The 7th-century gilt-bronze incense burner from the Baekje Kingdom (18 B.C.-660 A.D.), designated as National Treasure No. 287. / Courtesy of NMK
National museum opens rare exhibition on Korea's Taoist culture
By Baek Byung-yeul
Taoism, an ancient tradition of Chinese philosophy and religious belief, has been an important element of Korean culture since it arrived during the old Three Kingdoms period. It's also one of the country's most misunderstood forms of cultural heritage thanks to the relative paucity of research into it.
The National Museum of Korea (NMK)'s "Taoist Culture in Korea - The Road to Happiness" exhibition, which opened on Tuesday, is a rare display on Taoism in Korea and probably the most meaningful one to date.
About 300 items are on display, including paintings, craftwork and documents, which combine to make a convincing representation of the Taoist influence in culture. The highlight of the exhibition is the 7th century incense burner from the Baekje Kingdom (18 B.C.-660 A.D.), a national treasure distinctive for its elegant, lotus-flower shape and complex patterns.
"This is our first, real large-scale exhibition focused on Taoism and how its influence penetrated deeply into our traditional culture, even affecting the cultural elements of Buddhism and Confucianism,'' said Ahn Kyung-sook, a curator at the museum in Yongsan, Seoul.
"An interesting example is the 'The painting, Sun, Moon and Five Peaks.' The sun, moon and mountain tops epitomize the kings of the Joseon Kingdom, but these are also central elements that appear in Taoist philosophy."
Taoism, which is about the Tao, could be translated simply as "the way'' and is thought to have originated in China about 2,000 years ago.
Although it's difficult to explain what exactly Taoism is, it can be loosely described as a religion of unity and opposites, or the "yin" and "yang," which summarizes the principles of the world as hot and cold, action and non-action, dark and bright, and so on.
Taoism includes meditation, feng shui and various types of fortune telling and followers are preached to about achieving harmony with nature and spiritual immortality.
Taoism probably took hold in Korea sometime during the early 7th century, likely first in the Goguryeo Kingdom (37 B.C.-668 A.D.), one of the Three Kingdoms states that its territory extended from the heart of Manchuria to the northern part of the Korean Peninsula.
Although Taoism did not become dominant over Buddhism or Confucianism in Korea, its influences are deep-rooted and often seen in Buddhist and Confucian institutions and ceremonies.
The exhibition at NMK is divided into three parts.
The first section, themed "Taoist Deities and Rites," features artifacts used in Taoist temples and ceremonies and educative material on Taoist deities and worship.
The second section, "Eternal Youth and Eternal Life," is probably the highlight of the section, if only because it's where the Baekje incense burner is displayed.
The gilt-bronze burner, designated as National Treasure No. 287 and currently on loan from the Buyeo National Museum in South Chungcheong Province, offers a great example of how Taoist and Buddhist influences blended into Korean artifacts. While the burner was used to worship deities at a Taoist temple, its lotus flower shape is an unmistakable Buddhist symbol.
The third section is dedicated to paintings, including "Gunseondo," or "Taoist immortals," the work of Joseon Kingdom's master painter Kim Hong-do that is spread over a five-meter long, folding screen. The painting, designated as National Treasure No. 139, depicts 19 of the Taoist deities and considered among the definitive art works of the Joseon era.
"The Sun, Moon and Five Peaks" is also a must-see. On the backside of this painting there is another painting called "Heavenly Peaches," about the fruit that is linked to eternal life in Taoism.
The exhibition runs through March 2, 2014. Admission is free. It is located near exit 4 of Ichon Station, subway line 4 and the Jungang Line. For more information, call (02) 2077-9000 or visit www.museum.go.kr.