If something distinguishes South Korea, is being a country of great contrasts where we met with a vibrant present in which technological development and urbanization are the order of the day, but that in some way, manages to articulate with the majestic traditional architecture and with countless rich cultural traditions resulting in a destination that many want to visit. If you are one of those who dream of walking through the palaces and temples of Seoul wearing a Hanbok or you have a fondness for Korean historical dramas, you have probably noticed how plenty of the old buildings are decorated with colorful cosmic designs that inevitably grant an impression of majesty and tranquility to those who observe them. But what exactly are these patterns that adorn the wooden surfaces, and what meaning do they hold? Who was in charge of painting them? Stay tuned to find out because the answer lies in a single word; Dancheong.
Dancheong (단청), which means “cinnabar and blue-green” in Korean, is a decorative painting technique used to adorn wooden artifacts, musical instruments, and above all, civil and religious buildings. This ancient technique that diversified until it distinguished itself from other similar art forms such as those of neighboring nations such as China, Japan, and other Asian countries due to its delicacy, bright colors, and sophistication, dates back many centuries, as evidenced by some murals decorating the interior of the king’s tombs during Goguryeo Kingdom (37 BC – 668 AD), where Buddhism as a national religion strongly contributed to its development, and Silla Kingdom (57 BC – 935 AD), where it was even used in the houses of the inhabitants. The first buildings decorated with Dancheong that are preserved correspond to the Goryeo (10th century to 14th century) and Joseon (15th century to 20th century) dynasties, being in this last period when it reached its maximum splendor, progress, and expressiveness.
We can find it on doors, ceilings, and cornices as uniform designs made up of five elemental colors that are based on the Philosophy of the Five Elements and that were obtained from minerals and clays: blue for wood and east; red for fire, and south; yellow for earth and center; white for metal and west and black for water and north. Together, these colors symbolize the desire for stability, peace, and a rewarding afterlife. Dancheong practices were conducted according to the rule of placing reddish base colors towards the lower end of buildings in parts exposed to sunlight such as pillars, and greenish and blue tones at the top in protruding corners of eaves or roofs to enhance the contrast of bright and dark and seeking to emulate the color scheme of a tree so that the building as a human creation could harmonize with surrounding nature. As for the rest, were alternated warm and cool colors, been separated by white lines to make the patterns more distinctive. A curious fact is that when painting, each artisan was in charge of a single color, so the number of artisans needed to paint was equal to the number of colors used in the design. As the techniques used were the same in all cases, there are no differences between buildings, even if they were the responsibility of different painters.
In this form of art, symmetry is essential, and a strict order is followed, ruled by a system of four patterns that are categorized by their structural characteristics and positions within the decorative composition: 1) Meoricho (머리초), which is the basic pattern, the most visible and the one that occupies the most space in buildings. It is used to decorate eaves, support beams, and corners with motifs such as feathers, pomegranates, green flowers, and water lilies. 2) Byeoljihwa (별지화), decorative paintings between two meoricho that tell stories. They are scenes in which mythological animals such as dragons, tigers, lions, and cranes appear, as well as fruits and flowers. It is never present in palaces, but it is in government buildings and temples where the scenes depict the life of Buddha and his various sutras. 3) Bidan munui (비단무늬), geometric patterns of various colors that are mainly used in temples. 4) Dandong munui (단동무늬), unique and isolated images that represent different motifs such as plants, flowers, animals, and geometric figures.
The Dancheong was a demanding process that required investment in labor and materials; this explains why it was reserved for buildings for public use; there are even records from the Joseon Dynasty of bans on painting wood in times of financial hardship to avoid extravagant spending. It was carried out for functional, decorative, and symbolic purposes, which were not considered separate, but interconnected and interdependent. Its purpose was to protect the surfaces from insects and deterioration due to weather changes, to cover the scratches on surfaces or the defects in the construction material, to give a character of dignity and majesty functioning as a visual marker of hierarchy, to wish good luck with the idea of the cosmic dual forces and the five elements and encourage people to have religious beliefs and an attitude of worship through symbols such as the three circles (earth, sky, and moon), the fish, the lotus flower and the swastika.
The skillful techniques developed for Dancheong long ago are still preserved today. Its application on building surfaces requires training and is carried out by artisans called Dancheongjang (단청장), who designed the painted patterns. Nowadays, the Dancheongjang are considered living national treasures in South Korea and are classified as part of the National Intangible Cultural Heritage by the Cultural Heritage Administration of South Korea, before most of the artists were Buddhist monks, but recently, an increasing number of ordinary people have been eager to learn the discipline ever since the government began increasing support to revive the tradition and promote Korean culture to the world around 1988 when the nation held the Olympic Games. These painters are in charge of the restoration processes, whether the entire building is repainted or just the damaged parts, which requires careful preparation of colors and sketching of patterns. A firm and strong craftsmanship spirit is the most significant aspect for being a Dancheong master considering that for an apprentice, it takes at least ten years to ace the art, and they must remain in the temples and palaces to become masters during that period.
Dancheong brings us something very particular, and that is a sense of conformity to certain traditions, but at the same time, diversity within that tradition. It’s incredible how a thing that can go unnoticed in the daily rush can be so sublime and represents something as powerful as the simple desire of Koreans to live in a beautiful, peaceful, and harmonious world. There you have it, a brief recount behind this tangible and intangible heritage that embodies the ancient Korean values and beliefs and is a delight to the eye. So, if you have the opportunity to go to Korea, don’t forget to go to places like the Jongmyeo Shrine, Jogyesa Temple, Bongeunsa Temple, Bosingak Pavilion, or any of the Grand Palaces built during the Joseon dynasty. They are some of the best places to admire this form of art. In the meantime, be sure to take a close look at your new environments and the places you frequently visit in your city; you never know what hidden history you may discover.
Written by: Laura Herrera
Edited by: Angie Salavarria