Erotic Art Reflects Conservative Korea's Passionate Side

      February 10, 2006 15:52

      On the 15th day of the first lunar month, a small fishing town in Gangwon Province will celebrate the phallus as it has done for centuries. On that day, a penis measuring a respectable 20-25 cm and carved from the wood of an aromatic tree will be offered to the gods, its bright red color said to ward off misfortune. The ceremony serves to propitiate the spirits of young women who died unmarried and pray for prosperity and big catches.

      As late as the 1960s, such ceremonies were common in many fishing villages in the province. Korean society is outwardly conservative about sex, mainly due to the Confucianism that has been the nation's governing philosophy for a long time. Yet underneath the stolid formality, there survives a more powerful desire for untrammeled sexual expression that has always found some form of expression in art. What Koreans really thought and felt of human beings, nature and life can be seen in the erotic art that has had a special place in society since ancient times. Remains from the ancient Shilla Kingdom, for instance, suggest that people at the time recognized sexual desire as a natural part of life, just like the ancient Greeks.

      ◆ Bronze Age

      Naked male figures are typical of relics of this time. They exaggerate the penis, which then as now symbolized power and prosperity. The artifact shown here (illustration 01), from around B.C. 4-3, depicts men plowing the field. Such ritual tilling of the soil to pray for good harvest lasted for more than 2,000 years. Records tell us that as late as the Chosun Dynasty, naked men ritually worked the field on the morning of the first day of spring.

      ◆ The Three-Kingdom-Era and Unified Shilla Era

      Dozens of clay dolls excavated in an ancient tomb in Gyeongju (A.D. 5-6) show that Shilla people considered sex perfectly natural. The pictures (02 and 03)show figures in various erotic poses. Five sexual organs sculpted from stone or wood also survive from the early period. Whether they were made for use or for decoration is unclear, but a pinewood penis from the Unified Shilla Era (04) excavated in Gyeongju was almost certainly a sex aid. The protrusions on both sides of the glans suggest it was designed specifically to stimulate the clitoris, a deduction that is confirmed by the fact that the wood is worn smooth on these parts.

      ◆ Koryo

      The Koryo Gayo, a style of song of the era, is criticized by Chosun-era Confucian scholars as decadent. An envoy from Song-Dynasty China visiting Koryo records, "The men and women of Koryo take off their clothes without hesitation and bathe in the streams." There are also records of the rather debauched sexual life at court after the invasion of Mongolia. The copper mirror pictured here (05) was excavated in Kaeseong, now North Korea, and shows four sexual positions. It measures 9.1 cm in diameter and is 0.6 cm thick.

      ◆ Chosun Era

      Many coins showing sexual positions similar to the Koryo copper mirror can be found in the Chosun era, which was ostensibly very conservative about sex. They look like real coins but were not circulated (06). Later in the era, the representations are mostly in the nature of pornography. Documents of the time tell us that pornographic pictures from 18th and 19th century Japan or late Ming-Dynasty China made their way to Korea, and homemade pornography appears in the 19th century. Some of the pictures bear the seals of prominent painters Kim Hong-do or Shin Yoon-bok, though we cannot be sure whether they are authentic (07). It seems that this passionate side to the Korean psyche, though often suppressed, has always found expression in one way or another, in all its forms and among people of all ages.

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