When Koreans celebrated the 600th anniversary of the founding of Seoul on this date in 1994, it wasn’t really the founding of the city they were celebrating – it was the designation of Seoul as the capital of the Joseon empire. There had, after all, been inhabitants of that particular location for more than two thousand years. Seoul has existed since before the birth of Christ.
But the Joseon dynasty was the last imperial dynasty and the longest based on Confucian principles.
At the end of the Joseon, two centuries of peace, combined with its withdrawal from the world – it was called the Hermit Kingdom – gave Korea a flourishing culture which the Japanese adopted. The source of Japan’s ceramic and visual art was Chinese, but it was often Chinese translated by Korea. Immigration from China to Korea after the fall of the Ming dynasty resulted in a transfer of pottery-making skills to Koreans; through trade – and the occasional kidnapping of potters – the same skills were transferred to Japan.
The Korean potters, while enthusiastically adopting new glazes, shapes and decorative elements, rejected the bright color palette of the Chinese, as well as the use of enamels. Embracing the Confucian goals of purity and simplicity, Korean potters produced pure white pots that prefigured the aesthetics of Zen.
If geography is destiny, then Korea’s history is all about its location between China and Japan. And when the Joseon ended, it was because Japan defeated China, Korea’s long-time protector and ally. Korea became a Japanese protectorate, then finally annexed against its will.
Sadly, the modern history of Korea leaves it at war with itself. As often happens, it was the result of foreigners drawing a line on a map. For all the details see this Wikipedia entry, which explains how the US and USSR divided Korea.
* * *
This is Louisa May Alcott’s birthday – she may not have meant to, but she created a great early-model feminist. Many happy returns also to Diane Ladd and Garry Shandling.