Carvings of kings’ scripts indicate their interests

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Carvings of kings’ scripts indicate their interests

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“Far away on the cold mountain, a stone path slants upwards.
Along with the white clouds there is a small village.
As I stop the carriage to enjoy the crimson-tinted maple wood in the evening,
I see frosted maple leaves that are redder than the flowers of February!”

A carving of the above verse from the poem “Mountain Trip” by Chinese poet Du Mu, in flowing calligraphy brush movements ―?copied from King Seonjong’s handwriting ― ends with sharply abbreviated strokes.
“The Fragrance of Ink: the Calligraphy of the Joseon Court,” currently showing at the National Museum of Korea in central Seoul, premieres 20 pieces of “Eopilseokgak” ― stone carvings inscribed with calligraphy by kings of Korea’s last kingdom, the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910).
Park Sung-won, the curator, said, “From 59 stone carvings, the museum excluded the ones that were not copies of handwriting by the kings and ones with undistinguishable carvings. We chose 20 for the exhibition.”
During the preservation process of the stones, curators discovered the stone tablets were made out of imported marble, a rare material during the Joseon Dynasty. “In Korea, no marble is found, so eventually our ancestors had to import it. We assumed the carvings were from the royals since no one else could import such materials at that time,” Ms. Park said. The exhibition shows carvings of scripts by important Joseon kings such as Seongjong (1457-1494), Munjong (1414-1452), Sejo (1417-1468), Jeongjo (1752-1800), Injo (1595-1649), Hyojong (1619-1659) and Hyeonjong (1641-1674), along with original texts written by the kings.
As a Confucian nation, during the Joseon dynasty, the content of the king’s writings was primarily that of ancestor worship and filial piety. The texts were handed down in the form of woodcuts and stone carvings. Because calligraphy is the art of fine handwriting by which the artist expresses his or her inner state, to be a good calligrapher, an in-depth knowledge of a wide range of areas including philosophy, literature, art and history was required since spiritual depth was as prized as artistic beauty. The carving of phrases from the “Book of Filial Duty” copying the handwriting of King Sejo shows that the content of the calligraphy is equally as important as the beauty of the writing.
Many members of the Joseon dynasty royal family were famous for their calligraphy, especially Kings Munjong, Sejo and Seongjong and Prince Anpyeong (1418-1453). From the very beginning of the dynasty, the royal family preferred Songseolche, a writing style evoking pine trees and snow. Songseolche was invented by Yuan-era Chinese calligrapher Zhao Mengfu. It was introduced to Korea in the late Goryeo period of the 12th century, along with neo-confucianism, and had a strong influence. After the founding of the Joseon dynasty, it became the dominant style at court. In the 16th century, Joseon calligraphers sought a new style, but the tradition of the Songseolche style remained strong.
Among the kings of the Joseon dynasty, Ms. Park points out the significance of King Seonjo’s (1552-1608) scripts. Each king’s handwriting had its own artistic beauty and uniqueness, but it was King Seonjo who changed the current of the calligraphy of the royal household.
King Seonjo became a patron of famous Korean calligrapher Han Ho and supported his work as an ideal style for the Joseon Dynasty.
The reign of King Seonjo was a period of major changes in the calligraphy of the Joseon dynasty, demonstrating the aesthetic sense of his writing style. One script by King Seonjo, titled “Jeokseon: Accumulating Good Deeds,” indicates that the standard of calligraphic beauty at the time used more powerful strokes than before.
At the time, a king’s handwriting retained the same absolute authority as the king himself, and provided an important standard for all calligraphy of the time. King Jeongjo was also particularly keen on the art and exerted a strong influence upon the world of calligraphy during the late Joseon period.
“Through the exhibition, visitors can see the changes in the currents of the calligraphic style of the kings of the Joseon dynasty and the chance to see if the kings had excellent handwriting with their own eyes,” Ms. Park said. “Evaluating whether the stone carvings successfully captured the artistic beauty and calligraphic style or not ― compared to the handwriting on paper done with the tips of the brushes ― will add more interest to the exhibition.”


by Eun-young Chough

The exhibition runs until Dec.17. The National Museum of Korea is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m on weekends. The museum is closed on Mondays.
Admission fees are 2,000 won ($2.33) for adults and 1,000 won for youths, aged 7 to 18. Children aged under 7 are admitted free of charge.
The nearest subway station is Ichon, line No. 1 and 4, exit 2. Walk towards Yongsan Family Park. For more information, call (02) 2077-9000 or visit the Web site, www.museum.go.kr.
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