Culture of Korea

This article is about the traditional culture of Korea. For the modern culture, see contemporary culture of South Korea and contemporary culture of North Korea.

The traditional culture of Korea is shared by South Korea and North Korea, but there are regional differences. The political differences between the north and the south of the peninsula also mean that there is a different focus on specific aspects of Korean culture.


Traditional Korean arts

Traditional music

The traditional music in Korea is based on the voice. It is thought that the voice is a distinctively Korean voice, reflecting the temperament and history of Korean people. There are two kinds of traditional music: Jeongak and Minsogak.

See also: Music of Korea


Jeongak is court music and has a strong intellectual emphasis. This kind of traditional music is closely related to the upper-class, the literate. Jeongak is played at a very slow pace. Some single beats can take three seconds. The beat matches the speed of breathing rather than the heartbeat as in most Western music. As a result of this slow speed, the music feels static and mediative. Most people do not take pleasure in listening to this kind of music.

The tone of Jeongak is soft and tranquil because the traditional instruments are made of non-metallic materials. String instruments have strings made of silk rather than wire. Almost all wind instruments are made of bamboo.


Minsogak is Korea's traditional folk music and is full of expressions and emotions. This kind of traditional music is closely related to the lives of common people. In opposition to Jeongak, the music of Minsogak matches the heartbeat.

As with the Jeongak, improvisation is common in Minsogak. This is much more evident in the emotional music of Minsogak.

Traditional Korean instruments

Traditional Korean wind instruments include the piri (cylindrical oboe), taepyeongso (metal-bell shawm), daegeum (transverse flute), danso (end-blown flute), saenghwang (mouth organ) and the hun (ocarina).

Traditional string instruments include zithers such as the gayageum, geomungo, and ajaeng, and the haegeum, a two-stringed fiddle.

There is a great number of traditional percussion instruments, including the kkwaenggwari (hand-held gong), the jing (hanging gong), buk (barrel drum), janggu (hourglass drum), bak (clapper), pyeonjong (bell chimes), pyeongyeong (stone chimes), as well as the eo (tiger-shaped scraper) and the chuk (wooden box).

Characteristics of traditional Korean music

Apart from the instruments used, traditional Korean music is characterized by improvisation and the lack of breaks between movements. Pansori is a good example of the latter. A pansori performance can last for over eight hours during which a single singer performs continuously.

Rather than contrasting different speeds as it is common in Western music, most traditional Korean music begins with the slowest movement and then accelerates as the performance continues.

Traditional dance

Traditional dances have been part of Korea's culture ever since it can be remembered. The cross cultural exchanges with China and between the three Kingdoms produced a large variety of distinctive dances. There is a distinction made between native dances (hyangak jeongjae) and imported dances (dangak jeongjae) which refers to dances imported from China.

As with music, there is a distinction between court dances and folk dances. Common court dances are jeongjaemu performed at banquets, and ilmu. Ilmu are line dances performed at Confucian rituals. Jeongjaemu is divided into native dances (hyangak jeongjae) and imported forms (dangak jeongjae). Ilmu are divided into civil dance (munmu) and military dance (mumu).

Folk dances are commonly divided into religious dances which are led by monks and secular dances which are performed by the ordinary people. Religious dances include all the performances at shamanistic rites (gut). Secular dances include both group dances and individual performances.

Traditional choreography of court dances is reflected in many contemporary productions.

Folk games

Many folk games are associated with shamanistic rites and have been handed down from one generation to the next. Three rites are important with regards to folk games: Yeonggo, Dongmaeng and Mucheon. Yeonggo is a drumming performance to invoke spirits. Dongmaeng is a harvest ceremony, while Mucheon is dances to the heaven. These performances were refined during the period of the Three Kingdoms and games were added.

Ssireum is a form of traditional wrestling. Other traditional games include pitching arrows into a pot (tuho) and a game of stick-tossing (jeopo). There are also stone fights (seokjeon), swing riding (geune tagi), masked dance drama, and a ball game (gyeokgu).

