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The Land of Symbols: Korean Roof Tiles.

Think of a country, where everything has a meaning, Think of a country, where different kingdoms have reigned, Think of a country, where art emerges as fire touches the soil, Think of a country, where there is a peace within chaos ...

The Chinese meaning of Joseon (morning/calm/sun) corresponds with the countryside of Bukchon Hanok Village very well. Bukchon Hanok Village vividly displays traditional Korean architecture, including the eye-catching Hanok (Korean Traditional House) with its ceramic roofs. The roofs reflect traditional Asian architecture characteristics, which are completely different from Western architecture. In this country where ceramics are regarded as part of then national cultural heritage, there are a myriad of enchanting examples.

Although China has rightfully been cited as the source of ceramic tradition, Korea has also played an important role in developing the tradition--in part due to techniques imported from China. The characteristics of Korean ceramics can be defined as naturalness and abstraction in the prehistoric age, simplicity and balance in the Three Kingdoms period, clarity in the Goryeo Dynasty, and both boldness and restraint in the Joseon Dynasty.

In Korea, which has a ceramic history dating back to 12,000 years, ceramics were created to be compatible with the natural environment and personal pleasure. Although Korean ceramics have been influenced by several other ceramic traditions, they developed their own style and cemented a strong tradition of Korean ceramics.

Bernard Leach, who believed that ceramics form part of a nations cultural heritage, said of the Korean Joseon ceramics:

These Korean pots grow like flowers. Their native abstractions and formalizations spring from quite another approach to living, a complete antithesis to our self-consciousness and calculation. The Koreans and their pots are childlike, spontaneous, and trusting. (1)

It is possible to see fascinating and highly inspirational examples of this around the Hanok Village. Hanoks are environmentally friendly houses: the materials used in construction can be obtained from nature, such as wood, earth, stone, straw, clay (for ceramic roof tiles) and paper. The two major types of Hanoks are Giwajip (houses with tiled roofs) occupied by the nobility, and Chogajip (houses with straw-thatched roofs) inhabited by the peasantry. The most distinctive difference between these two constructions is the roof. Chogajip has a straw-thatched roof, which was a bountiful byproduct of rice cultivation. Giwajip is more expensive than Chogajib and is not considered affordable by the common people. Somewhat ironically, Chogajips are rarely seen today, but Giwajips are places are where most of the Koreans still live.

Giwajips' roofs are sumptuous visual feasts that transport the viewer to the time of their construction--it is hard when viewing them not to imagine that you are living in the Joseon Dynasty, such is the mystery and beauty. The roofs also tell stories in the differences of their construction and the details that have been included.

These roofs are proof that ceramic was an important material in the country, and showcase the different traits of each period. The wonderful roof tile details display perfect workmanship.

Ceramic roofs, which were in fact constructed in order to protect wooden structures from rain and snow, have become an indispensable part of Buddhist temples as well. Clay roof tiles are inflammable, highly resistant and lend dignity and charm to the buildings they form part of.

These elegant tiles can be many different bright colours and are often decorated with ornamental animals, flowers and Chinese characters. Each pattern has a different message --some motifs are designed to designate the honourable status of a person while yet others may be intended to bring good luck or protect the dweller from evil spirits.

The meanings of motifs commonly used include the white crane for spirituality and longevity; peonies for prosperity and happiness; creeping vines for longevity; and lotuses for spiritual and enlightenment. Talismans and Chinese characters were used in order to bring good luck or to ward off evil spirits. In the Three Kingdom period, Korean ceramics were ornamented with flower and animal figures and also decorated by using Chinese Zodiac animals. The lion, along with the tiger, is widely regarded as a symbol of bravery, but in Buddhism it also has a symbolic meaning as a protector of Buddhist Law. During the Unified Silla Period meanwhile, the lion design was used as a symbol representing the expulsion of evil, together with an image of a beast.

Studies of these ceramic roof tiles have shown that the most popular design were those with plants and especially flowers. This is perhaps unsurprising given that flowers were symbols of beauty, splendour, magnificence and prosperity. The most commonly used flower was the lotus due to its Buddhist symbolism. The lotus plant, which gives wonderful flowers though growing in a muddy pool, is compatible with Buddhism, which espouses the belief that human nature is truly pure from birth.

