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Korean Garden Culture

by Min Jung December 10, 2021

Aesthetics of the Korean Garden

Traditional Korean gardens were constructed smaller than those in China or Japan. The basic principle of garden making was to follow the lay of the land. Koreans tried to minimize artificiality and reveal the natural beauty through their designs. In a letter to a friend, the renowned writer Bak Jiwon (1737–1805) compares ideal gardens to the calligraphic works of Wang Xizhi (321–361; alt. 303–36). He states, “One should lay out his garden with trees and flowers in as refined a manner as that used by Wang Xizhi to write characters.” In his cursive calligraphic works, the size of each character and the spacing between them were uneven yet still proper. Likewise, trees should not be planted in a uniform pattern but spontaneously.

Yi Sibaek (1581–1660) was a state councilor who served King Hyojong (r. 1649–1659). He had in his garden a rare peony, which was imported from Luoyang, a city in China famous for its peonies. When the King sent a man to get the plant for the royal garden, Yi put on his official attire and stepped out into his garden. He dug out the plant and broke its stems. He said, “When the country is in a precarious situation, how could the king seek a flower, but not a wise official? I could not stand myself if I were to try and win the king’s favor with this flower, and in so doing drive the country to ruin.” Having heard of this, the king repented.

During the early to middle period of the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910), people did not take much interest in gardening or floriculture as a hobby due to the Confucian notion that seeking amusement in things would be harmful for achieving one’s moral development. Even if they planted flowers in gardens, they preferred flowers that were symbolic of Confucian virtues, such as the “Four Gentlemen,” i.e., flowering plums, orchids, chrysanthemums, and bamboos. This trend did not change until the middle of the eighteenth century when gardening enjoyed unprecedented popularity. Centered around the capital (modern Seoul), floriculture and gardening suddenly became popular.

Jeong Yakyong (1762–1836), a leading figure of Silhak, often emphasized the importance of gardens and gardening. He commented that one should contribute to the family livelihood by cultivating fruit trees and specialty crops while at the same time following the taste for a gentleman’s life by growing flowers in a garden. He once wrote to a disciple, “A family would thrive if they dug up their rice field to make a lotus pond. A family would struggle to make ends meet if they turned their lotus pond into a rice field.” What he meant was that cultivating moral virtues through floricultural activities was more important than profit seeking.

In another essay, he wrote, “Living deep in a mountain valley with nothing to do, I observe that flowers bloom and wither. This is enough to gain an insight into the world.” For him, floriculture was about finding the principle of life. He also expounded on growing peonies during his exile. While observing the flowers, a symbol of wealth and fame, he compared its life cycle to that of a government official. Instead of envying someone in high career, he pondered the transience of worldly success, and consoled himself in his exile. This time gardening was a source of energy that lifted him up in a difficult situation and showed him the significance of life. Because of this, he grew flowers wherever he stayed, trying to find the deepest meaning of life hidden within them. In his poems, he expressed the enlightenment he received from nature.

The chrysanthemum was his most beloved flower. He grew eighteen varieties of them in pots in his yard. When the flowers were in bloom, he invited friends to come and appreciate them. The highlight of the gathering was watching the play of shadows the flowers threw at night. He and his friends would place potted chrysanthemums, one by one, on a table in front of a blank wall and from various distances and angles directed light from their lanterns at them to enjoy the changing shadows. This pastime was widely known as a way to appreciate exquisite scenes. He and his guests would gather to compose and recite poems about flowers. Moreover, whenever they heard there were beautiful blooms in someone’s garden, they would rush to look at them and hold a poetry gathering.

Painting of Flower and Vessel

Jo Seokjin (1853–1920)

© Jeonju National Museum

Horticultural Craze in the Eighteenth Century

Gardening came into vogue in the eighteenth century and was a cultural phenomenon that defined the taste of the literati of the time. They were mad about flowers, each vying to plant the most spectacular flowers in his garden. They also collected books about floriculture. This craze was a leisure activity they could share with one another. Amateur florists in the urban area soon became professional, and numerous botanical books were published. This was an enthusiastic and even obsessive pastime. This craze, in a sense, can be understood as the effort of urban elites to pursue well-being and to improve their quality of life.

This pursuit spurred the emergence of flower enthusiasts and botanical literature. Both had also existed in the earlier Joseon period. Kang Huian (1418–1464), for example, wrote Yanghwa sorok (A little treatise on floriculture), Korea’s first botanical treatise, and the eminent scholar Yi Hwang (1501–1570) composed numerous poems on flowering plums. But the situation in the late Joseon was a dramatic departure from what had come before. Many texts written during this period and afterwards focused on the delight literati took in elaborate parties organized for the appreciation of exotic flowers.

The popularity of floriculture and gardening suddenly boomed among literati in the metropolitan area in the middle of the eighteenth century. If someone had neither potted flowers nor a garden, he was likely to be written off as “a person lacking in taste and style.” This change is aligned with the development of urban culture. Residents in the city were eager to improve their quality of life and get close to nature.

Yu Bak (1730–1787), a connoisseur of flowers, wrote Hwaam surok (Essays from the floral hermitage). He built a house in rural Hwanghae Province and planted a variety of flowers in his garden, which he called the “Kingdom of Fragrance.” It was so named because it had an assortment of flowers blooming in turn all year round. Among the essays in his book was one titled “The nine ranks of flowering plants,” in which he classified flowers into nine ranks and listed five select species in each rank along with explanations about the characteristics, cultivation methods, and varieties of those flowers.

