Does the Nationality of Artists Matter? Some Thoughts on Koryŏ Buddhist Paintings in Japan

by Yoonjung Seo (Art Histories Fellow 2014/15, Forum Transregionale Studien)

This is an edited excerpt of a paper presented at the conference “Transnational Cultural Interactions between Korea and Japan From the Pre-modern to the Colonial Period” that was held at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem from May 17 to 19 in 2015. Here you can find Yoonjung Seo’s conference report.



Fig. 1. Water-Moon Avalokiteshvara 1310, color on silk, hanging scroll, 419.5 x 254.2 cm, Kagami Shrine, Karatsu, Japan Photo from Kikutake Junʼichi and Chŏng U-t’aek, Koryŏ sidae ŭi purhwa (Seoul: Sigongsa, 2000), plate no. 67. **The photo in this book is permitted to use for publication with the consent of the publisher as far as the proper information and credit appears and not for commercial purpose.

Fig. 1. Water-Moon Avalokiteshvara
1310, color on silk. ©Kagami Shrine, Karatsu, Japan

It is not surprising that the study of Koryŏ Buddhist paintings started by Japanese scholars in the early twentieth century given that approximately 130 paintings of close 160 extant Koryŏ Buddhist paintings have been placed in Japanese collections at that time. Koryŏ Buddhist Painting refers a group of early Korean paintings depicting Buddhist icons, mostly in a format of large hanging scroll, which are well known for their delicate details and sumptuous execution. Except handful examples, surviving Koryŏ Buddhist paintings were produced in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries of the Koryŏ dynasty in the Korean Peninsular under the powerful political intervention and oppression from the Yuan, Mongols. Due to the paucity of textual evidence on provenance and dated works and limited knowledge of Korean Buddhist paintings, Koryŏ Buddhist paintings tends to be mistaken for Japanese or Chinese works of the contemporary era, the Song or Yuan dynasties and Kamakura period. While paying special attention to this unstable national identity of Koryŏ religions icons imported to the Japanese archipelago, I explore the intercultural relationships reflected in the transmission and perception of Koryŏ Buddhist paintings in medieval and early modern Japan. Thoroughly plumbing the rich examples of Koryŏ Buddhist paintings in Japanese collections reveals how their function and meaning shifted when conforming to ritual and culture in the recipient society; this encompasses tracing and reconstructing the process of how Koryŏ Buddhist paintings were misattributed as Chinese objects, re/identified as Korean paintings, or assimilated to Japanese artistic models.

To highlight the roles of actors and agents in the process of transcultural interactions between Korea and Japan, my study probes key issues: how foreign artifacts played a significant role in shaping cultural and political identities as well as the religious authority of the Japanese elite in both secular and religious communities, and why and how the Korean origin of a given work was emphasized or effaced. I uncover the driving forces and hidden agendas underlying the persistent debate on the national identity of artists and the re-attribution of art. Thus this essay trace the story of how an object was appreciated and recognized in a later socio-historical context, to the plurality of agencies at the moment of artistic creation and the ensuing conflicts and negotiations among these various agencies. This relativist and post-historical approach involves the shift in paradigm from one where one, true meaning innately fixed to object itself at the point of creation to one where meaning consistently contingent and revised and posits the identity and provenance of a cultural artifact in a state of flux.

Traveling Images: Relocation of Koryŏ Buddhist Paintings in Japan

Although only little textual evidence remains to trace the specific circumstance in which Koryŏ Buddhist paintings left the Korean peninsula, it has been alleged that the Hideyoshi’s invasion of the 1590s’ brought about an extensive relocation of Korean Buddhist paintings and other artifacts to Japan. However, scores of extant Koryŏ Buddhist paintings were brought to Japan before Hideyoshi’s Imjin War, as early as the late fourteenth century, as evidenced by Water-Moon Avalokiteshvara, which was enshrined at Kagami Shrine. Amitabha Triad at Kakurin-ji explains that this painting was repaired in 1477, indicating that it had been removed from its original place and relocated in Japan. “The Record of Banshō-ji” written in 1481, reveals that the painting of Bhaishajyaguru from the Koryŏ dynasty was enshrined in that temple. Also, Amitabh and the Eight Great Bodhisattvas at Keigan-ji is accompanies by a wooded rod with an inscription expositing that the painting was repaired in 1484. “The Record of Risshō-ji” notes that the Koryŏ Eleven-Headed Avalokiteshvara was donated to the temple in 1484 as a prayer for the rebirth of parents and relatives in paradise.

