Royal linesTelevision series portraying the political infighting of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) have been so popular that many kings and queens of the last Korean dynasty have become household names.
But what the period dramas usually fail to portray is that some of the rulers were also paragons of fine art and literature.
One exhibition at the Seoul Arts Center, "Korean Calligraphy -- Writings of the Kings of the Joseon Dynasty," offers a rare glimpse into the private lives of the Joseon Dynasty royal families. The exhibition features 90 pieces, including writings by 46 kings, queens, princes and princesses. The works were collected from more than 10 public and private collections, including the National Museum of Korea, the Seoul Museum of History, the National Library of Korea, the Academy of Korean Studies and Beopjusa temple in North Chungcheong province.
Most of the eopil, or holy writings by kings, serve as "personal records whose content might not have been covered in official history," says Lee Dong-guk, the director of Seoul Art Center's galleries specializing in calligraphy. "By understanding their writings about their personal events, we can learn about the human aspect of their lives."
The exhibition is significant. It's the first of its kind in Korea to highlight royal calligraphy. Some works, including the writings of King Taejong, King Munjong, King Seonjo and King Hyojong, have never been shown to public.
For more than five centuries, the Joseon king was the caretaker of culture as well as the political and economic leader. "Although rulers were trained as accomplished artists and scholars, representing the culmination of knowledge during their time, their writings have been underappreciated," says Mr. Lee.
The exhibition includes the dynasty's various forms and styles. The most noteworthy is the calligraphy of King Seonjo (1552-1610), who proved his genius through the most orthodox form of calligraphy. King Seonjo's esthetics adhere to seokbongche technique, the classical style created by Han Seok-bong, the Joseon Dynasty's most celebrated calligrapher.
A painting of the construction of the ancient city's irrigation system, Juncheon (today's Cheonggyecheon), accurately depicts the commemorative archery competition and records King Yeongjo's (1694-1776) ceremonial address. The king's appreciative poem praises the hard work by his people.
Most calligraphy was written in eonhae, or Chinese characters, which was considered the most formal means of written expression.
Hangeul, the written Korean language developed 450 years ago by King Sejong, was first used exclusively by royal family members.
Beginning in the mid-Joseon Dynasty, King Seonjo began using hangeul, and a number of scholarly queens followed.
Queen Inmok (King Seonjo's wife) could write better than the famous men of letters of the time. Along with her, Queen Jangryeol (King Injo's second wife), Queen Inseon (King Hyojong's wife), Queen Jeongseon (King Yeongjo's wife) and Queen Myeongseong (King Gojong's wife) were calligraphers who promoted the use of hangeul.
Royal writing, or gungche (a popular term used today referring to classical writing styles), eventually spread to commoners.
Influenced by Qing dynasty epigraphy, the style of late Joseon Dynasty is defined by chusache, named after another celebrated calligrapher and painter of the era, Kim Jeong-hee.
Prince Heungseon (1802-1898) is considered the finest calligrapher following his master Kim Jeong-hee. Prince Heungseon's powerful chusache strokes influenced the artistic style of Korea's last King Gojong. The talented Prince Heungseon painted as well, and his exquisite orchid paintings are some of the best blossoms in Korean history.
"Korean Calligraphy ?Writings of the Kings of the Joseon Dynasty" runs until Feb. 10 at Seoul Arts Center's gallery. The exhibition is open daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. (closed the first Monday of each month). Admission for adults costs 3,000 won ($2.50), 2,000 won for students. For more information, call (02) 580-1511.
by Inēs Cho