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Koreans began reading the Confucian Classics at a young age and would memorize large portions of the texts. Like China, Koreans that wanted to enter into government service were tested on their knowledge of the Confucian Classics.
This love of books did not just extend to education and politics. During the latter half of the Chosŏn period, artists began to paint collections of books called Ch’aekkŏri (book collection). These paintings were rather simple. They depicted books on shelves along with brushes, ink jars, paperweights, and other basic stationery. Eventually, these Ch’aekkŏri paintings would also include items such as fruit, bowls, scrolls, and flowers.
Ch’aekkŏri were usually folding screens. After painting a section, the artist placed the painting into a long rectangular wooden frame that was connected to other frames in the folding screen. Scholars used these screens as dividers within their rooms and also as decoration. This painting of books added to the room’s erudite ambience.
Here in this Ch’aekkŏri there is a wide assortment of books, stationery, flowers, and containers. This Ch’aekkŏri’s bright colors and wide variety of items show that this screen was painted during the latter end of the Chosŏn period. The clock more than anything else shows that this is a more modern Ch’aekkŏri.
While some of the items within the painting are purely aesthetic, many have symbolic meaning. The peacock feathers are a symbol used by government officials to mark their high rank. The plum blossoms symbolize longevity and the citron fruit symbolize the blessing of posterity. Finally, the books represent a passion for learning and respect for the written word.
Ch’aekkŏri continued to be popular up until the end of the Chosŏn Kingdom. Today, most Ch’aekkori are located in museum and art collections. While they are not as popular as they once were, the legacy of respect for the written word and the love of scholarship is still evident in Korea today.