(38) Odd Missions of Painters: Map-Making, Espionage

By Yang Sung-jin

Not long ago, it was regarded as an envious privilege for a painter to go abroad for to exhibit. Now, however, it is far from a novelty, with many paintings more or less “free-floating” around the world.

Choson painters too often went abroad, but not to give showy exhibitions. Hwawons, or the government’s official painters, visited foreign nations as members of diplomatic delegations.

According to the state laws of the Choson Kingdom, at least one hwawon was required to join every diplomatic mission. In the process, these artists introduced Korean paintings to the art communities of other nations, including China and Japan.

In August of 1479, high-ranking official Lee Kuk-bae called on King Songjong to dispatch a hwawon to China, explaining, “The consumption of hoehoechong (a material used in tile-painting) in the court is skyrocketing. But, since according to a Chinese interpreter, China has a different way of using it, ask the painter visiting Beijing to learn the technique.”

Another crucial mission of the hwawons on the government payroll was to draw up maps used for public purposes. In 1434, King Sejong pointed out that the maps commonly used at the time were riddled with mistakes and in need of a thorough updating.

“Since the old maps are very flawed, I intend to correct them. I ask each local governor to create detailed maps of their roads, their local landscape and state-owned construction sites,” the king said.

Four years later, a map of Japan ended up in the hands of the king. It was one of the items a diplomat named Park Ton-ji brought with him from the island nation. While visiting Japan, Park was welcomed and treated reasonably well by a local aristocrat who provided a detailed map of the region with only two islands missing.

Park copied the map and added in the missing areas before handing it over to the royal court. Since the map was detailed enough to strain one’s eyes over, the king ordered the hwawons to draft an enlarged version.

Some writing attached to the map hints at its significance: “Since the Japanese tribe’s nation was set up far away at sea, we were unable to determine its exact territory before we secured this map.”


In 1454, the second year of King Tanjong’s reign, several upper-class yangban aristocrats joined a map-making project. High-ranking official Chong Chuk, distinguished scholars Kang Hui-an and Yang Song-ji, and hwawon An Kyu-sang climbed Mt. Samkak in Seoul to complete a map of the surrounding area. Ironically, the person who directed the project was Royal Prince Suyang (King Sejo), who later seized the throne by orchestrating a bloody coup against his nephew Tanjong.

In 1497, official Lee Kuk-don presented a map to King Yonsangun but it turned out to be so large as to make it unmanageable . “I don’t understand many parts of your map. Why don’t you explain it later and ask historiographers to record what you say?” the king asked. Lee replied, “Since this map is too big to suit you, let a hwawon create a smaller version of it.”

One of the purposes of map-making was espionage. Often, Choson hwawons functioned as industrial and military spies for the nation while disguised as benign members of Korean diplomatic delegations.

In 1479, King Songjong gave a set of instructions to the government painters scheduled to visit Japan along with the Choson delegation of diplomats.

“Locations of waterways and landscape, the shape of boats moored in ports and people’s customs should be closely observed and included in the paintings,” the king ordered.

In 1512, a high-ranking military officer called for the production of strategic maps detailing the areas of the north occupied by barbarians in preparation for war.

Concerning military map-making, official Yu Sung-jong of the court argued, “As requested, it is a good idea to draw up a map of the enemy’s territory. Especially given that our forces have become less vigilant due to the continued peace. Without a map guiding them on the right path, a defeat would be almost guaranteed.”

Information Warfare

In 1705, diplomat Lee E-myong after wrapping up his mission in China, secretly brought back four Chinese books containing detailed information about the Chinese border defense. Another item which he secured was a copy of a map originally designed for a coastal defense unit of the Chinese army. “Because the map was not allowed to leave the country, our hwawon copied it,” Lee reported to King Sukchong.

In 1712, a Chinese official crossed the northern border with a painter whose chief mission was the same as hwawon’s in Choson. According to a report filed by official Park Kwon, the Chinese diplomat visited an area overlooking a point where the Tumen River meets the East Sea. The painter who followed the Chinese official then drew a picture of the area and they returned to their country.

Today art historians agree that the Choson maps deserve due appreciation. Unlike other simple maps, the Choson maps meticulously crafted by first-class painters exhibit a sophisticated visual artistry suggestive of fine landscapes.

Yet their artistic merit paled in comparison to the portraiture of the kings, the most honorable job a hwawon could do.

The painting of a king was called “ojin.” The paintings were then dedicated to a memorial hall. In 1411, King Taejong referred to Chinese history and set up Changsangjon, a house in the palace for the purpose of preserving royal portraits. The decision was based upon Tang China’s custom of preserving the portraits of those who contributed to the founding of the nation in specially-built houses in the court.

However, it was not the first time that royal portraits of kings were made in Korean peninsula. The Koryo Kingdom also had numerous paintings of its royalty.

But in 1426, officials appealed King Sejong to burn the portraits of Koryo kings and queens, including initial drafts. The destruction of the precious portraits that followed might seem justified in that a new nation was intent on erasing all traces of its predecessor’s legacy, yet it was still a great artistic loss.

Two years later, King Sejong ordered that a set of portraits of Koryo kings and distinguished officials preserved in Chungchong province be buried in their tombs along with them in Kaesong, north of Seoul, further destroying precious cultural artifacts.