The days during which the games were held varied between regions, kingdoms and times, but always concurrent with other festivals.

Korean paintings

The earliest paintings found on the Korean peninsula are petroglyphs of prehistoric times. With the arrival of Buddhism from China, different techniques were introduced. These quickly established themselves the mainstream techniques, but indigenous techniques still survived.

There is a tendency towards naturalism with subjects such as realistic landscapes, flowers and birds being particularly popular. Ink is the most common material used, and it is painted on mulberry paper or silk.

In the 18th century indigenous techniques were advanced, particularly in calligraphy and seal engraving.

Korean crafts

There is a unique set of handicrafts produced in Korea. Most of the handicrafts are created for a particular everyday use, often giving priority to the practical use rather than aesthetics. Traditionally, metal, wood, fabric, laquerware and earthenware were the main materials used, but later glass, leather or paper have sporadically been used.

Ancient handicrafts, such as red and black pottery, share similarities with pottery of Chinese cultures along the Yellow River. The relics found of the Bronze Age, however, are distinctive and more elaborate.

Many sophisticated and elaborate handicrafts have been excavated, including gilt crowns, patterned pottery, pots or ornaments. During the Goryeo period the use of bronze was advanced. Brass, that is copper with one third zinc, has been a particularly popular material. The dynasty, however, is renowned for its use of celadon ware.

During the Joseon period popular handicrafts were made of porcelain and decorated with blue painting. Woodcraft was also advanced during that period. This led to more sophisticated pieces of furniture, including wardrobes, chests, tables or drawers.


The use of earthenware on the Korean peninsula goes back to the Neolithic Age. The history of Korean Ceramics is long and includes both Korean pottery a later development after the traditional use of coils and hammered clay to create early votive and sculptural artefacts. During the Three Kingdoms period, pottery was advanced in Silla. The pottery was fired using a deoxidizing flame, which caused the distinctive blue grey celadon colour. The surface was embossed with various geometrical patterns.

In the Goryeo period jade green celadon ware became more popular. In the 12th century sophisticated methods of inlaying were invented, allowing more elaborate decorations in different colours.

White porcelain became popular in the 15th century. It soon overtook celadon ware. White porcelain was commonly painted or decorated with copper. With the Japanese invasion in Korea in the 16th century, many leading potters were kidnapped to Japan where they originated the creation of Japanese ceramics. Many leading Japanese pottery families today can trace their art and ancestry to these Korean potters.

In the mid Joseon period (late 17th century) blue-and-white porcelain became popular. Designs were painted in cobalt blue on white porcelain. With the growth of Japan's hegemony on the peninsula towards the end of the 19th century the tradition of porcelain largely declined in favour of Japanese imports.

Traditional Korean lifestyle

Traditional houses

Traditional farmer's house; Folk Village, Seoul
Traditional farmer's house; Folk Village, Seoul

Sites of residence are traditionally selected using geomancy. It is believed that any topographical configuration generates invisible forces of good or ill (gi). The negative and positive energies (yin and yang) must be brought into balance.

A house should be built against a hill and face south to receive as much sunlight as possible. This orientation is still preferred in modern Korea. Geomancy also influences the shape of the building, the direction they face and the material they are built of.

Traditional house of a scholar, Gangneung
Traditional house of a scholar, Gangneung

Traditional Korean houses can be structured into an inner wing (anchae) and an outer wing (sarangchae). The individual layout largely depends on the region and the wealth of the family. Whereas aristocrats used the outer wing for receptions, poorer people kept cattle in the sarangchae. The wealthier a family, the larger the house. However, it was forbidden to any family except for the king to have a residence of more than 99 kan. A kan is the distance between two pillars used in traditional houses.

