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Chinese Calligraphy in Korea

Students studying at Namwon Sodang school

A modern-day class of students studying at Namwon Sodang school.

The image above shows a modern-day class of students studying at Namwon Sodang. This school has kept alive the style of teaching from the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). The master (center) and students wear white hanbok (traditional Korean clothing) as befits the yangban (upper) class. Students grew their hair long until it was bound in a top-knot during the important capping ceremony.

Sodang were local schoolhouses where the sons of aristocratic families studied until the age of fifteen, when they entered either one of four schools in Seoul or a country school in their vicinity. At these higher schools, they prepared to pass the first set of civil examinations that would admit them into the ranks of civil officials.

The boys in this image study Chinese calligraphy. Calligraphy is painted with brush and ink and can be produced in five different scripts. It is both an art form and a language. It originated with the ancient seal script found in ancient China on ceremonial bronze vessels and on oracle bones. Chinese writing systems entered Korea during the Three Kingdoms period (57 BCE–668 CE) probably assisted by Buddhist monks, who were proficient in the reading and writing of texts. Even after the Korean (hangul) system of writing was developed in 1446, scholars continued to read and write using Chinese calligraphy.

In calligraphy, each character is composed of different brush strokes. By learning many different strokes that make up thousands of characters, students learned not only a written language but also the expression inherent in brush painting. Calligraphy was therefore a window into one’s personality. Mastering many brush strokes and scripts demonstrated one’s education. Strong, well-painted characters showed the strength of one’s character.

Key Confucian phrases and ideas would be placed on walls and over doorways to instill certain values. These values included human-heartedness, modesty, reciprocity and the cultivation of virtue. By cultivating one’s moral qualities, and by acting in a virtuous way, one could improve the lot of society in general. Since scholar-officials were in positions of power, it was vital that they demonstrated these virtues through their behavior and through their actions.

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