Design and Meaning of Korean Traditional Symbols

Korean Symbols of Wishes
Designs and patterns refer to the various shapes that were used to adorn a piece of clothing or sculpted goods among others. Designs symbolize certain things and are composed and stylized according to a certain set of rules. Exquisite designs can make one’s life more externally refined, but as symbolic images, they also allow one to reveal one’s consciousness or wishes from within. The ancestors also prayed for a good health, social success and material affluence by including symbolic patterns and text messages that bring fortune in everyday objects or works of art. This exhibition illustrates the wishes of ancestors for fortune with various patterns decorated in ancient books, paintings, folding screens, clothing, and ornaments.
Longing for Longevity
People deem it the greatest blessing to live long and happy. Representing designs for longevity symbols are ten longevity animals. East Asian countries share the designs of longevity; however, ten longevity animals are found only in Korea. They refer to the sun, mountains, stones, water, clouds, pine trees, elixir plants, turtles, cranes and deer. Sometimes the number exceeds ten, including the moon, bamboo trees, and peaches. 

This is the chest on chest for women, where they keep their clothes. Painted in red, it is decorated with ten longevity designs inscribed in mother-of-pearl.

This is a three-layered chest with transparent glasses, behind of which are ten creatures of longevity symbols colorfully painted. Colored papers are added on the back of glasses.

This is the case for clothes, jewelry and papers. Decorated with ten longevity symbols including crane, the case looks rich with two sides inscribed with flowers and fish designs.

This is the case for cosmetics and combs. It is decorated with pine trees and deer symbolizing ling life, and the handle is shaped in a bat from hoping for good fortune.

Sun, Mountains and Cranes of Ten Longevity Symbols

Deer and Elixir Plants of Ten Longevity Symbols

Water, Stones and Turtles of Ten Longevity Symbols

Pine Trees and Clouds of Ten Longevity Symbols

The sun, mountains, stones and water reveal the attitude of worshipping nature that never changes.

The ten traditional symbols of longevity were embroidered using modern design and techniques. It won Special Selection at a national competition in 1958.

Longing for Success & Fame
Books were the means for self-discipline as well as successful entry into the governmental offices. In the ancient society people deemed it a success to enter into the official arena; paintings of the stationery and bookshelves were the result of social success and prosperity. The painting of bookshelves showed not only books but scholars’ favorite sword, chess board and watches. As time passed, materials varied as in other folk paintings, such as the symbols of searching for blessings appeared with the materials varying as in other folk paintings.

Books and brushes represent scholarly spirit; eggplants and watermelons symbolize fertilty; peacock's feathers yearn for the successful entrance into the court as officials.

Books and brushes represent scholarly spirit.

Watermelon symbolize fertilty.

Peacock's feathers represent yearn for the successful.

These scholars' accoutrements show their books, china ancient bronze wares, and the tangerine-like fruits symbolizing wealth.

The Four Gracious Plants (Sa Goon Ja), which indicates a plum blossom, orchid, chrysanthemum, and bamboo, represents a virtuous and erudite noble man.

These are the tobacco cases. The covers are inscribed with the auspicious Chinese characters wishing for longevity and gook fortune.

Longing for the Family Blessing
Human beings long to live long, healthy and wealthy with their descendants prospering. Such longings of human beings are materialized in the designs, decorating every part of life. For example, the handles and legs of furniture are decorated with the Chinese character. Peony flowers, the symbol of wealth, are either inscribed or embroidered into the spoon bags, pouches, clothes, dishes and paintings. The same were the symbols of fertility such as eggplants and pomegranates. Various utensils were decorated with designs of plants symbolizing longevity, blessing, wealth, and son preference.

The most commonly used patterns in Korean traditional symbols are the longevity (壽) and fortune (福) design. The desire to live long and be blessed is the most original wish.

These are molds to make rice cakes. They are designed with the simple lucky symbols.

This wooden printing block was used to decorate the covers of the books. Various designs of plants and animals, as well as Chinese characters were inscribed on the wooden plates.

This pouch played the role of pockets. It is plated with gold showing the letters of long life (萬壽) and gook health (無疆).

Turtle shells are often used in handmade decorations and symbolize longevity.

Bat designs has commonly been used as a decorative pattern on various places to symbolize fortune/luck, as fortune (福 fu) and bat (蝠 fu) are pronounced the same.

This is the large, tri-colored pendant wishing for good fortune.

This particular pendant with an incense pouch shows a bat with its wings retracted on a red cloth, and it has a cap in the same of a heavenly peach.

A little boy symbolizes plenty of sons; mandarin ducks represent happy marriage.

Sookmyung Women's University Museum
Credits: Story

Management│Rhie, Jin-Min
Chief Editor│Hong, Kyoung-A, Jung, Hyeran
Assistant│Park, Hyekyung, Kim, Nahyun, Kim, Songrim, Lee, Hyewon
Photography│Seo, Heonkang

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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