By Sooa McCormick, Curator of Korean Art
Published January 12, 2021
As one of the oldest decorative techniques, embroidery has a long history in Korea. According to ancient historical texts such as the History of the Three Kingdoms (삼국사기) embroidered silk robes were worn not only by ruling elites, but also enjoyed by some wealthy commoners by the 800s. Embroidery examples from that period are extremely rare, but a few textile fragments were excavated from royal tombs and Buddhist temple sites.
By the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392), picturesque embroidery became widely used as part of the interior decoration of both secular and sacred spaces. According to the travelogue by Northern Song Chinese diplomat Xu Jing, A Chinese Traveler in Medieval Korea: Xu Jing’s Illustrated Account of the Xuanhe Embassy to Goryeo (1124), embroidered works were widely employed for interior decoration in secular and sacred space.
“Embroidered paintings have a red background and green borders, with mountain flowers and prancing animals inserted using five colors; the artisanship surpasses that of the embroidered curtains. There are also flowers and bamboo, birds and beasts, and the like, all drawn in very lifelike fashion. . . .”1
One of the earliest well-preserved embroidery works of the Goryeo dynasty is a late 14th-century Buddhist hanging scroll in the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, that depicts the image of Amitabha Buddha (Leeum Amitabha). Royal embroiderers must have made it as a commission from the royal court to furnish a Buddhist worship hall.
Gyubang-based Women Embroiderers
Most available examples of embroidery are from the late Joseon dynasty (1392−1910). They were mostly created by both amateur and professional women artists. Toward the latter half of the Joseon dynasty, women increasingly faced rigid restrictions in all aspects of life. Upper-class women, in particular, were obliged to stay confined to the innermost space of a house, called gyubang 규방, or inner quarters. Alongside other subjects, embroidery was taught to middle- and upper-class young women to demonstrate feminine virtues. However, this art form soon became a powerful tool to reclaim one’s own identity and its techniques were passed downed as treasured knowledge in families and communities.
Gyubang-based embroiderers created works such as wrapping cloths called bojagi 보자기, pouches, thimbles, and so forth. These works demonstrate women’s bold and exuberant aesthetics. Featuring stunning colors and striking arboreal and geometric patterns, wrapping cloths were used to pack and store items as small as little pouches and as large as clothing.
Wrapping cloths embroidered with arboreal design, evoking a “tree” of blissful life, a symbol of eternal happiness and harmony, were created especially for the wedding ceremony.
Rank badges—official insignias that represent the wearer’s bureaucratic level—are another example of gyubang-based embroiderery. This pair of rank badges sewn with the image of a red-crowned crane holding a lingzhi mushroom in its beak was attached to the front and back of a scholar-official’s uniform.
As shown in this pair, each stitch was treated with great precision to showcase the embroiderer’s technique, often considered to represent a woman’s virtue.
An exquisitely embroidered bridal gown 활옷 in the CMA collection accentuates women’s distinctive aesthetic sensibilities. In contrast to monochrome ink painting done by male elites—the most prominent male-centered art form—the red silk surface of the gown is embellished with various decorative images in colorful silk threads: peonies, butterflies, lotus flowers, a pair of cranes, and phoenixes. Four-character phrases with blessings such as 壽如可海 (to live long like ocean), 百福之源 (to become the cause of infinite fortunes), and 二姓之合 (to harmonize two families) are embroidered on the shoulder area of this ceremonial robe.
Yet the bridal gown does not simply attest to material extravagance. On the contrary, many traces of repairs, trimmings, and patchwork reflect women’s commitment to preserving valuable resources. Only its collar and sleeves, which are made of thick paper, are replaced with new ones, while the robe itself was reused for decades. Since this gown was acquired in Korea in 1915 by Langdon Warner (1881–1955) and based on its current condition, it must have served for up to 30 years as an important resource for a working-class community.
General Guo Ziyi’s Birthday Banquet was perhaps made as a wedding gift by a group of women embroiderers. Simple satin stitches done in an inconsistent manner suggest that participants with different skill levels may have joined in making this screen.
There are mainly two types of embroiders in the Joseon royal court. The first group are royal women family members. The hanging scroll Daoist Immortals, for example, is known to have been done by Queen Inheon 仁獻王后 (1578–1626). The God of Longevity is depicted sitting on a rock being served tea by two young assistants, while other immortals such as Zhongli Quan and Zhang Guo Lao are shown in the lower part of the scroll. The queen may have worked on her embroidery based on an intricate design provided by a royal court painter.
Most surviving large-scale embroidered folding screens from the royal court, however, were done by professional women embroiderers.2 Recruited from low- and working-class families, girls from seven to eight years old were trained at the royal embroidery studio. After about 15 years of training they could join major embroidery projects.
In making this type of large-scale embroidery screen, such as Ten Longevity Symbols, women embroiderers collaborated with male court painters.
Ten Longevity Symbols depicts a paradise with the ten symbols of longevity: rocks, water, clouds, sun, pine trees, turtles, deer, cranes, bamboo, and fungus. According to a royal archive that details the king’s wedding in 1847, the theme of “ten longevity symbols” was featured on one of the many painted and embroidered screens commissioned for the royal wedding to evoke a heavenly blessing on the newly married royal couple. The example dated to 1879 in the collection of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art was created to commemorate the recovery from smallpox of Crown Prince Yi Cheok (1874–1926).
