Thursday, December 19, 2013

Music of Joseon Kingdom of Korea


“Geomungo,” a zither with six strings, is generally played while seated on the floor. The strings are plucked with a short bamboo stick.

Instruments at 1893 Chicago Expo repatriated

An hourglass-shaped drum or “Janggu”
A mandolin with four strings
Mouth-blown reed instrument called “Saenghwang” were displayed at the 1893 Chicago Exposition to represent the culture of Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910)./ Courtesy of National Gugak Center
By Do Je-hae 

Korea's first participation in the World Expo series was in 1893 in Chicago. The highlight of the Korean pavilion was a collection of instruments that were used for royal court music during the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910).

The collection comprises a range of percussion, string and wind instruments. Nine of the 10 pieces that were sent to Chicago by King Gojong (1863-1907) will return to Korea for the first time in 120 years for a two-month exhibition at the National Museum of Korea in Yongsan. The free exhibition runs from today through Dec. 1.

After being displayed at the six-month long Chicago fair, the instruments were donated to Boston's Peabody Essex Museum and have been in the U.S. since. Founded in 1799, the Peabody Essex Museum is one of the oldest museums in the U.S., and houses many cultural heritages from Korea.

"Through this exhibition, we can learn about the transformation of musical instruments throughout the Joseon Kingdom. We can also see how these instruments were received by the outside world," Ju Jae-geun, a researcher at the National Gugak Center said.

"King Gojong's delegation to Chicago consisted of 16 members, 10 of whom were musicians. This reflects the King's keen interest in introducing Korea's distinctive culture through music."

The exhibition is organized in cooperation with the National Gugak Center, which promotes “gugak” or traditional Korean music through various performing and educational activities. The museum held an opening ceremony Monday, with director of the museum and art historian Kim Young-na. Kim's 2000 dissertation covered the Korean exhibition at the Chicago fair.

Joseon's musical instruments at the Chicago Expo were the finest of their kind at the time, made from the top-quality materials and decorated with elaborate paintings.  

Traditional musical instruments are a rare presence in today's Korea, where for many people, particularly the young, the idea of a "janggu" (hourglass drum) lesson seems more foreign than a piano lesson. Many authentic traditional instruments were lost during the Japanese occupation (1910-1945) and the Korean War (1950-1953).
The Joseon pavilion at the 1893 Chicago Exposition is shown in this poster for an exhibit of traditional Korean instrumentsat the National Museum in Seoul.
The exhibition “Return after 120 years: Joseon Instruments in U.S.” will show the janggu; a mandolin with four strings; a mouth-blown reed instrument called “saenghwang”; “geomungo,” a zither with six strings; and a couple of wooden flutes, among others. They arrived in Korea last week in good condition.

Some of the instruments had Chinese influences, like the “dangbipa” which refers to a mandolin from the Tang Dynasty.

These instruments were used mostly for court music, which suffered during the mid to late Joseon period from invasions by Japan and China. But there were also some new developments in music during this period, such as “pansori” (a solo operatic performance) and “sanjo” (a solo instrumental performance).

The exhibition also shows original scores of court music and famous paintings of royal music performances.

Officially known as the World’s Columbian Exposition, the Chicago Expo was held to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World. Joseon was one of 47 countries that participated in the event.

The Joseon pavilion was tiny, compared to those of neighboring countries Japan and China. According to Kim's dissertation, it measured 899 square feet (83.5 square meters), while China’s exhibit space covered 6,390 square feet and Japan’s 39,542. The size of the pavilion was indicative of Joseon's status at the time, an unknown kingdom on the verge of collapse from pressure by surrounding foreign powers.

Despite the political circumstances, King Gojong wanted to represent his country as a nation of culture at the expo. The Joseon pavilion displayed musical instruments, ceramic arts, handicrafts and fashion items, among others. These were considered uninteresting compared to some of the technological advances that other countries had brought to their own pavilions and the Joseon pavilion failed to make an impression.

However, the pavilion has held a special meaning for historians. Experts including Kim have called the Chicago Expo "Korea's first attempt to introduce its culture and the arts on a global stage." Decades later in 1993, Korea hosted its first world expo in Daejeon, followed by the 2012 Yeosu Expo. On both occasions, the government had made a huge fuss over organizing them.

For more information on the exhibition, visit

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