Sumptuary laws inspired Korean artisans to innovate

by Yoko Haruhara

Special To The Japan Times

The Koryo Museum of Art’s recently launched exhibition, “Korean Decorative Objects and Containers,” features more than 150 folk works — including ceramics, paper crafts, furniture, silverware and wooden crafts — all of which were once utensils of some kind. These stunning examples of craftsmanship highlight an emphasis on aesthetics in Korean culture that included adding decorative detail to even the most common everyday items.

This exhibition “provides the opportunity for the visitor to view these items in the context of their daily use,” said museum curator Moeko Matsuura, who went on to explain that “in addition to displaying the boxes and other containers, our exhibit shows how they were used and the items they held.”

While there are some rare Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) items here, the majority of works on display date from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), the longest dynastic period in Korean history. It was during this time that the philosophy and state religion of Confucianism determined a strict adherence to hierarchy and placed the king at the pinnacle of social order. Consequently, the style and quality of household items became determined by a family’s social status.

Royal authorities restricted the use of cinnabar, a rare mineral imported from China that is used to create red lacquer, and sumptuary laws enforced throughout most of the Joseon Dynasty prohibited its use outside of the royal palace. These laws also limited the use of other decorative materials, such as mother-of-pearl, marble, lacquer and colored ox horn, to aristocratic households. In decorating their homes, commoners were only allowed to use unrestricted materials.

The museum has replicated a life-size an-bang - a woman’s private chamber in a Joseon dynasty upper class dwelling — for the exhibition, providing a display space to showcase some of the exquisite examples of 19th-century artifacts in the setting where they would have been typically used. Inside, visitors will see a black lacquered wardrobe, a dressing table with elaborate brass fittings, other elegant furnishings and decorative items, such as a wedding box, a comb box, and six-panel folding screen. Cushions placed in the center of the room indicate where an occupant would have sat, and a small octagonal box nearby contains colorful fabric that would have been carefully embroidered to be given as gifts at birthdays, weddings and other festive occasions.

Each item in the an-bang displays a different form of elegance. A beautiful Joseon Dynasty sewing box is emblematic of the craftsman’s attention to detail. The box’s iridescent mother-of-pearl inlay contrasts beautifully with its black lacquered finish, creating a dazzling effect. On the lid, the mother-of-pearl forms an intricate design of birds perched on a plum tree. The sides are similarly decorated with images of pine and bamboo branches. These three auspicious motifs — plum, pine and bamboo — collectively represent perseverance, since all the plants can survive the severe cold of winter. The pair of birds is also a sign of good fortune, representing marital bliss.

The Joseon Dynasty sumptuary laws were similar to early 17th-century edicts issued by the Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan, which restricted the wearing of silk kimono to the samurai class. In both the Korean and the Japanese cases, the laws underscored the privileges of higher social classes by restricting the use of luxury items to the aristocracy. However, while such laws limited ostentatious ornamentation of objects, the furnishings used by commoners provide examples of incredible versatility in design. It was here that craftsmen displayed considerable ingenuity in creating attractive handicrafts that still adhered to the legal restrictions.

One of the most imaginative examples of this practice is a chest that is covered inside and out with mulberry-bark paper, a material known for its resilience. Each sheet of paper is embossed, giving the illusion of intricate carving, and the chest has been varnished with perilla oil so that it has the sheen of a lacquer coating. While less intricate than its equivalent in an aristocratic household, aesthetically it is just as pleasing, reminding us that the statutory regulations did not inhibit the creativity used in the design of commoner handicrafts. Other impressive examples of the use of paper include tea tables, trays and boxes with paper-cut applique.

What we learn from these many decorative items is that, regardless of the expense, the material used or the social class for which it was created, each of the pieces exhibit a refined sensibility that is emblematic of Goryeo and Joseon culture. Sumptuary laws ironically stimulated artisans, who continued to imbue all of their work with loving care and attention, to be even more innovative in their efforts to design and produce beautiful objects.

“Korean Decorative Objects and Containers” at the Koryo Museum of Art, Kyoto, runs till July 10; admission ¥500; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit: www.koryomuseum.or.jp (Japanese only).