Plant motifs were both used alone and together with other motifs. Plants coupled with animals (such as birds and fish) or with landscapes (of rocks, mountains, clouds and water), symbolized a happy life, great harmony between husband and wife, prosperity and a happy afterlife.

The details--both in production and in stylistic choices--of the roof tiles illustrate the differences between each of the Three Kingdoms (being Baekje, Goguryeo, and Silla). Of these, Goguryeo (37 BC--668 AD) was the first to produce and use ceramic roof tiles. The most distinctive characteristics of Goguryeo roof-end tiles are their attractive and dynamic relief decoration. It is possible to see the most beautiful examples of roof-end tiles of this period on which we commonly see lotus and beast motifs in Seoul National Museum Collections. In Korean culture, the beast design, which was commonly used in structures and in handicrafts, is believed to ward off evil spirits. Goguryeo roof end-tiles with the beast design include quite decent aesthetic quality and a touch of humour.

The Baekje (18 BC--660 AD) Kingdom controlled a great part of Korea and seized specific regions from China as well. This formed a powerful position in political and commercial relations between China and Japan. In this period of roof ceramics, differences are observed in roof rafters being different from Goguryeo examples. The rafter roof-end tile is affixed to the rafter which supports the eaves from below. It was used to prevent decay of the wooden rafters, in addition to beautifully decorating the building's exterior. These tiles were commonly used during the Baekje period. The rafter roof-end tile in the Seoul National Museum Collection is one of the most beautiful examples. The square hollow in the middle was made so it could be fixed to the roof rafter with a nail. Rafter roof-end tiles with the lotus motif were commonly used in the Baekje period.

When Baekje examples were analyzed, it was observed that convex roof-end tiles emerged in the Ungjin (475-538 AD) period. These tiles also show new methods of production, which are thought to reflect the influence of more advanced production skills that were imported from China. Convex roof-end tiles made during this period are characterized by round petals and slight changes in the edge of the petals.

The Silla Kingdom (57 BC--935 AD) was strictly governed by a fixed status system. This was reflected in the sizes of houses and the materials used to build them. According to the rules during this time, only those who were of Royal blood on both familial sides could have constructions with the high-quality roof tiles known as the Tang roof tile. The quality of roof tiles was an important--and visible--measure of social status. Tang roof tiles are commonly green glazed and were only used in private estates and temples around the royal capital.

Other roof tiles that were produced during the Silla peiod were rough ceramics fired to high temperatures, with the lotus the most common motif. Though traces of the lotus design from the Goguryeo and Baekje Kingdom's can be seen in the Silla design, the latter is a more natural style. Additionally, the beast motif used during this period expresses the people's longing for a peaceful life, free from disease and evil spirits.

Eventually, Silla united the Three Kingdoms to form the Unified Silla Kingdom (668-935 CE). Culturally, this era is often seen as the golden age of Korea for its architecture, literature and philosophy. Unified Silla developed a flourishing Buddhist culture and produced such major works of art as the Bulguksa Temple and the Seokguram Cave Temple (both added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995).
   The pottery of Unified Silla was based on the
   traditions of the Three Kingdoms period, but
   gradually lost its strong regional aspects as
   it incorporated traits of pottery from other
   countries. One example is earthenware
   decorated with stamped designs, which has a
   strong foreign flavour. This reveals both that
   Unified Silla engaged in cultural exchange
   with Tang China, a strongly international
   civilization that served as a crossroads for
   many different cultural influences, and that
   it was a powerful maritime state in its own
   right, carrying out exchange with many other
   nations. The characteristics of pottery with
   impressed designs are most clearly evident
   in everyday items such as bowls, covered
   bowls, bottles, and cinerary jars. At this time,
   the fine incised designs of earthenware from
   earlier eras gradually fell out of use. (2)

Important style changes also occurred in the ceramic roof tiles. Surface patterns were diversified by using lotus, vine, flower medallion, kalavinka, dragon, bodhisattva, bird and beast patterns. In addition to this, low relief and bead patterns were used.

Combining the tradition of the Three Kingdoms period with the technology and style of Chinese ceramics, in the latter half of the 12th century, The Goryeo Dynasty (918-1391 CE) succeeded in creating the wares for which it is famous: jade-green celadon and inlaid celadon. Celadon was also used to make architectural details such as roof tiles and tile plaques. The pair of roof-end tiles at the Seoul National Museum, sumaksae (convex tile) with a peony design and ammaksae (concave tile) with a vine design, display some of the characteristic features of the Goryeo celadon ware of the 12th century.

