Since the earliest settlements on the Korean Peninsula and in southeastern Manchuria during prehistoric times, the people of Korea have developed a distinctive culture based on their unique artistic sensibility. The geographical conditions of the peninsula provided Koreans with opportunities to receive both continental and maritime cultures and ample resources, which in turn enabled them to form unique cultures of interest to and value for the rest of humanity, both then and now. Korea’s vibrant cultural legacy, comprising music, art, literature, dance, architecture, clothing and cuisine, offers a delightful combination of tradition and modernity, and is now appreciated in many parts of the world.
At the present time, Korean arts and culture are attracting many enthusiasts around the world. Korea’s cultural and artistic achievements through the ages are now leading many of its young talents to the world’s most prestigious music and dance competitions, while its literary works are being translated into many different languages for global readers. Recently, Korean monochrome paintings have become the talk of the global art world. More recently, Korean pop artists have attracted huge numbers of admirers across the world, the most spectacular success being Psy’s global hit Gangnam Style. In May 2018, K-Pop boy band BTS’s album, “Love Yourself: Tear,” made history by topping the Billboard 200 albums chart. Its title track, “Fake Love,” landed 10th place on the Hot 100 singles chart.
The cultural prosperity Korea has enjoyed lately would have not been possible without its traditional culture and arts, which were built on the Korean people’s traits of tenacity and perseverance combined with an artistic sensibility that has matured throughout the country’s long history. The unique artistic sensibility reflected in the diverse artifacts and tomb murals of the Three Kingdoms Period became richer and more profound as Korea progressed through the periods of Unified Silla (676-935), Goryeo (918-1392) and Joseon (1392-1910). This aesthetic sensibility has been handed down through the generations to the Korean artists, and even ordinary members of the public, of our time.
Korea preserves a wealth of priceless cultural heritage, some of which have been inscribed on the lists of human legacies protected by UNESCO. As of 2018, a total of 48 Korean heritage items are listed either as World Heritage Sites or Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, or have been included on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.
UNESCO Heritage in Korea
World Heritage Sites
Changdeokgung Palace, located in Waryong-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, is one of the five Royal Palaces of Joseon (1392-1910), and still contains the original palace structures and other remains intact. It was built in 1405 as a Royal Villa but became the Joseon Dynasty’s official Royal Residence after Gyeongbokgung, the original principal palace, was destroyed by fire in 1592 when Japanese forces invaded Korea. Thereafter it maintained its prestigious position until 1867, when Gyeongbokgung was renovated and restored to its original status. Changdeokgung was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
Although it was built during the Joseon Period. Changdeokgung shows traces of the influence of the architectural tradition of Goryeo, such as its location at the foot of a mountain. Royal palaces were typically built according to a layout planned to highlight the dignity and authority of its occupant, but the layout of Changdeokgung was planned to make the most of the characteristic geographical features of the skirt of Bugaksan Mountain. The original palace buildings have been preserved intact, including Donhwamun Gate, its main entrance, Injeongjeon Hall; Seonjeongjeon Hall, and a beautiful traditional garden to the rear of the main buildings. The palace also contains Nakseonjae, a compound of exquisite traditional buildings set up in the mid-19th century as a residence for members of the royal family.
Jongmyo, located in Hunjeong-dong, Jongno-gu in Seoul, is the royal ancestral shrine of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). It was built to house eighty-three spirit tablets of the Joseon Kings, their Queen Consorts, and direct ancestors of the dynasty’s founder who were posthumously invested with royal titles. As Joseon was founded according to Confucian ideology, its rulers considered it very important to put Confucian teachings into practice and sanctify the institutions where ancestral memorial tablets were enshrined.
he two main buildings at the Royal Shrine, Jeongjeon Hall and Yeongnyeongjeon Hall exhibit a fine symmetry, and there are differences in the height of the raised platform, the height to the eaves and the roof top, and the thickness of the columns according to their status. The entire sanctuary retains its original features, including the two shrine halls which exhibit the unique architectural style of the 16th century. Seasonal memorial rites commemorating the life and achievements of the royal ancestors of Joseon are still performed at the shrine.
Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon
Located in today’s Jangan-gu of Suwon-si, Gyeonggi-do Province, Hwaseong is a large fortress (its walls extend for 5.7km) built in 1796 during the reign of King Jeongjo (r. 1776-1800) of the Joseon Dynasty. Construction of the fortress was begun after the King moved the grave of his father, Crown Prince Sado, from Yangju in Gyeonggi-do Province to its current location near the fortress. The fortification is elaborately and carefully designed to effectively perform its function of protecting the city enclosed within it. The construction of the fortress and related facilities involved the use of scientific devices developed by the distinguished Confucian thinker and writer Jeong Yak-yong (1762- 1836), including the Geojunggi (type of crane) and Nongno (pulley wheel) used to lift heavy building materials such as stones.
Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple
Seokguram, located on the middle slopes of Tohamsan Mountain in Gyeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do Province, is a Buddhist hermitage with an artificial stone cave built in 774 to serve as a dharma hall. The hall houses an image of seated Buddha surrounded by his guardians and followers carved in relief, which is widely admired as a great masterpiece. The cave faces east and is designed so that the principal Buddha receives the first rays of the sun rising from the East Sea on his head.
Completed the same year as Seokguram Grotto, Bulguksa Temple consists of exquisite prayer halls and various monuments, including two stone pagodas, Dabotap and Seokgatap, standing in the front courtyard of the temple’s main prayer hall, Daeungjeon. The two pagodas are widely regarded as the finest extant Silla pagodas: the first is admired for its elaborately carved details, the second for its delightfully simple structure.
Dabotap, or the Pagoda of Abundant Treasures, is marked by a unique structure built with elaborately carved granite blocks. It also features on the face of the Korean 10 won coin. By contrast, Seokgatap, or the Pagoda of Shakyamuni, is better known for its delightfully simple structure which exhibits fine symmetry and balance. The pagoda is now generally regarded as the archetype of all the three-story stone pagodas built across Korea thereafter. Among the other treasures preserved at the temple are the two exquisite stone bridges, Cheongungyo (Blue Cloud Bridge) and Baegungyo (White Cloud Bridge), leading to Daeungjeon, the temple’s principal dharma hall. The bridges symbolize the journey every Buddhist needs to make to reach the Pure Land of Bliss.
Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty
The Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) left behind a total of fortyfour tombs of its Kings and their Queen Consorts, most of which are located in and around the capital area including the cities of Guri, Goyang and Namyangju in Gyeonggi-do Province. Some of these Royal Tombs are arranged in small groups in the Donggureung, Seooreung, Seosamneung and Hongyureung. Of these, forty tombs are registered as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The Royal Tombs of Joseon are highly regarded as tangible heritage that reflect the values held by the Korean people, which were drawn from Confucian ideology and the feng shui tradition. These historical remains are also valued highly for having been preserved in their original condition for anywhere from one to six hundred years.
Janggyeongpanjeon Depositories of Haeinsa Temple, Hapcheon
The Printing Woodblocks of the Tripitaka Koreana, which was made during the Goryeo Period (918-1392), are housed in two depositories specially made for that purpose in 1488 at Haeinsa Temple. As the oldest remaining buildings at the temple, the Tripitaka depositories are marked by the uniquely scientific and highly effective method of controlling ventilation and moisture to ensure the safe storage of the age-old woodblocks. The buildings were built side by side at the highest point (about 700m above sea level) in the precincts of Haeinsa Temple, which is located on the mid-slope of Gayasan Mountain.
What makes these depositories so special is their unique design which provides effective natural ventilation by exploiting the wind blowing in from the valley of Gayasan. Open lattice windows of different sizes are arranged in upper and lower rows on both the front and rear walls of the depositories to promote the optimum flow of air from the valley. Similarly, the floor, which was built by ramming layers of charcoal, clay, sand, salt and lime powder, also helps to control the humidity of the rooms.
Stone Warrior, Guardian of the Royal Tombs
Each of the royal tombs of Joseon consists of one or more semispherical mounds protected with curb stones set around the base, and with elaborately carved stone railings and stone animals, including a lamb and a tiger in particular, representing meekness and ferocity. In the front area there is a rectangular stone table that was used for offering sacrifices to the spirits of the royalty buried there, a tall octagonal stone pillar, a stone lantern, one or more pairs of stone guardians, and civil and military officials, with their horses. The mound is further protected by a low wall standing at the back and on both sides.
Namhansanseong Fortress, located about 25km southeast of Seoul, underwent large-scale restructuring in 1626, during the reign of King Injo of the Joseon Dynasty, to create a refuge for the King and his people in the event of a national emergency. The foundations of Jujangseong Fortress, built almost one thousand years earlier in 672, during the reign of King Munmu of Unified Silla, served as the base of the renovated structure.
The defensive position of the fortress was reinforced by exploiting the rugged topography of the mountain (average height: at least 480m). The perimeter of its wall is about 12.3km. According to a record dating from the Joseon Period, about 4,000 people lived in the town built inside the fortress, which also served as a temporary capital for the royal family and the military command to take refuge in during emergencies.
Temporary palaces, Jongmyo Shrine, and Sajikdan Altar were built in the fortress in 1711 during the reign of King Sukjong of Joseon. The fortress is also a result of the wide-ranging exchanges made and wars waged between Korea (Joseon), Japan (Azuchi- Momoyama Period), and China (Ming and Qing) during the 16th-18th centuries. The introduction of cannons from western countries brought many changes to the weaponry inside the fortress and the way the fortress was built. The fortress is a “living record” of the changes in the way fortresses were built during the 7th-19th centuries.
Baekje Historic Areas
Baekje, one of the three ancient kingdoms on the Korean Peninsula, existed for 700 years from 18 BC to 660 AD. Baekje Historic Areas comprise the eight cultural heritages located in Gongju-si, Buyeo-gun, and Iksan-si. They are the Gongsanseong Fortress and the Royal Tombs in Songsan-ri in Gongjusi, Chungcheongnam-do Province; the Archeological Site in Gwanbuk-ri, Busosanseong Fortress, the Royal Tombs in Neungsan-ri, the Jeongnimsa Temple Site, and the Naseong City Wall in Buyeo-gun, Chungcheongnamdo Province; and the Archaeological Site in Wanggung-ri and the Mireuksa Temple Site in Iksan-si, Jeollabuk-do Province.
This archaeological property represents the historical relationships among the East Asian ancient kingdoms of Korea, China, and Japan from the 5th to the 7th centuries and the resulting architectural development and spread of Buddhism. The Buddhist temples, ancient tombs, architecture, and stone pagodas are testament to the culture, religion, and aesthetics of the Baekje Kingdom. The active exchanges among the three ancient kingdoms are well manifested in the history and culture of Baekje.
Memory of the World Register
Hunminjeongeum (The Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the People)
Hangeul is the name of the Korean writing system and alphabet, which consists of letters inspired by the shapes formed by the human vocal organs during speech, making it very easy to learn and use. Hangeul was promulgated in 1446 by King Sejong, who helped devise it and named it Hunminjeongeum, or The Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the People. It was also in that same year that he ordered his scholars to publish The Hunminjeongeum haeryebon (Explanatory Edition) to provide detailed explanations of the purpose and guiding principles of the new writing system. One of these manuscripts is currently in the collection of the Kansong Art Museum and was included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in 1997.
The invention of the Hunminjeongeum opened up a broad new horizon for all the Korean people, even women and those in the lowest social class, enabling them to learn to read and write and express themselves fully. The Hunminjeongeum alphabet originally consisted of 28 letters, but only 24 are used now. In 1989, UNESCO joined the Korean government to create the UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize, which it awards to organizations or individuals who display great merit and achieve particularly effective results in contributing to the promotion of literacy.
Joseon Wangjo Sillok: Annals of the Joseon Dynasty
The Joseon Dynasty left behind a vast collection of annual records of Joseon rulers and their officials covering the 472 years from 1392 to 1863. The records, Joseon wangjo sillok (Annals of the Joseon Dynasty), comprise 2,077 volumes and are stored at the Kyujanggak Institute for Korean Studies, Seoul National University.
