The Land of Symbols: Korean Roof Tiles

The Chinese meaning of Joseon (morning/calm/sun) corresponds with the countryside of Bukchon Hanok Village very well. Bukchon Hanok Village vividly displays traditional Korean architecture, including the eye-catching Hanok (Korean Traditional House) with its ceramic roofs. The roofs reflect traditional Asian architecture characteristics, which are completely different from Western architecture. In this country where ceramics are regarded as part of then national cultural heritage, there are a myriad of enchanting examples.

Although China has rightfully been cited as the source of ceramic tradition, Korea has also played an important role in developing the tradition – in part due to techniques imported from China. The characteristics of Korean ceramics can be defined as naturalness and abstraction in the prehistoric age, simplicity and balance in the Three Kingdoms period, clarity in the Goryeo Dynasty, and both boldness and restraint in the Joseon Dynasty.

In Korea, which has a ceramic history dating back to 12,000 years, ceramics were created to be compatible with the natural environment and personal pleasure. Although Korean ceramics have been influences by several other ceramic traditions, they developed their own style and cemented a strong tradition of Korean ceramics.

Bernard Leach, who believed that ceramics form part of a nations cultural heritage, said of the Korean Joseon ceramics:

These Korean pots grow like flowers. Their native abstractions and formalizations spring from quite another approach to living, a complete antithesis to our self-consciousness and calculation. The Koreans and their pots are childlike, spontaneous, and trusting.1

It is possible to see fascinating and highly inspirational examples of this around the Hanok Village. Hanoks are environmentally friendly houses: the materials used in construction can be obtained from nature, such as wood, earth, stone, straw, clay (for ceramic roof tiles) and paper. The two major types of Hanoks are Giwajip (houses with tiled roofs) occupied by the nobility, and Chogajip (houses with straw-thatched roofs) inhabited by the peasantry. The most distinctive difference between these two constructions is the roof. Chogajip has a straw-thatched roof, which was a bountiful byproduct of rice cultivation. Giwajip is more expensive than Chogajib and is not considered affordable by the common people. Somewhat ironically, Chogajips are rarely seen today, but Giwajips are places are where most of the Koreans still live.

Giwajips’ roofs are sumptuous visual feasts that transport the viewer to the time of their construction – it is hard when viewing them not to imagine that you are living in the Joseon Dynasty, such is the mystery and beauty. The roofs also tell stories in the differences of their construction and the details that have been included.

Think of a country, where everything has a meaning,
Think of a country, where different kingdoms have reigned,
Think of a country, where art emerges as fire touches the soil,
Think of a country, where there is a peace within chaos …