Another traditional house
Another traditional house

The inner wing normally consisted of a living room, a kitchen and a wooden-floored central hall. More rooms may be attached to this. Poorer farmers would not have any outer wing. Floor heating (ondol) has been used in Korea for centuries. The main building materials are wood, clay, tile, stone and thatch. Because wood and clay were the most common materials used in the past not many old buildings have survived into present times.


Missing image

The principles of temple gardens and private gardens are the same. They generally resemble gardens in China. This is so, because gardening in East Asia is heavily influenced by Taoism. Taoism emphasizes nature and mystery, paying great attention to the details of the layout. In contrast to Japanese and Chinese gardens, traditional Korean gardens avoid artificialities.

The Lotus pond is an important feature in the Korean garden. If there is a natural stream, often a pavilion is built next to it, allowing the pleasure of watching the water. Terraced flower beds are a common feature in traditional Korean gardens.

The Poseokjeong site near Gyeongju was built in the Silla period. It highlights the importance of water in traditional Korean gardens. The garden of Poseokjeong features an abalone-shaped watercourse. During the last days of the Silla kingdom, the king's guest would sit along the watercourse and chat while wine cups were floated during banquets.

Traditional dress

Missing image
A mannequin wearing a modern hanbok.

The traditional dress known as hanbok has been worn since ancient times. The hanbok consists of either trousers or a skirt and a robe. The traditional hat is called gwanmo and special meaning is attached to this piece of clothing.

According to social status, Koreans used to dress differently, making clothing an important mark of social rank. Impressive, but sometimes cumbersome, costumes were worn by the ruling class and the royal family. Jewellery was also used to distance themselves from the ordinary people.

Common people were often restricted to undyed plain clothes. This everyday dress underwent relatively few changes during the Joseon period. The basic everyday dress was shared by everyone, but distinctions were drawn in official and ceremonial clothes.

During the winter people wore cotton-wadded dresses. Fur was also common. Because ordinary people normally wore undyed materials, the people were sometimes referred to as the white-clad folk.

Hanbok are classified according to their purposes: everyday dress, ceremonial dress and special dress. Ceremonial dresses are worn on formal occasions, including a child's first birthday, a wedding or a funeral. Special dresses are made for purposes such as shamans, officials.

Today the hanbok is still sometimes worn during formal occasions. The everyday use of the dress, however, has been lost.

Essential recipes

Rice is the staple food of Korea. Having been an almost exclusively agricultural country until recently, the essential recipes in Korea are shaped by this experience. The main crops in Korea are rice and beans, but many supplementary crops are used. Seafood is important, given that the country is by the sea on three sides.

Fermented recipes have been developed in early times. This includes pickled fish and pickled vegetables. This kind of food provides essential proteins and vitamins during the winter.

A number of menus have been developed. These can be divided into ceremonial foods and ritual foods. Ceremonial foods are used when a child reaches 100 days, at the first birthday, at a wedding ceremony, and the sixtieth birthday. Ritual foods are used at funerals, at ancestral rites, shaman's offerings and as temple food.

Temple food is distinguished as it does not use the common five strong-flavoured ingredients of Korean cuisine (garlic, spring onion, wild rocambole, leek and ginger), nor meat.

For ceremonies and rituals rice cakes are vital. The colouring of the food and the ingredients of the recipes are matched according to yin and yang, trying to reach a balance.

Today, traditional court cuisine is available to the whole population. In the past vegetable dishes were essential, but meat consumption has increased. Traditional dishes include ssambap, bulgogi, sinseollo, kimchi, bibimbap and gujeolpan.

(see also: Kimchi)

The art of tea

Tea in Korea dates back over 2000 years. It was part of a number of worship recipes, hoping that the good scents would reach the heavenly gods. Tea was introduced in Korea, when Buddhism was introduced from China, and later gave rise to the Korean Tea Ceremony.

Originally tea was used for ceremonial purposes or as part of traditional herbal medicine. Green tea, as it is used in China and Japan, is not the only kind of tea drunk in Korea. A great number of teas made of fruits, leaves, seeds or roots are enjoyed. Five tastes of tea are distinguished in Korea: sweet, sour, acidic, bitter and salty.