The annals of each Joseon ruler were usually compiled after his death during the early phase of his successor’s rule based on the daily accounts, called “historical drafts” (sacho), made by historiographers. The annals are regarded as extremely valuable historical resources as they contain detailed information about the politics, economy, culture and other aspects of Joseon society.
Once the annals had been compiled and placed in the “history depositories” (sago), they would not be opened to anyone except in special circumstances where it was necessary to refer to past examples with regard to the formal conduct of important state ceremonies such as the memorial rites for royal ancestors or the reception of foreign envoys.
Originally there were four history depositories, one in the Chunchugwan (Office of State Records) at the Royal Court, and three more in the main regional administrative hubs in the south, namely, Chungju, Jeonju and Seongju. However, these were destroyed in 1592 when Japan invaded Korea, and the Joseon Dynasty was compelled to build new depositories on some of the remotest mountains in the country, Myohyangsan, Taebaeksan, Odaesan and Manisan.
Seungjeongwon Ilgi: Diaries of the Royal Secretariat
This collection of documents contains the records of the Joseon rulers’ public life and their interactions with the bureaucracy; they were made on a daily basis by the Seungjeongwon, or Royal Secretariat, from the third month of 1623 to the eighth month of 1910. The records are collected in 3,243 volumes and include the details of royal edicts, reports and appeals from ministries and other government agencies. The diaries are currently kept in the Kyujanggak Institute for Korean Studies, Seoul National University.
Ilseongnok: Daily Records of the Royal Court and Important Officials
This vast collection of daily records made by the Kings of the late Joseon Period (from 1760 to 1910) is compiled in a total of 2,329 volumes. The records provide vivid and detailed information on the political situation in and around Korea and the ongoing cultural exchanges between east and west from the 18th to the 20th century.
Uigwe: Royal Protocols of the Joseon Dynasty
This collection of beautifully illustrated books contains official manuals recording the details of Court Ceremonies or events of national importance for the purpose of future reference. The most frequently treated subjects in these books are Royal Weddings, the investiture of Queens and Crown Princes, State and Royal Funerals, and the construction of Royal Tombs, although other state or royal occasions such as the “Royal Ploughing”, construction or renovation of Palace buildings, are included. As for the latter, those published to mark the construction of Hwaseong Fortress and King Jeongjo’s formal visit to the new walled city in the late 18th century are particularly famous. These publications were also stored in the history depositories, sadly resulting in the destruction of early Joseon works by fire during the Japanese Invasion of Korea in 1592. The remaining 3,895 volumes of Uigwe were published after the war, some of which were stolen by the French Army in 1866 and kept in the Bibliotheque nationale de France until 2011, when they were returned to Korea following an agreement between the governments of Korea and France.
Printing Woodblocks of the Tripitaka Koreana and Miscellaneous Buddhist Scriptures
The collection of Tripitaka woodblocks stored at Haeinsa Temple (established 802) in Hapcheon-gun, Gyeongsangnamdo Province was made during the Goryeo Period (918-1392) under a national project that started in 1236 and took fifteen years to complete. The collection is generally known by the name Palman Daejanggyeong, literally “the Tripitaka of eighty thousand woodblocks,” as it consists of 81, 258 blocks of wood.
The Tripitaka Koreana woodblocks were made by the people of Goryeo who sought the Buddha’s magical power to repel the Mongol forces that had invaded and devastated their country in the 13th century. The Tripitaka Koreana is often compared with other Tripitaka editions produced by the Song, Yuan and Ming Dynasties in China, and has been highly praised for its richer and more complete content. The process of manufacturing the woodblocks played an important role in the development of printing and publication techniques in Korea.
Human Rights Documentary Heritage 1980:
Archives of the May 18th Democratic Uprising in Gwangju
The May 18th Gwangju Uprising was a popular rebellion that took place in the city of Gwangju from May 18 to 27 1980, during which Gwangju’s citizens made a strong plea for democracy in Korea and actively opposed the then military dictatorship. The pro-democracy struggle in Gwangju ended tragically but exerted a powerful influence on similar democratic movements that spread across East Asia in the 1980s. This UNESCO inscription consists of the documents, videos, photographs and other forms of records made about the activities of Gwangju’s citizens during the movement, and the subsequent process of compensation for the victims, as collected by The May 18 Memorial Foundation, the National Archives and Records Service, the National Assembly Library, and various organizations in the USA.
Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity
Royal Ancestral Rite and Ritual Music
The Royal Ancestral Rite (Jongmyo Jerye) now held on the first Sunday of May to honor the deceased Joseon Kings and their Queen Consorts at the Jongmyo Shrine in Seoul remained one of the most important state ceremonies after the establishment of Joseon as a Confucian state in 1392. Designed to maintain the social order and promote solidarity, the ritual consists of performances of ceremonial orchestral music and dances praising the civil and military achievements of the Royal ancestors of Joseon. This age-old Confucian ritual combining splendid performances of music and dance is widely admired not only for the preservation of original features formed over 500 years ago, but also for its unique syncretic or composite art form.
Pansori is a genre of musical storytelling performed by a vocalist and a single drummer in which he or she combines singing (sori) with gestures (ballim) and narrative (aniri) to present an epic drama conceived from popular folk tales and well known historic events. The art form was established during the 18th century and has generated enthusiastic performers and audiences ever since.
Gangneung Danoje Festival
This summer festival held in and around Gangneung, Gangwondo Province, for about 30 days from the fifth day of the fifth lunar month to Dano Day on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, is one of Korea’s oldest folk festivals and has been preserved more or less in its original form since its emergence many centuries ago. The festival starts with the traditional ritual of honoring the mountain god of Daegwallyeong and continues with a great variety of folk games, events and rituals during which prayers are offered for a good harvest, the peace and prosperity of villages and individual homes, and communal unity and solidarity
The first event of the Danoje Festival is related to the preparation of “divine drinks” (sinju) to be offered to gods and goddesses, thus linking the human world with the divine world. This is followed by a variety of festive events such as the Gwanno Mask Dance, a non-verbal performance by masked players, swing riding, ssireum (Korean wrestling), street performances by farmers’ bands, changpo (iris) hair washing, and surichwi rice cake eating. Of these, the changpo hair washing event is particularly widely practiced by women who believe that the extract of changpo will give them glossier hair and repel the evil spirits that are thought to bear diseases.