If the aforementioned paintings were dislodged from the Korean peninsula before the Hideyoshi’s military campaign, then when and by which routes did these paintings find their way to Japan? Scholars have long assumed that it was due to the raids of Japanese pirates who controlled sea routes and trade along the Seto Inland Sea, soon expanding their influence to the coastal areas of Shikoku and Kyūshū Islands. The Kagami Shrine’s Water-Moon Avalokiteshvara is considered such a case. The original inscription explains its historical context, the production of the painting at the Koryŏ court, while the notes added later demonstrates when and how this painting was imported to Japan and relocated in the shrine. This painting was most likely placed in the royal temple nearby the capital city of Kaegyŏng, probably Minch’ŏn-sa or Hŭngch’ŏn-sa; both temples was established under royal patronage and functioned as the ancestral shrines for the kings and their Mongolian queens, and imperial family members of the Yuan dynasty. The second inscription indicates that monk Ryōkaku obtained this painting, which had been circulating on the market, and later his disciple, the monk Ryōken donated it to Kagami shrine in 1391.

Although Japanese pirates and military forces were responsible for the widespread removal of Koryŏ Buddhist paintings to Japan, the importation of Korean productions through international diplomacy and peaceful maritime trades also contributed to the circulation of Buddhist icons in East Asia. Koryŏ Tripitaka sutras and Korean-casted temple bells were frequently bestowed by Koryŏ and Chosŏn monarchs in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries by the request of shoguns and regional warrior houses in Japan. Kusui Takashi’s survey on the inscriptions on Koryŏ and early Chosŏn-period Korean sutras and iron bells in Japanese collections suggest that these objects were sent to Japan as periodic royal releases of Buddhist artifacts in response to the requests of Japanese embassies dispatched from Ryūkyūan or Japanese rulers and local elites in Kyūshū and western Japan.

Perception of Koryŏ Buddhist Paintings in Japan

Late Koryŏ dynasty, color on silk, hanging scroll, 123.0 x 82.0 cm, Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst, Köln, Germany, Inv. no. A 09, 59. Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst Köln, NRICH

Fig. 2. Late Koryŏ dynasty, color on silk. ©Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst Köln, NRICH

Numerous Koryŏ Buddhist paintings in Japanese collections, now identified as Korean productions based on their inscription, had conventionally been attributed to Chinese masters of Buddhist painting until the 1970s. Zhang Sigong, Chinese master, appears most frequently than any others. Zhang is identified as a professional Chinese artist who excellent in the Buddhist subjects and worked for the commission for the local temple affiliated with the Tiantai Pure Land School in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province. However, Zhang Sigong has long been an enigma, whether he is a historical figure and whether he was a professional artist from China or Korea. He is only recorded in Japanese sources; the earliest record of Zhang Sigong is found in the Kundaikan sōchōki (Manual of the Shogunal Attendant). Zhang Sigong is recorded therein as a painter of the Song dynasty who exceled in figural subjects and Buddha and Amitabha representations and belonged to the highest rank of painterly excellence.

Works of art attributed to Zhang Sigong reveal distinctive stylistic features that suggest they were created by more than one artist. In fact, it seems that these works can be divided into at least three categories according to their stylistic and iconographical characteristics: paintings closely associated with art of the Southern Song, Koryŏ, and Yuan dynasties, respectively. While the Amitabha Triad in Zenrin-ji and Rozan-ji were identified Zhang Sigong’s works based on the written texts, the following works consists of a number of anonymous religious paintings that were at one time or another attributed to Zhang Sigong and are now reattributed as Koryŏ productions. These paintings share stylistic elements such as decorative details, limited color palettes consisting of primary colors, arabesque-medallion motifs, generous use of gold pigment, a composition that over-emphasizes the main deity, idiosyncratic iconography that contrasts with Chinese or Japanese counterparts, clear ink outlines, and realistic depictions employing shading techniques. The 1286 Amitabha in the former collection of the Shimazu family, which is currently verified as one of the few dated Koryŏ Buddhist paintings with a dedicatory inscription, here of a Koryŏ retainer, was attributed to Zhang Sigong until the 1970s.

