[Inkstone] Byeongpung: The Folding Screens of Korea

  • onJuly 3, 2021
  • Vol.52 Summer 2021
  • byMin Jung

Gwandong palgyeong folding screen from the Joseon period (1392–1910). Image © National Museum of Korea


Screens in Korean Culture

There is a Korean saying that a person is born behind a screen and dies behind a screen. In the past, when it was common for babies to be born at home, a folding screen, called byeongpung (亶蠾, lit. “wind blocker”) in Korean, would be used to turn a space into a delivery room. A newborn baby would emit her first cry behind the screen. Funerals likewise used to be conducted at home. A screen would be placed in front of the casket, and visitors would pay condolences while looking at it.

Thus, a folding screen was a special object for Koreans, accompanying a person’s life from beginning to end. A screen could be found in all living spaces in traditional Korea, being at once everyday furniture and more than just furniture.

In Samguk sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms), one can see that in Silla’s caste system, called the bone rank system, people of true-bone rank (the second highest caste) and below were not allowed to use embroidered screens. At that time, screens functioned as class and status markers. Goryeo dogyeong (Illustrated Account of Goryeo), written by Xu Jing (1091–1153), the Song Chinese envoy who visited Goryeo, records that the Goryeo royal court had embroidered screens arranged on all four sides in the banquet hall. It is imaginable that the Goryeo court had hoped to impress the Chinese envoy with the elaborate screens. These historical anecdotes attest to the significance of screens as a work of art and luxury item in Korea since ancient times.

A screen panel is made of a rectangular wooden frame backed with a light wooden lattice that is lined with many layers of paper. A painting or a calligraphic work on either paper or silk is mounted on the panel. Some screens are mounted with works of silk embroidery. Two or more such panels can be connected by using strips of paper or cloth, creating a multi-panel folding screen.

The structure of traditional Korean houses influenced to a great extent how Koreans made and used screens. Before modernization, Koreans mainly sat on the floor of their homes instead of on chairs. Rather than eating at a high table, they used small, low individual dining tables. Rooms in traditional Korean houses were typically small with low ceilings because the size of wood beams and ridgepoles were strictly regulated by sumptuary laws. Small living spaces naturally led to a preference for a light, mobile folding screen over a tall and wide single-panel screen set in a heavy frame. The mobility of a light folding screen contributed to its versatile usage: it could be set behind a table when performing ancestral rites, placed in front of a door to block wind, or used as a cover to hide any unseemly sight.

It is also important to understand the climate of the peninsula if one is to understand the culture of screens in Korea. In cold and dry winters, the paper-lined doors and windows commonly used by Koreans did not provide enough insulation. Screens came in handy in such situations as they provided a second layer of protection from the cold wind. In hot and humid summers, on the other hand, they could be removed without difficulty.

Apart from their practical uses, screens also had symbolic functions. At no time was this clearer than when a screen was placed behind the host. As a visitor sat facing his host, his gaze naturally fell on both the host and the screen. Imagine also, that when a son saw his father, or a pupil visited her teacher, the imagery on the screen would become conflated with the image of the host sitting in front of it. In this way, the theme of the screen could configure the relationship between host and guest. A case in point is found in the classical novel, Chunhyangjeon (The Tale of Chunhyang), which survives in many different versions. In one version, the protagonist, Scholar Yi, visits the house of the heroine Chunyang and is immediately captivated by the painted screen showing images of the four seasons. Poems inscribed on the screen created double entendres: while they are primarily descriptions of the painted scenes, they also allude to the passionate emotional state that Chunhyang and Scholar Yi are experiencing as they fall in love with each other. Thus, a screen in traditional Korean living environments not only reflected the host’s cultural standards, but also set the tone for communication between host and guest.

