Popular throughout the Koryŏ dynasty, the gourd is noticeably absent from the porcelain wares of the successive Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910 CE). Used as serving vessels for wine, gourd-shaped celadons from the Koryŏ period were ornamented with a range of motifs. Whether plain or incised with flowers, fruits or children, the gourd-shaped ewer had special significance for the local collectors of pisaek ch’ongja. Ancient Korea had many uses for the gourd. For the rural farmer, a hollowed gourd served as a scoop for water, a measuring cup for rice, an implement for spreading fertilizer, a serving dish for sauces, and even a canister for sweets1. Up until the 1960’s and 1970’s, the gourd was planted on thatched roof homes as both a food source and a natural means of architectural reinforcement. In the folk arts, the gourd served as the basic material for making masks. The gourd also figures prominently in Korea’s foundation myths. Each of Korea’s ancient states and clans based their origins on a myth or legend describing the birth of their progenitor2. With regards to pisaek ch’ongja, the myth of Pak Hyŏkkŏse, the founder of the Silla kingdom (57 BCE – 935 CE), is particularly relevant. Recounted in the «Samguk Yusa» («Legends and History of the Three Kingdoms of Ancient Korea»), the myth of King Hyŏkkŏse tells of the founder’s discovery at the southern foot of Mount Yang (양산, Yang-san)3. Varying accounts refer to a blue-coloured egg from which the founding prince emerged4. The myth ends with this essential point: «Since the prince had been born from an egg in the shape of a gourd, called “pak” (박) in the native tongue, [the people] gave him the family name Pak»5. This myth is more than just a fanciful tale about the origins of the Silla kingdom. It articulates the totemic link between the gourd and the


Snellgrove D. L. Op. cit. P. 8. Pak Y. Serenity and Composure: the Art of Korea at the Metropolitan Museum of Art // Orientations 29. 8 (September 1998). P. 55.

Chung Y. K. Bak: Gourd of Bounty // Korea Infogate. August 9, 2006. Grayson J. H. Korea: a Religious History. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. Р. 281. 3 Ilyon. King Hyokkose, the Founder of Silla // Samguk Yusa: Legends and History of the Three Kingdoms of Ancient Korea / Tr. by Tae-Hung Ha and G. K. Mintz. Seoul: Yonsei University Press, 1972. P. 49. 4 Ibid. P. 49. 5 Ibid. P. 50.



1 2


origins of the Silla people. That there are differing accounts on the colour of the egg is also relevant to the topic at hand. Pronounced in Korean as pisaek, the local name for celadon originates from the Chinese character, pi-sê. In Chinese, pi-sê can also appear written as fei-ts’ui, which refers to the colour of a kingfisher’s feathers and a popular shade of jade from the Song dynasty1. Reserved for blue or green items of exceptional beauty, fei-ts’ui was used in much the same way as the adjective ch’ing2. During the Koryŏ period, the Chinese characters fei-ts’ui and pi-sê were formed into a single Sino-Korean character, pisaek3. For the Koryŏ kingdom, the term pisaek came to refer specifically to Koryŏ celadon4. The mythic association between the gourd and the founder of the Silla kingdom may well account for the popularity of the gourd shape in Koryŏ celadon. Inheriting its bloodline from the Silla dynasty, the Koryŏ ruling class was essentially a continuation of the Silla aristocracy5. Forming the emergent Koryŏ government, Koryŏ officials of Silla aristocratic background ensured that the salient features of Silla political traditions remained intact6. Like their predecessors, members of the Koryŏ ruling class engaged in intensive imbreeding to secure their lineage7. For the Koryŏ aristocracy, continuity of the original hereditary line was essential. Directing both the political and cultural domains, it comes as little surprise that the local aristocracy steered the development of Koryŏ celadon. Despite differing accounts on the details of Pak Hyŏkkŏse’s birth, the story of the Silla people’s origins contextualizes the prevailing shape and colour of pisaek ch’ongja. In its physical attributes, a green-glazed pisaek ch’ongja ewer is a twin counterpart to a natural gourd. The incised bird and plant design on gourd-shaped ewers, such as the one in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, bore auspicious meaning for the Koryŏ aristocrat. Along with success in the civil service examinations, ducks symbolized marital felicity and harmony8. The double gourd also ties in with the concerns of the ruling class since it was associated with longevity9. The history of the double gourd’s use as a container has a long tradition. Prior to its popularity as a pouring vessel for wine, the bottle gourd was traditionally used as a container for medicines and life extending potions10. Resembling the colour of gourds grown in nature, pisaek gourds were made with the utmost attention to naturalistic detail, as though in making them as organically 1

