[KS] cultural object circulation in the late Choson Dynasty query

gkl1 at columbia.edu gkl1 at columbia.edu
Wed Sep 29 23:56:27 EDT 2010

In regard to Andre’s question, I have no particular knowledge of the  
antiquarian market during the later Choson dynasty, but I would guess  
that there would have been very few specimens of Koryo celadon  
available to be sold in it. In early Choson, the aristocracy would  
have continued to enjoy the ceramic wares that survived to the end of  
Koryo. Such objects would have passed from generation to generation  
for about 200 years, or until the Imjin Wars, during which most of  
them would end up looted and transported to Japan. Most such items  
would probably have been the later Koryo wares, which nowadays are  
considered to be of lower artistic value than the great Koryo celadons  
of the 11th and 12th centuries. To the extent that such items  
survived, most would probably have come down through inheritance or as  
gifts. But whatever the genre of such wares, the losses of Imjin times  
would have meant that only a rather small percentage of them survived  
into the 17th century. Even allowing for informal archaeological  
findings by farmers or others, and considering the anti-commercial  
values of the Confucian aristocracy, there probabaly would not have  
been much of a market.

     However that situation would have changed with the economic  
trends of the 17th and 18th centuries. Hopefully other responders will  
be able to post some information from written Choson sources on the  
art and cultural objects market that Andre wonders about. But I would  
expect that most of that market activity would have involved paintings  
and decorative screens. And although such screens themselves depict  
beautiful vases and other ceramic objects, most of them seem to be of  
Chinese origin or inspiration. This is based on a survey of  
illustrations of these screens provided me by my friend Kay Black, who  
for many years has studied the so-called ch’aekkori 冊거리screens  
depicting books and other cultural objects of the scholar’s studio.  
These screens were created by professional painters that were either  
commissioned by individuals or destined for those who would want to  
have one in their home.

     When did such markets come into existence? I once went through  
the biographies of Korean painters and calligraphers in the well-known  
韓國書畵人名辭書 compiled by Kim Yong’yun 金榮胤 (1959). I tried, on the basis of  
a regular chronological sampling of the 1,335 Choson  
painters/calligraphers for whom he provided biographical details, to  
establish the class status of each painter-calligrapher. Of the 1,335  
individuals, the overwhelming majority (957) were exclusively  
calligraphers according to his categorization, while 378, or 21%, were  
active as artists who combined painting with calligraphy.  I concluded  
that from 1400 to about 1725, the overwhelming proportion of these  
were sadaebu or yangban in class status. Given their cultural values,  
we may suspect that they painted for themselves or their friends,  
taking pride in painting for their aesthetic pleasure and not for  
profit while avoiding the market place as a matter of class pride. But  
from 1725 to 1900, the saedaebu/yangban painters thinned out  
considerably, while the numbers of professional class (chung’in 中人,  
hwawon 畵員) or commoners exceeded the sadaebu/yangban group by a  
considerable margin. They were active in the market place in those  
years and are known to have made a substantial part of their living  
there. I don't have any idea where that market was physically located,  
or even if there existed such a physical location. But there must have  
been sellers and buyers of cultural objects. Given that there were  
sufficient numbers of artists and consumers for paintings, we might  
conclude that ceramic art was also included in that market.

     But whether the ceramic art for sale included many specimens of  
Koryo ceramics is problematic. It is important to note that prior to  
the late 19th and early 20th century, relatively little was known  
about Koryo ceramics. They are not mentioned much in Koryo sources;  
indeed, the best information on the splendid vases, bowls, plates,  
cups of the 11th and 12th centuries comes from a Chinese work, the  
Xuanhe fengshi Gaoli tujing 宣和奉使高麗圖經, written by Xu Jing 徐兢 in 1124.  
He visited the Koryo court as Chinese ambassador in 1123. Surely  
Choson sources must contain references to Koryo ceramics, and I would  
be surprised if the art historians in Korea have not discovered them  
by now; there is a sizeable literature of cultural observation,  
especially in the second half of the dynasty. It was not until the  
late 19th century that Koryo celadon was widely noticed and praised.

     Why so late? Because almost all, if not absolutely all of the now  
known Koryo celadon specimens was discovered in that period in tombs  
in the general Kaesong area where Koryo’s capital had been. Many of  
these diggings were illegal and criminal acts, and much valuable  
archeological information was lost in the rush to find the beautiful  
ceramics. The chief buyers, and in some cases the commissioners of the  
plunder, were Japanese who found them to be both beautiful art and  
nice souvenirs of their time in Korea. But rich Koreans and other  
foreigners also coveted the examples that survive in museums arounf  
the world today. The transmission of Koryo celadon from the time of  
its manufacture to the time of its revelation might be called an  
“underground operation": it was placed in the tombs of Koryo  
aristocrats at the time of its creation and unearthed in the plunder  
of Kaesong cemetaries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We  
have much reason to be grateful for Koryo’s burial custioms.

     Andre asks a stimulating question about the late Choson art  
market. More research on the subject is definitely needed. But it’s  
not likely that that market saw much Koryo celadon before the end of  
the 19th century. Such antique ceramic ware as it contained would have  
been mainly Choson wares and imports from Beijing's antiquities shops.

     Silla wares, which were also buried in tombs but over a much  
larger area and a much longer period, survived the same way. They can  
still pop out of the ground today. When I was a student in Korea in  
the mid 1960s, farmers in Kyongsang province had tables full of it for  
sale to anyone who passed by. The authorities have better control of  
that situation now.

Gari Ledyard

Andre Schmid <andre.schmid at utoronto.ca> wrote:

> A few of us in Toronto were discussing the circulation of cultural
> objects in the late Choson dynasty when the following question arose:
> If you were a family of means in the 18th century, where might you use
> your money to purchase a celadon from the Koryo dynasty? Was this even
> possible? Our discussion of this topic was based on pure conjecture and
> not supported by any specific empirical or textual knowledge (easy to
> do!), so I thought I would post a query to see if anyone had any
> specific textual sources from this period that would shed light on our
> question.  Thanks in advance for your suggestions and ideas.
> Andre Schmid
> University of Toronto

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