So much did he love flowers that whenever foreign ships arrived, he would run to the local port to see if he could obtain exotic flowers. Fishermen in his neighborhood, if they chanced to find interesting flowers during their voyages, would bring them back for him. Sometimes Yu asked travelers journeying to China to bring back flowers. Many accounts of Yu’s life and his book gives a glimpse into the garden culture of contemporary literati.

Yi Ok (1760–1815) also wrote an important book entitled Baekunpil (The white cloud brush) that shows the intellectual trends among the elites of the time. It contains many accounts about the flower trade, chrysanthemum varieties, and cultivation techniques.

Kim Deokhyeong, a writer and painter of the eighteenth century, was more than a flower lover—he was besotted with them. Whenever he had free time, he would rush to a garden to paint them. He compiled his paintings into an album titled Baekhwabo (A painting catalog of various flowers). His contemporaries universally recognized the artistry of his paintings and were eager to obtain them for their own collections.

Yi Deokmu (1741–1793), a literatus, was famous for his flowering plums made of wax and wrote a handbook on how to craft wax flowers. This was a rare instance because it was usually unacceptable for an elite man to write about such a petty matter. Yet Yi’s work was received with fanfare by Bak Jiwon and other peers.

Many texts attest to the great zeal these elites had for gardening, which was more than a simple pastime. Their connoisseurship pushed the development of floral culture which permeated literati society in Joseon during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Garden Culture and Design in Social Context

The names of numerous gardens can be found in the writings of eighteenth century literati. Some gardens bore the owner’s family name such as Jo’s Garden, Oh’s Garden, and Yi’s Garden. Others were named after notable plants in the garden, for example: Flowering Plum and Bamboo Garden, Orchid Garden, Seven Pine Garden, and White Pomegranate Garden. In some cases, people named their garden according to its location or the intentions behind making the garden. This was a new phenomenon and indicates the surge of interest in gardening. In their writings, the literati provided vivid descriptions of gardens, enabling us to reconstruct the gardening and floricultural activities of the time.

If someone could not afford a garden, he would create a garden in his mind and pen a short prose piece about it. Yu Gyeongjong (1714–1784) wrote “Uiwonji” (Record on a garden in my heart), in which he describes the garden he envisioned. There, he would plant various trees, flowers, and vegetables. In the morning he would water them and in the evening he would weed the cucumber patch. This was his way of expressing his aspirations to live such a life. Yu was not alone; many would reveal their yearning in writings about their imaginary gardens.

The demand for plants experienced an explosive growth in tandem with the sudden and increasing interest in floriculture. The growing trade caused the horticultural market to expand and created a new vocation of flower-potting. Flower merchants operated their businesses in the southern and northern areas of the capital. They supplied a range of flowers and trees to meet seasonal demands. Moreover, in autumn, gardenias, pomegranates, camellias, and other flowers were transported from the southern provinces. Alongside the grain tax, they were carried to the capital area by ship and then sold to rich urban residents.

Not a small number of professional florists were retired clerks. The pleasure of gardening landed them new jobs running nurseries in the northern area of the capital, mainly at the foot of Mt. Inwang and in such districts as Nugakdong, Dohwadong, and Cheongpunggye. They grew and sold flowering plums grafted to odd-shaped trees, potted chrysanthemums blossoming in three colors, or pomegranates with high-hanging fruits. There was no formal flower market, but horticultural trade easily thrived.

At that time, most of the houses in the capital were small and thus potted plants were popular. Horticulturalists also specialized in certain plants. For example, we know that some exclusively sold rare flowering plums, while others specialized in potted pine trees. We know all these activities in detail thanks to existing records.

Street vendors would cry out that they had chrysanthemums for sale, the most popular flower at that time. New varieties were developed, which were not listed in the flower catalogs, and brought to market. An old man with the family name Kim was said to be able to control the blooming period and the blossom size, producing flowers ranging from extremely large to tiny. He could even make black blossoms and mixed-color blossoms grow on a single stem. He kept these skills a secret; no one ever learned them.

Horticultural techniques developed rapidly. Seo Yugu (1764–1845) authored Imwŏn kyŏngjeji (Sixteen treatises on agriculture), the most comprehensive sourcebook series in pre-modern Korea. As a part of the series, Yewonji (Treatise on floricultural skills), he compiled the extensive floricultural knowledge of the times, encompassing a broad range of skills such as sowing, grafting, watering, raised mound planting, potting, straightening branches, and fighting pests. He also addressed issues of timing for grafting, forcing, and dyeing flowers.

Seo took particular interest in cultivating trees. In his Imwon gyeongjeji (Treatise on the Management of Rural Life), the monographic work Manhakji (Treatise on late learning) is dedicated to tree cultivation. His “Jongsuga” (Song on planting a tree) also offers a detailed explanation of the methods for planting trees.

Gardening was promoted in the eighteenth century more than it had ever been before. The activity was widely spread among the literati and had a great influence on society. Indulging a love of flowers and pastimes, activities which once were taboo for compromising one’s moral principles, gained great popularity and centered around the capital area. This reflects a tendency to pursue well-being intertwined with the development of urban culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Translated by Soyun Lee

Min Jung

Hanyang University

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