In the process of making this painterly embroidery, male court painters provided their female needlework partners with detailed designs indicating compositional elements and color schemes. Their professional collaboration resulted in a great deal of thematic overlaps between Korean court-sponsored painting and embroidery of the Joseon period. Female embroiderers, however, did not simply lend their skills to replication, but rather successfully translated a pictorial prototype with a variety of sophisticated stitches in colorful silk threads, achieving a higher level of elegance.
Literati Tastes and Male Embroiderers
By the final decades of the 1800s, embroidery no longer belonged exclusively to women. To respond to the growing demand for large-scale embroidered folding screens, many men organized professional workshops, particularly in the city of Anju in Pyeongan province. While the artistic language of Anju male embroiderers—bold compositions and bright color schemes—was deeply indebted to the one established by women artists, they reached new heights of artistic sophistication with thick, multilayered stitches. The desired effect was voluminous textured surfaces.
To secure commercial success among upper-class male elites, Anju male embroiderers actively embraced the subjects and aesthetics male elites preferred. Ancient Bronze Vessels is perhaps one Anju embroidery with the most male-oriented subject.
Each panel that depicts different kinds of ritual bronze vessels on the top and patterns from roof tile ends on the bottom shows the collecting trend of antiquities by elites toward the end of the 1700s.
Among collectible antiquities, ancient Chinese bronze vessels were some of the most desirable (Wine Vessel (Jia), 1989.150, Wine Vessel (Fu Wu Zun),1938.13).
In this screen, however, the image of such collectible antiquities also served as a set of auspicious symbols evoking heavenly blessing. A short writing placed next to each vessel conveys wishful thoughts regarding the family’s happiness, prosperity, and longevity—sincere offerings to ancestors.
Anju male embroiderers also forged a strong collaboration with monochrome ink painters such as Yang Gi-hun (1843–1919?) to cater to the tastes of male elites. Native to Pyongyang, Yang was known for his works depicting flora and fauna. His hanging scroll (Egret and Reeds, 2015.509),
for example, elegantly depicts an egret walking along the shores of a salt marsh where reeds abundantly grow. Yang provided his embroidering partners with detailed preparatory drawings of literati themes such as Geese and Reeds or Plum Blossoms (Geese and Reeds, 2018-D-Huh-0046).
Unlike other artistic genres such as painting and calligraphy primarily dominated by male artists and patrons, Korean embroidery distinctively developed collaborations of different genders and people of different socioeconomic backgrounds. Its rich artistic language indeed reflects a diverse community of artists and patrons.
- Buddha Amitabha, late 1300s. Korea, Goryeo period (918–1392). Embroidery on silk; 105.1 x 43 cm. Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art. Image courtesy of Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art
- Ten Longevity Symbols, 1700s. Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392−1910). Eight-panel folding screen; embroidery on silk; 141 x 365.9 cm. Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase with funds from the Founders Junior Council and the Korean Community, 1985.14. Image courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts
- Daoist Immortals, late 1500s–early 1600s. Attributed to Queen Inheon. Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). Hanging scroll; 148.5 x 44.5 cm. National Museum of Korea, Deoksu 5698. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Korea
- Geese and Reeds, 1905. Yang Gi-hun (Korean, 1843–1919?). Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392−1910). Twelve-panel folding screen; embroidery on silk; 200.5 x 335 cm. Seoul Museum of Craft Art, 2018-D-Huh-0046
- A Pair of Rank Badges with Single Crane Motif, 1800s. Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). Silk, satin damask weave; silk thread embroidery; 25.4 x 25.4 cm; mounted: 43.2 x 78.1 cm. Cleveland Museum of Art, Alma Kroeger Fund, 2019.78
- Portrait of a Young Officer, 1921. Chae Yongshin (Korean, 1848–1941). Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk; overall: 156.4 x 87.3 cm; painting only: 127 x 71.1 cm. Kang Collection Korean Art, 1.2020
- Wedding Gown, late 1800s. Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). Satin weave silk; silk embroidery; paper edging on neck and sleeves; overall: 114.3 x 174 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Worcester R. Warner Collection, 1918.552
- General Guo Ziyi’s Birthday Banquet, early or mid-1800s. Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). Eight-panel folding screen, embroidery on silk; painting: 60.9 x 30 cm; overall framed: 195.2 x 332.4 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, gift of the honorable Joseph P. Carroll, KM, and Roberta Carroll, M.D., in recognition of the contribution of Marjorie Williams to the development of the Cleveland Museum of Art, 2020.87
- Ancient Chinese Bronzes, late 1800s. Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). Ten-panel folding screen; embroidery, gold silk threads on black silk; each panel: 147.3 x 34.5 cm; overall framed: 224.9 x 493.2 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of the Honorable Joseph P. Carroll, KM, and Roberta Carroll, M.D., in recognition of the contribution of Marjorie Williams to the development of the Cleveland Museum of Art, 2020.86
- Wine Vessel (Jia), c. 1700–1500 BC. China, probably Henan province, Erlitou culture (c. 1900–1500 BC). Bronze; overall: 24 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, John L. Severance Fund, 1989.150
- Wine Vessel (Fu Wu Zun), c. 1000–900 BC. China, early Western Zhou dynasty (c. 1046–771 BC). Bronze; diam. 23.1 cm; overall: 25.2 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund, 1938.13
- Egret and Reeds, late 1800s. Yang Ki-hun (Seuk-Eun) (Korean, 1843–1919?). Hanging scroll; ink on paper; overall: 196 x 61 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift from the Collection of George Gund III, 2015.509
Support for this web article publication provided by the National Museum of Korea