Korean Symbols & Korean Traditional Patterns

Traditional Korean Patterns and Symbols

Korean symbols and patterns.

Korean society traditionally adapted to and found meaning in the order of nature. Wanting to pass on the hidden meanings of the natural world to future generations and believing them as a law and order in their daily lives, Korean people have created myriads of beautiful and diverse patterns and motifs (often embodying auspicious meanings) which can be found adorning everything from Korean traditional architecture to objects of every day life.

This talent reflected in all aspects of Korean culture, from common people's daily goods and accessories to royal clothing. These patterns can be found almost everywhere you look in Korea, from the Taegeuk in the national flag of South Korea to the animal designs on chopsticks in restaurants.

Many Korean symbols are similar to the Chinese characters for luck, fortune, longevity, and fertility.

Traditional Korean patterns
Traditional Korean patterns
Traditional Korean patterns
Traditional Korean patterns and motifs painted on a drum

Common themes in Korean symbols include longing for paradise, happiness, love, and good fortune.

The use of these patterns reveals much about how Koreans sought practicality, as well as a sense of refinement and beauty, in whatever surrounded them.

Double Hee: Happiness for Husband and Wife

Double Hee graphic.

This symbol expresses the wishes for a husband and wife to enjoy a happy marriage and many can be found at wedding ceremonies throughout Korea and other parts of East Asia (China, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan).

In a broader sense, the meaning of the Double Hee symbol extends to a harmonious combination of Yin (female) and Yang (male) energies taken from Chinese cosmology.

Pujok: Good Luck, Protection

Pujok graphic.

This type of talisman comes in 2 types: one acts as a good luck charm, and the other works to protect from evil or bad luck. The pujok commonly had a yellow background with red symbols or characters. People felt that evil spirits disliked the colors of gold and yellow. Red represented blood or fire, and psychologically it meant the color of life and emotion.

People attached the pujok to their body or drank its ashes after it was burnt. Sometimes, it was put on a wall or upper part of a door to protect a house or part of a building. A pujok can be customized for a specific ailment or circumstance or generic ones can be used for general purposes. Pujok can be purchased from shamans or some Buddhist monks in Korea.

Buddhist Swastika: Auspiciousness

Swastika graphic.

The Buddhist symbol of the swastika represents an auspicious sign in Buddhism and is an ancient symbol originally thought to be Indian in origin - svastika is a Sanskrit word meaning auspiciousness or good luck.

The swastika was considered to have omnipotent godly power, as well as the meaning of the whole universe. The swastika symbol probably passed to China and the Korea Peninsula along with Buddhism.

Danch'eong: Enlightenment

Temple eaves.

One of the most recognizable arts of Korean Buddhism, the brightly colored patterns of danch'eong adorn the ceilings, eaves, support pillars, and walls of temple buildings.

The combination of certain colors (blue, red, yellow, white, and black, based on the Dual Principle and the Five Elements of Eastern philosophy) symbolized the bright enlightenment of the next world.

Round patterns meant people's lives are supposed to transmigrate: when someone reaches Nirvana, he or she can obtain the wisdom of Buddha.

Taegeuk: Ultimate Existence

Door with yin and yang graphic.

The Taegeuk or ultimate existence symbol has its origin in basic value and existence. In Buddhism, this pattern means the ultimate equality and balance.

Embodying the Dual Principle (of Yin/Yang), the taegeuk also represents the continuous cycle of life.

Fish: Diligent Self-discipline

Wooden fish carving.

Since a fish does not close its eyes when it sleeps or even when it dies, an ascetic devotee in Buddhism was expected to reach Nirvana with continuous effort like a fish.

The classic Yin and Yang symbol can be interpreted as two fish and the fish can represent fearlessness and freedom.

Lotus: Creation, Birth

Pink and yellow lotus flower on water.

A Buddhist story tells that the lotus came from the navel of a God who slept under water called confusion. For this reason it symbolizes birth and creation.

The lotus also grows from muddy water and thus is a symbol of the purity that can be achieved even in trying and difficult circumstances.

Bat: Good Luck

Korean roof tile.

The Chinese ideogram for bat is pronounced the same as the ideogram for good fortune (pok in Korean). This led to bat images being embroidered on pillow ends and incorporated into furniture designs and fittings as a symbol of good fortune.

As bats were supposed to live 1000 years, their image was also used as a symbol of longevity. A design of 5 bats, called Obok (5 blessings), represents the five fortunes: longevity, wealth, health, love of virtue, and natural death.

8 Marks (p'al kwai): Truths of Life and Nature

The eight marks come from the Chinese King named Bokhee. According to legend, he created eight marks after observing the nature of sky, geography, and natural laws. These 8 characters were geometric symbols that were believed to explain all natural phenomena and shapes.

People thought the 8 marks contained all the truths of human life and nature. By following orders and rules of nature in their lives, people's successes and failure, happiness and bad luck could be accorded with nature's truth.

Name Symbolism Nature Animal Body Family Shape
Keonkwai Positive Sky Horse Head Father Korean symbol
T'aekwai Negative Pond Sheep Mouth Youngest daughter Korean symbol
Ikwai Negative Fire Pheasant Eye Middle daughter Korean symbol
Jinkwai Positive Thunder Dragon Foot Oldest son Korean symbol
Sonkwai Negative Wind Chicken Leg Oldest daughter Korean symbol
Kamkwai Positive Water Pig Ear Middle son Korean symbol
Kankwai Positive Mountain Dog Hand Youngest son Korean symbol
Konkwai Negative Earth Cow Stomach Mother Korean symbol

Korean Flag T'aegukki

Korean flag.

After an incident with a Japanese ship in 1872 and increased contact with other countries, the Korean government realized the need for a national symbol. The first flag was created in 1882 and over the years the design has varied. Banned during the Japanese occupation (1910-45), the present flag was created in 1948 for use by the South Korean government.

The T'aegukki depicts the balancing philosophies of Yin/Yang and the concept of Ohaengsol (five directions). In the central circle, the red portion represents positive Yang, while the blue portion represents negative Yin. It is an ancient symbol representing balance and harmony. The combination of bars in each corner also symbolizes opposites and balance. The set in the upper left corner embodies heaven, spring, east, and gentility. The lower right corner: the earth, summer, west, and justice. The upper right corner: the moon, winter, north, and wisdom. The lower left corner: the sun, autumn, south, and courtesy.

Symbolism of Colors in Korea

The colors in Korea have a traditional symbolism and related meanings. The colors used in the paintings on the eaves and columns of Korean temples are referred to as Dancheong. The five main colors of black, blue, yellow and white refer to the five elements of classic Chinese philosophy.

The color yellow in Korea is associated with earth, black with water, white with metal, green/blue with wood and red with fire. The colors are also associated with seasons: green for spring, red for summer, yellow for late summer, white for autumn and black for winter and even specific times of the day. Dancheong colors also represent the directions: blue (east), white (west), red (south), black (north) and yellow (center).

Gyeongbokgung Palace Ceiling, Seoul
Dancheong painting at Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul

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