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Obangsaek, an expression of the Korean spirit

By Kim, Bo-young, reporter 기자2006.02.28 20:29:39

These days we live in a flood of colors. We are surrounded by delicious-looking, multi-colored food, and splendidly colored clothes. Whenever deciding which clothes to wear or buying new accessories, we are continuously faced with everyday situations in which we have to choose an appropriate color. Colors are an unconscious part of our lives. Even if we exempt food and clothes, we still can"t imagine the world without colors.


Nowadays color is used for more specific purposes in our lives. A color test is an interesting example of this. Have you ever taken a color test? This can often be found in magazines or on psychology-related web-sites. These color tests claim to predict or describe your personal character or psychological make-up. In a similar way, color can be used to understand other cultures, too. So, let"s take a look at the world of Korean color, as a means of achieving a deeper comprehension of Korean traditional culture.

 
▲ The white-clad people 
ⓒ photo by naver
Since olden times, Koreans were called "the white-clad people." The old Korean people admired the color white, which meant for them purity, innocence, morality and assimilation with nature. They believed that the sun was God and that they were the sons of God. This belief originated because they were an agricultural people. The Koreans wore white colored clothes from the moment they were born, until the time of their death, as a way of proudly representing the glory of the sun. As time went by, this became a tradition for the ancestral Koreans.



 
▲ Principle of Obangsaek 
ⓒ photo by naver
It is true that ancient Koreans loved white color, but this is not the whole story. Diverse colors were also popular, since the Korean people traditionally looked for and adapted to meaning in the order of nature. This can be seen in the principles of "Yin and Yang", and was later expressed as Obangsaek. Obang means "five directions" and saek means "color" in Korean. Obang consists of north, south, east, west, and the center of these cardinal points. Interestingly each direction has its own color.
North is associated with the color black. Black stands for winter, water, kidneys, a salty taste, sorrow and knowledge. Koreans in the old times associated deep valleys and water with the north. Deep water seems black, and represents Yin. Because of this, Chosun dynasty people avoided using black in their daily lives, though common people used sometimes black in making their clothes.


The color for south was red. Red means summer, fire, the heart, bitterness, pleasure and propriety. The south always receives the light of the sun during the day time. Therefore, our ancestors associated the south with red. This color is filled with Yang energy. Red promotes vitality and also keeps the power of Yang. Koreans associated the color red with the power of the occult. They believed that an abundance of Yang energy repulses evil. Thus, red peppers were hung on the gate with a rope when a son was born, and patjuk ( rice gruel boiled together with red-beans) was eaten on the day of dongji ( the winter solstice). This practice has continued to the present day.


The east was assigned the color blue. Blue represents spring, tree, the liver, sourness, delight and benevolence. The sun rises in the east, so ancient Koreans believed that the east possesses strong Yang energy, like the north. Blue is frequently found in Korean clothes, architecture, and diverse relics of the past. This color is often used for the traditional Korean marriage ceremony. Red and blue strings are put on the wedding table, representing the harmony of the bride and bridegroom.


The west was associated with the color white. White signifies fall, gold, lungs, pungency, anger and righteousness. Lastly, the center of the four cardinal points was given the color yellow. Yellow denotes the spleen, soil, sweetness, greed and wisdom. Soil is regarded as the center of the universe, so yellow was the most honorable color and only an emperor could wear yellow clothes. On the other hand, common people used yellow for exorcising evil spirits and preventing illness by hanging straw festoons in specific places.
 
▲ saekdong-jeogori / food garnished with five-colored decorations/ Geumjul 
ⓒ photo by naver
Ancestral faith in Obangsaek has disappeared nowadays, but the custom remains throughout Korean life. Koreans eat food garnished with five-colored decorations, such as guksu. On the first birthday, parents dress their child in saekdong-jeogori (a rainbow-striped garment for children) to keep bad influences away from their baby. In other words, Obangsaek represents the hope for health and longevity.

 
▲ Mural paintings of Goguryeo"s tumuli 
ⓒ phoyo by naver
Our ancestors wanted to teach the hidden meanings of nature to their children, since they considered them as providing law and order in their daily lives. So, they developed the concept of Obangsaek. We can find examples of Obangsaek everywhere: in the paintings of palaces or old temples, in the mural paintings of Goguryeo"s tumuli, and in craft-ware such as patchwork quilts. Obangsaek represents Korean spirit as a symbol.










[No.311]
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