Centuries-old Confucian principles still govern the daily lives of Korean people. Among those ideals are a dedication to hard work and a devotion to family and society. Although Koreans use the Gregorian calendar like the West, they also keep a lunar calendar, with its ties to the land and its awareness of the changing of the seasons, values long ingrained in this traditionally agricultural society. The dates of many holidays and festivals are based on the lunar calendar, so be sure to double-check when you're planning your visit.
Another part of Confucianism deeply ingrained in Korean culture is the patriarchic system. Fathers are the responsible members of the family and elders are honored. Outside of the traditional jesa (ancestral honoring ceremony), these ideals are practiced in daily life. At the dinner table the eldest person sits first and no one else can begin until he or she has taken the first bite. Elders are always addressed with an honorific -- no one would call older people by their first names -- and it is considered polite to bow to them in greeting.
Ceramics -- The earliest form of art found on the Korean Peninsula is pottery. Pottery shards from the Neolithic era are prevalent. By the time of the Three Kingdoms, ceramics were in common use in everyday life. But it was during the Unified Shilla period that the pottery began taking on interesting shapes and decorative patterns.
In the Goryeo period, ceramics culture evolved, with the creation of cheongja (celadon) pottery. In the Joseon era, the white ceramics of baekja and buncheongsagi were developed. Unusually, Joseon ceramics were simpler in design than those from the Goryeo period. Of course, the tradition of Korean ceramics continues today.
Painting -- The earliest-known Korean paintings are murals found on the walls of tombs from the Three Kingdoms period (although painted baskets were found in the area of the ancient Lelang kingdom around 108 B.C.). The ones from Goguryeo were more dynamic and rhythmic, while those of Baekje were refined and elegant. Those from Shilla were meticulous. Unfortunately, only one example survived from the Unified Shilla period.
During the Goryeo period, painting flourished with the heavy influence of Buddhism, as shown in murals in temples and religious scroll paintings. No examples of secular paintings remain from this time, but writings talk about them and Koreans often traveled to China to buy paintings.
The rise of Confucianism during the Joseon period had a profound effect on Buddhist painting, and it has not enjoyed such artistic prominence since the Goryeo time. Paintings during this time were influenced by works of Chinese scholar-artists. The 17th century saw less effect of China on Korea, due to successive invasions from the Japanese and Manchus, but it was during the 18th century that Korean painting finally came to its own. Examples of this are the development of the chingyoung sansu ("real landscape") style and depictions of everyday life.
During the Japanese occupation, Korean painting suffered, but the introduction of modern Western painting styles influenced Korean artists. After World War II, an interest in both Western and traditional styles grew rapidly and today both continue to flourish.
Sculpture -- The oldest known sculptures in Korea are some rock carvings on a riverside cliff, Ban-gudae, in Gyeongsangbuk-do. Smaller sculptures were made of bronze, earthenware, and clay during the Bronze Age. The art form, however, did not gain prominence until the introduction of Buddhism during the Three Kingdoms period. Buddhist images and pagodas became a main form for sculptors during this time. Buddhas from Goguryeo had long faces on mostly shaven heads and were characteristic of the more rough style of the kingdom. Baekje Buddhas had more human features and stately but relaxed bodies with more volume under the robe. Early Shilla sculptures showed influences of Sui and Tang China, with round faces and realistically depicted robes.
Buddhist sculpture continued to be popular during the Goryeo period. A large number of pagodas and Buddhas were created with more Korean facial features, but stiffer bodies. Of course, Buddhist sculpture suffered during the Joseon period and declined even more under Japanese rule, when sculptors just began imitating Western styles. Modern Korean sculpture came to its own in the 1960s. Contemporary Korean sculpture continues to develop today.
Several architectural remains exist from Neolithic culture on the peninsula. Dolmens, primitive tombs of important people from ancient times, are found all over the southern areas of Korea. Other ancient structures of interest are the royal tombs from the Baekje and Shilla eras. One interesting thing of note is that evidence of ondol, the uniquely Korean system of under-floor heating, can be found in primitive ruins.
In general, historical Korean architecture can be divided into two broad styles -- one used for palaces and temples and the other for houses of common people.
The natural environment was always an important element of Korean architecture. When choosing a site for building, Koreans took into consideration the natural environment. An ideal site had appropriate views of the mountains and water and aligned with traditional principles of geomancy.
The ideal hanok (traditional house), for instance, is built with the mountains to the back and a river in the front. The homes were built with ondol underneath for the cold winters and a wide daecheong (front porch) for keeping the house cool during the hot summers. In the colder, northern areas, homes were built in a closed square to retain better heat, while homes in the central region were generally L-shaped. Houses in the southern region are built in an open I-shape.
Traditional homes of upper-class people, or yangban, took into consideration Confucian ideas, with the age and gender of the residents being taken into consideration. Males older than 7 slept in the sarangchae, while women and children (and sometimes married couples) slept in the anchae, which was a place in the inner part of the home to restrict the movement of women. The servants slept in the haengnang and the ancestors were honored in the sadang. The buildings had tiled roofs and were often called giwajib. The entire complex was housed within stone walls with a large main gate/front door.
Lower-class homes had a much simpler structure of a large main room, a kitchen, and a porch. The houses were simple, with thatched roofs made of straw or bark.
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