What does Joseon history conjure up for you? For many it’s images of dusty relics and a stuffy, outdated culture. But you might change your mind as we discover the fascinating facts and artifacts that lay within the history of the Joseon era.
1. Catalogue of seal impressions from King Heonjong's collection
Avid collectors pour their heart and soul into their collections. For many collectors, a custom-made storage space is the only way to keep their items more safely. Just such an item can be found at the National Palace Museum of Korea. The owner was King Heonjong (1827–1849), the 24th king of Joseon Dynasty. Between ascending to the throne at eight years old and passing away at the young age of 23, King Heonjong spent 15 years at the palace tending to political affairs as monarch.
King Heonjong was a renowned lover of painting, calligraphy, and seal engravings. Calligraphy and engraving were noble pastimes fit for a Joseon king, but King Heonjong was no casual fan. Not one to just look at a few pieces every now and then, he was a complete fanboy. He collected around 700 seal engravings, which he kept in a custom-built cabinet, and he recorded each item in a catalog labeled with his house name “Bosodang.” Of the 700, 195 pieces still survive today.
To organize the items in his collection, King Heonjong stored them in drawers that were assigned numbers corresponding with the listings in the book. The cabinet shows his careful attention to ensure no damage came to the samples, which bore the handwriting of some of Korea’s most illustrious figures engraved on beautiful crystal, ivory, coral, agate, and jade. He carefully crafted a guard so that the drawer contents would not spill, and placed cushioning all around the engravings so they would not get scratched. He also carefully recorded the numbers of each seal mark held in the drawers.
2. The delights of sweet coffee snacks
Korea’s first coffee aficionado—Emperor Gojong of the Korean Empire—may have been something of a philanthropist for lovers of the beverage today. Emperor Gojong is known to have discovered coffee and the Western-style “teatime” in 1895. The Korean Empire made a brief visit to the Russian Legation, which sparked the Emperor’s love of coffee. He also had a variety of baking molds brought into the palace to produce different Western snacks to go with the brew.
The mold above is for baking canelé pastries, which have been popular among South Koreans in recent years as well. At a dainty 3 cm, the canelé mold at Changdeokgung Palace would have been suitable for light snacks to be taken with coffee. Tarts were cooked using a “tart boat” mold with a hinge and pin to allow for easy removal after baking. The mold has no base, suggesting it was placed on top of a separate pan for cooking.
Other pans were for the baking of Gugelhupfs, chiffon cakes, and other cake varieties. These days, ingredients like butter, sugar, milk, and flour are quite easy to find. But for the people of the Korean Empire in the early 20th century, they were not at all common items. A person watching the preparation of these treats for the first time would have been astonished at the quantity of eggs and sugar going into the soft and moist cakes.
3. Mythical beasts of the Palace
We may never have seen what they actually looked like, but dragons were present everywhere the king was. In the East, dragons were animal symbols of the king, and as the place where the king resided, it stood to reason that they would be found at the palace as well.
Dragons have been inscribed on jars to hold ritual spirits, on the ceiling of Geunjeongjeon Hall at Gyeongbokgung Palace, and even appeared on the king’s garments and everyday items. They can be found on roof decorations in the palace building, the handles of the palanquin in which the king was carried, and the silk covering of a jewelry box. Seated dragons could also be seen on the handle of a ceremonial scoop and the emperor’s seal.
More dragons can be found emblazoned on the inkstone in the office where the monarch tended to state affairs, and on the queen’s gold hairpin. Make sure you look for the hidden dragons the next time you visit the National Palace Museum of Korea or one of the palaces from the Joseon Dynasty.
4. The game of Joseon-era life: chutes and ladders, government official-style
Many different kinds of games existed in the days of Joseon. Some, like baduk (go) and chess, traced their origins to China; others, like yutnori, are still very popular among Koreans today.
One board game played in the Joseon era was called seunggyeongdo nori, or “climbing the government career ladder.” Also known by names such as jongjeongdo, it made a game of the career path of a Joseon-era official. During the Joseon Dynasty, people became officials by passing an examination known as the gwageo and received promotions or punishment according to their service and tenure.
The game starts with a person passing the gwageo to become an official. Players toss the seunggyeongdo al, a special five-sided die, and advance through government positions on the board based on the number that comes up. The winner is the first to reach the highest positions of yeonguijeong (premier) and dowonsu (commander-in-chief of the military). If no seunggyeongdo al can be found, a normal six-sided die can be used, with a rule to roll again if a six comes up. Many similar games exist nowadays, so it should be pretty easy to understand.
A wrong move could get a player “impeached” and removed from office, or even forced to “drink poison”. The people of Joseon were just as invested in the toss of the seunggyeongdo al as they were in their real-life careers. Of course, no amount of die-tossing could make a player into the king.
According to the records, King Seongjong, the ninth Joseon monarch, told officials to play a game of seunggyeongdo nori to pass the tedious hours as they were waiting overnight at the palace—and even gave them palace treasures to use for their bets.
In a way, the people whose stories lie hidden behind the historical archives and relics of the Joseon era may not have been so different from us—even the Joseon king himself. The people who lived inside those magnificent palaces, surrounded by symbols of authority, were simply people with a sweet tooth who loved leisure activities, whiled away their free time with games, and tended to their ordinary, everyday business.