[KS] Korean Tea Ceremony and other wonders

Frank Hoffmann hoffmann at koreaweb.ws
Sat Aug 11 18:20:54 EDT 2012

In response to Brother Anthony's note about "garden culture" (quoted 

> (…) every government compound in Joseon (and there were an awful lot of 
> was landscaped in a garden style with lotus-ponds, pavilions, rocks, plants 
. . . 
> so that we would have to assume that people knew what they were doing even 
  [The caps are mine. / FH]

That exactly is what I have doubts about. 

"Garden" possibly yes, "garden culture" no. (But I like to limit my 
note on the mid- to later Chosŏn period.)
For physical reasons, if you construct three-dimensional buildings, and 
building are always three dimensional, on a two-dimensional surface, or 
any topological plane for that matter, you will involuntarily create 
open space between these objects. Now you have a choice to leave those 
spaces as mud-covered soil, cover them with grass or stones, create 
gardens, etc. Looking at photographs of Korean palaces from the 1880s 
what we see is mud and stone, rarely some bushes (maybe partially 
grass). Reading any sort of descriptions from that time you will not 
find a single writer who would have been impressed with anything that 
comes close to a "garden" or describe any anther sort of landscaping 
attempt. You may now argue that Westerners did not "understand" what 
they saw (the "Korean way" of whatever aesthetic concept). But that 
again, is met by the absence of Korean treatises on garden and 
landscaping. When we talk about "garden culture" we really do not and 
should not simply refer to the space in between buildings that is in 
one or another way being utilized. The emphasis here is on "culture." 
There would be plenty of written records and treatises if gardening 
would have been something Koreans were concerned about. I am not a 
believer of comparative studies, yet, if we have a brief look at e.g. 
France and Britain (in extension Italy and Prussia) with their famous 
garden culture, we will find those kind of texts and and endless amount 
of references, and you will find that this kind of aristocratic garden 
culture was then (since the later 18th century) handed down to the new 
growing urban population, the new economically and politically 
developing citizenry. And that again was a cultural all-inclusive 
'package' that delivered everything from gardening styles over proper 
table manners to sexual techniques (reading 19th century French novels 
will get you all the details). Then there is China and Japan, and as 
many here on this list originally coming from these fields of study 
know much better than me, China and its famous mountains and landscapes 
had been the model for Japanese garden culture. Same as in Korea, so 
far this matches one to one, it was usually the description of Chinese 
places in Chinese poetry that was taken up as a model, e.g. in 
painting, or again referencing it in (Japanese and Korean) poetry. This 
is a truly complex topic, and there is no need to even try to summarize 
this, and you are all aware of this anyway. Important for the topic 
"garden culture" is that there are plenty of old Chinese records that 
relate to garden, and there was, *together* and in union with "tea 
ceremony" an early modern revival (well, maybe re-invention would 
describe it much better) of garden culture in JAPAN. As professor Best 
pointed out, there is a seemingly never-ending hype surrounding topics 
like Japanese tea and garden culture, and it is therefore hard to get 
oriented--seeing how important that actually was during the entire 19th 
century. Yet, it sure is a culture that produced an amazing amount of 
literature, that was highly influential in areas like philosophy, the 
arts, any sort of aesthetics, life style, etc. 

None of that in Korea! 
Should we not trust our basic six senses a little more? A culture that 
has or had a "garden culture"--well, I suppose people would do 
something with the available spaces then, even if that culture went to 
a prolonged period of decline, say one century and a half. Is that so 
in Korea? I am well aware that this is now not a very "scientific" 
argument, but in the early 80s I met nobody in Korea who would know 
what to do with whatever spaces they had around their house, nothing at 
least that would give any sort of hint at garden or garden culture. Are 
we then saying that this was once entirely an aristocratic culture 
limited to palaces? Okay. But again, in such a case there would be 
plenty of written records, of treatises indeed, that would discuss the 
importance of garden and gardening, e.g. as in Japan as a miniature of 
an idealized landscape in idealized China. I have not seen that (but I 
am more into the modern period anyway). Have you?

I think we need to think more about the CONTEXT of these questions, of 
the entire theme. The way I am writing this and the way you may read it 
involuntarily makes it sound as if Korea is "missing" something, some 
culture it should have but does not. I'd really like to play this ball 
back. WHO, in the first place, did bring such claims onto the table, 
WHO claims that Korea has a tea and garden culture, and WHO tries so 
hard, come hell or high water, to find archaeological "evidence" for a 
garden culture in Chosŏn Korea? (Again, the theme is "garden culture" 
here, not just spaces with plants and stones in between buildings.) We 
all know that Korea has just so amazingly much to offer, even without 
Hollywood, Japanese tea and gardens, Neuschwanstein, or gondolas. 

Frank Hoffmann

Frank Hoffmann

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