Sun, Moon and Five Peak Screens

In an earlier issue of the Hong Kong Medical Journal1, I highlighted and explored the art, philosophy, and iconography of Korean screens in the Neo-Confucian Choson dynasty court. This issue’s cover illustration is an example of a six-fold screen and has a highly stylised scene of five craggy peaks, a full moon, a burning red sun, and two fast-flowing streams crashing down into foaming water, all of which are flanked by a pair of pine trees. The palette is arrestingly bright— a strong lapis blue, jade green, and iron red—and cannot fail to catch the onlooker’s eye. Recent research by Dr Yi Song-mi, Professor of Art History at the Academy of Korean Studies in Seoul, has explored the significance of such screens; however, many facts about them remain blurred and uncertain.2

These screens were the most critical regalia in the throne hall. In the words of another researcher: “This highly formalized landscape manifests the Choson political cosmology based on the Theory of Yin and Yang and the Five Elements; it may also represent the land of Korea blessed by Heaven, symbolized by the sun and moon portrayed in absolute balance. When the king sat in front of this screen, he literally became the central point of the composition and thus the pivotal point from which all force emanated and to which all returned. Thus, imbued with sacred power, the screen manifests a politico-cosmology as evidence of Heaven’s favor, mandate, and continued protection of the ruler.”3 There is no documentary evidence for this theory, however. Screens were also used behind portraits of past kings in the ancestral halls. In paintings depicting court scenes, it was taboo to portray the king himself; instead, he was represented by the screen and his courtiers were shown paying homage to this focal point.

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Screen production was overseen by the office of superintendency which was set up for special events such as weddings, funerals, and birthday celebrations. Although the office was only temporary, handwritten records were kept, and they provide an invaluable insight into court proceedings. Screens have also been cross-referenced to the records of the Bureau of Painting. The first reference to a screen being used in the palace portrait hall is in 1688; thereafter, there are numerous citations. Whereas most of the screens referred to in the records had either eight or four panels, the 1900 record mentions one six-panel screen in addition to seven four-panel screens. Screens were crucial to court ceremonial rites and even royal portraits included them. The only portrait featuring a screen that is on display today is an 1872 copy of an earlier portrait of King T’aejo in the Kyonggi-jon Hall in Chonju, North Cholla province, from where the King’s family originated.

Dr Yi has attempted to trace the origin and iconography of the screens, and to establish whether they were in use from the very beginning of the Choson dynasty, during the reign of King T’aejo (1392-1398). We know from palace records that screens were constantly being produced. However, only two dozen or so still exist today. Not one extant one has been signed by an artist and there is not one document alluding to the iconography of the Five Peaks. It has been suggested that the practice of using the Five Peaks screen was established by Chong To-jon, the scholarofficial who was instrumental in adopting Neo- Confucianism as the state creed. He used the screen as part of the overall iconographical scheme for the design of the Choson palace architecture and its interior decoration at the beginning of the dynasty in 1392. However, a 16th century painting entitled “The martial arts performance at Soch’ong-dae in the reign of King Myongjong” (Myongjong reigned from 1545 through to 1567) has no screen behind the throne. A 19th century copy does. Dr Yi proposes a hypothesis that perhaps the practice was established after the Hideyoshi invasion of 1592 as a reaffirmation of the dynasty’s power. The Kyonggi-jon Hall was completely burned down during the invasion and was not rebuilt until 1614. King T’aejo’s portrait is recorded as having been rescued and reinstalled in the new building.

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A 1748 album leaf shows a Screen of Five Peaks behind the throne but in appreciably more muted colours than the cover example. Dr Yi explains this by the introduction of aniline dye pigments which were referred to as ‘western’ colours. An 1874 record forbids their use and indicates that they reached Korea soon after their production in Britain. Records dating to 1900 reveal that they were nevertheless in full use at court. There is also a reference to a “model for painting the Screen of the Five Peaks”, which would account for the high degree of stylisation in the extant copies. Apparently, the screens were also copied on a much smaller scale and used for private decoration in homes towards the end of the dynasty (1910), indicating a thematic exchange between palace and folk art.

While the true iconography of the screens has not been emphatically solved, the study of these highly decorative works of art has added a little to the knowledge of the social history of Choson Korea. The screens are evidence of the firm belief in the central royal power and a reverence for the royal ancestors. Perhaps the lack of any explanation of the significance of the Five Peaks is because it was already well understood by the onlookers. We, today, are ignorant of their true meaning, but this by no means diminishes their powerful radiance.

  1. Chadwick A. Sun, moon, and immortal peaches. HKMJ 1996;2: 234-5. []
  2. Yi SM. The screen of the Five Peaks of the Choson dynasty. Oriental Art 1996/1997;XLII/4:13-23. []
  3. Kim HN. Exploring eighteenth century courts arts. In: Korean arts of the eighteenth century: splendor and simplicity. New York: Asia Society Galleries, 1993:40-1. []
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