Screens also played an important role in rituals. When performing ancestral rites in the daecheongmaru of the house, a screen was placed behind a table to separate the ritual space from the living space beyond. For this purpose, a screen with calligraphy instead of painted images was used. Many modern Korean households still have double-sided screens tucked away in storage. One side of these screens are usually decorated with bird and flower motifs in silk embroidery; the other side is decorated with calligraphy against a plain white background. The colorful side with flowers and birds would be shown in normal times, but the calligraphic side would be used during ancestral rites. These screens were usually brought to the household by women as part of their wedding furniture. It took great time and effort to make such screens. While they have now fallen out of use, they were once valued possessions.

Screens were not just used indoors, but they could be used outdoors as well. As Korean houses were fairly small, big events such as weddings or birthday celebrations often took place in the courtyard. On such occasions, mats would be placed on the ground, and a pair of folding screens would be placed side by side, turning the space in front of the screens into the main stage for a banquet. Backstage (i.e., behind the screen), people would busy themselves preparing food and such, safely out of view. Old photographs of weddings and banquets taken as late as the 1970s often show participants gathered in front of a pair of folding screens. Such photographs vividly illustrate the versatile use of screens in Korean culture.


The Structure of Korean Screens and Their Thematic Variations

Koreans often displayed their folding screens in a partly closed mode, each pair of panels forming a V-shape. In order for a screen to close completely when folded, it must always have an even number of panels. A six or eight-panel screen was the most common form in Korea, with ten- or twelve-panel screens reserved for large celebrative occasions.

An eight-panel screen, the most widely used form in Korea, may have had a close connection to the number eight, which Korean art places so much emphasis on. Painted albums and poems were often created in sets of eight; it is possible that they were made with the idea of transforming them into screens. Such a hypothesis sounds even more probable when one notes that the images on Korean screens were often related but not seamlessly connected. The self-contained image on each panel allowed it to be appreciated on its own when a screen was set up in the half-folded mode, visually breaking continuity from one panel to the next.

The Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers, a beloved theme throughout East Asia, illustrates this point. A widely popular theme in China since the Song dynasty (960–1279), the eight views were usually rendered as a single unbroken scene in Chinese handscrolls. Korean interpretations of the theme, in contrast, often rendered the eight views as independent, vertical compositions mounted on an eight-panel folding screen. Although the Korean rendering sacrificed continuity, it was better suited for the appreciation of each individual scene when the screen was displayed in half-open fashion.

Likewise, local scenic spots throughout the Korean peninsula were usually grouped into sets of eight, such as Gwandong palgyeong (The Eight Scenic Sites East of the Daegwallyeong Pass). Poems were often written in a set of eight stanzas, such as Hallim byeolgok (A Song of Confucian Scholars) and Dongnak palgok (The Eight Songs of Solitary Pleasure). If a poem had an odd number of stanzas, such as Gosan gugokga (The Nine Songs from Gosan), a preface would be added to form an even number. Such practices may have been connected to a preference for a folding screen with even-numbered panels.


Eight-panel munjado screen from the Joseon period, painted with eight Chinese characters for the Confucian virtues of (from right to left): “filial piety” (hyo, ), “brotherly respect” (je), “loyalty to the king” (chung), “trust” (sin), “ritual decorum  and  propriety” (ye), “righteousness” (ui), “integrity” (yeom), and “modesty” (chi). Image © National Museum of Korea


As mentioned above, the decoration of Korean screens achieved continuity not necessarily by painting one image over linked panels, but by making each panel collectively work toward a larger, unified theme. A case in point is the pictorial ideograph (munjado) screen. In this screen, eight sinographs, each signifying one of the eight Confucian virtues, are written one to a panel, such as yin (humaneness), ui (righteousness), ye (ritual decorum and propriety), ji (wisdom), hyo (filial piety), je (brotherly respect), yeom (integrity), and chi (modesty). Each panel would have alongside the character an illustration of an ancient anecdote exemplifying the virtue. In this way, a character, which is self-contained in meaning, would take part in communicating long narratives assisted by images and the format of the screen.

