Confucianism in the Gallery of Korean Art


Our new Gallery of Korean Art has been a wonderful new resource for our visitors, and gives you an idea of what’s to come as we renovate many other permanent galleries for a similar thematic feel. We’ve written previously about the Shamanism section in this new gallery, and in anticipation of the upcoming exhibition The Art of Continuity: Revering our Elderstoday we’re looking at the Confucianism section.

It is unclear when Confucianism, or yugyo [유교], was first introduced to the Korean peninsula, but there is consensus that it probably arrived with the transmission of the Chinese writing system around the second century BCE, and subsequently became a model for governance and education. Though King Gwangjong (r. 925-975 CE) of the Goryeo period formed the imperial examination system based on the Chinese model to select the best candidates for the nation’s bureaucracy, it wasn’t until the Joseon dynasty that Confucian ideals were firmly established as the guiding principles of personal conduct and social order as well as governmental and educational systems. The Joseon monarch enforced this complete shift of national ideology to Confucianism in order to contain the primarily Buddhist ruling class of the Goryeo dynasty.

Rank BadgeThe upper class literati (or yangban), who were educated through Confucian philosophies, constituted the bureaucracy of Joseon government and became new patrons of the arts. Their social status would be indicated on a rank badge, which were embroidered separately and worn on the front and back of court robes after the Korean court adopted the Chinese model in 1454. On this rank badge, a crane gracefully soars through clouds, symbolizing the pure spirit of the yangban. Birds denoted civil officials on rank badges, while animals like tigers and haetae, a mythical beast, were reserved for military officials.

statueOne of the core values in Confucian teaching was filial piety, and this idea extends to the afterlife. Observing proper rituals that venerated one’s ancestors was a significant part of Joseon society. Sparing no expense, tombs were often marked with large earthen mounds with tombstones describing the achievements of the deceased and funerary statues such as this one to guard the tomb. This granite figure represents a civil servant, and would be paired with a statue of a military official leading up to the tomb of a king or other important person. The civil servant is shown here in a typical civil official’s attire with a box-hat, long sleeves and ceremonial apron, holding a breath deflector in his hands.


A school of Confucianism that prospered in Joseon society was Neo-Confucianism, known as seongrihak in Korean. Its ideas were mainly compiled by the Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi (known as Joo Hui in Korea, 1130–1200 CE) who attempted to provide a more systematic philosophy explaining the origins of the universe through metaphysics. This use of metaphysics would soon give a religious dimension to the ethical system of ConfucianismIn his writings, Zhu provided strict rules on how to conduct ceremonies including weddings, funerals and ancestor worship that in particular detailed appropriate dress and use of objects. These new ideas resulted in plain white porcelain that reflected the pure aesthetics and pragmatism associated with Neo-Confucianism, in contrast to the luxurious celadons with elaborate decoration that had been produced in the previous era. To meet this new demand, Bunwon, a group of official kilns in Gwangju near Seoul, produced white porcelains for ancestral rituals. Gwangju is still the epicenter of Korean ceramic production, and this long-standing tradition continues to shape and influence contemporary Korean art. This is clearly reflected in another section of the gallery which includes a faceted square bowl, made in 2000 by the Korean artist Kim Yik Yung, that features this same austere aesthetic.

Once The Art of Continuity: Revering Our Elders opens on December 14, make sure you visit this section of the Gallery of Korean Art for an even deeper experience of Confucian tradition and art. ~CM

Badge 운학흉배, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910 CE), mid-19th century, Silk embroidery, Pacific Asia Museum, Gift of Mr. Harvey W. House, 1976.35.90

Guardian Statue 문인석, Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910 CE), 18th–19th century, Granite, Gift of Johnson and Johnson Merck Consumer Pharmaceuticals Co., 1993.24.1

Cup with Stand 백자제기, Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910 CE), 19th century, Porcelain with clear glaze, Gift of Dr. Don W. Lee in loving memory of his parents Lee Beom-Soon & Min Young-Eui, 2009.16.2AB


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