Another Water-Moon Avalokiteshvara in a royal pose of ease is housed in Shōten-ji and was conventionally ascribed to Zhang Sigong based on the record found on a gold paper slip attached to the painting and the inscription on the inner side of the lid of the storage box of the scroll. The veracity of the information obtained from such external documents that assert the continental provenance of the paintings housed in Japan’s shrines or temples is contested. This is simply because most of them were added in later periods by collectors or connoisseurs based on their knowledge of the textual sources inherited from previous centuries, which sometimes contained erroneous information. The Kundaikan became the one of the most influential reference works among collectors of Chinese paintings because it was widely circulated as the most authoritative text written by the celebrated Ashigaga shogun’s cultural advisors. In particular, the Kundaikan painter’s list is responsible for codification of correspondence between a given painter and a subject; Wu Daozi was a specialist in Avalokiteshvara, Lu Xinzhong an expert in painting the Ten Kings of Hell, and Zhang Sigong a master of Amitabha. Collectors of Chinese paintings who were preoccupied by these textual sources tended to apply authoritative, proper Chinese names to hundreds of anonymous Koryŏ paintings in Japanese collections. It is not coincidental that a number of paintings of Shakyamuni Triad are attributed to Zhang Sigong. Zhang Sigong’s Shakyamuni Triad rendered in polychrome colors was the theme that appeared the most frequently in rai mono (collections of letters and responses) compiled in the Muromachi period. For this reason, a number of Shakamuni Triad paintings which reveal diverse styles developed in different periods are attributed to Zhang Sigong.

Although a number of Koryŏ Buddhist paintings were labeled “Chinese products,” there was consciousness of Korean paintings and Koryŏ style in Japan. On the back of the Amitabha Triad at Kakurin-ji was an inscription stating that it had been executed by Koryŏ painter named Mussang. Risshō-ji owned a painting of Eleven-headed Avalokiteshvara dated to 1484, and this painting was referred to Kōrai-e (Korean painting). “Record of Treasures of the East Temple” (Tōbōki), an inventory of imported objects at Tō-ji, describes the paintings Six Avalokiteshvara, which was rendered in the style of Koryŏ painting. The nineteenth-century record Reference for Old Paintings (Koga bikō) includes the entry Avalokiteshvara by Koryŏ Monk Hyehŏ, accompanied by a sketch of the painting and an inscription. This work still survives and is treasured at Sensō-ji. It is clear that the compiler was aware of the scroll’s Korean origin. He added the commentary that “without (Koryŏ) inscription, this painting could be ascribed to a painter from the Kose clan.” Remarkably, Tani’s note implies a likeness between Koryŏ Buddhist paintings and Kamakura Buddhist paintings done by Kose painters; this has sometimes misled readers to think the origin of the Korean painting is Japanese.

Koryŏ Buddhist Paintings with and without the “Chinese” Label

The painted Koryŏ Buddhist images were oftentimes donated by warlords or daimyo families, who brought them back from the peninsula as war booty or purchased them at an art market in Japan. The paintings were worshiped as the main deity in a temple hall and were used for Buddhist ceremonies. Beside shoguns and federal lords, a priest could obtain a Koryŏ painted icon and offered it to the temple. As indicated in the records of the Kundaikan, ōrai mono, and inventories of shoguns’ collections of the Muromachi period, Koryŏ Buddhist paintings were mistakenly classified as Zhang Sigong’s works and were collected and displayed as kara-mono, imported Chinese luxury goods, at shogun’s residence. The display of kara-mono as a means of flaunting his material wealth and legitimizing political authority developed in the late Muromachi period and reached a high point around 1430 in the Higashiyama culture of Ashikaga Yoshimasa. The fondness for kara-mono prevalent in this period offers interesting insights into the Japanese epistemology of the binary structure between “Kara” (Tang) and “Yamato” (Japan). Kara, which lexically means the Tang Empire of China, does not simply refer to the historical entity but exists as a function or category. This is apparent in the Japanese insistence on using the appellation “Kara” in reference to paintings (kara-e) and things (kara-mono) imported from the continent even after the fall of the Tang dynasty. Even the kingdoms on the Korean peninsula were recognized as “Kara.” As aptly noted by Chino Kaori, “Kara” persisted as a phantom of a “great foreign country” in the Japanese consciousness, forming a counterpoint to indigenous Japanese culture, Yamato, thus solidifying ideological and cultural visions of native and alien.

