Korea, 1400–1600 A.D.

  • Bowl
  • Wine cup with ear handles
  • Evening bell from mist-shrouded temple (left); Autumn moon over Lake Dongting (right)
  • Flask-shaped bottle with decoration of peonies
  • Large jar with decoration of peonies
  • Wild Geese Descending to Sandbar
  • Stationery box with decoration of peony scrolls
  • Grapevine in the Wind
  • Gathering of Government-Officials
  • Brahma with attendants and musicians


1400 A.D.

1450 A.D.

Joseon dynasty, 1392–1910

1450 A.D.

1500 A.D.

Joseon dynasty, 1392–1910

1500 A.D.

1550 A.D.

Joseon dynasty, 1392–1910

1550 A.D.

1600 A.D.

Joseon dynasty, 1392–1910


In an attempt to distance themselves from the former Goryeo court and rejuvenate the country, the rulers of the new Joseon dynasty (1392–1910) severely curtail the practice of Buddhism and embrace Neo-Confucianism as the official state ideology. The systematic repression of Buddhist institutions, which were associated with the fall of the Goryeo dynasty, and the withdrawal of official patronage of the religion leads to a decline in the number of Buddhist adherents and the production of Buddhist sculpture and painting. The commitment to Neo-Confucian educational and governmental policies, based on the influential school of Confucian philosophy and statecraft in China established by the Southern Song scholar Zhu Xi (1130–1200), is especially widespread among the newly influential yangban, or literati class who come to dominate both the civil and military branches of government.

After the establishment of the Joseon dynasty, the Korean ceramics industry is reinvigorated, and white porcelain as well as buncheong wares are produced. While porcelain will continue to be manufactured throughout the dynasty, the production of buncheong ceases at the end of the sixteenth century, due in part to the devastating invasions of the peninsula led by the Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–1598).

Key Events

  • 1400–1418

    During the reigns of Taejo (Yi Sông-gye; r. 1392–98), founder of the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), and his fifth son, Taejong (Yi Pang-wôn; r. 1400–1418), increasingly stringent restrictions are placed on the Buddhist church and many of its properties are confiscated as well. These measures effectively undercut the societal influence of both the Buddhist hierarchy and the old aristocracy, thereby clearing the way for the new hereditary elite that will dominate Korea socially, culturally, and politically throughout the half-millennium of Joseon rule. This new elite—known collectively as yangban (officials of the “two orders”)—consists of the literati, or educated, class that over time is able to monopolize civil and military posts in the national bureaucracy. Success in the civil service examinations constitutes the primary gateway to the bureaucracy and, as in contemporary China, requires strict adherence to a Neo-Confucian perspective on the part of the candidate. Official position within the bureaucracy, especially the civil order, which is more highly regarded than the military order, confers prestige and financial security within Joseon society. Since yangban families are exempt from the corvée as well as from the payment of taxes, their male children have greater opportunity to obtain the thorough Neo-Confucian education necessary for success in the civil service examinations, which are nominally open to all freeborn males.

    In all aspects of their life, the yangban cultivate such Confucian virtues as simplicity and frugality. This restraint is expressed, for example, in the furnishings and implements of the sarangbang, or study, the domain of the male head of a yangban household. Objects in the sarangbang—such as writing implements, ceramics, calligraphy, and paintings—exemplify the scholar’s social and political status as well as his moral standards and refined aesthetic sensibilities.

  • late 14th–mid-16th century

    Landscape painting, practiced by professional painters as well as the literati, develops in a new direction in the early Joseon period. Drawing on the native painting tradition of the preceding Goryeo dynasty (918–1392) and adapting recently introduced styles from China’s Ming dynasty (1368–1644), Korean artists begin to produce landscapes with more distinctly Korean characteristics. The preeminent landscapist of the time is the court artist An Gyeon (active ca. 1440–70). His style, inspired by Chinese monumental landscapes, particularly those of the Northern Song master Guo Xi (ca. 1000–ca. 1090) and his followers, exerts tremendous influence in his own time and will continue to do so in later generations.

  • late 14th–late 16th century

    The Neo-Confucian orientation of the early Joseon court and bureaucracy has important repercussions for the dynasty’s foreign relations. The emphasis on hierarchy basic to this philosophy prompts Korean kings to regard loyalty (the concept of sadae, or “serving the great”) as a positive virtue in their relations with the emperors of China’s Ming dynasty. The Joseon government dispatches regular official embassies to Ming China each year—to offer felicitations at the New Year, congratulate the Ming emperor on his birthday, honor the birthday of the crown prince, and mark the death of a ruler and the succession to the throne of a new emperor. While their main purpose is political, these embassies stimulate trade and cultural exchange. Korea exports to China such items as horses, ginseng, fur, and ramie cloth, and imports porcelain ware, silk cloth, books, and medicines.

    The continued threat posed by Japanese marauders, although diminished by the end of the preceding Goryeo dynasty, leads King Sejong (r. 1418–50) in 1419 to order an attack against the island of Tsushima, off the southeast coast of the Korean peninsula, which serves as the base for the marauders. The Joseon government subsequently agrees to grant the Japanese limited trading privileges, opening three ports to them along the southeast coast. Trade relations are severed in 1510 following a Japanese uprising in the ports, but resume in 1512 under a new, more restrictive treaty. Among the Korean articles exported to Japan during this period are rice, cotton, hemp, ramie cloth, inlaid lacquerware, and porcelain, as well as Buddhist sculptures and sutras and Confucian texts. The Japanese in exchange provide copper, tin, and sulfur along with luxury items for the elite Korean consumer such as spices and medicines.

