Cultural Selection: Ancient Korean Art and Glassware
Early contact between the Korean peninsula and Central Asia by way of the Silk Roads resulted in Korea’s accommodation of Central Asian cultural influences, symbols, motifs, and artistic expression. Conversely, few traces of Korean culture have been found in Central Asia despite known royal envoys and pilgrimages throughout the region. Evidence of this transnational fluidity is evident with bibliographic records and artefacts unearthed from ancient tumuli that were excavated in Korea. These documents attest to the intercultural exchanges between regions. The most significant documentation, “Travelogue to India”, was written by Hyech’o, an 8th-century Silla priest who passed through Central Asia. He also travelled to India by sea and returned to China by land via the Pamirs and Kucha of East Turkestan. In addition, history books entitled, Samguk Sagi and the Samguk Yusa, contain some passages that suggest contact between the two regions, including Central Asian priests who arrived in Korea during the introduction of Buddhism, as well as those from the Haso region who arrived in Central Asia with Tang envoys. Moreover, records of traded goods list a horn-shaped cup, Se-se (blue jade), and a tapestry from the Unified Silla.
Excavated items, including sculptures, paintings, and crafts, are also a testament to their provenance, authenticity, routes of dissemination, and indigenization. Examples include Central Asian-inspired metalwork, the use of Far Eastern painting techniques, and objects incorporating Scythian zoomorphic features. However, glassware are perhaps the most notable items, since they are believed to have been imported from the West, in terms of form and raw materials. Glassware discovered in the 5th-century Silla tumuli can be directly linked to Roman glass due to its chemical composition containing alkali, which is dissimilar to ancient Chinese glass. Moreover, glassware originating from the West was unearthed primarily from tombs of dynasties located in the north, such as the Feng Ma-nu of Northern Wei, Zu, and Feng su-fu, court minister of Northern Van. In addition, decorative patterning techniques employed were pervasive in the West. These included ribbon glass, reticelli, Nuppen giass, tortoise shell, tied-ends, and dotted. There are similarities between the dotted pattern, excavated from the Kumryong tumulus, and glass bottles discovered in Köln, Germany excavation sites. This type of pattern was characteristic of the region, appearing in the 3rd and 4thcenturies. Although it is not known how Roman glass from Germany was transmitted to the Korean peninsula, it is believed to have made its journey by way of the steppe route, or the northern Silk Roads.
Despite archeological evidence, it still cannot be concluded whether glassware was manufactured in Korea. However, the appearance of comma-shaped jade, Korean child images excavated from the tomb of King Munyong of Paekche, and a thin plate of glass inserted in a gilt-bronze harness all reflected local Korean craftsmanship during that era. Furthermore, the more refined manufacturing technique, the more likely it is thought to have originated from the West. This is evident with the increasing number of Occidental ornaments, motifs, and designs including human figures made of colorful, round glass beads, as well as birds and trees that were discovered in the royal tomb of King Michu. Human figures are depicted with physical characteristics similar to those in the West. Moreover, a glass bead mosaic technique, as well as a cut glass manufacturing technique attributed to the ancient Persian Sassanid Dynasty was discovered on some excavated glass bottles from a tumulus in the north. Dynamic intercultural exchanges and continuous aesthetic appropriation that occurred between the Korean peninsula and Central Asia are a testament to the cultural impact that inevitably touched those living along the Silk Roads and beyond, even in contemporary society.
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