In addition to investigating the context in which Koryŏ works were placed in Japan, it is instructive to explore the iconographic changes and new stylistic adjustments that occurred in those paintings in their trajectory in Japan. The Kshitigarbha and the Ten Kings of Hell in Chion-in and Hōdō-ji were repainted later in Japan. It is assumed that the upper section was restored by Japanese painters later, presumably in the Edo period. The insertion of Japanized elements into Koryŏ devotional icons is also observed in the Hōdō-ji painting. A pronounced use of line drawing in the deity’s face and robes, ambiguous demarcation between facial area and head, multi-layered, concentric circle-shaped halos with different colors are more closely reflective of Japanese tradition. The Buddha Triad in Kyokurin-in presents iconographical adjustments made to a Koryŏ Buddhist painting. In this painting the main deity, Amitabha Buddha, forms a triad with two other scrolls, those of Manjushri and Samantabhadra. While Amitabha shows typical stylistic and iconographic elements ascribed to late Koryŏ Buddhist paintings, the two attending bodhisattvas show the strong influence of Yuan Buddhist paintings, which feature a syncretism of Buddhism and Daoism. These two paintings appear to be added by Japanese artists to the main deity later to make a triptych. It is noteworthy that Manjushiri and Samantabhadra appear with Amitabha, rather than the bodhisattvas that typically flank Amitabha, Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthamaprapta. This is because the painting of Amitabha was mistakenly identified as Shakyamuni by a Chinese artist named Yuanshan based on the record inscribed on the back of the painting. Thus Japanese patrons who later commissioned attending boddhisattvas had Manjushiri and Samantabhadra painted to constitute the Shakyamuni Triad.

Copying Chinese Paintings or Korean Paintings?

Late Koryŏ dynasty, color on silk. Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul, Korea.

Fig. 3. Late Koryŏ dynasty, color on silk. ©Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul, Korea.

It is not uncommon that Japanese painters copied paintings imported from China and Korea by borrowing brushworks of revered masters of the past. Painters associated with the Kano School of Painting and the Rinpa School who venerated a conservative Chinese painting style from the remote past and the eccentric individualist of the late Edo period are such cases. Consciousness of a distinct tradition of “Koryŏ Buddhist Painting” is most likely recognized among the artists of the Edo period, but it is doubtful that they considered these characteristics derived from the Korean peninsula. Rather they were inclined to assign such pieces to the reverential traditions that often dated to the Yuan, the Song, or occasionally even the Tang periods.

Chung Wu’taek introduces Japanese copies of Koryŏ Buddhist paintings, which is worth mentioning here. Water-Moon Avalokiteshvara in Bujō-ji is assumed to be a copy of a thirteenth-century Koryŏ painting in Haseda-dera. However, the Japanese copy departs from the original by presenting Japanese artistic traditions such as a visible outlines applied to the body and garment, a floral-medallion pattern, and a kundika bottle without gold contour, suggesting links to the Buddhist style that emerged in Heian period and continued through the Kamakura period.

Shakyamuni Triad painted by Itō Jakuchū (1716-1800) was donated to Shōkoku-ji in 1765. According to Jakuchū’s document of dedication, he “scrupulously copies them from the ingenious and unique triptych of Shakyamuni, Manjushri and Samantabhadra painted by Zhang Sigong.” Shakyamuni in the Cleveland Museum and two flanking bodhisattvas in the Seikadō Bunko Art Museum are assured as his prototype based on the striking correspondence in composition, details, and iconographical particulars. Several characteristics of Koryŏ Buddhist imagery were found in Jakuchū’s reproduction, such as strict frontality of the figure, bilateral composition, and non-volumetric treatment. However, the use of a greater range and variety of colors, including pink and light blue and green, flattened abstract forms, and emphasized garment lines that create undulating movement are more likely to be related to Japanese traditions and Jakuchū’s artistic taste. It is unknown whether Jakuchū recognized the Korean provenance of the original paintings. Given Jakuchū’s admiration for Chinese paintings, and the fact that Zhang Sigong has routinely been identified in Japanese sources a being a Chinese artist of the Song dynasty, Jakuchū is more likely to have appreciated the painting as a Chinese old masterpiece.

