Written Compositions and Calligraphy of the Joseon Kings

National Palace Museum of Korea

During the Joseon dynasty, literary works and handwritings by members of the royal family were regarded as extremely valuable objects and were treated very carefully. The stationery items used by Joseon royals are a useful source of knowledge on the art of handwriting to which they were devoted.

Having received a rigorous education since early childhood, Joseon kings acquired a high level of scholarly knowledge and refinement. Like most scholarly elites who were not only conversant in Neo-Confucian philosophy but were also cultured literati, Joseon kings were scholars with excellent literary and calligraphic skills. As such, these kings left many compositions and calligraphic works produced during their daily work or in their leisure time. 

The written compositions of the king were referred to as Eoje(御製) king’s
compositions, and his handwritten scripts, Eopil(御筆), Eoseo(御書) king’s scripts, or Sinhan(宸翰) court letter.

The writings by the crown prince were called Yeje(睿製), and his handwritten scripts, Yepil(睿筆). The royal compositions and calligraphic works were treasured and received special care as they were believed to embody the personal qualities of the king and the dignity of his dynasty.

The royal compositions and calligraphic works, along with the Annals Sillok(實錄) of the same reign, would be compiled and published following the death of the king by his successor.

This task was considered an important symbolic succession of duty.
The collected works of the preceding king were published in a book or scroll format, or engraved on stone tablets for greater permanency.

The Calligraphy of Successive Rulers Yeolseong Eopil(列聖御筆)from 1662 (in the third year of King Hyeonjong’s reign)was the first publication of such compilation, and many others followed from the years of King Sukjong’s reign

King Gyeongjong’s(r. 1720~1724) compilation in woodblocks of the works by his predecessors King Seonjo(r. 1567~1608), King Injo(r. 1623~1649), King Hyojong(r. 1649~1659), King Hyeonjong(r. 1659~1674) and King Sukjong(r. 1674~1720) conveys all of the handwritings and drawings of preceding Joseon kings.

Joseon kings would sometimes hold poetry sessions with their subordinates as an act of harmonious communication with them. King Jeongjo especially enjoyed practicing this with his close associates at the Gyujanggak library, exchanging poem composition in the form of verse couplets. The scrolls recording their verses provide at once the chance to appreciate their handwritten poems as well as to admire the beautiful paper used at the royal court at the time.

Royal Stationeries
A scholar’s studio was a space dedicated to study and contemplation, and the stationeries used in the studio were called Munbanggu(文房具). This included paper "Ji(紙)", brush "Pil(筆)", ink "Muk(墨)", and inkstone "Yeon(硯)". As grinding ink on an inkstone to write on paper with a brush was the traditional writing method in the past, the four indispensable items were collectively labeled the “four friends of the scholar’s studio munbangsau文房四友.

The large inkstone shaped like an open lotus leaf made for royal use has a pair of catfish and peony blossoms decorated on top.

The wooden lid of the royal inkstone is painted in black lacquer inlaid with mother-of-pearl in the shape of five dragons amidst clouds.

Its overwhelming size, proper placement of diverse symbols, and the elegant carving boast the dignity and refinement of a royal inkstone.

Even portable stationeries used by the Joseon royalty were exquisitely made with precious materials such as crystal, stone, and jade.

Water-droppers Yeonjeok(硯滴) used when grinding ink were made into diverse shapes such as toad, mythical lion, peach, rectangular, hexagonal, and others, being among the most creative items among the writing utensils.

Water-droppers were thus not only practical items but also decorative crafts to be appreciated.

The white paper used at the royal court was made of premium quality mulberry, sometimes dyed in natural pigments, mixed with gold or mica powder, moss, or fine feathers, and printed with patterns.

Sijeonji(詩箋紙) were colored paper with various printed patterns imported from specialty shops in Qing China and were used to write poems or letters.

Credits: Story


Myeng-hee Son.

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