Arts and Culture in Korea

[Dynamic South Korea]
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Dynamic Korea
South Korea has a vibrant arts scene and a history of creative innovation. If you're interested in traditional or contemporary painting, sculpture, music, dance, or drama, you will never lack for places to visit in South Korea. In addition, South Korea is an active competitor in worldwide sporting events, with many first-class sporting facilities around Seoul and Pusan.

Printing and Literature
One of Korea's great achievements was the 15th-century invention of Hangul, the Korean phonetic alphabet. Hangul is relatively easy to learn, with 24 letters that are combined into blocks of syllables. The accessibility of Hangul has contributed to Korea's high literacy rate. Another great Korean innovation was the first use of movable metal type, in 1234.

Korea's long literary history grew not only from its innovations in printing, but through the tradition of telling folk tales and legends at festivals and other gatherings. These stories outlined the kingdom's mythical origins and stressed Korean values. The National Folklore Museum in Seoul preserves an extensive collection of Korean cultural and folklore relics.

Korea's first paintings, found on the walls of tombs in Manchuria, are 17 centuries old! Traditional painting has tended to celebrate nature or religious themes, although in the 18th century some artists branched out into depicting the dramatic landscape or daily life.

During the Japanese occupation (1910–45), Korean artists were introduced to Western oil painting. Contemporary South Korean artists have continued to produce work in this vein as well as rediscovering classical Korean styles and themes, producing work of genius and originality.

The National Museum of Contemporary Art houses a large collection of 20th-century Korean and Western art. A growing number of art galleries also offer examples of fine art in South Korea.

Sculpture, Metal Craft, and Ceramics
The introduction of Buddhism in the 4th century spurred the development of sculpture in Korea. Artisans carved graceful, intricate Buddha images and pagodas in bronze, stone, and wood. (The best example of 8th-century Buddhist sculpture can be seen at Sokkuram Grotto shrine near Kyongju.) Buddhist sculpture declined in the late 14th century, when Confucianism became ascendant over Buddhism, and has not enjoyed a resurgence until recently. Schools of modern sculpture have been quite active since the 1960s, and examples are abundant in city streets, parks, and plazas as well as in museums.

Metalcraft has an ancient and honorable history in Korea. Decorated bronze figures dating from the Bronze Age have been found all over the country. Shilla artisans (57 BC–AD 935) crammed the tombs of the aristocracy with gold and jade. They also produced beautiful, intricately carved bronze bells, some of which are huge. The largest of these, the Divine Bell of King Songdok, or the Emille Bell, dates from the 8th century.

Ceramics may be the most famous of Korea's three-dimensional art forms. The technology for producing blue-green celadon vases came from China, but by the 12th century Korean artisans had made the technique their own. They added the innovation of inlaid designs, following motifs from nature. Today, the best examples of traditional pottery are produced in Inchon, near Seoul. Artisans here have been creating high-quality ceramics for six centuries.

Today, music in South Korea generally falls into one of three categories: traditional, Western, or a fusion of Eastern and Western styles.

Traditional music includes folk music and a more formal kind of performance called p'ansori, a one-person musical narrative based upon folk tales and classical novels. P'ansori recitals can take five hours, and singers may train for 20 years before they're ready to give a performance. The Korean Traditional Performing Arts Center, established in 1951, is devoted to preserving traditional music and developing new music in classical, traditional styles.

Contemporary music can be enjoyed at performances by the Korea Philharmonic Orchestra Society and several other orchestras in Seoul and other major cities. Opera is also popular in South Korea. It's the mission of the brand-new School of Music in the Korean National Institute of Arts (established in 1993) to make Korean music a force in the world arts scene.

Dance and Theater
It is only since the 1980s that traditional dance has been rediscovered by South Koreans. The government has declared the few remaining royal court dances Intangible Cultural Properties and the performers Human Cultural Assets. South Korea now hosts 40 traditional dance troops.

The Korean Culture and Arts Foundation encourages the study and performance of traditional drama—for example, masked dance drama. This art form, combining music, dance, and drama, evolved from the ancient practice of singing work songs and satirizing Korean society.

Modern dance and ballet also thrive in South Korea, which boasts 30 modern dance companies and 10 ballet troops. The National Theater, located in Seoul, houses seven resident companies dedicated to drama, dance, opera, and traditional music. Also located in Seoul is the Sejong Cultural Center, with its affiliated orchestras, dance company, and choirs. One of the most exciting and newest additions to Seoul's arts scene is the huge Seoul Arts Center.

Sports and Leisure
Sports have always been a large part of Korean life. Traditional pursuits included the martial art of taek-wondo and a form of wrestling called ssirum. South Korea has brought these ancient art forms into the 20th century: ssrium is one of South Korea's most popular professional sporting events, and in 2000 tae kwon do will become an Olympic event. South Koreans also enjoy exhibitions of soccer, baseball, basketball, volleyball, and boxing, as well as participating in swimming, mountaineering, golfing, skiing (on both snow and water), fishing, windsurfing, and handball.

In 1988 the games of the 24th Olympiad were held in Seoul. Partly as a result of those events, many ultramodern sporting facilities can be found in Seoul and Pusan, including the gigantic Seoul Sports Complex. The government has continued its emphasis on physical fitness and competitive sports with the establishment of the T'aenung Athletes Village, the country's primary training facility. South Korea remains an active competitor in many types of national and international sporting events.