[KS] Negative evidence-rice images on Korean ceramics

Vladimir Tikhonov vladimir.tikhonov at east.uio.no
Tue Apr 30 15:12:01 EDT 2002

Dear Mike,

I am no art expert, but my - strictly profane - impression of what is 
displayed as "Korean art" in museums is that dominant subject-matter are 
mostly highly symbolical motifs, usually provided by 
religious/philosophical "master discourses" of the given period. 18th C. 
really seems to bring important changes, but before, the plum blossom in 
snow the scholar on the picture should look for, really did not look like 
representing any physical reality: it was, literally, an icon of some 
metaphysical truth. In this connection, may I ask you one question: did you 
see, for example, many pictures of artisans at work before 18th C., or, 
say, shamans in dance? I do not know much about art, but, while working 
with <Samguk sagi> and texts of late Silla steles, I was really surprised 
by the amusing absence of any detailed descriptions of many processes so 
important for real, non-metaphysical life. For example, battle descriptions 
in <Sagi> are brief, dry, and centered on results and figures (losses, 
POWs, etc.) - you do not find rich and ornate narratives of bravery and 
valor, so characteristic for Russian chronicles, for example. In a word, 
<Sagi> text seemed to have been organized in total accordance with the 
dominant discourse of the period: life is painted as fulfillment of 
metaphysical values, and also as process of cyclical "rise and fall" of 
statehood, but not as physical reality per se. May i suggest that something 
similar may be true for the art too?

Vladimir Tikhonov

At 16:39 27.04.2002 -0700, you wrote:
>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
> >
> > ----------
> >

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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