(36) Kings Urged to Appreciate Paintings Highlighting Toils of Ordinary People

By Yang Sung-jin

The media hype of the ongoing sex-and-lies scandal is a personal disaster for U.S. president Bill Clinton. Yet it is a blessing for political cartoonists who are now milking the topic for all its worth. While these cartoonists pander to a wide spectrum of satire-hungry consumers, Korea’s history tells us of a time when artists catered to a much more specific audience — kings.

Hardly any of these paintings during the Choson Kingdom went undisputed. Officials were quick to criticize the array of paintings falling under the category of “art for art’s sake.”

Exceptions were granted for paintings highlighting the hard work of the people, such as works of art detailing strenuous work in the rice paddies or the painstaking process of farming silk and weaving on a loom. Only these types of pictures, the officials reckoned, would make the easygoing rulers realize how many burdens their people have to bear.

Such a sermon-like attitude, in fact, has a long history. In a Chinese classic, “Book of Odes,” a section titled “pinpung” is devoted to describing the hardships ordinary people have to face in the course of farming. The section was designed to educate ancient China’s young and inexperienced King Song.

Likewise, in the “mu-il” section of “Chronicles of Lu,” another Chinese classic book, a tyrant’s profligate life and downfall are detailed in a bid to give a lesson to King Song.

Therefore, the two words, “pinpung” and “mu-il,” are associated with warning a king about his errant ways. And, that context is essential to understanding what King Sejong of the Choson Kingdom implied in 1424: “A poem called ‘pinpung’ and an article named ‘mu-il’ deserve attention as an example for us to follow. But, since we have a different lifestyle from the Chinese, I am planning to detail the difficulties of farming in a painting on a monthly basis for future generations.”

Six decades later, a painting fitting in well with King Sejong’s vision was presented to King Yonsangun, a ruler notorious for tyranny and over-the-top sexual escapades.

Official Oh Ik-nyum, who offered the painting at his risk, said, “In the past, officials presented ‘pinpung’ and ‘mu-il’ paintings in order to caution kings against indulgence. Since nothing is more important than self-discipline in politics, I present to Your Majesty a painting which will help you to lead a virtuous life.”

A Picturesque Lesson

But, King Yonsangun was puzzled about the painting. “I don’t understand why paintings named ‘pingpung’ are found in many places in the court or what your painting is about,” the king remarked.

Oh replied, “As soon as Your Majesty ascended the throne, I offered a similar painting.”

Embarrassed about the indirect criticism of him offered through the painting, the king argued that the work of art presented by Oh is unnecessary since everything is already in the books. “I don’t have to look at the pictures to understand what the books imply. I think there’s something else behind Oh’s painting.” Luckily for Oh, the king did not throw his usual tantrum over the issue.

In 1544, a diplomat named Lee Myong-kyu brought to King Chungjong a ‘pingpung’ painting that he got in China.This is what I got when I visited Beijing. As a ‘pingpung’ painting, it contains all the details showing the hard work needed for farming. This should be appreciated by the kings,” Lee said.

In return for the gift, King Chungjong gave a bow-and-arrow set plus a bottle of wine, the Annals says.

In 1749, King Yongjo gave a painting to his Crown Prince in order to illustrate the burdensome lives of ordinary people.

“Which one do you think is more difficult, the farming described in the painting or your study here? If the rulers do not think of people with compassion, the people will complain. Even if they don’t complain, the heavens will not tolerate the lack of understanding,” King Yongjo told the young prince.

In 1677, King Sukchong squabbled with officials over a set of paintings detailing farming. Official Yun Ji-in appealed to the king, “Your Majesty is still hiring public painters to draw pictures, which is costly and unnecessary.”

King Sukchong retorted, “Since I received a painting showing the toils of farming, I intended to make it as a folding-screen so that the Crown Prince could learn about it. But you did not understand my intention and just kept complaining about the money.”

Relentless Realism

The widespread notion that paintings should contain a moral lesson resulted in a boom of realistic drawings. Mostly under the themes of hardships facing people, these works are notable for their photo-realistic techniques, which paved the way for genre paintings in the late Choson period.

In 1502, a low-ranking official named Lee Nan-son put forward a pioneering, relentlessly realistic painting in a bid to reveal the wretched state of the people.

The painting, which was given to King Yonsangun, was about burdensome farming, harsh loan conditions, corrupted officials and poverty-stricken, starving people. Ironically, it was entitled “Anmin-do” (meaning ‘a painting about people leading a comfortable life’ in Korean).

The gruesomely detailed painting, however, was not the first of its kind. In Chinese history, a man named Chong Hyup of the Song Dynasty repeatedly complained, to no avail, to King Sinjong about the harsh tax law orchestrated by Wang An-sok. One day, he drew a picture depicting the horrific plight of refugees and presented it to the king. King Sinjong was deeply moved by the picture and immediately abolished the law.

In 1554, Lee Po, a yangban literati who lived in Kyongsang province, appealed to King Myongjong by turning in a realistic painting whose purpose was the same as Chong Hyup in China.

“Due to the prolonged bad harvest, Your Majesty ordered a reduction in taxes, but officials still keep squeezing funds out of people. Since watching is better than listening, I have drawn a picture expressing the hardships they are undergoing,” Lee said.

Perhaps, Clinton would prefer such realistic paintings to his caricature drawings — the ones with a much-publicized cigar in hand.