Gompertz G. St. G. M. Op. cit. P. 12. Ibid. P. 12. 3 Ibid. P. 13. 4 Ibid. P. 13. 5 Kang Hi-Woong. The Development of the Korean Ruling Class from Late Silla to Early Koryŏ. PhD Thesis. Washington: University of Washington, 1964. P. 292. 6 Ibid. P. 294. 7 Ibid. P. 300. 8 Pak Y., Whitfield R. Handbook of Korean Art: Earthenware and Celadon. London: Laurence King, 2003. P. 132. 9 Ibid. P. 216. 10 Ibid. 2


convincing as possible, the object’s auspicious qualities could be amplified. Imitating the vines of a gourd in nature, the twisted handles and leafy details of gourdshaped ewers enhanced their luxurious value. Requiring expert skills in potting, glazing and decoration, these objects were directly formed from the materials of the local environment. Providing the stone for its clay and the trees for its colour1, the geology of the Korean peninsula was as essential to the development of pisaek ch’ongja as the social and political factors that guided its production. Along with the gourd, flowers were also featured prominently in pisaek ch’ongja. The lotus and chrysanthemum are perhaps the most frequently cited flowers in Koryŏ celadon. The importance of these flowers is also traceable to the Silla dynasty, when flowers were designated as the emblems of the Hwarang. An elite military school for young aristocratic men, the word hwarang (화랑), literally means «men as beautiful as flowers»2. The social influence of the Hwarang was great as its members went on to prominent positions in the government and military. During the Koryŏ period, the aristocracy patronized the Kyo Buddhist sect. The Hwaom, (화옴) (Avatamsaka or Flower-Garland School) formed the principle teachings of the Kyo «which believed that the universe was one integrated whole with each part organically connected to all other parts»3. Though fundamental in concept, the Kyo sect was far too rooted in esoteric scriptures to appeal to a common audience. As a result, the school remained exclusive to the educated elite. Largely based on sutras and scriptures, the Hwaom school and the Kyo sect were reflected in the period’s decorative arts. As the teachings of the Kyo were not explicitly disapproving of elaborate ceremony, the Kyo sect appealed all the more to the ruling class and its opulent court lifestyle4. Just as the Hwaom sect catered to the spiritual and social concerns of the ruling class, the chrysanthemum surfaced in both sacred and secular objects. Used to contain a holy sutra, a lacquer box from the fourteenth-century is richly coated with chrysanthemums fashioned from myriad slivers of mother-of-pearl. The sacred splendour of the box is all the more accentuated by its shimmering surface. Not just a popular flower, the chrysanthemum formed an essential part of the visual and symbolic vocabulary of an elite social stratum. According to the «Yanghwasorok», the nation’s first book on floriculture by the scholar and painter Gang Hui-An (1417–1465 CE), chrysanthemums were introduced from China during the reign of King Chungsuk (r. 1332–1339 CE) of the Koryŏ dynasty5. A ubiquitous motif, the chrysanthemum is one of the Four Gentlemen (sagunja, 사근자). Symbolizing the noble dignity and integrity of the learned,