  • late 14th–17th century

    Although officially out of favor, Buddhism remains the chief religion among upper-class women and the common people, and continues to be an important cultural force in Korean society. Buddhist images, some cast in bronze but many carved in wood and then gilded or lacquered, are produced for private devotion as well as placement in temples and monasteries. Buddhist paintings of the Joseon period consist mainly of murals and large hanging scrolls. In contrast to Goryeo Buddhist paintings, they tend to be brighter in color and less refined in execution. The use of hemp or linen as a painting medium, in place of the more costly silk used during the Goryeo period, likewise reflects the change in patronage.

  • ca. 1400–1450

    Korean potters, using techniques adopted from the Jingdezhen kilns in southeastern China, begin to produce white porcelain (baekja). High-quality, undecorated white porcelain ware is favored by the Joseon court for both daily use and ritual ceremonies. According to the Yongjae chonghwa, the collected writings of the Joseon scholar-official Seong Hyeon (1439–1504), white porcelain is used exclusively in the royal household of King Sejong (r. 1418–50). The preference for this ware at Sejong’s court may be attributed in part to the influence of the Chinese Yongle emperor (Chengzu; r. 1403–24), whose fondness for white porcelain is well known. However, its popularity among the Korean ruling elite and aristocracy also reflects the austere tastes associated with Neo-Confucianism, the official ideology of the new dynasty.

    The best grade of porcelain, reserved for the use of the court and aristocracy, is manufactured primarily at the official kilns called bunwon in Gwangju-gun, Gyeonggi Province, near modern-day Seoul. These kilns are relocated every few decades in order to ensure a constant supply of firewood, enormous quantities of which are required to produce the high temperatures (in excess of 1200°C) needed for firing porcelain.

  • 15th–16th century

    Buncheong ware, the development of which is a result of early Joseon potters’ attempts to adapt and expand upon the Goryeo celadon tradition, is produced throughout much of the Korean peninsula during this period. The modern term buncheong (powder green) refers to stoneware made of a grayish clay that is covered with white slip and coated with a transparent glaze. The glaze, which contains a small amount of iron oxide, turns a bluish green color when fired. Potters of this distinctive ware employ a variety of decorative techniques, including stamping, inlay, incising, sgraffito, and underglaze iron-brown painting. Buncheong wares, especially tea bowls, are widely appreciated for their aesthetic appeal in Japan, where the great tea master Sen no Rikyū (1522–1591) helps to create a taste for their rustic forms and bold designs.

    The production of buncheong ceases at the end of the sixteenth century with the growing popularity of porcelain and the devastating invasions of the peninsula led by the Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–1598), which results in the forced relocation of Korean potters to Japan.

  • 1446

    The reign of King Sejong (r. 1418–50) marks the cultural high point of the early Joseon dynasty. One of Sejong’s most notable achievements—motivated largely by the intent to further the education of the entire Korean populace—is the introduction in 1446 of the indigenous Korean writing system hunmin jeongeum (proper sounds to instruct the people), known today as hangeul. This simple phonetic alphabet is perfectly designed for the writing of spoken Korean and, as such, is an ideal medium for the many who, unlike the yangban males, have neither the opportunity nor reason to become proficient in the more difficult Chinese writing system, initially adopted by the Koreans between the first century B.C. and the second century A.D.

  • second half of 15th century

    Blue-and-white ware—porcelain decorated with a design painted in underglaze cobalt blue—is manufactured on the Korean peninsula by the second half of the fifteenth century. Records indicate that domestic cobalt oxide, which is less costly than that imported from China, is successfully employed in Korea in the decoration of porcelain for the first time in 1465. The technique of underglaze iron-brown painting also appears in the fifteenth century.

  • 1592–1598

    The greater prestige accorded civil over military officials in the early Joseon period, attributable in part to the Joseon rulers’ promotion of Neo-Confucian values, engenders a chronic decline in the government’s ability to protect itself against aggression from without or insurrection from within. By the end of the sixteenth century, after many years of neglect, the strength and preparedness of Korea’s military forces have seriously deteriorated. It is at this juncture that in Japan the military leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–1598) brings centuries of internecine war to an end and assumes overall command of the archipelago’s battle-hardened armed forces. Faced by the potential peril posed by a vast and idle military, Hideyoshi conceives the notion of conquering Ming China and therefore requests that the Joseon court allow his armies free passage through the Korean peninsula. Both common sense and Neo-Confucian loyalty to the Ming argue against Korean acquiescence, with the result that, in 1592 and again in 1597, devastating Japanese attacks are loosed against the peninsula. Striking from the south, the first attack sweeps north as far as Pyeongyang (in present-day North Korea), but the second is stopped before advancing half that distance.

    The Joseon court’s loyalty to the Ming is rewarded by the dispatch of Chinese armies to Korea, where they live off the land and frequently join in the fight against the Japanese. Between the initial onslaught of Japanese troops in 1592 and their final withdrawal in 1598, the invaders maintain themselves within massive fortifications erected along the peninsula’s southern coast while they, too, live off the backs of the Korean peasantry.

    During the bitter years of Japanese occupation, large areas of southern Korea are thoroughly pillaged. Among the vast quantities of booty borne off to the Japanese archipelago are many treasures plundered from Buddhist monasteries, including paintings, sculptures, stone lanterns, and large bronze temple bells. Numbers of Korean potters are also carried off to Japan, where masters of the increasingly popular tea ceremony (chanoyu) have acquired a profound appreciation for Korea’s buncheong ceramics. The labor of skilled Korean potters at Japanese kilns not only benefits the production of high-fired, glazed stonewares in the Kyushu region, but also significantly hastens the development of porcelain production in the archipelago.


“Korea, 1400–1600 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=08&region=eak (October 2002)