The key to Joseon times

In ancient Korea, locks were talismanic objects, not just protecting entranceways, but spiritually shielding the families who lived within

by Yoko Haruhara

Known as pungsu in Korean, feng shui was transmitted from China into Korean culture during the Unified Silla Dynasty (668-935). The system of aesthetics taught that proper placement of the home in relation to natural elements would facilitate a flow of positive energy through space and ensure well-being and prosperity.

Pungsu also indicated places of vulnerability within the home. Houses were laid out with entry gates to the east, an auspicious direction. The main gate, as both the place where positive energy was drawn into the home, and evil spirits and thieves kept out, was guarded as the most important space for protecting the home. Hence in Korea — especially during the Joseon Dynasty — locks had both an important functional and symbolic role as a central feature of gates.

“Locks of Korea,” on show till Nov. 20 at The Japan Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo, features a fantastic collection of 210 locks and charms, most of which date to the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). On loan from the Swetdae Museum in Seoul and shown for the first time outside of Korea, the collection includes beautifully crafted pieces in metal and wood done in myriad shapes: dragons, turtles, butterflies, fish, bats and swallows.

Choi Hong Kyu, the director of the Swetdae Museum, created the exhibit for the Japan Folk Crafts Museum based on the approachability of these objects.

“These small, exquisitely crafted items are a delightful way to develop a deeper appreciation for daily life in Korea during this time period,” says Choi. “Their design provides us with insight into the Joseon Dynasty people’s everyday customs, aesthetics and beliefs.”

The history of metal-working in Korea dates back to the Bronze Age. Metal-working technology was introduced from the continent in the 5th century B.C. During the Joseon Dynasty, production was geared toward secular items made for everyday use. Korean culture held the belief that locks had special protective powers, functioning as talismans of good fortune, wealth, health, fecundity and happiness. Traditionally used to secure the entrance gates of homes, they were also employed to lock cabinets and wardrobes.

These two categories of locks — for gates and furniture — incorporated distinct design features. Double-turtle locks, consisting of a male and a female turtle whittled out of pine, were typical sliding-bolt main-gate locks for Joseon residences. The turtle was chosen due to its fierce tenacity in holding onto its prey, and its hard shells were considered a talismanic shield for the family.

Adorning the entrance to the exhibit hall in the Japan Folk Crafts Museum is a display of 35 pairs of these turtle locks. Each sports different design features and facial and body poses. Some are lifelike, craning their necks forward, some are charmingly turned toward each other in conversation, and others are more simply carved, showing off the beauty of the wood grain.

Locks played an important decorative role throughout the home, in particular as ornamental fittings for domestic chests and wardrobes. They were crafted to complement the design of the chests with which they were used. Among the different types of locks found in the home were large square and cylindrical shaped ones used to secure large chests. Hand crafted from cast iron and masculine in appearance, such pieces were often embellished with inlaid silver or copper thread that spelled out felicitous words and Confucian ideals such as “faith and justice,” “filial piety” and “wishes of long life for the king.”

Fish-shaped locks in the exhibition were one of the most common to be found in the home. Just like the turtle, the fish symbolized protection. With their eyes always open, the fish-shaped locks would watch over possessions while household members slept. Made from metal molds, these fancifully shaped brass locks were used to secure wardrobe armoires, wedding-trousseau boxes and cosmetic cases for women.

The character for the word fish in Chinese — “yu” — is a homonym for the word meaning abundance, thus lending it another layer of auspiciousness. Given its fecundity, the fish symbolized fertility and served as a reminder to mothers that they would be blessed with many children.

Decorative items that are rarely displayed, such as norigae (women’s clothing ornaments) as well as yulswepae (charms), are on show at the museum, too. The exhibition showcases lovely examples of miniature lock-shaped norigae pendants made of silver with enamel, white jade and wood, which were tied to jackets or the sashes of ceremonial robes.

Yulswepae would be given as a wedding present from a mother to her daughter, and, in the Joseon Dynasty, would typically be hung decoratively on the walls of women’s rooms. Consisting of a large loop of colorful silk ribbons lined with commemorative coins, the charms were made of brass tokens used by royalty and aristocrats and represented a mother’s wish for peace and prosperity for her family and country.

A truly delightful exhibition, “Locks of Korea” presents exquisitely crafted items that could easily be taken for granted. Seen in the proper cultural setting at the Japan Folk Crafts Museum, they fortunately have a chance to reveal their integral position within the designs of the gates and furniture that they adorned.

“Locks of Korea” is on show at the Japan Folk Crafts Museum till Nov. 20; admission ¥1,000; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (closed Mon.). For more information call (03) 3467-4527 or visit www.mingeikan.or.jp