This traditional event combining a circle dance with singing and folk games was performed by women around the coastal areas of Jeollanam-do during traditional holidays such as Chuseok (Harvest Moon Festival/Thanksgiving) and the Daeboreum (the first full moon of the New Year on the lunar calendar) in particular.
While today only the dance part is selected to be performed by professional dancers, the original performance included several different folk games such as Namsaengi nori (Namsadang vagabond clowns’ play), deokseok malgi (straw mat rolling) and gosari kkeokgi (bracken shoot picking). The performers sing the Song of Ganggangsullae as they dance, and the singing is done alternately by the lead singer and the rest with the tempo of the song and dance movements becoming faster and faster towards the end.
Namsadang nori, generally performed by an itinerant troupe of male performers, consisted of several distinct parts including pungmul nori (music and dance), jultagi (tightrope walking), daejeop dolligi (plate spinning), gamyeongeuk (mask theater) and kkokdugaksi noreum (puppet theater). The performers also played instruments while they danced, such as the barrel buk (drum), janggu (hourglass-shaped drum), kkwaenggari (small metal gong), jing (large metal gong), and two wind instruments called nabal and taepyeongso.
Yeongsanjae, literally meaning “Rites of Vulture Peak”, is a Buddhist ritual performed on the 49th day after a person’s death to comfort his or her spirit, and guide it to the Buddhist land of bliss. The ritual, known to have been performed since the Goryeo Period (918-1392), consists of solemn Buddhist music and dance, a sermon on the Buddha’s teachings, and a prayer recitation. While it is an essential part of the Korean Buddhist tradition conducted to guide both the living and the dead to the realm of Buddhist truths and to help them liberate themselves from all defilement and suffering, it was sometimes performed for the peace and prosperity of both the state and the people.
Jeju Chilmeoridang Yeongdeunggut
This age-old shamanic ritual was at one time performed in almost all the towns and villages in Jejudo, with worshippers praying for a good catch and the safety of fishermen working at sea. According to the traditional folk belief of Jejudo islanders the second lunar month is the month of Yeongdeung, during which Grandma Yeongdeung, a wind deity, visits all the villages, farming fields and homes across Jeju, bearing tidings about the harvest in the oncoming autumn.
One of the surviving traditional martial arts developed in Korea, Taekkyeon, which is quite different from Taekwondo, used to be known by several different names such as Gakhui (“sport of legs”) and Bigaksul (“art of flying legs”), although such names suggest that it is related with the movement of kicking. Like most other martial arts in which weapons are not used, Taekkyeon is aimed at improving one’s self-defence techniques and promoting physical and mental health through the practice of orchestrated dance-like bodily movements, using the feet and legs in particular. Contestants are encouraged to focus more on defence than on offense, and to throw the opponent to the ground using their hands and feet or jump up and kick him in the face to win a match.
In the traditional Korean art of jultagi (tightrope walking), a tightrope walker performs a variety of acrobatic movements, as well as singing and comic storytelling, as he walks along a tightrope. He is generally assisted by an eorit gwangdae (clown) on the ground who responds to his words and movements with witty remarks and comic actions intended to elicit an amused response from the spectators. Tightrope walking was formally performed at the Royal Court to celebrate special occasions such as the (Lunar) New Year’s Day or to entertain special guests such as foreign envoys. However the aspiration of Joseon’s rulers towards a more austere lifestyle gradually pushed it toward villages and markets, and it ultimately became an entertainment for the common people. Whilst tightrope walking in other countries tends to focus on the walking techniques alone, Korean tightrope walkers are interested in songs and comedy as well as acrobatic stunts, thereby involving the spectators more intimately in the performance.
Korea has a long tradition of keeping and training falcons and other raptors to seize quarry, such as wild pheasants or hares. Archaeological and historical evidence show that falconry on the Korean peninsula started several thousand years ago and was widely practiced during the Goryeo Period (918-1392) in particular. The sport was more popular in the north than in the south, and was conducted usually during the winter season when farmers were free from farm work. Falconers would tie a leather string around the ankle of their bird and an ID tag and a bell to its tail. The Korean tradition was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010 along with those preserved in eleven other countries around the world including the Czech Republic, France, Mongolia, Spain, and Syria.
Arirang is the name of a folk song sung by Korean people since olden times. There are many variations of the song, although the lyrics of their refrains have the words “arirang” or “arari” in common. The song was sung for many different purposes such as to reduce feelings of boredom during work, confess one’s true feelings to one’s beloved, pray to the divine being for a happy and peaceful life, and to entertain people gathered together for a celebration.
One element that has helped Arirang remain in the hearts of Korean people for so many years is its form, which is designed to allow any singer to easily add their own words to express their feelings. The importance of Arirang in the daily life of the Korean people is succinctly described in an essay, Korean Vocal Music, written in 1896 by Homer B. Hulbert (1863-1949), an American missionary and ardent supporter of Korean independence:
“The first and most conspicuous of this class is that popular ditty of seven hundred and eighty-two verses, more or less, which goes under the euphonious title of A-ri-rang. To the average Korean this one song holds the same place in music that rice does in his food?all else is mere appendage. You hear it everywhere and at all times.
The verses which are sung in connection with this chorus range through the whole field of legend, folklore, lullabies, drinking songs, domestic life, travel and love. To the Korean they are lyric, didactic and epic all rolled into one. They are at once Mother Goose and Byron, Uncle Remus and Wordsworth.”
Kimjang: Making and Sharing Kimchi in Korea
Kimjang is the activity of making kimchi that is conducted all over Korea during late autumn as part of the preparations to secure fresh, healthy food for the winter season. Now gaining a worldwide reputation as a representative Korean food, kimchi has always been one of the key side dishes required to complete the everyday meals eaten by Korean people since olden times. That is why Kimjang has long been an annual event of paramount importance for entire families and communities across Korea.
