Gentlemen and Confucian Society in the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910)
December 14, 2015 - October 2016.
The ideal gentleman in the Confucian social structure during the Joseon dynasty was trained from an early age to become accomplished in numerous areas. In particular, men of the educated elite class (yangban) were required to cultivate a high level of moral virtues, to master the classics, to pass several civil examinations, and to perform official public service. As a representative of his family and a servant of the state, a scholar-official had great responsibilities and burdens that many times carried on throughout his life. When not performing their official and personal duties, men of letters not only appreciated the arts but studied, created, and performed them, and also collected artworks. Expected to be amateur yet accomplished poets, painters, and calligraphers, gentlemen expressed themselves in subtle ways, for example, by imposing symbolic meanings on their works, such as in depictions grouping the plum tree, orchid, chrysanthemum, and bamboo. These so-called “Four Gentlemen” comprised one of the favorite subjects of scholar-officials because the plants’ symbolism was rooted in the gentlemen’s philosophies, disciplines, and ideal qualities: Bamboo usually grows upward and cannot easily be broken, symbolizing both uprightness and resilience. The plum tree and the chrysanthemum, blossoming and remaining constant despite the cold weather, symbolize the endurance of hardship. The delicate fragrance of orchid can travel far away; this flower is thus a befitting symbol of the influential scholar, whose virtues are widely and highly appreciated. Some of the artworks in this gallery, such as the brush holders and water droppers used for painting and writing, would typically be found in a gentlemen’s room of the era. Restraint and refinement in the beauty of everyday objects and pure artworks were marks of the aesthetic tastes of scholar-officials.