Festivals of the lunar calendar

The Korean lunar calendar is divided into 24 turning points (jeolgi), each lasting 15 about days. The lunar calendar was the timetable for the agrarian society in the past, but is vanishing in the modern Korean lifestyle.

Traditional festivals, however, are still celebrated according to the lunar calendar. The biggest of which is the New Year's Day (gujeong). Other important festivals include the first full moon (jeongwol daeboreum), the spring festival (dano) and the harvest festival (chuseok).

Older generations still celebrate their birthdays according to the lunar calendar.

Traditional holidays

Festival Significance Events Date (lunar) food
Seollal Lunar New Year's Day An ancestral service is offered before the grave of the ancestors, New Year's greetings are exchanged with family, relatives and neighbours; bows to elders (sebae). Day 1 of Month 1 sliced rice cake in soup (tteokguk), honey cakes (yakwa).
Daeboreum First full moon Talisman burning to ward evil spirits (aengmagi taeugi), bonfires (daljip taegi) Day 15 of Month 1 rice boiled with five grains (ogokbap), nut eating (bureom), wine drinking (gwibalgisul)
Junghwajeol Start of farming season Housecleaning, coming of age ceremony, fishermen's shaman rite (yeongdeunggut) Day 1 of Month 2 stuffed pine-flavoured rice cakes (songpyeon)
Samjinnal Migrant swallows return Leg fighting, fortune telling Day 3 of Month 3 Azalea wine (dugyonju), pancake (dungyeon hwajeon)
Hansik Visit to ancestral graves visit to ancestral grave Day 105 after winter solstice cold food only: mugwort cake (ssuktteok), mugwort dumplings (ssukdanja), mugwort soup (ssuktang)
Dano Spring festival swinging, wrestling Day 5 of Month 5 rice cake with herbs (surichitteok), herring soup (junchiguk)
Yudu Water greeting Water greeting, washing hair to wash away bad luck Day 15 of Month 6 Five coloured noodles (yudumyeon), rice dumplings (sudan)
Chilseok Worship the Gods of the Seven Stars Worship the Gods of the Seven Stars (Great Dipper), rite praying for rain Day 7 of Month 7 wheat pancake (milijeonbyeong), rice cake with red beans (sirutteok)
Baekjung Worship to Buddha Worship to Buddha Day 15 of Month 7 mixed rice cake (seoktanbyeong)
Chuseok Harvest festival visit to ancestral grave, offering earliest rice grain (olbyeosinmi) Day 15 of Month 8 pine flavoured rice cake stuffed with chestnuts, sesame or beans (songpyeon), taro soup (torantang)
Jungyangjeol Celebrating autumn Celebrating autumn with poetry and painting, composing poetry, enjoying nature Day 9 of Month 9 chrysanthemum pancake (gukhwajeon), roe (eoran), honey citron tea (yujacheong)
Seotdal Geumeum New Year's Eve Staying up all night long with all doors open to receive ancestral spirits Day 31 of Month 12 mixed rice with vegetables (bibimbap), bean power rice cakes (injeolmi), traditional biscuits (hangwa)

There is also a number of regional festivals, celebrated according to the lunar calendar.

Board and card games

Missing image
Yut board game

There are a number of board games played in Korea. Baduk is the Korean name for what is known as Go in English. This game is particularly popular with middle-aged and elderly men. It has a similar status as has chess in Western cultures. There is a Korean version of chess called Janggi. It is based on an old version of Chinese chess. Yut is a popular family board game enjoyed throughout the country.

Minhato is a card game played with East Asian flower cards (called hato in Korea). The objective of Minhato is to capture scoring cards, and to collect certain sets of cards by capturing these. Hulla is a Korean version of rummy. Golpae is the Korean name for Chinese dominoes as it is traditionally played.