The preparations for making kimchi for the winter season follow a yearly cycle. In spring, households procure a selection of seafood including shrimps and anchovies in particular, which they salt and leave to ferment until they are ready for use in the Kimjang season. They then obtain fine-quality sun-dried sea salt in summer and prepare red chili powder and the main ingredients, kimchi cabbage and Korean white radish, in autumn. Then, with winter approaching, members of families and communities alike gather together on a mutually agreed date to make kimchi in sufficient quantities to sustain families with fresh food through the long, harsh winter.
While Korea is now a modern, industrialized nation, the ageold tradition of making kimchi is still maintained as a collective cultural activity contributing to a shared sense of social identity and solidarity among today’s Korean people. The tradition was registered by UNESCO on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity on December 5, 2013.
Korea Information - Culture and the Arts
The term gugak, which literally means “national music,” refers to traditional Korean music and other related art forms including songs, dances and ceremonial movements. The history of music in Korea should be as long as Korean history itself, but it was only in the early 15th century, during the reign of King Sejong of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), that Korean music became a subject of serious study and was developed into a system, resulting in the creation of the oldest mensural notation system, called jeongganbo, in Asia. King Sejong’s efforts to reform the court music led not only to the creation of Korea’s own notation system but also to the composition of a special ritual music to be performed during the Royal Ancestral Rite at the Jongmyo Shrine—inscribed on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2001—and Yeomillak, or “Joy of the People.” The term gugak was first used by the Jangagwon, a government agency of late Joseon responsible for music, to distinguish traditional Korean music from foreign music.
Traditional Korean music is typically classified into several types: the “legitimate music” (called jeongak or jeongga) enjoyed by the royalty and aristocracy of Joseon; folk music including pansori, sanjo and japga; jeongjae (court music and dance) performed for the King at celebratory state events; music and dance connected with shamanic and Buddhist traditions such as salpuri, seungmu, and beompae; and poetic songs beloved of the literati elite such as gagok and sijo. Of the numerous folk songs, Arirang—inscribed on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2012—is particularly cherished by the common people as there are many variations with special lyrics and melodies devised to touch their hearts.
The Korean people have also developed a wide range of musical instruments. These traditional musical instruments are generally divided into three categories: wind instruments such as the piri, daegeum, danso and taepyeongso; stringed instruments such as the gayageum, geomungo, haegeum, ajaeng and bipa; and percussion instruments such as the buk, janggu, pyeonjong, pyeongyeong, kkwaenggwari and jing.
Korean people have inherited a great variety of folk dances such as salpurichum (spiritual purification dance), gutchum (shamanic ritual dance), taepyeongmu (dance of peace), hallyangchum (idler’s dance), buchaechum (fan dance), geommu (sword dance), and seungmu (monk’s dance). Of these, talchum (mask dance) and pungmul nori (play with musical instruments) are known for their satirical targeting of the corrupt aristocracy of Joseon and their close connection with rural communities, which had long been the bedrock of Korean culture and tradition. Most performances are presented in a marketplace or on the fields and involve drumming, dancing, and singing.
Painting and Calligraphy
Painting has always been a major genre of Korean art since ancient times. The art of ancient Korea is represented by the tomb murals of Goguryeo (37 B.C. - 668 A.D.) which contain valuable clues to the beliefs of the early Korean people about humanity and the universe as well as to their artistic sensibilities and techniques. The artists of Goryeo (918-1392) were interested in capturing Buddhist icons and bequeathed some great masterpieces, while the literati elite of Joseon was more attracted to the symbolism of plants and animals, such as the Four Noble Lords (Sagunja, namely, the orchid, chrysanthemum, bamboo, and plum tree) and the Ten Creatures of Longevity (Sipjangsaeng), as well as idealized landscapes.
Korea in the 18th century saw the arrival of two great artists, Kim Hong-do and Sin Yun-bok, both of whom developed a passionate interest in depicting the daily activities of ordinary people in their work. Kim Hong-do preferred depicting a kaleidoscope of people in various situations and scenes of everyday life, whereas Sin Yun-bok, for his part, devoted his efforts to capturing erotic moments in works that were surprisingly voyeuristic for the period.
Calligraphy, which developed in Korea under the influence of China, is the art of handwriting in which the beauty of the lines and forms of characters and the energy contained in brush strokes and subtle shades of ink are appreciated. While calligraphy is an independent genre of art, it has been closely related with ink and wash painting since these forms use similar techniques and the tools commonly called the “four friends of the study” (i.e. paper, brush, ink stick and ink stone). Korea has produced an abundance of master calligraphers of whom Kim Jeong-hui (1786-1856) is particularly famous for developing his own style, which is known as Chusache or Chusa Style (Chusa was his pen name). His calligraphic works fascinated even the Chinese masters of his time and are still widely admired for their remarkably modern artistic beauty.
Korean pottery, which nowadays attracts the highest praise from international collectors, is typically divided into three groups: Cheongja (blue-green celadon), Buncheong (slip-coated stoneware), and Baekja (white porcelain). Celadon refers to Korean stoneware which underwent major development in the hands of Goryeo potters some 700 to 1,000 years ago. Celadon pottery is marked by an attractive jade blue surface and the unique Korean inlay technique used to decorate it. Gangjin of Jeollanam-do and Buan of Jeollabuk-do were its two main producers during the Goryeo Period (918-1392). White porcelain ware represents the ceramic art of the Joseon Period (1392-1910). While some of these porcelain wares display a milky white surface, many are decorated with a great variety of designs painted in oxidized iron, copper, or the priceless cobalt blue pigment imported from Persia via China. The Royal Court of Joseon ran its own kilns in Gwangju, Gyeonggi-do, producing products of the very highest quality. The advanced techniques used in the production of white porcelain wares were introduced to Japan by Joseon potters kidnapped during the Imjin Waeran (Japanese Invasion of Korea, 1592-1598).
The third main group of Korean pottery, Buncheong, was made by Goryeo potters after the fall of their Kingdom in 1392. This type of pottery is characterized by its slip-coated surface and delightfully simple decorative designs created using several different techniques.
