[KS] North Korean temple photos

Frank Hoffmann hoffmann at koreanstudies.com
Thu Aug 14 03:37:28 EDT 2014

Dear Dr. Saeji, and All:

You wrote:

> At this point in Korea people see a traditional bldg with traditional 
> eaves and dancheong paintings on it as as anonymous and 
> interchangeable as apartment buildings. People have no training, no 
> understanding of how to spot the architectural differences or the 
> variation in dancheong. 

That is, after thinking twice, not really such a bad and inappropriate 
comparison as you meant to say. In a private message someone wrote me 
that Changan-sa and the Buddhist monastery photo on that Korean blog 
(by Weber) are "totally different in every way." Well, I think such 
statements are based on pre-modern and modern Western concepts of 
architecture and art that we have since the Renaissance. Buddhist 
temples and monasteries throughout Korea and also compared to those in 
China were *not* "totally different in every way." Changan-sa and 
Yujŏm-sa, for instance, were similar in structure, but not just these 
two. These were, before anything, religious places. The concept of 
"art" that comes since the Renaissance in the West with that essential 
idea of "originality" and therefore a strong emphasis on difference 
(and I'd argue already much earlier than the Renaissance) had no weight 
in East Asia. Buddhist architecture, sculpture, and painting were 
declared "art" by who? It ALSO is a question of cultural (and therefore 
ethnic) identity! That might sound flashy at first, and 1990-ish. Yet, 
it seems important when we talk about Buddhist "art" what template we 
pull over the object's head, how we dress up our baby, how we present 
it. When you interview the people who live in some of the famous huge 
apartment buildings by Le Courbusier, they do not even have no clue 
that they live in such art historically famous houses, they pretty much 
all hate it (I am not making that up). Buddhist monasteries were looked 
down on in the late Chosŏn period, monks were looked down at and talked 
down to, and Christianity did the rest. The only concept that then 
(let's skip the colonial period with its Japanese version of Buddhism, 
which never "convinced" Koreans), after liberation, took effect, and 
what we still see now in the present Korean corporate bling-bling 
culture, is basically the same template created by high-class Western 
collectors (and the Asian art museums that serve them): Buddhist "art" 
as collectable and displayable artifact -- the seated Buddha next to 
your fireplace. AND THAT has to differentiate itself from your golf 
partner's, of course, who has one from China or Thailand, it has to be 
"original." Now, since nobody can go back a 100 years, since Korea like 
the rest of the world, is now a "Renaissance" country that proudly 
displays its "objects" in exhibitions at the MET and titles such shows 
"Art of the Korean Renaissance" (2009), and all that -- the issue of 
cultural and ethnic identity seems just an overstated and useless 
academic construct. However, it *is* still essential when dealing with 
Buddhist architecture and sculpture, etc. -- so we are reconsidering 
what was in each historical period, and how it was perceived. And here 
is "anonymous and interchangeable" not always that wrong as it might 
seem. So we do not try to understand that with our originality 
eyeglasses. This is a complex issue, and in some short email posting it 
is not possible to discuss this appropriately -- so, please forgive the 

For a good "entry point" to such topics, if interested, I suggest the 
following conference volume (not particularly on Buddhist art though, 
but also):

  Naomi Noble Richard and Donald E. Brix (ed.), 
  _The History of Painting in East Asia: Essays on Scholarly 
  Method_. Taipei: Rock Publishing International, 2008.


Frank Hoffmann

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