The Manchu invasions of the Korean peninsula and the subsequent establishment of the Qing dynasty in China during the first half of the seventeenth century shape the Joseon elite’s view of its own culture. Scholars and officials increasingly take an interest in Korea’s history, geography, agriculture, literature, and art. The new strain of research, now commonly termed silhak, or “practical learning,” is in vogue through much of the two centuries between 1600 and 1800. It is manifested in practical legislation that seeks to control and enhance the government’s bureaucratic workings and the lives of the general population, especially the peasants.
Culturally, a similar strain of interest in things Korean finds expression in works of art that explore native vernacular, geography, and social customs. Fiction written in hangeul (Korean writing) explores nontraditional themes that fall outside of yangban (literati) interests, and are often authored by people of the lower classes. Paintings of the eighteenth century depicting famous sites in Korea and the daily lives of people—known as “true-view” landscape painting and genre painting—evidence the vibrant and “Korean” artistic expressions of this period. Ceramic production, having suffered setbacks following major Japanese and Manchu invasions of the peninsula, reemerges with fresh creativity by the second half of the seventeenth century and through the eighteenth century.
Attention to Korea’s history and culture does not mean indifference to foreign stimuli. On the contrary, there is enduring, if selective, interest in and relations with the world outside, alongside discoveries of native potentials. Diplomatic and cultural exchanges with China and Japan continue, despite ambivalence and mistrust, and contribute significantly to shaping Joseon culture. Sporadic and largely accidental contact with the West sparks the two worlds’ awareness of each other.