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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 (1335 – 1408), the founder of the Choson Kingdom, had this gate built around 1400. He also constructed the Kyongbok palace. These days you can see the fruit of Korean gardening there.
The purpose of this gate was not only to stop Japanese robbers. It also provided spiritual happiness and prosperity. 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.

For two thousand years, Koreans have been constructing beautiful gardens meant to bring the harmony of the natural world into man-made spaces. These gardens range from majestic gardens situated in royal palaces to humble courtyard gardens in traditional hanok-style family homes.

Emphasis on naturalistic beauty.

Korean gardens are distinguished from their Chinese and Japanese cousins by a deep emphasis on naturalistic beauty, a direct influence of the Korean philosophy of hermitism. To achieve this natural beauty,  gardens take into account architecture, water, stone, and open space to create a sense of unlikely balance that isn’t forced or artificial. The most common features of Korean gardens grow out of these elements and include architectural pavilions and central reflecting ponds.

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

Trees look in.

The essence of Korean gardening is the natural landscape with hills, streams, and fields. The landscape is not at a distance by walls or other borders. The Korean gardener build walls to let trees 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, the Hanguk takes great care in human intervention. Interference 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 Koreans will shape in nature.

Korean gardening is a fusion.

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


Tangun (the 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. 

Natural shrines.

Also, the 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.

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Confucianism from China is the second religious belief that is a part of the Korean gardening philosophy. This focuses mainly on the life of man in this world. The relationships between people. Hence very pragmatic indeed.

Korean gardening in palace.
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. He observes the Five cardinal virtues for this purpose: etiquette, humanity, justice, loyalty, and forgiveness.

Great influence.

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.

No conflict.

In Korea, there was no conflict between religions. They simply live side by side. Later, the Jesuits brought Christ. 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.

The saint set his spade.

It is therefore not surprising that you find Confucian symbolism 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. The European 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 divides gardens is into a palace, official, temple and regular. This is according to the function of the building. Korean architectures divide the common garden into the front or back garden, indoor or outdoor, middle garden or for example a gate or stair garden. This is also 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.

Korean gardening means the outside is looking in.
Outside looking in.

Human environment.

Korean garden architecture is holistic. According to the dictionary, Holism is the view that there is a connection in reality. Hence the whole is not 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. It is respecting both nature and human values.
Korean gardening is 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.

Korean gardening uses the mythical.

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. This is captured by the spirit and its five senses: sight, smell. hearing, taste, and feeling.
This is not the beauty, for example, found 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.

Korean gardening is natural.
Korean gardening is natural.

Compulsions of nature.

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, the Koreans build about a thousand public gardens. Not by specialists, but by the garden owners themselves. They knew the working of nature through their own gardens, 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 is not discovered by the rest of the world. The Chinese garden gets attention, while the Japanese are a real hype.

Hugo J. Smal 2008

To read more about the history of Korean gardens, and the current revival of the home courtyard garden in Korean homes, please follow the links below: