Confucian Ideals Reflected in Paintings of The Chosŏn Kingdom

Written by Kumja Paik Kim
Curator of Korean Art (emeritus), Asian Art Museum, San Francisco


At the core of Confucian teachings during the Chosŏn dynasty (1392 – 1910) were the ethical standards and moral values commonly known as the “Three Bonds and Five Relationships” (Samgang Oryun). The Three Bonds represented the bonds between 1) the ruler and subject, 2) father and son, and 3) husband and wife, while the Five Relationships stressed the importance of human relationship between 1) the ruler and subject, 2) father and son, 3) elder brother and younger brother, 4) husband and wife, and 5) friends. The virtues advocated in the “Three Bonds and Five Relationships” profoundly influenced the behaviors and attitudes of the people. Three paintings will be used to illustrate the extent to which the Confucian ideal of ethical codes had permeated every aspect of Chosŏn society including its visual culture.

munjado b

Plate 1: Munjado [Eight Characters Painting]

munjado 01

munjado 02

munjado 03

munjado 04

munjado 05

munjado 06

munjado 07

munjado 08

Plate 2: Munjado [Eight Characters Painting]

Munjado (Painting of Ideographs or Characters)

Although ink paintings and calligraphy produced by scholars always touched upon various aspects of Confucian philosophy, the influence Confucian teachings had on the Chosŏn dynasty’s visual culture can perhaps be much more easily understood in works such as the paintings of eight ideographs. They are commonly known as the Munjado (munja: ideograph or character; do: painting) and had been used to adorn the rooms in the man’s quarters (Sarangchae) of Korean houses. The eight ideographs considered to represent the highest Confucian virtues are 1) filial piety (hyo), 2) brotherly love (che), 3) loyalty (ch’ung), 4) trust (shin),5) propriety (yae), 6) righteousness or justice (ŭi), 7) modesty or integrity (yŏm), and
8) sensitivity or the feeling of shame (chi). Because the characters are always written in the same order, Munjado is also called the Hyochedo representing the first two characters.

A four-panel folding screen with eight ideographs written in the seal script by the scholar-official Hŏ Mok (1595 – 1682) has survived.1 This screen provides us with an opportunity not only to appreciate his elegantly austere calligraphic style, but at the same time it enables us to gain several insights. First, we can surmise that as Hŏ Mok wrote these ideographs in the seal script for which he became famous, he must have written them also in other calligraphic scripts such as regular or standard, running, and draft or grass scripts. Since everyone started to learn to write first in the regular or standard script, he must have written his earliest works in the regular or standard script.

Second, as the art of calligraphy had been important in Hŏ Mok’s life, it had also been important in the lives of the Chosŏn gentry (yangban) who considered calligraphy to be the highest form of visual art, placing it above painting. We can surmise, therefore, that as many poems, both well-known ancient or newly composed, had been written by scholars testing or flaunting their skill in the art of calligraphy, the earliest works representing the eight characters must have been written in ink only, emphasizing the beauty and austerity of calligraphic forms.

Last, Hŏ Mok’s eight characters are mounted on a four-panel folding screen. This shows that the format for the munjado had not always been the eight-panel folding screen as we know it today with one character on each panel. When the eight characters were written in ink emphasizing the beauty and austerity of calligraphy, they would have been written in one single vertical line or in a horizontal line that could have been mounted at a later date in the hanging scroll or hand-scroll format. Also, when the folding screen format came to be used, it could have four panels as in Hŏ Mok’s work, or six, eight, ten panels and so on. As time went on, the eight-fold folding screen format emerged as the most popular format, perhaps because an eight-panel folding screen was more suitable in size and could better serve practical purposes around a Chosŏn household, especially during the severely cold winter months.

Although initially the paramount importance was placed on the art of calligraphy, the extant works representing the eight Confucian virtues are mostly those painted in bright colors. The Munjado painted during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries emphasizing bright colors with charmingly decorative designs came to be widely admired, and therefore, the eight-panel folding screens painted in vibrant colors constitute the bulk of the extant Munjado currently in museum or private collections.2

The most popular works rendered in bright colors incorporate the decorative themes and motifs into every brush stroke of the eight characters. The themes are derived from the much-loved ancient stories concerning Confucian virtues. It is believed that the publication of several illustrated books on the practice of the “Three Bonds and Five Relationships” throughout the dynasty facilitated the quick spread of the ancient stories among the citizens in all segments of Chosŏn society. The most famous edition is the “Pictures of the Five Relationships in Practice” (Oryun Haengsildo), printed in 1797 because this edition is believed to have been illustrated by the famous painter Kim Hongdo (1745 – 1806).3

Some Munjado screens — plate 1 — show that the themes and designs incorporated into the characters appear to have been directly influenced and inspired especially by the illustrations of famous stories of virtuous men and women in the 1797 version of the “Pictures of the Five Relationships in Practice.” The character hyo for filial piety, for instance, includes several scenes with captions rendered in detail the stories of the paragons of filial piety such as Wang Sang and Maeng Chong, along with others.4