World Heritage sites of Korea

There are a number of designated UNESCO World Heritage sites in Korea.

Jongmyo Shrine

The Jongmyo Shrine was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1995. The shrine is dedicated to the spirits of the ancestors of the royal family of the Joseon Dynasty. It is heavily influenced by Confucian tradition.

When it was built in 1394 is was thought to be one of the longest buildings in Asia, if not the longest. There are 19 memorial tablets of kings and 30 of their queens, placed in 19 chambers. The shrine was burnt to the ground during the Japanese invasion in 1592, but rebuilt by 1608.


Changdeokgung is also known as the palace of illustrious virtue. It was built in 1405, burnt to the ground during the Japanese invasion in 1592 and reconstructed in 1609. For more than 300 year Changdeokgung was the site of the royal seat. It is located in Seoul

The surroundings and the palace itself are well matched. Some of the trees behind the palace are now over 300 years old. Changdeokgung was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1997.


Seokguram Grotto
Seokguram Grotto

Bulguksa is also known as the temple of the Buddha Land and home of the Seokguram Grotto. The temple was constructed in 751 and consists of a great number of halls. There are two pagodas placed in the temple.

The Seokguram grotto is a hermitage of the Bulguksa temple. It is a granite sanctuary. In the main chamber a Buddha statue is seated. The temple and the grotto were added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1995.

Tripitaka Koreana and Haeinsa

Haeinsa is a large temple in the South Gyeongsang province. It was built in 802 and home to the Tripitaka Koreana wood blocks. The carving of these wood blocks was initiated in 1236 and only completed in 1251. The wood blocks are testimony to the pious devotion of king and his people.

The word Tripitaka is Sanskrit and stands for three baskets, referring to the Buddhist laws of aesthetics. The Tripitaka Koreana consists of 81'258 wood blocks. Amazingly there is no trace of errata or omission on any of the wood blocks. The Tripitaka Koreana is widely considered as the most beautiful and accurate Buddhist canon carved in Chinese characters.

The site was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1995.


Hwaseong is the fortification of the city Suwon south of Seoul in South Korea. Its construction was completed in 1796 and it features all the latest features of Korean fortification known at the time.

The fortress covers both flat land and hilly terrain, something rarely seen in East Asia. The walls are 5.52 kilometres long and there are 41 extant facilities along the perimeter. These include four cardinal gates, a floodgate, four secret gates and a beacon tower.

Hwaseong was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1997.

Sites of Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa

The sites of Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa were added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage in 2000. These sites are home to prehistoric graveyards which contain hundreds of different megaliths. These megaliths are gravestones which were created in the 1st century B.C. out of large blocks of rock. Megaliths can be found around the globe, but nowhere in such a concentration as in the sites of Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa.

Gyeongju Area

The historic area around Gyeongju was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage in 2000. Gyongju was the capital of the Silla kingdom. The tombs of the Silla rulers can still be found in the centre of the city. These tombs took the shape of rock chambers buried in an earthen hill, sometimes likened with the pyramids. The area around Gyeongju, in particular on the Namsan mountain, is scattered with hundreds of remains from the Silla period. Poseokjeong is one of the most famous of these sites, but there is a great number of Korean Buddhist art, sculptures, reliefs, pagodas and remains of temples and palaces mostly built in the 7th and 10th century.

Complex of Koguryo Tombs

The Complex of Goguryeo Tombs lies in North Korea. In July 2004 it became the first UNESCO World Heritage site north of the 38th parallel.

The site consists of 63 individual tombs from the later Koguryo kingdom, located in Pyongyang, Pyong'an South Province, and Nampo City, Hwanghae South Province. This kingdom was one of the strongest in the north east of China and the Korean peninsula between the 5th and 7th century AD. The kingdom was founded in China around 32 BC, and the capital was transferred to Pyongyang in AD 427.

See also

fr:Culture de la Core du Sud


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