Covell J. C. Korea’s Colorful Heritage. Honolulu: Dae-Won-Sa, 1985. Р. 66. Goryeo Dynasty: Age of Enlightenment. P. 19. 3 Shultz E. J. Institutional Developments in Korea under the Ch’oe House: 1196–1258, PhD Thesis. Hawaii: University of Hawaii, 1976. P. 263. 4 Ibid. P. 265. 5 Kim Gwang-eon. Koreans and Flowers // Koreana 16. 2 (Summer 2002). Р. 19. 2


aristocratic scholar1, the chrysanthemum was a versatile motif. Given the overlapping relationship between the aristocrat, the scholar, religion and nature, it comes as little surprise that the «gentleman of autumn» was employed in the full range of pisaek ch’ongja. The consistency in colour, decoration and style of Koryŏ celadon demonstrates a coherent program of design. Be it a bowl with impressed floral sprays, an ewer in the shape of a gourd, or a pillow with an animal-shaped base, all of the shapes display a seamless integration of form and function. The comparably delicate forms of Koryŏ celadon display the period’s affinity for ornamental vegetation. Far from an arbitrary outcome, this was the result of a convergence between Buddhism and the scholar-aristocratic culture of the Koryŏ period. Cited in the «Koryŏ-sa» during the sixth year of his reign, the following announcement by King Gongmin (r. 1351–1374 CE), confirms that the Koryŏ dynasty identified itself as a nation; forming the raw materials of this nation were its natural resources. It was the patriotic responsibility of the nation to see itself mirrored in nature and, in doing so, be reflected in its material culture: In Korea, energy of the earth arises from water and branches into wood. The color of black is the foundation and blue-green is the body … Thus, we have to mimic the natural features of Korea by using brass and copper and stoneware2.

The beauty of pisaek ch’ongja was measured by the holistic effect of colour, clarity and form. Naturalistic details are the hallmarks of pisaek ch’ongja. Enjoyed for their use value as much as their overall beauty, pisaek ch’ongja appealed to the tastes of an aristocratic market. Becoming an expression of prestige for the Koryŏ court and the ruling class, the appeal of pisaek ch’ongja stemmed not only from the object itself but what it said of the person who owned it. The reflection of a nation’s religious and philosophical ideals in its material culture is hardly unique to the Koryŏ dynasty. The institutionalization of Confucianism in the subsequent Chosŏn dynasty affected similar results, as evidenced by the predominantly white colour of that period’s porcelain. The association between the colour white and the Confucian literati ideal of purity of mind was first established during the Koryŏ dynasty3. However, it was only after the Confucian literati had fully established itself as the new ruling class that perceptible aesthetic changes took place. The connection between colour and ideology finds parallels in other parts of the world. As noted by Kim, «the harmony between Buddhism and [the colour] green can be compared to the harmony of Islam and the cobalt blue color [sic] that decorates Islamic temples»4. Conversely, the colour of Koryŏ celadon is said to parallel «the pure mind of Buddhism and the high state of Buddhist mercy»5.


Goryeo Dynasty: Age of Enlightenment. P. 19. Ibid. P. 234. 3 Ibid. P. 234. 4 Ibid. 5 Ibid. 2


The following poem by Master Paegun, succinctly articulates the sacred affiliations of the colour green in the context of the Koryŏ dynasty: The body of the Buddha is everywhere Does the Goddess of Mercy live in the eastern sea? Every green mountain is a place of awakening; Why must you seek Mount Potalaka1?