In the past Korean craftsmen and women developed a wide range of techniques to produce the items they needed at home. They made pieces of wooden furniture such as wardrobes, cabinets and tables marked by a keen eye for balance and symmetry, and wove beautiful baskets, boxes and mats with bamboo, wisteria or lespedeza. They used Korean mulberry paper to make masks, dolls and ceremonial ornaments, and decorated diverse household objects with black and red lacquer harvested from nature. Later they developed the art of using beautifully dyed oxhorn strips, and iridescent mother-of-pearl and abalone shell to decorate furniture. Embroidery, decorative knot making (maedeup) and natural dyeing were also important elements of traditional Korean arts and crafts, which were widely exploited to make attractive garments, household objects and personal fashion ornaments.
Korea Information - Culture and the Arts
Hallyu (Korean Wave)
Hallyu (Korean Wave)
A term now widely used to refer to the popularity of Korean entertainment and culture across Asia and other parts of the world, Hallyu or the “Korean Wave” first appeared during the mid-1990s after Korea entered into diplomatic relations with China in 1992 and Korean TV dramas and pop music gained great popularity in Chinese-speaking communities. When one of the first successful TV dramas, What Is Love?, was aired by CCTV in 1997, it had an audience rating of 4.2%, meaning that over 150 million Chinese viewers watched it.
Korean pop music, especially dance music, began to gain popularity among Chinese teenagers after it was introduced in earnest in 1997 by a radio program called Seoul Music Room broadcast from Beijing. The decisive moment in igniting Korean pop culture fever in China was the concert of Korean boy band H.O.T., held at the Beijing Workers' Gymnasium in February 2000. Korean news reports used the term Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, in describing this concert. The Korean Wave, acknowledged in an article published by Beijing Youth Daily as early as November 1999, began to finally be recognized by Koreans themselves from this point.
The Korean Wave landed in Japan in 2003 when the KBS TV drama series Winter Sonata was aired via NHK. The drama became an instant mega hit, making its male hero, Yon Sama, a household name, compelling his enthusiastic Japanese fans to visit various film locations, including Namiseom Island, in Korea.
The ‘Korean Wave’ craze has expanded to Korean traditional culture, food, literature and language, creating more and more enthusiasts. A great majority of Hallyu-related organizations are K-Pop fan clubs, but there are also various communities of people who are interested in Korean dramas, food, tourism, and more. As of December 2017, a total of 73.12 million people in 92 countries joined these organizations across Asia, Oceania, the Americas, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.
One area that is growing more rapidly than any other is 21st century K-Pop, or Korean pop music, which spans dance-pop, pop ballads, techno, rock, hip-hop, R&B, and so on. First gaining popularity in East Asia, K-Pop entered the Japanese music market towards the turn of the 21st century, and grew from a musical genre into a subculture among teenagers and young adults of East and Southeast Asia. Currently, the spread of K-Pop to other regions of the world, via the Korean Wave, is seen in parts of Latin America, Northeast India, North Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and immigrant enclaves of the Western world.
The rise of K-Pop on the global stage is probably best represented by Psy’s Gangnam Style, which swept the world as soon as it was released in late 2012. The song was the first K-Pop title reach No. 1 on the British Official Singles Chart, took 2nd place on Billboard’s Hot 100 in the US, and also topped the charts in more than 30 countries, including France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Russia, Canada, and Australia. The YouTube video of the song has been watched by more people than any other, with over 3 billion since music video was released on July 15, 2012.
The worldwide success of “Gangnam Style” was preceded by a surge of K-Pop idol groups in South Korea such as Big Bang, Girls’ Generation, 2PM, EXO, Wanna One, and BTS. TVXQ, who has countless loyal fans in Japan and Hong Kong, finally reunited in 2017, after the members completed their mandatory military service. In 2009, the five-member girl group, Wonder Girls, made inroads into the US market and became the first Korean idols ever to crack the Billboard Hot 100 chart with the song “Nobody”; unfortunately, the group disbanded in 2017.”
Over the recent years, K-Pop acts have experienced a change of generations, from second-generation idols, namely Girls’ Generation and Big Bang, to third-generation idols, like BTS and TWICE, who actively utilize social media. The K-Pop genre has also diversified with the emergence of the indie scene.
In May 2018, BTS topped the Billboard 200 albums chart and won the Top Social Artist Award at the Billboard Music Awards for two years in a row. BTS is rewriting the history of K-pop with the fervor of their dedicated fans, who are collectively known as ARMY.
The popularity of K-Pop singers is largely based on their excellent vocal abilities, dazzling stage presence and well choreographed, impeccable dance performances among other things. While they may look comfortable and charismatic on stage, their performance is the result of many years of hard work rather than any inborn talent.
Le Monde, the world-renowned French daily newspaper, ran a headline story titled, “K-Pop Arrives in France,” with high praise for BTS’s performances.
The Great Escape, a music festival held in Brighton, England, on May 18, 2017, staged “K-Pop Night Out,” which featured diverse genres of K-pop music, not just limited to idol groups. It was an opportunity for a wide variety of Korean artists to garner attention from international media and audience. The Great Escape, one of the major music festivals in Europe, has showcased star musicians including Adele, Ellie Goulding, and Ed Sheeran.
BTS created a K-Pop sensation that had never before been witnessed in the US market. In the US, where K-Pop is still far from the mainstream, scenes of American fans singing along in Korean and waving placards with Korean writing were enough to surprise the world. Their appearances not only at the Billboard Music Awards but also on three major US talk shows, such as The Ellen DeGeneres Show, received a lot of attention from Americans and Koreans alike. Just four years since their debut, BTS has become the most successful K-Pop act in the world.
In May 2018, the 2018 Dream Concert brought leading K-Pop stars together, much to the excitement of their global audience. An all-star lineup, including SHINee’s Taemin, Red Velvet, NCT, GFriend, Mamamoo, and Astro, heated up the stage of the biggest K-pop concert in Korea.
This year’s star-studded lineup and special performances did not fail to capture the eyes and ears of K-Pop fans in Korea and abroad.
