The Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Object in Focus Korean Dragon Jar

Sweeping through the sky, this playful dragon bends its curving serpent body up and down and back and forth around the jar on which it is whimsically painted.

Korea has long been influenced by China, its large and powerful neighbor to the west. Yet this small peninsular country has kept its own artistic character. Follow the dragon to find out what makes this ceramic vessel uniquely Korean.

Korea, Choson dynasty
Dragon Jar, 18th century
Porcelain with underglaze iron decor
Gift of Louis W. Hill, Jr.

Adopted and Adapted
Chosen for the Choson
A Delightful Dragon

Art Collector: Use the Art Collector feature of ArtsConnectEd to see more ceramics from Korea. Try reorganizing them by date, dynasty, shape, or decoration. Add to the collection by finding similar works of art from other countries in Asia. How might these pieces have influenced (or been influenced by) Korean ceramics? Click here to access the collection. Click here to learn more about Art Collector.  

Symbols of Power and Luck: To Koreans, dragons symbolize power and good fortune. What creatures do people in other parts of the world associate with these desires? Make a list and draw a picture of your favorite. Include details and features that connect that creature with power and luck.  

The Art of Korea: Visit the Minneapolis Institute of Arts online resource The Art of Asia to see more Korean art and learn about Korean history. Click here to download a PDF map of Korea from The Art of Asia site.  

World Ceramics: Learn about ceramics around the world through the Minneapolis Institute of Arts online resource World Ceramics.  

Suggested Reading:
Carpenter, Frances. Tales of a Korean Grandmother: 32 Traditional Tales from Korea. 1947. North Clarendon, Vt.: Tuttle Publishing, 1989.

Carus, Marianne. Fire and Wings: Dragon Tales from the East and West. Chicago: Cricket Books, 2002.

Han, Heung-Gi. Let's Visit Korea. Elizabeth, N.J.: Hollym International Corporation, 2006.

Hill, Valerie. Korea. Ask about Asia series. Broomall, Pa.: Mason Crest Publishers, 2002.

McClure, Gillian. The Land of the Dragon King and Other Korean Stories. London: Frances Lincoln, 2008.  

January 2010

Celadon wares, with their beautiful blue-green glazes, originated in China but brought fame to Korea during the Koryo dynasty (918-1392). The Chinese admired and collected Korean celadons.
Korea, Koryo dynasty, Double Gourd-Shaped Ewer, 12th century, glazed porcelaneous stoneware, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund and The Ellen and Fred Wells Fund

Blue and white glazes were popular in Ming-dynasty China. In Korea, this glazing technique was adopted by potters of the Choson dynasty.
China, Imperial Dragon Vase, 1426-35, porcelain with cobalt blue decor under a clear glaze, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton

Compare this Korean blue-and-white dragon jar to the blue-and-white Chinese jar.
Korea, Choson dynasty, Dragon Jar, 18th century, porcelain with underglaze cobalt design, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The William Hood Dunwoody Fund

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Adopted and Adapted

Since the late Stone Age, potters have brought clay and fire together to make vessels for preparing and storing food and for use in ceremonies. In Asia, people in neighboring regions admired each other’s ceramic wares and learned from them. They adopted foreign technologies and techniques and then adapted them to their own work in clay.

Throughout the ages, Chinese art greatly influenced Korean ceramics, and Koreans, in turn, shared their knowledge and skill with the Japanese. Many developments in clays, glazes, and firing techniques reached Korea through trade with China. The spread of religions and philosophies also had an effect on art.

Although Chinese influence was so strong, Koreans always had a firm sense of their own identity, and they created ceramics, like this dragon jar, that are uniquely Korean.

The Japanese admired Korea’s Choson ceramics. Many tea masters collected them for use in tea ceremonies held in teahouses similar to this one.
Teahouse (chashitsu), built by the Yasuimoku Komuten Company in 2001, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Gift of the Friends of the Institute, the Mary Livingston Griggs and Mary Griggs Burke Foundation, the Commemorative Association for the Japan World Exposition (1970), the James Ford Bell Foundation, Patricia M. Mitchell, Jane and Thomas Nelson, and many others
January 2010

Many Choson ceramics were simple and undecorated white wares, in keeping with Confucian ideals.
Korea, Choson dynasty, Maebyong Jar, 18th century, white porcelain with celadon glaze, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund and the Ellen and Fred Wells Fund

Blue-and-white Choson ceramics were made only for aristocrats. The blue color came from imported cobalt, which was very expensive.
Korea, Choson dynasty, Dragon Jar, 18th century, porcelain with underglaze cobalt design, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The William Hood Dunwoody Fund

The liveliness of this bottle’s painted design is typical of ceramic decoration in the Choson dynasty.
Korea, Choson dynasty, Rice Bale Bottle, 15th century, glazed stoneware with painted slip decoration, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Gift of funds from Fred and Ellen Wells

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Chosen for the Choson

During the Choson dynasty (1392-1910), Korean rulers made Confucianism the official religion. Confucianism stresses living a simple and humble life, and Korean ceramics were influenced by this ideal. Their shape and decoration became simpler. Many early Choson wares were left undecorated except for a coat of white glaze.

The type of clay used by Korean potters changed, too. The dragon jar is made of porcelain. Created from a clay called kaolin, porcelain is white or grayish and very hard. The Chinese were the first to discover how to make it. Both the Chinese and the Koreans felt that porcelain objects complemented the Confucian virtues of humility and simplicity.

As time passed, Confucianism became less strict, and potters began to add simple designs in blue, brown, or red. The dragon jar’s brown decoration was painted with iron oxide. Unlike the precise detailing on Chinese porcelains, this Korean design is carefree and whimsical. For example, the dragon’s scales are just large dabs of color. (Imagine a paint-filled brush pouncing across the jar, guided by the artist’s hand.) Such playful brushwork also appears in the dragon’s whiskers and the clouds. This kind of painting may look easy, but ceramic artists needed great skill to decorate porcelain. A quick-moving hand was important because porcelain absorbed the paint fast.

Take a closer look at the dragon’s whimsical features. It is this spontaneous, painterly quality that makes Korean ceramics unique and admired.
January 2010

In this view of the jar, the dragon twists and turns, curving itself over the jar’s round body.

This is the other side of the dragon jar.

A few simple brushstrokes suggest sharp teeth.

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A Delightful Dragon

Symbols of good fortune and power, dragons were a favorite decoration on Korean ceramics. Though inspired by Chinese designs, Korean dragons are much more playful. The one on this jar was whimsically painted with brushstrokes that make it appear lighthearted and humorous. At the same time, the artist showed the dragon’s power, giving it a long snout, sharp teeth, fierce eyes, and hair standing on end.

In decorating dragon jars, artists painted the creature so that its body covered the whole jar. The dragon wrapping itself around this jar is shown swooshing through the sky, surrounded by wispy clouds. Dragons were said to control the weather and bring rain—a good omen for a plentiful harvest.

Originally, dragon jars were reserved for ceremonies and for decoration in royal households. But eventually they came into wider use. Often the number of claws on a dragon’s feet reveals something about the person the jar was made for. Five-clawed dragons, which represented the emperor, were for royalty only. Since this dragon’s feet are concealed by its snout and a cloud, the jar likely belonged to a common household.

The dragon’s four claws show that this jar was probably owned by a court official.
Korea, Choson dynasty, Dragon Jar, 18th century, porcelain with underglaze cobalt design, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The William Hood Dunwoody Fund
January 2010