Chinese Images in Late Chosŏn Art


A review of Connecting Across Boundaries: The Use of Chinese Images in Late Chosŏn Court Art from Transcultural and Interdisciplinary Perspectives, by Yoonjung Seo.

The late Chosŏn period witnessed the production of a large number of court paintings. In her dissertation, “Connecting Across Boundaries: The Use of Chinese Images in Late Chosŏn Court Art from Transcultural and Interdisciplinary Perspectives,” Seo Yoonjung presents a thorough examination of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Chosŏn court screens, which depict themes deriving from Chinese textual and pictorial sources that were produced for royal court rites and palaces. Previous scholarship mainly focused on iconographical and formal analyses, while Seo focuses primarily on the socio-political functions and ritual context of Chosŏn court screens. By challenging the notion of a unilateral Chinese “influence” on Korean culture, she attempts to illuminate the process of appropriation of Chinese themes and the causes that affected this process.

In the Introduction, Seo Yoonjung poses her research questions and introduces the methodology she employs in the following four chapters. The author uses two theoretical concepts, “agency” and “cultural translation” in order to identify the dynamics between human agents, institutional systems and objects and to analyse the cultural transmissions and intercultural relations reflected in the adaptation of foreign elements in Chosŏn court art (pp. 9-14). In Chapter One, Seo provides an overview and prelude to the investigation of late Chosŏn court art. In the remaining three chapters, she presents three case studies of court paintings produced to decorate palace buildings and to commemorate court rituals. Each chapter consists of two subjects that show the adaptation and reinvention of certain Chinese themes in court screens ranging from the eighteenth to the late nineteenth centuries.

Chapter 1 introduces various agents that participated in the creation and consumption of court art in the Chosŏn dynasty. The author describes diverse agents, not only human agents but also bureaucratic institutions involved in the commissioning and consuming art at court. Seo elucidates how these artistic agencies interacted with each other and how the social network among artists, patrons and recipients influenced the pattern of production and consumption of court art during the Chosŏn period. The mid seventeenth century was marked by a new emerging trend of commissioning commemorative paintings. Seo’s careful analysis of three screens commissioned by the Andong Kwŏn family, leaders of a political faction in the late seventeenth century, in social and artistic contexts suggests that new artistic conventions and the development of commemorative screens were created due to social and political demands of high officials. The large-scale screen format, the blue-green landscape style and the incorporation of Chinese themes into the repertoire of commemorative paintings are remarkable changes occurring in the late seventeenth century. These features set out a new pattern of production and consumption of court art in following centuries.

In Chapter 2, Seo Yoonjung provides a detailed art-historical analysis of two eighteenth-century commemorative court screens commissioned to record actual Chosŏn court events that depict Chinese figural motifs as their subjects. The two screens, King Kyŏngjong’s (r. 1720-1724) Selection of Government Official in 1721 景宗辛丑親政契屛 and King Yŏngjo’s (r. 1725-1776) Royal Banquet of 1766 英祖丙戌進宴圖屛, were created in relation to a political affair and a royal banquet. Seo argues that these paintings were produced to satisfy the demands of agents who wanted to elevate contemporary events by superimposing well-known exemplary ancient images on current secular occasions. Noteworthy is Seo’s interpretation of the 1766 screen, a rare example of eighteenth-century commemorative paintings that combines Chinese beauties with a documentary painting.  Her close analysis of the subject and style of this screen proposes female patrons or viewers of the painting, probably the Queen Chŏngsun as the intended recipient of this screen. This allows her to consider a possible category of court painting for female viewership that has so far been unexplored.

Chapter 3 analyses paintings depicting two legendary banquets of Chinese mythical and historical figures, which were produced to celebrate festive court rites in the nineteenth century. Screens of The Banquet of the Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu 西王母)at the Turquoise Pond 瑤池宴圖 and The Bangquet of Guo Ziyi 郭汾陽行樂圖 are the foci of this chapter. Building on previous scholarship on the stylistic development, iconographic attributes and the symbolism associated with auspiciousness, Seo provides an alternative interpretation by stressing the propagandistic and ritual functions of these two banquet themes. After thoroughly analysing primary and secondary sources, she concludes that both paintings were commissioned for festive court ceremonies related to the crown prince, to glorify and celebrate the occasion and the political authority of the monarch by superimposing the legendary past onto contemporaneous circumstances. She also claims that the selection of these two themes for wedding ceremonies is related to a peculiar custom of Chosŏn court ritual music, so-called chin i pujak, “presented but did not play.” These banquet themes, which include scenes of musicians and dancers, indicate that the screens were visual replacements of music and performance, as they created an imaginary space for the royal wedding.

Chapter 4, the last chapter examines the Chinese empire and imperial palace represented in late Chosŏn court art. The themes, which visualise the space of the Chinese imperial palace, were adopted for Chosŏn court screens used for diverse celebrations at court and for the decoration of Chosŏn palaces. Screens of Envoys Paying Tribute to the Court 王會圖 and The Han Palace 漢宮圖 reveal the way in which Chosŏn Koreans imagined and represented Han China as an idealised, prosperous society. Both reflect and create the vision of an empire the Chosŏn elite had in mind. By pointing out discrepancies in the titles together with ambivalent features of the iconography of the screens, the author elucidates the reasons for diverse readings from the perspective of “biography of an object” (pp. 243-244). Seo claims that this ambiguity led multiple interpretations in the afterlife of those works of art.

Seo Yoonjung’s dissertation offers an original study of Chosŏn court art from transcultural and interdisciplinary perspectives, which considerably expands the scope of existing research on Korean court paintings beyond the analyses of style and iconography. The major contribution of this dissertation lies in emphasising the role of Chosŏn Koreans as active agents in the consumption and production of court art. Her work presents not only an alternative history of Chosŏn intellectuals and society represented and reconstructed through court art but also provides insights into the cross-national relationship between Chinese and Korean art. This dissertation will be of great interest to scholars of Korean studies and East Asian Art History.

Heena Youn
Senior Teaching Fellow
Department of the History of Art and Archaeology
SOAS, University of London

Primary Sources
Chosŏn wangjo sillok 朝鮮王朝實錄
Han’guk munjip ch’onggan 韓國文集叢刊
Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art
National Museum of Korea
Seoul National University Museum

Dissertation Information
University of California, Los Angeles. 2014. 549pp. Primary Advisor: Burglind Jungmann.

Image: Attributed to Kim Tŭksin, The Banquet of Guo Ziyi, unmounted leaf, ink and color on silk, 143.9 x 123.6 cm., National Museum of Korea.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like