Korea has held its own phonetic alphabet, hangul, since 1443, when it was invented by the scholar Chong In-Ji at the command of King Sejong. Nevertheless the prestige of Chinese ideographs remained very strong in Korea. During the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), men of learning wrote with Chinese characters; this was one of the attainments upon which the yangban class prided itself. Hangul was used by women and the lower classes. Modern written Korean is usually a mixture of Chinese characters and hangul.
Throughout the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), inscriptions on paintings were in Chinese. Commoners who were illiterate in Chinese still had respect and admiration for Chinese learning.
Munjado screens superimposed depictions of symbolic animals, birds, fish, plants, and even narrative scenes onto Chinese ideographs. Munjado conveyed “The Eight Virtues,” that is, the eight cardinal principles of Confucian morality. Each principle was represented by a single Chinese ideograph on each panel of a screen. It was convenient coincidence that the number of cardinal principles was the same as the number of panels in the usual Korean screen.
The Eight Virtues represented the paramount principles of Confucian morality. In traditional order, they were: Filial Piety (hyo), Brotherly Love (jae), Loyalty (choong), Trust (shin), Propriety (ye), Righteousness (eui), Integrity (yom), and Sensibility (chi).
In this outstanding 19th century munjado screen, depictions of symbolic animals, birds, fish, plants, or objects were substituted for certain strokes of the ideographs, for example, a fish and a bamboo shoot in place of the four brushstrokes, comprising the upper half of the character for “Filial Piety,” or a pair of birds in place of the two upper brushstrokes of the character for “Righteousness.”
While the virtues for which the ideographs stand were Confucian, the symbolism of the pictorial embellishment was Taoist. Of Chinese origin, munjado screens were found in the home of almost every middle- to upper-class Korean family.
Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University
The British Museum, England
Koryo Museum of Art, Kyoto, Japan
The National Folk Museum of Korea
Portland Art Museum