As suggested in this poem, green was not only perceived as the colour of nature but of spiritual awakening. In turn, the splendour of the Buddha was echoed in the ornamentions of pisaek ch’ongja. To decorate a celadon vase was to decorate the Buddha and, by extension, the Koryŏ state. The aesthetics of pisaek ch’ongja went beyond the purpose of making something beautiful. Its greater purpose was to hold a mirror up to the Koryŏ dynasty or, more accurately, the Koryŏ aristocracy’s image of itself. According to Kim, «The Goryeo people believed in the yin-yang dichotomy and the five-elements theory from the classical Chinese worldview, and since Korea was supposed to belong to the wood element, they thought a preference for black and blue-green was the most proper»2. The basic beliefs comprising the Koryŏ worldview are embodied in its creative expression. The aristocratic founders of the Koryŏ dynasty manipulated the resources of the natural environment to construct their local identity. According to Kim, «Buddhism and Korea’s aristocratic society are the two main factors underlying Goryeo cultural development, and aristocratic Buddhists are believed to have influenced the Goryeo people in favor of celadon»3. Permeating all areas of aristocratic culture, the fusion between nature and religion formed a way of seeing for the ruling class. Yi Gyu-bo is among the most celebrated poets of the Koryŏ period. Like his contemporaries, his poetry is rich in natural imagery inspired by the local landscape. In the following poem, Yi directly expresses his appreciation of pisaek ch’ongja: Of celadon wine cups fired in the kiln, Only one of ten can be selected. Oh, how resplendent your jade blue luster, How many times have you been enveloped in blue smoke! Only now I comprehend the skill That went into making the wine cup, The skill that borrowed the heaven’s harmony. The flower pattern of inlaid small dots, It is as exquisite as a painted flower4.

The poet relates the design of a celadon wine cup to a flower, an object found in nature. A profound respect for nature informed the way these objects were made to look and be appreciated. The abstract pattern of small dots on the wine cup’s surface is not only associated with a natural flower but a painted flower. What we can extract from this distinction is that a celadon wine cup in the form of a flower was not considered apart 1 Lee P. H. Anthology of Korean Literature: From Early Times to the Nineteenth Century. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1981. Р. 67. 2 Goryeo Dynasty: Age of Enlightenment. P. 234. 3 Ibid. P. 233. 4 Ibid. P. 19.


from nature. In its appearance and material, it was an organic extension of the natural order. Pisaek ch’ongja enabled the Koryŏ state to reveal nature in the same way nature was perceived – as a source of aesthetic beauty and spiritual inspiration. Conclusion Pisaek ch’ongja formed a tangible link between the material and cognitive landscape of the Koryŏ dynasty. Under aristocratic leadership, the Koryŏ state centered its ceramic culture on celadon. Relative stability during the Koryŏ dynasty enabled the government to effectively centralize its kilns, thus controlling the quality of its wares. Distinct from the celadon wares of China, the aesthetic of Koryŏ celadon is owed more to the Koryŏ kingdom’s cultural and political context than that of its Far Eastern neighbours1. Scholars in the West continue to study the field of aesthetics as it relates to China and Japan. While comparative studies are necessary, they alone do not explain the particularities of each nation’s culture. An equal interest in a Korean aesthetic has yet to take root. To address the aesthetics of pisaek ch’ongja is to shed light on a clear but frequently overlooked point, that there is a coherent philosophy of beauty informing the art of the Koryŏ dynasty. As remarked by Sarah Milledge-Wilson, the basic differences in food, clothing and shelter that distinguish Korea from its Far Eastern neighbours suggests a long cultural continuity within the Korean peninsula and a common ethnicity formed in the distant past2. If «societies are networks, with definite spatial contours»3, we should approach each period within a single nation’s history as the outcome of both inheritance and self-definition. The conditions forming the organization of a particular society are paradoxically unique and shared among each period.


Ibid. P. 233. Nelson S. M. The Archaeology of Korea. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. P. 7. 3 Mann M. The Sources of Social Power. In 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Vol. I. P. 9. 2


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tic and supramundane vision of the state as an «earthly paradise» 1 . Reflecting both the natural and ideological landscape of the peninsula...


tic and supramundane vision of the state as an «earthly paradise» 1 . Reflecting both the natural and ideological landscape of the peninsula...

Profile for anton_108

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