The translucent jade blue glaze of the celadon tiles would have created a roof of stunning brilliance for the palatial architecture of the nobles of the Goryeo Kingdom.
   Records indicate that in the fourth month
   of 1157 (11th year of the reign of King
   Uijong), the roof of Yang-i-jeong (Pavilion
   of Nourishing Enjoyment) was covered in
   celadon tiles. These tiles corroborate records
   in the History of Goryeo (Goryeosa). In
   addition, celadon plaques were used on the
   inside of buildings as decorative accents, as
   exemplified by the celadon tiles inlaid with
   waterfowl, reeds, and bamboo, featuring
   the lyrical depiction of leisurely waterfowl
   playing near the shallow water by the white
   blossoms. (3)

Roof tiles are generally unglazed, in grey, brown, red or black earthenware. The emergence of various celadons as well as white porcelain forms from China saw production shift from earthenware to porcelain. The kilns used for firing roof tiles usually comprised of a flue, a firing chamber, a combustion chamber, and the furnace. These specialist kilns also sometimes had a wall between the firing and combustion chambers. Prior to the unification of the Three Kingdoms, roof tile kilns were characteristically equipped with a low wall or none at all.

Due to modern architectural practice and building methods, the production of these ceramic roof tiles is no longer common. There are still places that keep making such tiles, but they are mostly made for the restoration of existing roofs. These studios follow the traditional way to get the same effect as the original ones. Firstly they use a special type of clay that they can only take from the source in early spring or fall. This special clay is then formed into slabs (using a mold) using a mix of two different types of clay and left for 2-3 weeks until perfectly dry. The tiles are also fired in the traditional way--three days firing and five days cooling. Wood-firing includes the reduction process that gives the beautiful black color to the tiles. Each tile has different color effects because of their place in the kiln.

Some other studios produce ceramic roof tiles as decorative objects, as opposed to their functional nature. Eden Pottery, in Seoul, is one such establishment that makes many different patterned roof tiles as decorative objects. As Mrs. Kim says, "These tiles bring happiness, luck, love, health, long life and wisdom, or they can keep the evil spirits away from you and your loved ones."

Ceramic roof tiles are remarkable because through them it is possible to ascertain the social policy, religious beliefs and economic fortunes of previous eras. They are testament to the period of their production and can tell us much about these historical periods. Ceramics play an important cultural role in Korean history and this is borne out when considering the production, decoration and use of ceramic roof tiles. These tiles--and the motifs inscribed upon them--bear witness to the beliefs and needs of their period and also show how production techniques and materials differed, either for aesthetic reasons or due to changing relations with neighbouring countries (affecting the availability of resources). Inclusion of such beauty in our daily life is a great privilege and cements Korea's place as the 'Land of Symbols'; full of surprises and history.


(1.) KOREA ESSENTIALS No. 11, (2012), Korean Ceramics: The Beauty of Natural Forms, Seoul: The Korea Foundation

(2.) Kang, K. (2012), Korean Ceramics, Seoul: The Korea Foundation

(3.) Kong, K. (2012), Korean Ceramics, Seoul: The Korea Foundation

Leman KALAY is an Assistant Professor at Kyung Hee University, College of Art & Design, and Department of Ceramic Arts in Korea. She received her MFA at Dokuz Eylul University, Institute of Fine Arts, Department of Ceramic and Glass with a thesis titled Printing Techniques Used on Ceramic Surfaces and Applications of Them in 2009. She received her PhD at Hacettepe University, Institute of Fine Arts, Department of Ceramics with a thesis titled Minimalist Installations in Ceramic Art in February 2013.

Special thanks to: Elly Yoonjin Choi, EDEN Pottery, Jihyun Lee.

Caption: Previous page: Unhyeongung Palace: This is the house in which King Gojong, The 26th King of Joseon, lived before he acceded to the throne. Image credit: Leman Kalay. Below: Bukcheon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea. Image credit: Ozgur Bora OZKUL.

Caption: Unhyeongung Palace. Image credit: Leman Kalay.
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Title Annotation:PERCEPTION
Author:Kalay, Leman
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Date:Apr 1, 2018
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