Chests of Korea's Chosun Dynasty

1. Black paulownia nong

2. Linden bandaji

3. Zelkova jang

4. Paulownia ham

5. Red paulownia nong

6. Wild walnut nong

7. Red pine ham

8. Cherry bandaji

9. Zelkova bandaji

 10. Persimmon nong

11. Zelkova lattice jang

12. Pine framed bandaji

13..Red pine bandaji
In these pages you will find a photo sampling of Korean chests from the last full century of the Chosun dynasty (1392-1910). We hope these photos show the basic character of this genre of Korean art, which is characteristic of much other Korean art: "created by nature with borrowed human hands."(1) The goal of the Chosun chest maker was to celebrate the wood’s lines, hues, tones and texture in his product. This focus on nature gives the Chosun chest a dignified yet non-assertive personality that makes it comfortable in any home, traditional or modern, in Asia or in the West.
In addition to displaying a deep regard for nature, chests made for aristocracy embodied an additional feature: Korean neo-Confucian philosophy. Chests with sombre hue and subtle grain symbolized the sobriety expected in the deportment of the Confucian gentleman and were used in his realm in the home; the more decorative woods were used in the chests kept in the women's domain. Fittings were more prolific and more decorative on chests used by women than on chests used by men. 
The chests presented here are the bandaji, jang, ham, and nong. (For information on the pronunciation of Korean, see the box "Romanization," below.) The bandaji was used for storing clothing, documents and valuables inside, and bedding on top during the day (which explains why it is called a "blanket chest" in English). It has one door, which usually runs the entire width of the chest and opens down from the very top. The jang has from one to three levels (rarely a fourth) in one frame, with two outward-opening doors in the center of each level. The ham was a box for items of special significance. The nong was basically a box, usually stacked with another exactly the same and set on a base but occasionally placed separately. 
Every genre of art in every culture has levels of sophistication, ranging from "representative" - the most sophisticated works, which the people of the culture like to think represent that genre in their culture - to kitsch. "Representative" Chosun dynasty chests are those that were crafted before the end of the nineteenth century, when society was a pyramid of royal family, aristocracy, commoners, and low-born. The royal family and aristocracy included only ten to fifteen percent of the population; most chests were crafted for the royal family and aristocracy, in the commissioner's establishment by one craftsman. Because the upper class comprised such a small part of the population, relatively few chests were made, and most of these chests have been lost to ordinary wear, invasions, and expatriation; almost none exist from before the nineteenth century. 
After 1890, with the country's change from an agricultural to an industrial and commercial society, its social hierarchy also changed. More people had money, and distinctions between the different classes weakened; at the same time, the place of craftsmanship changed from the commissioner's location to the shop or factory. And with this ended the crafting of the Chosun chest as an invidual piece of art.
It has been estimated that as of today approximately only about five percent of the "antique" chests being sold these days on the open market are completely authentic Chosun dynasty chests. (Some of the ornamental fittings and hinges on these authentic chests, though not original with the piece, are often antiques in themselves because they were made long, long ago.) The vast majority of pieces that we find on the market now is early twentieth-century shop or factory production, lightly or heavily restored Chosun dynasty chests (with new parts or parts cannibalized from other old chests), and reproductions. The small number of authentic Chosun chests available on the market is decreasing even more by the year, and they are becoming more and more valuable.
Unfortunately, over the years the colors in some of the photos have corrupted. I can't fix them because I don't have the original photos.

Click on one of the thumbnail photos to the left to get a close-up look and detailed information about that chest. To get information on the photographing of these chests, determining age and authenticity, and sources of information on Korean chests, click here.
Romanization: Korean vowels are romanized here according to Latin pronunciation (so that u, for example, is pronounced oo as in food), with two exceptions: for the vowel that sounds something like the u in nut, I use o (that's an o underlined), and for the vowel that sounds something like the oo in good, I use uAn apostrophe either separates two syllables (Kyong-gi is Kyong'gi) in a potentially confusing combination of consonants, or marks an aspirated consonant (e.g., in ch'ung, the ch is pronounced something like the ch in church).
(1) Edward Wright, Man Sil Pai. 1984. Korean Furniture: Elegance and Tradition. Tokyo: Kodansha International.


I am far from expert on Korean chests. However, if you have a comment or a question, e-mail me at

Coppyright 1998 John Holstein
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