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Korean gardening: the gods are praised.


Sungnyemun burning: with regards
Sungnyemun burning: with regards

On the 11th of February, 2008, Sungnyemun burned down the Southern Gate, from Seoul. King Yi T’aejo, the founder of the Choson Kingdom, had this gate built around 1400. He also built the Kyongbok palace. 

Not only were Japanese robbers stopped, but also spiritual happiness and prosperity were provided. At the moment ( 2008 ) on which I write this, it is not yet clear whether it concerns arson. But who would want to disturb the tranquillity of the Koreans in this way?   Because that happened.

The Koreans still believe in all those influences of the gods. The gate will certainly be rebuilt. It is their national pride and the Feng Sui influence is held in honour, as are the influences of the different religions described below. (I’m glad I can tell you the Gate is rebuilt indeed it’s splendid again

The essence of Korean gardening is the natural landscape with hills, streams, and fields. The landscape is not kept at a distance by walls or other borders. Picturesque walls are designed in such a way that trees can look over them.
The environment is allowed in the garden. The nature within the walls is not forced into a straitjacket like in Japan. The Korean garden is natural and therefore calming.
Nature is perfect in Korean philosophy. Therefore, great care must be exercised in human intervention. Intervention is almost seen as violent. The idea behind Korean garden culture is to make nature appear more natural than nature itself. Where the Japanese shape nature, the Korean will shape in nature.


With the word fusion, the Korean garden culture is appointed in one blow. In contrast to the one-sided, humanistic-Christian background of the European, the Koreans culture consists of a mixture of many backgrounds: all of them from their ancient religious history.


Tangun (sandalwood king) is seen as the mythical founder of Korea, 4326 years ago. He descended to Pyongyang, where he founded an empire: Chosön, the country of the morning calm.
This is a myth with a clearly shamanistic character, in which the fusion of cosmos, earth, gods, people, animals, and plants takes place. Shamanism knows many gods and spirits. These live in the landscape but also in the basement, the kitchen or in the attic. In the event of illness or other adversity, many Korean people still visit the Mudang.
Page after page in the Korean newspaper is filled in which the Mudang offers its services. Also, the saving piling of stones, unju-sa, stems from this natural belief. It is customary in Korea to place a foundation stone on the side of the road. Another finder contributes to his or her part. This way the most beautiful pagodas arise spontaneously along the way, but also at a Buddhist shrine or for example a waterfall. They are saving natural shrines, in which everyone cooperates. And the most beautiful thing … nobody kicks them over.


Confucianism from China is the second religious belief that asserts itself. This teaching is mainly focused on the life of man in this world. The relationships between people. Hence very pragmatic indeed.

Lovely walls.
Yi dynasty beauty.

The Confucian assumes that harmony arises in society if the ruler, the clergyman, the father or the son is actually a ruler, clergyman, father, and son. Five cardinal virtues must be observed for this purpose: etiquette, humanity, justice, loyalty, and forgiveness. Confucianism is thus not actually a religion. Yet its symbolism has a lot of influence on Korean garden culture.
Buddhism also has a great influence. In Korea, Lamaism also has great strength. A lama is a Buddhist guru with real power. In cultural history, there was a strong tendency towards modesty and naturalness as expressed mainly in architecture.
Buildings and gardens had to harmonize with their environment. In Korea, there was no conflict between religions. They simply live side by side. Later, Christ was also introduced by the Jesuits. This Western saviour also got his place. The Korean culture only grew richer. Many Koreans choose a very down-to-earth starting point for faith. They just pray to everyone. If one does not help, one may expect more benefit from the other.
It is therefore not surprising that Confucian symbolism is found in Buddhist temples, while shamanic gods keep watch. Therefore the fusion between four big worlds religions. Where in the west the rich ruled the garden culture, for example with the exorbitant Versailles, in Korea the saint set his spade in the ground, Our monks came no further than the herb garden. Those in the Far East succeeded in creating true garden art.


The Korean word for a garden is a combination of two Chinese characters. Chong, the first character, indicates a garden surrounded by buildings or walls. Chong can be divided into a palace garden, official garden, temple garden or regular garden according to the function of the building, where the garden belongs. Ordinary gardens are divided into front or back garden, indoor or outdoor garden, middle garden or for example a gate or stair garden according to the location. Won, the second character, means hill or wide field with forests. With this character, the garden rises above the garden surrounded by buildings or walls.

The composition of the two characters thus means a small garden, but also a park complex or a naturally designed park.

The outside is looking in.
The outside is looking in.

Korean garden architecture is a holistic architecture. According to the dictionary, Holism is the view that there is a connection in reality, which is only apparent from a reflection of the whole and can not be found in the components.
The Korean garden culture, for example, combines Chong and Won, building a human environment that combines well with the world of nature while respecting both nature and human values.
It can be described as the art of creating an outdoor space with ecological values, functional and practical. It gives more value to ecology than to scientific disciplines such as technology and architecture.


The Korean garden differs from the formal garden. In the latter, visual beauty is sought. The beauty of the Korean garden arises from a complex, spiritual and mythical beauty, which is captured by the spirit and its five senses: sight, smell. hearing, taste, and feeling.
This is not the beauty where, for example, is sought in the Japanese garden; captured by planting and materials. The Korean garden has an organic beauty that changes in space and time. It relies on the elements and on materials used.

It is not only external beauty but also a manifestation of cosmic principles such as fragility, sound, contrasts between light and dark and dry and wet. In the distant past, about a thousand public gardens have been built in Korea. Not by specialists, but by the

The Gods are praised!
The Gods are praised!

garden owners themselves. They knew the working of nature through their own gardens, which were therefore usually described as natural gardens.
These gardens acted as intermediaries between the compulsions of nature and the needs of man. It is strange that Korean garden culture has never been discovered by the rest of the world. The Chinese garden gets attention, while the Japanese are a real hype.
Actually, that is the case with the entire Korean culture. Yet it is true that Japanese culture would have been nothing without that of Korea. The Japanese imported Korean ideas. Korea was for centuries a hatching ground for all kinds of Eastern civilizations to the land of the rising sun.

Hugo J. Smal 2008