As the eight characters paintings became increasingly popular, the famous stories continued to be incorporated into ideographs, but were told in an abbreviated or abstracted manner. For the character hyo for filial piety — plate 2 — the forms of a fish, a bamboo shoot, and a fan were substituted in place of brush strokes as most people during the Chosŏn dynasty related these forms easily to famous ancient stories of the paragons of filial piety. As stated earlier, the fish is connected to the story of Wang Xiang who caught a carp for his ailing stepmother by breaking ice on a frozen river, while the bamboo shoot is connected to the story of King Meng, who looked for bamboo shoots in winter for his mother. When he stood in a bamboo forest feeling helpless and shedding tears, his warm tears actually made bamboo shoots sprout miraculously in snow. The fan refers to Huang Xiang who was devoted to his father after his mother’s death at the age of nine. He fanned his father during sweltering summer days.

The second character, che, for brotherly love, is often expressed with forms that symbolize harmony, such as peach blossoms, a wagtail, and a pair of doves. The character ch’ung for loyalty incorporates bamboo, dragon, fish, crab, and clam forms. Bamboo has always symbolized steadfastness because it does not break and stays green throughout the four seasons. It is believed a carp which is able to swim upstream transforms itself into a dragon, symbolizing a capable man passing the civil service examinations, eventually to become an important government official who loyally serves the ruler and the nation. The ideographs for shrimp and clam are read ha and hap respectively and hahap is similar to hwahap in sound, meaning harmony. If there is harmony between the ruler and the ruled, one can expect loyalty in their relationship.

The fourth character, shin, meaning trust, incorporates a goose and a blue bird as well as a pond, lotus flowers, and four hermits of Mount Sang playing a game of Go. One of the birds is carrying in its beak a letter from the Queen Mother of the West who promises to pay a visit to the palace of the Wudi emperor of the Han dynasty. Her promise will undoubtedly be kept, connecting the story to the concept of trust.5

The fifth character, yae, for propriety, incorporates a tortoise and scholars’ accoutrement. The tortoise is believed to have carried the first book containing the secrets of writing, counting, etiquette, constellations, and more which was used by the legendary Fu Xi to govern the world. The sixth character, ŭi, for righteousness or justice, incorporates two birds, architecture, the promise made at the Peach Orchard by Yu Bae, Gwan U, and Jang Bias told in the book of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.6

In the seventh character, yŏm, for modesty or integrity, a phoenix and a crab are often used, because it is believed that the phoenix never pecks on millet even when it is hungry, and a crab walks sideways, indicating that it can back off from or decline dishonorable offers, however attractive. The last character, chi, for sensitivity or a feeling of shame uses the shrine, moon, and plum blossom motifs alluding to the story of two princes, first and third sons of the late Shang dynasty ruler who retreated to Mount Suyang so that their capable brother, the second son, could ascend the throne. Never leaving the mountain, they led the life of hermits with the moon and flowers as their companions. The shrine is symbolic of the honored position they earned in the minds of people for their sensible and selfless act.

Chaekkŏri (Scholar’s Accoutrement)

It was believed that Confucian ideals of a perfect society could be achieved first by perfecting individuals. Through learning, individuals could come to value not only respect for oneself as well as others, human dignity, and a concern for mutual welfare, but also could obtain the highest honor and the highest riches. As can be attested by hundreds of Confucian academies all over the country that educated boys and young men throughout the Chosŏn dynasty, learning was on everyone’s mind from the rulers to subjects. This can be illustrated by the paintings of Chaekkŏri (Chaek: book, gŏri: stuff),7  often translated as the “scholar’s accoutrement.”

Plate 3: Chaekkeori [Scholar’s Accoutrement]

The subject of Chaekkŏri paintings was promoted by King Chŏngjo (1776 – 1800). Beginning from 1783 the scholar’s accoutrement became one of the frequent examination topics for the gifted court painters.8  Among many stories about King Chŏngjo’s attachment to scholar’s accoutrement paintings, the best known story is the one told by the scholar official O Chae-sun (1727 – 1792). According to him, in 1791, in the presence of his officials King Chŏngjo turned to look at a scholar’s accoutrement painting placed behind his chair and commented on it with a smile. People might think that the books in this painting are real, but in fact, they are painted books. The scholarly king went on to say that through his encounter with the scholar’s accoutrement paintings, he had finally come to understand an ancient saying about one’s spirit being uplifted by merely entering a study and touching the books even though one did not have time to sit down to read them.9

Although it can be assumed that the scholar’s accoutrement paintings King Chŏngjo liked must have resembled paintings of book shelves filled with books, the scholar’s accoutrement paintings that have survived are those painted in a large folding screen format representing many articles closely associated with the scholar’s life, such as books, writing brushes, paper, and seals as well as antiques and various curios that scholars during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are known to have enjoyed collecting or wanted to have in their studies or rooms — plate 3. By the late eighteenth century we are told that there were not many households in Seoul without a Chaekkŏri screen or painting.

Hwasŏng Nŭnghaengdo (Painting of the Royal Journey to Hwasŏng)

The painting comprising the epitome of Confucian virtues is the eight-panel folding screen commonly known as the Hwasŏng Nŭnghaengdo — plate 4.10 This screen chronicles King Chŏngjo’s journey in 1795 to the city of Hwaseong, present day Suwŏn, where his father’s mausoleum is located, to celebrate the sixtieth birth year of Lady Hyegyŏnggung, his mother, and Sado Seja, his late father, both of whom were born in the same year. The eight major scenes that best reflect King Chŏngjo’s eight-day journey are captured on the screen.

Plate 4: Hwasŏng Nŭnghaengdo

The most popular scene appears on panel seven which represents King Chŏngjo’s journey back to Seoul escorting his mother. According to the court record, six thousand men as well as fourteen hundred horses had been assigned to this journey. The zigzag compositional scheme emphasizes effectively the distance travelled by a great number of men and horses escorting the king and his mother. Men carrying various types of banners either on horse or on foot, the king’s white mount and the queen’s carriage surrounded by special escorts, and many others with various duties cover the entire panel surface covering completely from the top to the bottom in several zigzag lines. On both sides of the road numerous spectators are depicted, illustrating that King Chŏngjo used this journey as well as other journeys to be reconnected to his subjects who waited to submit their petitions directly to the king. Panel 8 has become very popular as well because this panel represents the famous pontoon bridge created to accommodate the royal journey to Hwasŏng in 1795.

Although not as well known as panels seven and eight, scenes on the rest of the panels are significant because they explain King Chŏngjo’s major concerns as the ruler. Appropriately, the first panel shows King Chŏngjo’s visit to the shrine dedicated to Confucius. He is accompanied by scholar-officials and Confucian scholars as well as the military guards. The second panel represents the candidates of the government service examination who successfully passed the examination that year. They are shown standing wearing two branches of flowers as the official sign of their success.

The magnificent celebration of Lady Hyegyŏnggung’s sixtieth birth year in progress is depicted on the third panel. Important guests and her relatives are being entertained lavishly by dancers and musicians, while the fourth panel shows King Chŏngjo honoring fifteen elderly ministers who accompanied him on this journey and 384 local elders. Elders, holding their staff tied with a yellow kerchief the king had bestowed on them, are shown each receiving a bundle of silk also from the king. The fifth and sixth panels represent King Chŏngjo as the Commander of Chief. On the fifth panel the king is shown inspecting his troupe while the sixth panel shows him participating during the day in the marksmanship with his soldiers and entertaining his mother in the evening with small and large fireworks.11


Confucian ideal of moral values as reflected in visual culture has been examined using three paintings that dealt with different themes. The eight characters represented in Munjado folding screens mirror the ethical values of Chosŏn society based on Confucian philosophy and teachings that placed the paramount importance on human relationships in order to create an orderly and harmonious society. Chaekkŏri paintings understandably stress the importance of learning at the core of merit-based society. Through learning one comes to understand many things in life including his own nature and this knowledge will uplift him to a higher level and enable him to make contributions to his society.

The eight-panel Hwasŏng Nŭnghaengdo screen successfully illustrates many paramount Confucian values in a single work. They include the following Confucian virtues and values: 1) honoring and revering Confucius whose philosophy was made to be the moral and ethical standards of Chosŏn; 2) the emphasis on learning and the merit-based central government; 3) filial piety for parents, both living and deceased; 4) the respect for elders; 5 and 6) the ruler’s role as the Commander in Chief; 7) the harmony between the ruler and his subjects; and finally 8) the importance of technological innovations. This single screen represents King Chŏngjo as the sage ruler who strove to attain highly valued Confucian virtues and who therefore was worthy of the Heaven’s mandate to rule his people.


Plate 1: Munjado [Eight Characters Painting], eight-panel folding screen, ink and colors on paper, 74.2 x 42.2 cm each panel, late 18th c., Courtesey of the National Folk Museum.

Plate 2: Munjado [Eight Characters Painting], eight-panel folding screen, ink and colors on paper, 62.5 x 32.5 cm each panel, late 19th c., The National Folk Museum of Korea.

Plate 3: Chaekkeori[Scholar’s Accoutrement], by Yi Eungnok (active 1864s), 8-panel folding screen, ink and colors on paper, 64 1/8 x 13 ½ in. each panel, approximately 1860, San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum.

Plate 4: Hwasŏng Nŭnghaengdo, attributed to Kim Hongdo, eight-panel folding screen, ink and colors on silk, 163.7 x 53.2 cm each, Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art.