Living up to its 20-year reputation, many international fans flock to Korea for the Dream Concert every year.
The great overseas success of What Is Love? (MBC) and Winter Sonata (KBS) in China and Japan played an important role in boosting the craze for Korean TV dramas across Asia and beyond. These hits were followed by Dae Jang Geum (MBC), an epic TV series about an orphaned kitchen cook who went on to become the King's first female physician. Originally aired between 2003 and 2004, the drama became one of the highest-rated TV dramas in Korea before being exported to 87 countries around the world —including the Islamic states like Iran where it received as much as 80% of the viewers—to fascinate viewers with its portrayal of traditional Korean culture such as Korean Royal Court cuisine and traditional costumes and medicinal knowledge.
The drama was particularly popular in the Middle East, most notably in Iran, where it received an average viewership rating of 57% and a peak of 90%. Dae Jang Geum was exported to countries around the world, including Asia, North America, Europe, and the Middle East—from Japan and Egypt to Mexico and Poland—earning around KRW 13 billion.
The significance of Dae Jang Geum goes beyond the show itself as it is believed to have contributed to expanding the scope of Hallyu to Korean cuisine, fashion, and medicine. The drama’s production inducement effect is estimated to have reached KRW 111,9 billion.
In 2013, dramas, like My Love from the Star and That Winter, the Wind Blows, were loved by international fans, while in 2016, Dokkaebi (Guardian: The Lonely and Great God), Moonlight Drawn by Clouds, and Descendants of the Sun revived the Hallyu craze.
In 2014, the success of the SBS drama, My Love from the Star, which was sold at USD 40,000 per episode to China, led to the increased popularity of Korean dramas. Subsequently, the price for the distribution rights of Korean dramas skyrocketed in China.
The 2016 TV drama, Descendants of the Sun, was dubbed “Taehu (an acronym from the show’s Korean title) Syndrome” and was sold to 27 countries including the United Kingdom, France, the United States, Japan, and China, posting a profit of over KRW 10 billion.
In September 2017, Korea was invited as the honorary guest country (Invitée d’honneur) to Festival de la Fiction TV, a French drama festival attended by directors and producers of popular Korean drama series. A total of three Korean dramas were invited—MBC’s W, tvN’s Signal, and JTBC’s The Package.
In 2015, Pianist Cho Seong-jin became the first Korean to win the prestigious International Chopin Piano Competition in Poland. Pianist Sohn Jeung-beum also became the first Korean to win in the piano category at the 2017 ARD International Music Competition in Munich, Germany.
Furthermore, at the 2016 Gian Battista Viotti International Music Competition in Italy, Korean singers swept the top three awards, while Korean pianists also captured the top three prizes at the Prague Spring International Music Competition in the same year.
Korea has continued to produce distinguished vocalists of whom Sumi Jo (soprano), Hong Hei-kyung (soprano), Shin Youngok (soprano), Kwangchul Youn (bass) and Samuel Yoon (bass baritone) are eagerly sought after by classical music lovers in many parts of the world. Regarding instrumental music, Yeol Eum Son (piano), Dong-hyek Lim (piano), Sarah Chang (violin) and Zia Hyunsu Shin (violin) regularly perform for their fans - mostly in Korea, the USA, and various European countries.
International film communities have recently begun to show a keen interest in Korean films and film directors. The Korean directors who have attracted the attention of Western critics include Im Kwon-taek, Lee Changdong, Park Chan-wook, Hong Sang-soo, Kim Jee-woon and Bong Joon-ho, all of whom have produced masterpieces as if to reward their support and the expectations surrounding them, such as Strokes of Fire (2002) by Im Kwontaek, Poetry by Lee Chang-dong (2007), Thirst (2009) by Park Chan-wook and The Taste of Money (2012) by Im Sang-soo.
In the 2000s, the status of Korean films has grown, with more Korean movies attracting over 10 million viewers. The Admiral: Roaring Currents, the biggest hit of 2014, amassed 17.61 million viewers. In the following years, Korean films, including Ode to My Father (2014), Assassination (2015), Veteran (2015), Train to Busan (2016), A Taxi Driver (2017), and Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days (2017), hit the 10 million audience mark.
Meanwhile, the Guanajuato International Film Festival designated Korea as the guest of honor in July 2011, and showed a total of 76 Korean films including Whispering Corridors and Bedeviled under programs focused on Korean Horror Films and two film directors, Bong Joon-ho and Kim Dongwon.
At the International Film Festival of India, Goa, which was held in November 2016, South Korea was chosen as the focus country for the first time, and Director Im Kwon-taek was conferred with the Lifetime Achievement Award. The Throne directed by Lee Joon-ik was also screened in the International Competition category, while The Age of Shadows by director Kim Jee-woon was selected as the closing film.
The Korean classical music community has continued to produce artists of the highest international standard in both vocal and instrumental music. For instance, five young Korean artists won five prizes in the disciplines of piano, solo vocal and violin at the International Tchaikovsky Competition held in 2011, one of the top three international music competitions.
Korea has continued to produce distinguished vocalists of whom Sumi Jo (soprano), Hong Hei-kyung (soprano), Shin Youngok (soprano), Kwangchul Youn (bass) and Samuel Yun (bass baritone) are eagerly sought after by classical music lovers in many parts of the world. Regarding instrumental music, Yeol Eum Son (piano), Dong-hyek Lim (piano), Sarah Chang (violin) and Zia Hyunsu Shin (violin) regularly perform for their fans - mostly in Korea, the USA, and various European countries.
Lee Hee-ah, a four-fingered pianist, is also a widely acclaimed pianist not only for her great performances but also for her heroic fight against a challenging physical condition.
They were preceded by Korea’s first generation of classical musicians, including two pianists, Han Tong-il and Kun-woo Paik, who fascinated international audiences between the 1950s and the 1970s and who still play to many enthusiastic fans.
