White porcelain from the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1897) radiates a kind of beauty that is uniquely Korean. Around the 17th century, in the times of neighboring nations’ influence through frequent invasions, the moon jars (dal-hang-ari) became the epitome of Korean beauty, unlike Chinese or Japanese porcelain.
During this time, various types of white porcelain were born. White porcelain with blue paint drawings of lotus flowers, bamboo trees, plum blossoms, orchid flowers, and Chrysanthemum motifs were thought to represent the elegance and propriety of noblemen or the royals. The designs and decorations on the white porcelain in general portrayed Confucian beliefs. One of these Confucius teachings was the emphasis on people’s reality and the now, rather than focusing on the past, future, or afterlife; this is well-reflected in the designless works of plain white moon jars.
The most significant aspect of the white porcelain that makes it distinctly Korean is that it is “less about technique and more about the underlying sentiments and aesthetics.” It is the spirit, the mentality, and the emotion that was ground into creating these masterpieces which defines the beauty as Korean, and the embedded sentiment is conveyed through detailed features and forms in every corner of the jar.
“THE WHITE-CLAD FOLKS”
Koreans have special respect and attachment to the color white. It is still a symbolic color used widely in Korean customs, culture, and arts. In the past, Korean people were even called “the people of white clothes,” because they frequently wore white sambe (hemp fiber) clothes. White clothes were worn by not only the working-class Koreans, but also intellectuals, and the royals such as seon-bi (scholars who follow Confucius teachings), princes, princesses, kings, and queens.
The book Record of Three Kingdoms by Chen Shou, a Chinese historian and politician, said that “Buyeo (ancient Korea that is now part of China) revered white and so wore white clothes widely,” alluding to Koreans’ longtime affection for the color. The origin of such tradition goes back to the years of the Buyeo Dynasty (2nd century BC~494 AD) when they had shamanism traditions of worshipping the sun. Koreans considered themselves descendents of the sun, and treated white as sacred because they believed white is the color of the sun.
Over time in Korean culture, white came to symbolize naturality, purity, and authenticity. The symbolism fell in line with the then-pervasive idea that regarded all other colors “as a symbol of desires that needed to be suppressed.” At the core of Confucius’ disciplines were self-control, holding back, meditation, and perseverance. Korean people favored pure colors made with no artificial modifications. They sought “natural beauty as it is found in nature without…human manipulation,” For them, white was a transcendence of anything man-made — an unstained and untouched entity. It was a collection of all philosophy that the ancestors followed and believed condensed into this simple, easy-to-remiss, and inconspicuous color.
THE BEGINNING OF WHITE PORCELAIN
Koreans’ affection and reverence for white is more apparent in their paintings, sculptures, and ceramics. In the previously-mentioned Confucius’ lessons of reality and “the now,” the white maksabal — the name literally meaning “a bowl you use coarsely or carelessly” — appears to have a deeper connection to the socio-economic realities of ordinary people.
These bowls were small, rough, and casual looking pots that village potters made for everyday dining, without much attention to artistry or refinement. The black sesame seed-like design was the accidental result of impurities in the poor-quality clay getting stuck to the surface in the process of firing. As it can be imagined, these bowls were undervalued for a long time because of their low quality until they were recognized by the Japanese in the 16th century. However, even these informal and casual-looking bowls had the essential quality that most Koreans also love — beauty of naturality, cleanliness, and simplicity of the white color of minimal design. Creation of these bowls marked the rise of these pure-white porcelain. The apex of popularity for white porcelain was, of course, the moon jars.
THE AESTHETICS OF THE MOON JAR
The moon jar (달항아리/dal-hang-ari) was the definition of Korean beauty in the late 17th century. Its poetic name comes from the evocative shape that resembles the appearance of the moon. Kim Hwanki, a master of Korean abstract painting, is known to have often compared the jar to the moon. With its dirty white color tinted light orange-yellow-brown, the jar comes in an asymmetric shape with barely any ornamentation. Koreans have long believed in the definition of true beauty to be, as the old Buddhist saying goes, “If you are searching for beauty, you will not find it. Not searching for beauty is beauty.”
The jar’s irregular form, tainted white colors, and stain marks all come together in an enigmatically quiet and reserved manner to celebrate the flaws and mistakes made by all forms of nature, teaching us the true definition of beauty — imperfection and humility. The tints on the surface are naturally created through “allowing the glaze to flow freely while the bowls are being fired.” The round asymmetric shape is formed by attaching the upper and the lower body separately in the middle, resulting in a seam which later creates fine cracks.
These marks of coincidental craftsmanship were left visible to accentuate the human touch. They became part of white porcelain to consolidate and appreciate what makes people human (as the offspring of nature) and what makes nature natural. The simple and tranquil expression of blankness leaves room for potential imaginations, emotions, and growth. The moon jar is ready to subsume the little things in life and fill a larger whole, and in time, become no longer so hollow and idle.
CONTINUING TO INSPIRE
In the contemporary world, the philosophy and the spirit of the moon jar continues to inspire people in various fields of arts. Over time, porcelain exhibitions have grown to be some of the most major contents that help understand the wisdom and ethics that influence Korean people even to this day. But the jar’s popularity is still seizing to grow among not just Koreans, but also foreigners of various backgrounds and cultures.
Contemporary artist Choi Youngwook (b.1964) is most famous for his moon jar paintings. He started capturing them after he first saw a moon jar porcelain in a small corner of the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, among large portions of Chinese and Japanese art collections. He said he thought the jar “resembled himself,” — small, weak, and alone. He thought the jar with detailed cracks portrayed curves of his own life. But he recalled moments later that it appeared to be standing firm and strong in representing Korea with tenacity and confidence. He hopes that through his moon jar paintings, “more people come to feel ample in their heart about the severe times and be able to accept and embrace their pain” as the jar did for him.
Recently in the K-Pop and the art world, BTS leader RM’s drawing of ARMY’s room for the BE (Essential Edition) concept photos went viral. BTS members each made drawings of a place in hopes to provide ARMYs with a space of comfort. RM’s depiction of the Korean moon jar, with his message that he wanted to “present ARMYs with variegated comfort through the harmony created by the snug warmth of the moon jar’s curve and the linear and square form of the open-side book stand” deeply moved the hearts of fans and art professionals.
RM’s love for Korean art can also be seen in the news that he purchased moon jar porcelain from a well-known ceramist, Kwon Daesup. During his brief encounter with the ceramist, RM is said to have exclaimed “This is (exactly) Korea!,” sharing his observation of Kwon’s moon jar. While most people are already familiar with RM’s sources of inspiration in various intellectual fields, it was a moment where his true empathy for Korean people and understanding of the culture and the mentality behind the masterpiece shined through regarding Korean aesthetics.
In 2015, a Joseon-period moon jar was auctioned at $1.5 million and another at a jumped value of $2.7 million in 2019. According to Korea’s largest auction house, Seoul Auction, as of June 2019, the top three highest-ranking pieces in value were all moon jar ceramics of the Joseon Dynasty. While the appreciation for porcelain has increased, more interest and attention is still needed from Koreans.
The value of these white porcelain moon jars lies in the fact that they are the outcome of how the people lived in history. Perhaps, from them, one can read into the real life of all people tracing back to their roots — the daily life concerns of mankind: surviving the social, political, economic reality, and much more. It may be possible that, by contemplating these master works, young Koreans can learn the wisdom of their ancestors.
“This article is also published in The Kraze”