Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Confucianism and Traditional Korean Art

This lecture entwines the Confucian concepts of three religions (삼교), three moral principles (삼강), the three excellencies (삼절), and the four gentlemanly plants (사군자) and how these concepts represent Confucian thought in traditional art.

The three religions (삼교) of East Asia - China, Korea, Japan - are depicted in Asian art through color, lines, stroke, stylization of humans and nature, etc. The three long-standing East Asian religions are:
Confucianism - deals with relations between humans; ascetic philosophy
Buddhism - deals with relations between humans and the pantheon of gods (even more obvious in India)
Taoism - deals with relations between humans and nature
Among these three religions, Confucian and Buddhist beliefs are readily distinguishable and art imagery easily can be distinguished between the two. Taoism, on the other hand, was introduced to Korea thousands of years ago and at an unknown time. Taoist principles of nature are so deeply entrenched within the traditional agricultural society that it is hard to say whether a belief on nature is based on Taoism or was just a development of pastoral enjoyment of the nature in  the agricultural country.

However, to illustrate Confucian thought in art, the three moral principles (삼강) are readily seen:
..... loyalty - the relationship between ruler and subject
..... filial piety - the relationship between father and son
..... virtue (chasteness) - the relationship between husband and wife

With Confucianism gaining strength over Buddhism in the Joseon dynasty, books were made to exemplify the three moral principles of Confucian thought, the relationships between human and human. Therefore, 35 historical figures were chosen for each of the three moral principles to "model" that ideal quality through both story and art.

For example, one of the 35 characters used for illustrating "loyalty" was a man, Jeong Mongju (1337-1392) who was the enemy of the new dynasty, and yet, because of his unwavering loyalty to the previous dynasty and choosing death over dishonoring his king, he was chosen to represent the unconditional "loyalty" of Confucianism.

An example of virtue is the famously illustrated story "The cutting off the feet of Mrs. Yim". The message here (although not anyone in the audience could guess it) was if pirates, known for many centuries to roam the coast of Korea, came and demanded sexual favors from women, women were told to prefer death or torture to losing their chasteness and virtue which is only to be bestowed on their husbands. In the story of Mrs. Yim, Mrs. Yim refused her favors to pirates and, even when given the choice of obedience or brutality, she preserved her chasteness though her feet were cut off. Her outcome is life is unknown, but in death she was honored as having exemplary virtuous behavior in death.

Order is the also emphasis of the three moral principles, that is, order is depicted through art: the young deferring to the old, the woman deferring to the man, friends remaining forever as strong dependable and steadfast friends.

To exemplify order shown in art, in a series of published illustrations in a book is a Chinese man Hyanyoung who was with his friend and heard his father had died. He immediately left his friend to bury his father. Then he is depicted as the next paternal head of the family, so he tends his father's tomb as well as taking up other responsibilites as the oldest son and male figure who must represent his large family. Here, father takes precedence of friend, as does male over female, and oldest male son over other family members.

Buddhism has order too but it places greater emphasis on benevolence and things of the soul rather than duty to fellow human beings. Buddhist sutras, whether only through calligraphy or with corresponding illustrations, are a means of educating the masses through art. For example, one old sutra reads "the gratitude of swallowing the sour and spitting out the sweet." Thankfully the sutra is also illustrated with a young mother picking some kind of bitter fruit for the small child in her arms. Evidently, she is picking and testing the fruit and only the sweetness gets spit back out so as to be given to the wee child, inevitably a son, to enjoy.
the three excellencies (삼절) - poetry, calligraphy & painting

Confucian Philosophy and Art

One of the major premises for the use of art in Confucianism is that art is a tool to cultivate human nature and to build up character, and so only a person who achieves moral integrity can paint. So basically, only the yangban could paint. Yangban were not educated in the art of "art"; rather, art was to reflect the aesthetics of the artist. (This philosphy is VERY different from Western art, so that Westerners have frequently down-played the historical significance of Confucian art.)

Keeping this in mind, Confucian art was to express the artist's will, mood, viewpoints or "to write the idea". Art was NOT to be copied (like the court artists) but was to be one's own expression. Translated, this means that high art was to express or "write the idea" but low form was "to copy" ... a very different way of looking at art from Western perspective. This Confucian high art-low art rationale clearly states that yangban art was high art while court art was low art. And this is the reason that Asian art fails to be esteemed in the modern world as excellent or great. Westerners know nothing of what high art was to contain, that is, to have the three excellencies (삼절) - poetry, calligraphy, and painting. And only the yangban could do all three.

A form of yangban art was the Literati paintings which employed the "four gentlemanly plants" (사군자) as most frequent art objects to express "ideas" on. The four plants symbolized the seasons and the most subtle symbol of the nature of the scholar.
..... plum blossom (endurance, cold weather) - the plum blossom could endure the cold elements and therefore was a symbol of strength and controlling one's will. (The cherry blossom is actually the noble flower which depicts Spring)
..... orchid (hidden fragrance) - in reality orchids have no scent, but the true artist, only the literati painter, can detect the hidden fragrance or essence of this plant and communicate that through literati art. (Summer)
..... chrysanthemum (self-cultivating) - the mum, once planted, grows quickly and gives off rich and vibrant colors. One museum guide told me long ago that the mum is never painted with a dead leaf, all its leaves are vibrant and green as the day it first unfurled its luscious leaves, just so a scholar must be - unfurled in brilliance, never in dullness. The mum gets a lot of artistic attention and is especially illustrated by one literati who studied and studied all his life in order to retire early, return to his hometown and cultivate mums back in nature. (Autumn)
..... bamboo (resilience, unyielding) - the bamboo, though tall and thin, is very resilient to wind forces; it sways but does not easily break, and therefore it is unyielding to its environment. The bamboo also grows tall and straight and that is what the scholar should be, at least metaphorically, tall and straight. (Winter)
Confucian art was based on aesthetics. It was to be plain, simple, and for the literati monochrome. Art was not about story telling but rather was based on what is in the static space of 'now'; it was non-descriptive and to the present generations, insipid. Western art, on the other hand, tells a story, and this is based on the philosophy or idiom of "a picture is worth a thousand words". Western art is to be colorful, it's intent is to be profound as it plays with the ink or medium that creates the meaning to the story. But for Confucian art, there was no standard and therefore there was no "incorrectness" in their paintings of plants, landscapes and whatever. Plants, birds and landscapes predominated, a result of a cultural reverence for nature. Nature was often painted in wild retreat areas and figures of recluses and hermits frequently were subjects, but then the scholarly were known to rebuke the ways of the world so that they could retreat to unpolluted natural settings in the aesthetics of nature ... in order to study for their exams. Confucian art was heavy in depicting the ideal remote retreat.
Professor Chung Hyung-min, former professor at Seoul National University's College of Fine Arts, and currently the director of the Museum of Art, Seoul National University, concluded her presentation with the summary: "Scholars with subtle eyes and moral integrity could achieve 'greatness' whereas the professional court painters (dependent on color for their interpretations) were not subtle but 'painted on the surface' only. A professional court painter used color to express himself, but the good ink painting needed intense grades of ink and movement with lines to paint the 'idea of the experience'. For example, a scholar goes for a walk in nature, and when the scholar returns, he paints from the vision of his experience which is a 'cultivation of one's self', which is a very Asian style."

Paintings source here along with many more beautiful Confucian art paintings.

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