[KS] Choson Dynasty Sexuality

Frank Hoffmann hoffmann at koreaweb.ws
Tue Mar 4 09:48:39 EST 2008

Scott, it seems to me you are mixing issues and 
topics here. High and Low art --  sure, but the 
thing is that these are copies of Manchu art work.

>>(for example, a
>>young girl secretly watching another couple engaged in
>>coitus), yet are executed tastefully and not at all
>"pornographically" in my opinion.

This is yet another example of a copy. When I use 
the term copy, then this has really nothing to do 
with any *evaluation* of the subject matter of a
painting! It's just that this image is also, 
pretty exactly (!), copied from a Manchu album. 
You may want to consider dropping all those notes 
on KOREAN culture and style etc. and talk about 
Manchu art then ... and maybe on the limited 
"Korean" RECEPTION of these images.

About all the terminology, about "pornographic" 
-- I was referring to Japanese art of the same 
period because we very often see a political 
sub-text there, and all kind of literati and 
other "quotes." That is not so with those very 
explicit copies of Manchu art you are mentioning. 
This again is likely so exactly because they are 
not based on Han Chinese traditions and culture, 
but are coming from a culture where all 
bureaucrats hat to be "hired" from the Han for 
lack of education. So, yes, in a way this does 
relate to high and low culture, sure. I just 
think one may not want to mix up works in the 
tradition of Chinese and Korean painting with 
copies done by the same artists from an entirely 
different culture.

Not that I have all the answers; we know 
relatively little about the development of the 
Korean art market and collecting art, especially 
if compared to what we know about Japan. But I 
would speculate that commercial interests might 
have been the main cause for the existence of 
such images. You may also think about the fact 
that such great painters like Kim Hong-do and Sin 
Yun-bok did not (!) continue to develop such 
"explicit" (pornographic) styles in their work. 
There are those copies, and that's that. There 
are no further developments in this direction, no 
documented interest. What we have are those much 
more sophisticated, non-explicit works ... also 
showing desire, also producing an erotic setting, 
etc., but not showing genitals. Furthermore, 
think of the fact that in neighboring Japan, with 
Buddhism as the leading religion, an entirely 
different environment developed, one that was 
very open towards anything sexual and towards 
creativity. Not so in Korea, at least not anymore 
in the mid- and late Chosôn period -- of course. 
Earlier, during Koryô times, we see wonderful 
images that make one think if getting a sex 
change might be an option -); as all those males 
-- maitreyas and buddhas -- are just outrageously 
elegant, fashionably, handsome, and sexy ... not 
too different from, say, all those sexualized 
Christian paintings of the Renaissance (mostly by 
homosexual or bisexual artists) like Leonardo, 
Michelangelo, and Caravaggio. Italy was very open 
in this respect, so was the Koryô period, and so 
was and is Japan. We do not anymore see any of 
this in the Chosôn period, we also do not see it 
anymore in Lutheren parts of Europe. Without such 
environment, it was not really possible to 
develop much sophistication in the arts (or 
literature) in this area. So you end up with some 
peasant jokes on sex, and of course a very 
straight symbolism in Korean "shamanist" 
practices (visit Wôn'gwang University Museum for 
a stunning collection), and some copies of (not 
at all very sophisticated) Manchu art, etc., but 
nothing was really developing in that part of 
culture ("high culture," yes) that was under the 
neo-Confucian umbrella.


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