[KS] Negative evidence-rice images on Korean ceramics

Reinschmidt, Michael mreinschmidt at csuchico.edu
Sat Apr 27 19:39:11 EDT 2002

Hyung I. Pai and Vladimir Tikhonov for your kind responses. Although I am
learning a lot from them, unfortunately they don't help me much in trying to
find answers to the question (let me restate it): why are there NO motifs on
Korean ceramics representing any imagery of RICE (i.e., the plant itself, or
its seeds, rice paddies, bowls with cooked rice, cultural aspects of the
annual rice cycle, etc)? The closest you'd get is the occasional crane that
stalks through or flying above a rice field (with only the crane visible on
a vase). I know the Nonggyeongmun Ch'eongtonggi sherd, have seen it in
reality, and studied quite a bit about it, as well as the literature on
decorative ceramics. I have traveled South Korea extensively and
investigated many museums and private collections there (and here in the US)
without ever having seen anything depicting rice. What's more, none of the
experts I talked with in Korea ever wondered about this strange absence.
With the exception of Kim Hong-Do and his fellow "genre" painters, it
strikes me equally surprising to note a similar absence of thematized rice
motifs in Korean literati paintings (while, again, in China rice is not an
image taboo). Don't you think this is peculiar? Rice has been revered highly
as the center of Korean life at least for the past 2 millennia and ceramics
as well during the past 10 or so centuries.
Wouldn't rice as a Korean icon deserve to be depicted on the country's other
icons, namely ceramics, celadon, and paintings? One could argue, that rice
was "too common," "too plain," or "not aristocratic enough" in order to be
artisitically depicted. The counter argument is: rice, especially white rice
was always a luxury staple food. Another round would be: because white rice
was a rare commodity among the lower classes, it was not considered
important by common artisans. But everybody wanted it desperately, because
it was (or gradually evolved until the late 19th c. as) a status symbol.
There's got to be an explanation. I think this is a major issue (it's about
"power") regarding a question whose answers I don't expect emanating from an
obscure source let's say a hundred years from now. In other words, this is a
"knowable" issue, something that people ought to be able to speak about
today, especially since the question is about a centrally important cultural
Perhaps a related question would provide some clues: who made the decisions
as to how ceramics were decorated (artisans, customers, yangban, or upper
I hope others will join this discussion - what about you anthropologists and
art historians out there?
Mike Reinschmidt

-----Original Message-----
From: Hyung I. Pai [mailto:hyungpai at eastasian.ucsb.edu]
Sent: Saturday, April 27, 2002 12:28 PM
To: Koreanstudies at koreaweb.ws; Vladimir Tikhonov
Subject: [KS] Negative evidence-rice images on Korean ceramics

Dear list,
I will answer this inquiry in three parts based on my opinion as an 
archaeologist: There are three issues involved-
1) who did the collecting of these objects-were they 
anthropologists/archaeologists or art historians: This question is crucial 
because the last two hundred years of avid excavations, collections and 
classification have determined what kinds of objects are now displayed in 
Ethnographic museums vs Fine Arts Museums.
2) The Criteria for collection_ Archaeologists and anthropologists were
interested in studying the past universal stages of the development of man 
throughout the world . As a result, pottery, bronzes, stone tools, weapons
and the interpretation of their designs were focussed on so-called "stage 
markers" -primitive vs. savagery, vs civilization. Hence, remains of 
agricultural tools, subsistence activities like shell mounds, or
motifs were highly regarded as crucial research materials. And they is why
kinds of objects now belong to Ethnographic collections around the world.
were not interested in beautiful objects but ones that indicated so-
called "customs, lifestyles and technological indicators."
3) The Aesthetics of art collections- ceramics on the other hand were mostly

collected by art historians, rich bourgesie collectors from Europe and
and antiquities dealers whose looting throughout the world (still continues)

focussed on co-called centers and remains and relics of gret civilizations. 
Their collections were mostly devoted to the aesthetics, age, and monetary 
value of the objects and monuments (if they came from ancient Egypt,
China etc.) that lent visibility to the museum and the prestige of the 
collections. That is why most of the ceramics, paintings, sculpture (all 
European criteria for arts and crafts) collected in arts museums do not have

corresponding relations to anything that the anthropologists were interested
of course there was overlap and still is some overlap esp in Bronze age and 
Metallurgy periods that were from great ancient civilizations like Bronze
Chinese bronzes for example.
3) Onggi- is an entirely different category since they were not valued as 
art/folk objects till they started disappearing-they were utilitarian
for Korean food storage and kimchee jars for centuries.
Most art and archaeological objects due to the nature of the preservations
from burial remains and so, burial items are rarely functional items but
religious and decorative. 
So in conclusion, we have to be careful about interpreting the negative 
evidence as some lapse in "life force" or some amorphous "historical/Choson
spirit"-the collections in museums now are all products of the last century
collectors and collections (Colonial Japanese collectors, Korean Chaebol, 
European museums , Christies, Sothebys, etc) whose tastes, deep pockets, and

mutual competition have influenced what we now take for granted as the
cultural heritage."
preserved in museums, universities and art galleries.
Quoting Vladimir Tikhonov <vladimir.tikhonov at east.uio.no>:

> There is an accepted theory in Korean archeology that the picture on the 
> famous "Nonggyeongmun Ch'eongtonggi" ("A bronze vessel with 
> Agriculture-related design"; dated usually as bronze age artefact) 
> depicting a man (genitalia emphasized) with something resembling a hoe in 
> hands, is actually about either agriculture or some agriculture-related 
> ritual. You may view the object on National Museum's website.
> V. Tikhonov
> At 16:23 24.04.2002 -0700, you wrote:
> >Dear List Members,
> >is there anyone out there (best would be curators and art historians),
> >has any idea why there seems to be a total ABSENCE of rice motifs on
> Korean
> >ceramics (incl. celadons, onggis, fine wares) of all(?) of Korea's
> historic
> >periods. Artists depict all kinds of things but never rice nor any
> >references to rice, rice paddies, or harvest celebrations. Of course,
> there
> >are countless idiomatic references to rice in Hangul with many
> >of the importance of rice in Korean life (and even death).
> >I do suspect a cultural taboo, perhaps because of the enormous "life
> force"
> >believed to be contained in rice, but haven't been able to figure out
> where
> >such a taboo would have to come from. Why this important omission, why
> >taboo, why is there no indication through the literature or oral
> >traditions. Or is there?
> >Your comments and the passing on of the problem to pertinent sources will
> >be greatly appreciated.
> >Sincerely,
> >Mike Reinschmidt
> Vladimir Tikhonov,
> Department of East European and Oriental Studies,
> Faculty of Arts,
> University of Oslo,
> P.b. 1030, Blindern, 0315, Oslo, Norway.
> Fax: 47-22854140; Tel: 47-22857118
> ----------

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