Seals reveal interests of Korea’s past monarchsSometimes, the smallest details can reveal a prominent part of a person. It might be a seemingly inconsequential act, like the way they take their coffee or how they brush their hair. The details remain insignificant until someone takes notice ― in which case, they can become the key to finding out a fragment of truth about who the person is.
At the “Seals from the Joseon Royal Collection” exhibition held at the National Palace Museum of Korea, King Heonjong (1834~1849), who has been relatively unnoted in Korean history texts, is the focal point of the exhibition due to his impressive collection of seals that reveal his interest in and knowledge of the literature, art and calligraphy of that era. Park Sang-kue, the curator for this exhibition, explains: “Mainly because he died at such a young age [the king died at the age of 23], his life was almost unknown to many people, even Koreans. However, this collection of seals shows that the king was a cultural person ― in that he had a keen interest and talent in appreciating literature and art,” Mr. Park said.
The seals had a long and bumpy journey to this exhibition ― the first time they have been shown in public. Many of the seals that King Heonjong collected were burnt in a large-scale fire during King Gojong’s reign. “We are not sure yet whether this was caused by the fire that took place in 1900 or 1904,” Mr. Park said. However, King Gojong had many of the seals replicated using the “Bosodanginjon” (a book of seal designs King Heonjong had kept). Many of King Heonjong’s seals in the exhibition are replicas made at the later time.
Out of the 250 seals displayed at the museum, 150 are from King Heonjong’s collection. The rest are from other kings of the Joseon Dynasty, including kings Jeongjo, Sunjong and Gojong, as well as from leading cultural figures and intellectuals of Korea’s past.
The culture of seals in Korea is thought to have started as early as the Nangrang Period from B.C. 108. Although the culture developed throughout the period of the three kingdoms, the seals were mainly used only as marks of identity until the Joseon Dynasty. “As there were many seals that survived this era in history, we have a lot of information about the seal culture during the Joseon Dynasty” wrote Kim Yang-dong, a professor at Gaemyeong University in an essay titled, “The History of Korean Seals.”
During the earlier part of the Joseon Dynasty, seals were used to mark both the identity and status of the user. However, as Chinese culture began influencing Korea during the middle and later parts of the Joseon Dynasty, the practical usage of seals evolved to include an artistic factor as well, revealing the literary tastes and mentalities of the owners. The seals during the latter part of this era often included engravings of poems and excerpts from books, as well as their user’s own creations.
The literary excerpts found reveal that many of the stereotypical images of Joseon dynasty kings and queens may be false. In an essay titled “Heonjong’s Literary Tastes and Painting Collection,” You Hong-june, the chief of the Cultural Heritage Administration, wrote, “We have a notion, maybe because of TV period dramas, that kings of the Joseon dynasty were decadent characters who spent all their time enjoying song and dance. To the contrary, being a king during that era was an extremely difficult task as they had to take classes from their most gifted contemporaries. Also, their hobbies were not shallow play but included poetry reading, painting and calligraphy.”
One seal often used by King Gojong (1852~1919) that is displayed at the exhibition has the phrase “jogi” inscribed on it ― meaning wake up early. “Being a king was a full-time job and this seal shows some of the responsibility that Gojong felt as the ruler of Joseon,” said Mr. Park.
King Heonjong’s collection indicates a similar mindset. Two of the seals on display are engraved with four character phrases that mean, “Learning to enjoy calmness amidst a million duties.”
Other seals from King Heonjong’s collection used to be owned by important literary figures of the Joseon era including Jeong Yak-yong, Kim Jeong-hui and Gwon Don-in. Kim Jeong-hui’s seals mainly reveal his thoughts on writing and the spirit of man, with some phrases reading, “The act of writing is graceful and solemn,” and, “Just talk about nature, the wind and the moon, instead of worldly matters.”
King Heonjong’s collection also includes seals from Chinese literary figures, such as Munpaeng and Oh Sung-ryang. One witty seal of Munpaeng reads, “When I asked ‘How can a person stay for long in these deep mountains?’ the birds and plants would not let me go.” Another lyrical seal of Munpaeng’s reads, “Blossoms wither without words and man’s simplicity is like the chrysanthemum.”
Besides the engravings they bear, the material a seal is made from and the exterior carvings were also a symbol of status and taste. Many of the seals exhibited are carved from rock, and Mr. Park said, “Rare rocks were thought of as a more luxurious material to make seals from than, say, wood. Many rare rocks were found and used at this time to make an ultimate seal for kings.” He also said that dragons were only carved on a seal’s exterior for kings.
Mr. Park said, “We have so much yet to study about seal culture. Comparing Korean seal culture to that of the West, and finding out the meaning behind the patterns, engravings and material is our task as historians. It will be an exciting journey for us.”
by Cho Jae-eun