A screen could show eight exemplars from history for any desired theme: eight accomplished scholars for a screen set in a schoolroom, eight filial sons and daughters for a screen emphasizing filial piety, and so on. Sometimes a screen would show the passage of time instead of listing discrete examples, as in a life-course painting (pyeongsaengdo) screen, which depicted the ideal course of life for a nobleman who enjoys a high official position and many other fortunes. If such topics were too flamboyant, then a scholar could always opt for the four gentlemanly subjects—flowering plums, orchids, chrysanthemums, and bamboo—each pictured twice on an eight-panel screen. In the same manner, the four seasons screens depicted motifs for each season on two panels. Bird and flower screens showed eight independent motifs, one for each of the eight panels.

One aspect that had to be considered when choosing the theme of a screen was its main location. A screen placed in a drawing room, occupied by the male of the house and used for receiving guests, was distinct from a screen placed in the inner quarters. A screen placed in the latter commonly featured themes such as birds and flowers or auspicious symbols, especially those relating to fertility. On the other hand, a screen placed in a drawing room tended to depict academic subjects, such as famous Chinese poems, one on each panel. Such screens allowed the host to intimate his taste and cultural knowledge to his guests.

A screen made for a festive occasion—a birthday, for example—usually depicted the banquet of the Tang dynasty general Guo Ziyi, the banquet of the Queen Mother of the West, or the life-course painting theme mentioned earlier. The sun, moon and five peaks screen (Ilwoldo) provided a backdrop to the Joseon king, and thus was off limits to anyone else. Screens were made with a variety of different themes according to their intended placement and use.

The late eighteenth century saw the development of a special type of screen called chaekgado (scholar’s accouterments). The genre has its origins in Chinese treasure shelves that were used in the Qing imperial palaces and noblemen’s mansions to display antiques and other precious objects. In China, large-scale pictorial representations of such shelves were sometimes made in a tieluo (attach and detach) format so that they could be affixed to a wall or a single-panel screen. In Korea, pictorial representations of treasure shelves predominantly took the format of multi-panel folding screens, with each panel representing the column of a shelf. Many such screens also used linear perspective and chiaroscuro. As such, the chaekgado screen placed behind the host’s seat in a drawing room gave off the illusion of an actual shelf, visually transforming the drawing room into a fanciful library or a cabinet of curiosities.

Another unique aspect of Korean screens is the wide silk lining on the lower part, below the main motif. This might be attributable to the traditional Korean lifestyle of sitting on the floor and using low furniture—that is, the lower part of a screen may have been obscured by people sitting or furniture, so motifs began a little higher up. The format of a multi-panel screen may also have influenced how cityscapes were pictured by introducing verticality to a theme traditionally depicted in a horizontal composition. For example, the most famous cityscape painting in Chinese history, Along the River During the Qingming Festival by the Song dynasty painter Zhang Zeduan (1085–1145), shows the Northern Song capital Bianjing in a horizontal handscroll format. Conversely, the eighteenth-century Korean screen The City of Supreme Peace shows the cityscape unfolding alongside three parallel roads, thus adding verticality to the overall composition. This is a case in which the medium of a picture-bearing object influences the picture’s composition.

Despite their glorious past, screens no longer have a place in modern Korean life. Western-style furniture—couches and display selves—have superseded screens in condos and apartments. There is little concern now about dividing spaces or shielding from wind. As a result, many families today no longer have screens and if they do, they are kept tucked away except for a few times each year when ancestral rites are performed. Such use has even become obsolete for families who no longer perform ancestral rites.

Most concerningly, screens have failed to draw the attention of buyers and sellers in present-day antique markets. More often than not, multi-panel folding screens are sold panel by panel as a way to leverage more profit from the item. In such cases, the unifying theme of the multi-panel screen is lost. The changing environment of interiors has inevitably brought about the alteration of traditional artistic forms.

Screens have played a unique role in traditional Korean housing for centuries. The challenges associated with decorating them allowed artists to rethink traditional themes, composition, functionality, and symbolism and to find new and more creative ways of expressing them. Without a doubt, the screen is one of the best examples that defines and illustrates what Korean art is.



Translated by Young Kim


Min Jung

Hanyang University