By Tony MacGregor
Korea is one of the oldest continuous civilizations in the world with a 5,000-year-old culture of distinctive music, painting and sculpture, often difficult to understand for foreigners.
Perhaps, one of the easiest most pleasurable ways to gain insight into Korean culture is to look long and closely at its unique art of arranging flowers.
Now enjoying a revival, Korean flower arranging emphasizes simplicity and space in creating harmony of lines. To achieve balance and encourage focus, space is left between flowers and branchlets, giving rise to a sense of delicacy, airiness and fragility, not usually found in Western floral arrangements.
This delicacy and sparseness, elegant and unforced, encourages reflection and peace, as do other types of Korean art.
I watched Kim Sung-chun of the Carnan Flower Garden in southern Seoul create a Korean floral arrangement before my eyes.
She started off with a flat-bottomed black oval dish on which she placed a frog for holding the flowers and branches in a spot about a third of the dish's length.
Then she cut to size small branches of Japanese cornel dogwood with small yellow flowers. As she placed the first one, the largest branch, she said it expresses the idea of a circle. The second one, a bit smaller, represents a square, she said, while the third represents a triangle.
Next, between the widely spaced braches going off in different directions, she placed Mediterranean snapdragon with small pink flowers, and finished the arrangement with some pink roses.
It was bright and colorful but at the same time light and airy.
Often in Korean flower arranging, simple white ceramic vases of different shapes inspired by the ancient Joseon Kingdom are used to highlight various kinds of flowers and tree branches in elegant arrangements that speak of streams, river-washed rocks and natural beauty.
Kim, a floral instructor for 30 years, explained that nobody knows for sure when floral arranging began in Korea. It wasn't documented before the 14th century, but arranging flowers on the alters of Buddhist temples was commonplace and is probably a precursor to the art. Buddhism entered the Korean Peninsula in the fourth century.
Kim's daughter Lim Kyong-lan is following in her mother's footsteps.
Historians believe that the evolution of the Korean tea ceremony probably influenced Korean floral arrangements. As the elegant, elaborate tea ceremony developed, floral arrangements were used to enhance it. Sprigs of pear blossoms were popular as well as ever-green sprigs that set off white ceramic ware popular at that time. Blossoms, leaves ferns, and grasses were also used as they are today along with stones, pumpkin shells and hanji, traditional Korean paper.
Women played the primary role in flower arranging in ancient Korea, and still do today.
Today, Korean flower arranging is flourishing and has developed into several schools. These include the Jeju Island School, the Mountain School, the Palace School and the Jeonju Tea Ceremony School. Based in Jeonju, the practitioners of the Jeonju Tea Ceremony School make great use of flowering pear blossoms and pine sprigs.
Perhaps the best-known school is the Wha-Kong Hoe school based in Seoul. It expresses the philosophy of Wha-kong who believes in a natural approach to the art. She has played a key role in reviving the Korean art of flower arranging and makes her own ceramics using traditional Confucian patterns to enhance her work.
Foreigners wishing to learn Korean flower arranging can contact the Seoul Global Center at 82-2-1688-0120 or email@example.com. Web site is http://global.seoul.go.kr. Also offering flower arranging courses is the Seoul International Women's Association (SIWIA) http://www.siwapage.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.