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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Yangban: The Cultural Life of the Joseon Literati

Alongside the king, a class of men known collectively as the yangban governed society during the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). The term yangban refers to members of the “two orders” of civil or military officialdom. Whether his post was civil or military (the former was considered more prestigious than the latter), a yangban was, essentially, a literati. The yangban was expected to hold public office, follow the Confucian doctrine through study and self-cultivation, and help cultivate the moral standards of Joseon society. As an elite class, the yangban enjoyed many privileges and actively sought to preserve the purity and exclusivity of their group—for instance, through marriage only among members of the yangban class. It was not a monolithic group, however. There were numerous internal distinctions, and the yangban strove to maintain a hierarchical order among themselves. Toward the end of the Joseon dynasty, the grievances and protests of large numbers of discontented or “fallen” yangban, especially those residing outside of the capital city of Hanyang (present-day Seoul), would erode the core of yangban society.

A defining characteristic of the Joseon yangban was his scholarly knowledge and pursuits, specifically of the Confucian classics and Neo-Confucian thought. Numerous texts authored by members of the yangban class provide insight into the ancient and contemporary texts they studied, the new ideas they developed, how they discoursed among themselves, and how they developed government policies. Their work was invariably written in Classical Chinese, the preferred mode of writing by learned men, even after the creation of the Korean alphabet (hangeul) in 1443. Besides written documents, some of the objects most associated with, and revealing of, the cultural life of the yangban are those related to writing. In addition to the inkstone (which would be ground with water to make ink), brushes, and paper, a proper literati was expected to have an assortment of simple yet beautiful instruments, such as porcelain or wooden brush holders (11.142.1) and porcelain water droppers. These small accessories, along with refined yet unostentatious wooden furniture, would be displayed (and used) in the sarangbang, which functioned as both a study and guest-receiving room. Following strict Confucian principles, the typical elite house had separate male and female quarters; the sarangbang was the most important part of the male domain and, therefore, of the entire home.

As Confucian scholar-officials, the yangban considered themselves custodians of proper Confucian mores. An important aspect of the Confucian life was the rigorous observance of rites and rituals, particularly the four rites of capping, wedding, funeral, and ancestor worship. Different degrees of ceremony existed depending on one’s social class and whether the rites were private or official. Objects used by the court or yangban in rites and rituals—such as ancestor portraits or porcelain ritual vessels—have come down to us as art and as tangible representations of the philosophies and performances of Confucian ceremonies.

Many in the yangban class were accomplished artists, practicing calligraphy and ink painting, traditionally the two media considered most appropriate for literati. Ink monochrome paintings of bamboo, orchid, plum blossom, and chrysanthemum were especially popular among the yangban; originally associated with the four seasons, these motifs came to represent the Confucian scholar. In the latter half of the Joseon dynasty, as new and innovative modes of painting developed—including the so-called true-view (jingyeong) landscape and works incorporating Western techniques—the yangban became enthusiastic participants and patrons of art beyond the established monochrome inks. Beyond their proper, tradition-bound life, the leisure activities of the yangban were prominently captured in genre painting, a type of art that flourished during the eighteenth century. Tantalizing works by artists like Sin Yunbok (ca. 1758–after 1813), showing beautified images of the yangban frolicking with courtesans (gisaeng), provide a glimpse into a life not evidenced in the written records on Confucian ethics and mores.