By Yang Sung-jin
A picture is said to be worth a thousand words, and the message it conveys can have a more powerful impact than the moving images created by state-of-the-art digital cameras or hand-held camcorders.
The Choson people were well aware of the power of the visual image. In 1593, an unidentified artist painted a vivid portrait of the wretched state of a nation torn apart by the Hideyoshi Invasion and turned it over to the government. The painting lays bare the cruel realities of the time: a baby is shown suckling at his dead mother’s breast while couples beg for food, a starving man resorts to eating leaves and a former member of the upper-class searches in vain for a job as a manual laborer.
Such “photo-journalistic” paintings were much favored by the Choson government, which often dispatched its own painters to areas hit by natural disasters or war to record the situation in paintings so as to assist officials in assessing the damage and coming up with effective countermeasures.
In mid-1706, King Sukchong sent Oh Myong-jun as a secret royal inspector to Kangwon-do with a special mission to paint scenes of the famine-stricken region.
Oh returned and submitted a painting to the king. The painting depicted a group of haggard refugees standing against a backdrop of the government food aid which was being unloaded there.
In early 1726, King Yongjo commented on a painting similar to Oh’s in content. “Once in the past, I saw a painting showing corrupt officials milking tax money out of poor people and thought it awful. This painting, which details the plight of the starving in the Samnam region, is not unlike the previous one,” the king said.
King Yongjo dispatched one of his officials in 1763 to a northeastern area afflicted by unprecedented flooding and asked him to render a detailed picture of the situation so that government aid could be delivered accordingly.
In 1765, the king ordered Kwangju deputy governor Yun Tuk-u to complete a painting aimed at helping local people in trouble.
All of these paintings, which would amount to a treasure trove for modern historians and sociologists had they survived, contained valuable and detailed information about the lives of the Choson people. Unfortunately, none of the Choson era paintings which fall into the “photo-journalistic category” have been preserved. The only remaining traces of them are recorded in the Annals of the Choson Dynasty.
While the upper-class yangban literati painted landscapes or still-life works as a way of expressing their philosophical or aesthetic musings, the professional artists hired by the government were required to produce a wide variety of works, chiefly for the public record.
The government’s official painters, called “hwawon,” composed realistic works, including depictions of the proceedings at national rituals, portraits of kings, astronomical maps, designs of machines and buildings, and illustrations for government publications.
The workload was heavy but the rewards were far from fulfilling. As a result, some of the hwawons ventured out on their own and created secular paintings to make ends meet.
Whatever status they were given, it was by no means easy to become one of the 20-odd hwawon members on the public payroll.
Applicants had to pass a difficult exam designed to test their ability to reproduce conventional scenes, such as landscapes, forests of bamboo trees and animals, while also assessing their portrait-painting skills.
What mattered most was whether an applicant was capable of producing true and lively visualizations, since the tasks the government set for its artists mainly called for accuracy and realism.
For instance, King Taejong thought of an artist first when he was about to launch the construction of a canal near the city of Sunsong, Chungchung-do in late 1412.
In a project aimed at speeding up the transportation of public goods from the southern provinces, King Taejong dispatched painters to the site to draw up a map to facilitate a feasibility assessment.
In September of 1432, when King Sejong was scheduled to visit a spa in Onyang, government artists turned in sketches of a bathing chamber and a bedroom which were then referred to during the building process.
So the versatility of the hwawons’ skills — which included architectural design — was widely appreciated. But the job was not without its pitfalls.
In 1431, King Sejong imposed severe punishment on the painters who failed to draw an exact reproduction of a dragon for the box of a diplomatic letter which was to be sent to China.
“No errors should be tolerated in the painting of dragons and Chinese phoenix signs on the box intended to carry letters to the Chinese Emperor. Even though mistakes were pointed out earlier, we still have a dragon without an eye or claws. Therefore, make sure that all the details are correct from now on,” the king said.
In 1439, King Sejong distributed to local administrations a number of hwawon-produced drawings illustrating how to properly slap a cudgel so as to prevent abuse in the meting out of punishment.
Two years later, King Sejong ordered several hwawons to produce a series of illustrations intended to function as the standard in terms of prison layout and ordered all the local governors to inspect their own prisons to determine whether they conformed to the national guidelines.
In 1794, King Chongjo was set to build Suwon Fortress, a groundbreaking work of architecture in Korea. In order to ensure an optimum structure, the king ordered the local administrations to produce blueprints of their own castles and fortresses and submit them to the central government.
Yun Pom-hang, a high-ranking official in southeastern Kyongsang-do, didn’t take the order seriously and submitted several mediocre works. He was immediately put into prison and had his official title revoked.
In 1646, a painting was drawn by an unlikely figure which triggered the construction of the Octagonal Pavilion in the palace courtyard. At the time, King Injo had just welcomed the return of the crown prince from Beijing, where he had been held hostage for 10 years on the heels of the Manchu Invasions.
When the king asked which one of the Chinese palaces was the most impressive, the crown prince answered that an octagonal pavilion stood out. “Can you draw up a picture of the pavilion?” the king asked. The crown prince complied, submitting a fine picture, which pleased King Injo enough that he ordered the construction of an octagonal pavilion of his own.