Boundaries of Koryŏ Buddhist Paintings and Beyond

The cultural biography of Koryŏ Buddhist paintings in Japan demonstrates the ways in which Buddhist icons have been relocated and resigned over time. It provokes the need to reconsider modern scholars’ overwhelming concern with the nationality of artists, which is oftentimes motivated by the tenacious desire to search for a national style and to formulate a historical narrative within the frame of modern criteria for statehood. The investigation of textual resources suggests that nationality was not a primary concern of Japanese viewers in the pre-modern period, but what mattered more was to establish the cultural legacy or tradition through which they heightened their religious, cultural, and political prestige. However, this does not imply that the distinctive forms of Koryŏ images did not matter their audience. In fact, the peculiar visual features found in Koryŏ Buddhist paintings, which could be differentiated from indigenous Japanese traditions and linked to the continental origins, were of the utmost importance and were well recognized by their audience. Yet their value as religious icons or collectible art would increase when labeled as “Chinese masterpieces,” a designation that served as the genesis of the critical core of Japanese art and confirmed cultural refinement and socio-political prestige among elites in Japanese ecclesiastical circles and the ruling class in the pre-modern period. In this historiographical narrative, the geographical origin of Koryŏ Buddhist paintings were apt to be forgotten, and the temporal erasure of their provenance, the anonymity of the artist, the absence of inscriptions and veritable records, and the changes of context in which and how the icons were worshiped aggravated the situation of misattribution. The lost identity of objects was replaced by the new owners, whether corresponding to the original or earlier versions or not, to reflect the expectations of these later viewers, or what they have historically thought the paintings to be.

Finally, I want to conclude this essay by emphasizing the necessity for transregional inquires on the mobility and appropriation of religious icons, particularly in the case of imported Koryŏ Buddhist paintings in Japan. Their nationalities have long been contentious issues among art historians. In many cases, ambiguous iconographical features and the amalgamation of diverse styles originating from different regional and temporal contexts galvanize debate over the nationality of these works. However, the complex iconography and the synthesis of various styles cannot be explained without consideration of interregional connectedness facilitated by the movement of people, religious icons, signs, and symbols in the pre-modern and early modern East Asian cultures. Literary evidence to prove such exchange is found scattered throughout the Koryŏ dynasty. The Sino-Korean diplomatic and cultural exchanges reached their apogee during the Yuan intervention in Koryŏ (1270-1368); royal portraits painted by Yuan artists were presented to the Koryŏ court and Koryŏ Buddhist paintings were transmitted with scribe monks dispatched to the Yuan. A Mongolian princess who became queen of King Kongmin brought a number of paintings and calligraphic works when she came to Koryŏ in 1351. These circumstances constitute sufficient conditions under which Koryŏ artists may have executed Buddhist paintings for their Yuan patrons, Chinese paintings may have been transmitted to Korean or Japanese temples, and Korean artists may have followed Chinese prototypes for their creations. Indeed, the reception of Chinese or Korean paintings remains opaque for most of their afterlives in the archipelago, and we may never ascertain the “true origin” or provenance of those paintings that exist outside the national boundaries of China, Korea, or Japan. However, the investigation of their social trajectories and the history of reception diversify the vocabulary describing the process of cultural transmission and the eclectic adaptation recurrent in East Asian art, a vocabulary that can be extended to other cultures as well.


Yoonjung Seo is an art historian specializing in Korean art. She received her PhD recently in Art History from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her dissertation examines the ways in which meaning is constructed, modified, and reinstated both in textual and visual forms, and what may happen when themes from a literary text are adapted to painting and/or move across time and cultures. This inquiry further opens onto key cultural issues such as how Chinese antiquity has been appropriated by posterity in East Asia for self-fashioning and the celebration of contemporary events.


 List of illustrations

Fig. 1. Water-Moon Avalokiteshvara, 1310, color on silk, hanging scroll, 419.5 x 254.2 cm, Kagami Shrine, Karatsu, Japan. Photo from Kikutake Junʼichi and Chŏng U-t’aek, Koryŏ sidae ŭi purhwa (Seoul: Sigongsa, 2000), plate no. 67.

Fig. 2. Late Koryŏ dynasty, color on silk, hanging scroll, 123.0 x 82.0 cm, Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst Köln, NRICH, Inv. no. A 09, 59.

Fig. 3. Water-Moon Avalokiteshvara, Late Koryŏ dynasty, color on silk, hanging scroll, 119.2 x 35.7 cm, Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul, Korea.



Citation: Yoonjung Seo, Does the Nationality of Artists Matter? Some Thoughts on Koryŏ Buddhist Paintings in Japan, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 14.05.2016

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Editorial Board (2015, 6. August). Does the Nationality of Artists Matter? Some Thoughts on Koryŏ Buddhist Paintings in Japan. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 15. Juni 2024, von

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Eine Antwort

  1. Stefanie Rentsch sagt:

    Yoonjung Seo has written a review on the conference “Transnational Cultural Interactions between Korea and Japan, From the Pre-modern to the Colonial Period”, Hebrew University of Jerusalem from May 17 to 19 2015.
    “Transnational Cultural Interactions between Korea and Japan”

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