Chung Myung-whun, a world-renowned pianist, has received more acclaim for his conductorship in recent years. He has conducted some of the world’s most prestigious orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic and the London Philharmonic, before going on to serve as the musical director and resident conductor of the Opéra de la Bastille in Paris. Chung also served as the principal conductor of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra and now leads the One Korea Youth Orchestra. He is also widely known in the global music scene as a member of the Chung Trio with his two sisters, violinist Chung Kyung-wha and cellist Chung Myung-wha.
Korean theater goers have recently begun to pay more attention to musical comedies presented on theater stages. The increased demand for goodquality musicals has resulted in the performance of world-famous musicals such as Jekyll & Hyde, Chicago and Cats either by the original or Korean teams, and the production of new musicals written and directed by Korean talents. Some of these Korean productions have been invited to perform in Japan and Southeast Asia. Korea’s thriving musical theater scene has resulted in the creation of a group of stars such as Choi Jung-won, Nam Kyung-joo and Jo Seung-woo, whose reputation has grown with stage musicals, and Yoon Bok-hee, Insooni and Ock Joo-hyun who have become great musical actresses based on their success on the K-Pop stage.
Modern Dance and Ballet
The launch of the National Dance Company of Korea in 1962 provided the momentum for a surge of interest in modern dance in Korea. The changed environment eventually led to the birth of a great dancer, Sin Cha Hong (or Hong Sin-ja, born in 1943), who is now credited as Korea's first avant-garde dancer and premier performance artist. She learned dance from Alwin Nikolais in the United States and worked there until 1990, and then returned to Korea to involve herself in various activities related with modern dance.
Korea in the 1980s saw the foundation of two ballet companies, Universal Ballet (1984) and Seoul Ballet (1986), which are still actively producing classical ballet performances in Korea and abroad. The increased popularity of ballet resulted in the arrival of distinguished ballet dancers including Kang Sue-jin, who became the first Asian to be a member of the Stuttgart Ballet in 1986. Now, she is an Artistic Director of the Korean National Ballet.
Other successful ballet dancers include Seo Hee who joined the ABT Studio Company in 2004 and became a principal dancer at the ABT in 2012, and Kim Ki-min who became the first Asian ballerina to join and become First Soloist at the Mariinsky Ballet in 2011.
Park Seon-mee, a student at the Korea National University of Arts, became the first Korean to win the Moscow International Ballet Competition, one of the three major ballet competitions in the world, in June 2017.
Lee Jong-sang, a veteran painter, focuses his work on traditional Korean painting. Lee U-fan, Park Seo-bo, and Lim Ok-sang are also Korean painters well known for their unique styles.
Works of prominent artists can be enjoyed in Insa-dong and Samcheongdong in Seoul, where many art galleries are located such as Gana Art Space, the Seoul Art Center Gongpyeong Gallery, and the Kyung-in Museum of Fine Art.
More recently, Cheongdam-dong in Gangnam-gu south of the Hangang River has emerged as a hub of Korean fine art. As for international art events, the Gwangju Biennale launched in 1995 has grown to be a major contemporary art exhibition in Asia.
Han Kang is the very person who proved the potential for globalization of modern Korean literature. Her novel, The Vegetarian, won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, which is regarded as one of the world’s three most prestigious literary awards. Han Kang was also chosen to win the 2017 Malaparte Prize, Italy’s authoritative literary award, for her book, Human Acts.
Shin Kyung-sook has also contributed to spreading the Korean Wave to the international literary world. The English-translated version of her novel, Please Look After Mom, published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group in the United States was listed in Amazon’s top 10 best sellers soon after its release. The book was promptly published in about 30 countries in Asia (including Japan) and Europe, and in Australia. In June 2012, the author held a successful meeting in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, to mark the publication of her work in the Slovenian language.
The opening of the Korean Studies Department in Sofia University, Bulgaria, in 1995 led to the interpretation of a selection of Korean contemporary novels and short stories for local readers including A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball by Cho Se-hui and Our Twisted Hero by Yi Mun Yol.
The King Sejong Institute, an institution established in 2008 to support Korean language education conducted across the globe increased the number of its affiliated schools from 17 in 2008 to 171 in 54 countries as of July 2017.
Meanwhile, the 78th International PEN Congress took place in Gyeongju, the capital of the ancient Silla Kingdom for one thousand years, in September 2012. The gathering, held in Korea for the third time after 1970 and 1988, attracted 900 men and women of letters from 114 countries across the world, including Nobel laureates such as Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio of France, Akinwande Oluwole Wole Soyinka of Nigeria, and Ferit Orhan Pamuk of Turkey.
Korean Cuisine and Culinary Customs
The Korean Wave now seems to be expanding to other cultural areas such as food and culinary traditions. Restaurants serving traditional Korean dishes began to open in the world’s leading metropolises such as New York, London and Paris, attracting praise even from the choosiest gourmets. Kimchi, Bulgogi, Bibimbap and other dishes loved by Korean people through many generations are now beginning to appear in homes around the world.
Chefs in some restaurants in the United States began to combine traditional Korean dishes with Western traditions, creating the bibimbap burger, kimchi hotdog and gochujang steak for New Yorkers who are always ready to accept whatever’s new and exotic.
After having ranked 4th on the list of hottest ethnic cuisines selected by the National Restaurant Association in 2013, Korean food jumped to second place in 2014. This reflects a change in the perception of Korean cuisine among US locals and a significant increase in the number of their visits to Korean restaurants in the United States in recent years. There are around 5,000 Korean restaurants in the country, with an average annual growth rate of 3.5% between 2011 and 2016.
The best-known Korean dish in the United States is kimchi. Its spicy taste and health benefits, such as cancer-fighting effects, have been receiving attention. Roy Choi, a Korean–American chef whose Korean-Mexican kimchi tacos took the United States by storm, made it to the TIME 100 Most Influential People in the World list in 2016.
Similarly, the number of Korean restaurants increased to about more than 100 in Paris, France, with more than half of the customers now being local French citizens, unlike in the past when Korean expatriates and other Asians formed the majority of the customers. According to the latest research, the most popular dishes served by the Korean restaurants in Paris are bibimbap and bulgogi of which the former is particularly highly regarded for it nutritional balance as well as its flavor and taste.