Korean craft works that embody our desire to live forever

by Yoko Haruhara

Something that all cultures share is a fascination with longevity and immortality, and the art world is filled with imagery that addresses this. In Korean works of the Goryeo (918-1392) and Joseon (1392-1910) dynasties, this often took the form of auspicious symbolism.

There were two main themes to this in Korean art — immortality and happiness. “The Ten Symbols of Longevity in Korean Crafts” at the Koryo Museum of Art in Kyoto focuses exclusively on immortality, offering viewers an introduction to the role that these symbols played in Korean art of the 19th century.

On display are myriad decorative items, each presenting the sip-jang saeng — the 10 symbols of “long life”: the crane, the tortoise, the deer, the pine tree, bamboo, rocks, clouds, water, the sun, and the mythical yongji mushroom believed to contain the elixir of immortality.

The practice of adorning objects with these motifs goes back to the origins of Taoism in China and the transmission of Taoism to Korea during the fifth century. Once the custom entered Korean culture, the use of longevity symbols became ubiquitous, practiced by aristocracy and commoners alike. The sip-jan saeng could be found in all facets of life: on palace architecture, paintings, furniture ornamentation, garments and other decorative items.

Central to Taoism is the belief in a relationship between the harmony of the universe and immortality. The resilience of bamboo and the evergreen pine tree represent eternity, while the crane, deer and tortoise are all known to have long lives. The sun, water, clouds and rocks are also enduring elements of our environment.

What is unique about the use of Taoist symbols in Korean culture is the clustering of the motifs, almost exclusively, in groups of 10. In China, and in Japan, longevity motifs normally appear individually or in smaller groupings. Even today, the sho-chiku-bai (pine, bamboo, and plum) arrangement on Japanese restaurant menus reflects the ancient Chinese influence of auspicious symbolism.

While the entire collection of the exhibition is delightful, one of the centerpieces, an eight-panel folding screen dating to the 19th century, is particularly noteworthy. The screen’s bright red wool background offers a striking contrast to its designs, which are embroidered in colorful silk thread. Each of the panels depicts a different landscape within which the sip-jang saeng reside.

Created as a backdrop for a banquet celebrating the 60th birthday of a member of an aristocratic family, the screen represents a hybrid of cultural practices and beliefs. Its design is based on Taoist immortality and the belief that the 60th birthday, which occurs at the end of the zodiac cycle, represents a new beginning in life. Since it was then rare for people to survive to such an age, banquets were given by the sons and daughters of the 60-year-old and his or her spouse as a token of appreciation for their parent’s long life — a Confucian emphasis on piety and parental respect. The couple would sit in front of the screen, receiving congratulatory remarks from assembled guests.

Beyond its social significance, the artwork is fascinating in its composition. Every panel depicts a different landscape for each of their 10 motifs. And in all of the panels, the animals are majestically portrayed in pairs, which are considered lucky, to represent the celebrating couple.

Another attractive piece in the exhibition is an embroidered pillow dating to the late Joseon dynasty. The sip-jang saeng here are embellished on each end of the cylindrical-shaped pillow and are surrounded by bats and gourds, Korean symbols of wealth and eternity.

Used to bring dreams of immortality and wealth to the sleeper, the pillow was not only an aesthetically pleasing furnishing, but also a good luck charm. Such was the elegant nature of life in 19th-century Korea, a place where the decorative, the utilitarian, and the symbolic were always intimately intertwined.

“The Ten Symbols of Longevity in Korean Crafts” at Koryo Museum of Art runs till March 27; admission ¥500; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit www.koryomuseum.or.jp