Documentary Paintings: Hwasŏng Nŭnghaengdo

Royal Procession to Hwasong, Courtesy of Leem, Samsung Museum of Art

In the Chosŏn Kingdom, the king served as both the highest legal and religious authority in the kingdom. This dual role required that he oversee matters of the state and participate in frequent religious rituals. These included annual ancestor rituals at the royal shrine and tombs of former kings and elaborate rituals to the god’s of the harvest. At these rituals he offered up various food, fruits and drink, hoping that the gods and ancestors would bless the kingdom with plentiful harvests and an orderly realm.

Often times the king ordered court artists to paint these rituals so as to preserve a visual record. Today hundreds of these paintings remain and form their own genre, documentary paintings (kirokh’wa). Artists that painted documentary paintings strived to be as accurate as possible in depicting the scenes they painted. In 1795 CE, King Chŏngjo commissioned perhaps most famous documentary painting, The Royal Procession to Hwasŏng. Earlier that year he and his court traveled to the city of Hwasŏng (present day Sowŏn) to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of his mother Dowager Hyegyŏng. King Chŏngjo had recently ordered the construction of a fortress in Suwŏn and moved the grave of his father there as well.

In Sowŏn the king visited important shrines, held festive parties, oversaw military parades, and marched in a grand parade. The Royal Procession to Hwasŏng commemorates the celebrations of the royal court that year. Artists painted eight separate panels to depict each event of the celebration. These eight panels connect to make a folding screen. We do not know the name of the artist, but attributed Kim Hongdo.


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1. Visiting the Master’s Shrine

In this panel King Chŏngjo visits the Hwasŏng Hyangkyo, or local Confucian school, to pay respects to the shrine of Confucius. The shrine is located towards the top portion of the painting just under the white awning. The king is at the foot of the shrine. While the king is not actually painted, a courtier dressed in red holding a small canopy in a pole symbolizes the king’s presence. A small group of Confucian scholars kneel behind the king and an additional group of scholars stand in the courtyard behind the king. Soldiers stand guard soldiers stand guard to ensure that no one from the on looking crowd tries to sneak in.


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2. Presentation to Exam Passers

Here the king sits, although not painted, on his throne in Hwasŏng fortress looking down on a group of government exam passers. The passers are lined up in neat rows wearing a Ŏsahwa or flower headdress that signifies they passed the highest level of either military or civil service exams. The tables between the exam passers and the king are filled with drinks, special food, and additional Ŏsahwa. The King will present these as gifts to the exam passers. In this scene as well as the one before the soldiers and banner men accompany the king.


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3. Dowager Hyegyŏng's Birthday Celebrations

This screen depicts the purpose of family's trip to Hwasŏng, Dowager Hyegyŏng's sixtieth birthday party. Dowager Hyegyŏng and her relatives surround the main courtyard as they watch female dancers twirl in circles. A large drum and court musicians accompany the dancers. In the outer courtyard court officials also enjoy festivities, although on a somewhat less extravagant scale.


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4. A Celebration for the Elders

Here, just as in panel two, the king sits on his throne within Hwasŏng Fortress. Fifteen elderly statesmen and 384 local elders sit before the king to receive gifts from him. Each of the elders will receive a yellow banner connected to a long pole and a length of silk. These gifts celebrate the elders their long age. 


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5. Military Training at Night

In this screen the artist depicts King Chŏngjo overseeing military training exercises in Hwasŏng fortress at night. Torches line the walls and are scattered inside the fortress to provide light. Soldiers stand guard and others march in formation in a demonstration of Chosŏn military might.


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6. Fireworks

Here, both King Chŏngjo and his mother look out at the festivities held at dusk and into the night. The king’s throne sits on the left of the painting and the palanquin resides in the middle towards the top. Dozens of women attendants surround the queen as she watches the firework show below. Just above the fireworks a small target remains, signifying that an archery competition proceed the fireworks show.


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7. The Return to the Palace

Perhaps the most famous of screen in this series, The Return to the Palace, depicts the large procession on its return journey to Seoul. There are roughly 6,000 people in this one painting with around 1,500 horses. Dowager Hyegŏng sits in here palanquin at the center of painting and is followed by her son, King Chŏngjo. Although not painted, the King sits atop a finely decorated horse with a canopy over its invisible rider. Of particular interest in this painting is the wide variety of people that have come to see the grand procession. People both young and old, low and high, have come to get a glance and the grand procession as it slowly works its way home.


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8. Crossing the Han River

As the last of series, the Crossing of the Han River signifies the return of the royal family to the Chosŏn capital, Hanyang (present day Seoul). Servants construct a portable walkway on top of dozens of boats so that the procession can pass over the river without breaking formation. At the center of the painting, Dowager Hyegŏng sits in her palanquin surrounded by the royal guard as she passes under a red gate.