Beauty in Korea - A Lasting Tradition

By Nur, Liyani and Maria Ng 

On Left:  A Goryeo painting depicting the Imperial Palace of Goryeo. From "Studies in Traditional Korean Painting" (1987). Author : Lee Dong-ju Publisher: Youlhwadang. [Public Domain]. Via WikiMedia Commons. Image link here. On Right: A Goryeo painting which depicts the Goryeo nobility. Author: Unknown. [Public Domain]. Via WikiMedia Commons. Image link here. Edited with Canva. 

On Left:  A Goryeo painting depicting the Imperial Palace of Goryeo. From "Studies in Traditional Korean Painting" (1987). Author : Lee Dong-ju Publisher: Youlhwadang. [Public Domain]. Via WikiMedia Commons. Image link here. On Right: A Goryeo painting which depicts the Goryeo nobility. Author: Unknown. [Public Domain]. Via WikiMedia Commons. Image link here. Edited with Canva. 

South Korean beauty standards is known to be one of the most rigid and stressful in the world. A standard beauty regimen today includes many steps and techniques to perfect one’s complexion. Some examples would be purchasing skincare products to whiten and/or rejuvenate one's skin to give off a healthy looking glow. Others may opt for rigorous beauty regimes that promises a flawless and radiant complexion. The common desired beauty look is one that is spotless, white and healthy. This can be traced back to the Koryo dynasty (918 CE to 1392 CE) where white and healthy looking skin was an ideal feature. We explore why these ideals were valued, a renown beauty in that era - Hwang Jini and beauty's significance in Korean history (and today).

 

BEAUTY'S SIGNIFICANCE

In Korea, an unblemished and unmarked face was advocated since the first dynasty in Korean history. Imagine a person with perfect fair skin - that was what people yearned for in the past.(the Gojoseon Era, 2333-108 B.C.E). (Li, Hyun, Belk, Kimura & Bahl - Pg 444

In the upper class of the Koyro dynasty (918-1392),peach flowerwater was used to wash children's faces in order to cleanse and whiten their skin. Moreover, white skin would heighten the chances of marriage for females, which was why most most women wanted a fair complexion. White skin is highly favored because according to the long tradition of Korean shamanism1person with white skin is respected. (Li, Hyun, Belk, Kimura & Bahl - Pg 445)

  1. Korean Shamanism is a native religion that is crucial in the creation of the customs of Koreans. It blends both Buddhsim and Taoism belifs. Like other religions, it involves many deities, mediums and theology. To find out more, click here !

“There were two key elements that were important in making up one’s face ― a poreless, fair complexion and beautifully arched eyebrows. Koreans preferred a fair complexion because dark skin was a sign of poverty,”
— Lee Ji-sun, curator at the Coreana Cosmetics Museum in Seoul
Lidded Cosmetic Box with Floral Medallions andCranes among Clouds. Artist: Unknown. [Public Domain]. Via WikiMedia Commons. 

Lidded Cosmetic Box with Floral Medallions andCranes among Clouds. Artist: Unknown. [Public Domain]. Via WikiMedia Commons. 

The Goryeo Dynasty fell in 1392 and that began the new age of the Joseon Dynasty. That was the advent of Neo-Confucianism 1 as the adopted ideology of the state. Some values that were greatly respected were frugality and humility.

  1. Neo-Confucianism was a new wave of COnfucianism which deviated from its predecessor - Confucianism, which eliminated the mystical approach and took a more secular route. To find out more about Neo-Confucianism, click here !

Apart from having pale skin, looking natural was also highly favored. Hwang Jini (who you will read more about below) was known to attend parties and occasions with the absence of makeup to give off a youthful and healthy look. (Edgin - Pg 8) This is due to the fact that Confucian values had a strong influence in Korean society, which also included beauty ideals. His values emphasized modesty and inner beauty in contrast to conspicuous makeup, as he believed that one’s true nature should not be judged by outward appearance.(Choi - Pg3) Hence, because these values were adopted, people gravitated towards authentic, flawless looking skin and this desire fuelled the pursuit of beauty rituals to achieve it.

Thus, it was a priority to achieve healthy looking skin. Another reason Koreans value the “healthy” look is because it symbolizes one’s longevity, which would then proof a person’s social adequateness and value. Neo-Confucian ideals had a lengthy and holistic influence on Korean culture and society. Many Neo-Confucian precepts remain interwoven into the culture today. 

IDEAL BEAUTY

To get healthy skin, the Koreans would powder ground mung beans with water to cleanse their faces.

Korean stars today are known for their looks which unsurprisingly endorses a clear, pale and healthy face. Many people across Asia flock to South Korea to buy beauty products in an effort to get their desired look. This desire stems from the immense popularity of Korean stars, which serves as a benchmark for the ideal beauty look. It is interesting to note, that most Korean beauty products still uses the same method and ingredients in the past (like using the mung beans, as mentioned previously). Many of those endorse whitening of the skin. It is found that four in ten women uses a whitening product. In fact, whitening products are also known as “functional cosmetics” in Korea and evidence is mandatory to validate claims. These shows how the value of clear, healthy skin has kept its power and influence over the years.

In fact, whitening products are also known as “functional cosmetics”1 in Korea and evidence is mandatory to validate claims. These shows how the value of clear, healthy skin has kept its power and influence over the years.

  1. Functional cosmetics are products that help to brighten, reduce wrinkles and protect the skin.
    Functional cosmetics

You will find it hard to go back, once the azure ocean you reach.
— Hwang Jini, Old Poems of Korea, Sijo and Hansi

 

THE FAMED BEAUTY -HWANG JINI (1506 - 1560)

Every era has their own beauty icon. The timeless beauties from our time - Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor. Their equivalents in the ancient world - Cleopetra, Nefetiti, Phryne and Salome. During the Joseon Dynasty (1392 CE – 1897CE), the famed beauty – known for her unrivalled beauty and poetry mastery was the kisaeng (기생), Hwang Jini (환진이). “A kisaeng is an officially sanctioned female entertainer, trained in music, dancing, and poetry composition.” However, these women were often taken as concubines or second wives of the yangban or the ruling class of the Koreans then.

 Hwang Jini, otherwise known as her kisaeng name, Myeongwol was born c. 1506 in Kaesong which is now in modern-day North Korea. Her mother was also a great beauty, a kisaeng known for her beauty and charm (source of her good genes) and her father was yangban. She was an illegitimate child which meant that she belonged in the lowest class in ancient Korea. Had it not been for her beauty and her music/poetry proficiency, she would not have been able to climb the ranks and ‘hang out’ with the upper classes. 

FUN FACT

She was apparently so beautiful that a man died of heartbreak because of his unrequited love for her. ouch.

"Nothing happening in the kisaeng chamber". Painter: Hyewon. [Public Domain]. Via WikiMedia Commons. 

"Nothing happening in the kisaeng chamber". Painter: Hyewon. [Public Domain]. Via WikiMedia Commons. 

Hwang Jini was an exception because she was not afraid to show her bare face amidst all the craze of ladies with painted faces. Perhaps, what drove her into taking on the role as a kisaeng was the early death of her one true but forbidden love. She walked the same path as her mother and fell in love with the son of a yangban.  Perhaps the most historically significant thing about Hwang Jini is that she was an independent woman, who defied her social roles and used men for her gains – she left men usually and hardly the other way around(after the death of her true love), which was different from the women in her time. She was not afraid to defy the conventions of her time and rose fame, learning from scholars and entertaining men of nobility. However, Hwang Jini was not all beauty but brains as well. Till this day, Korea remembers her not only as the beautiful kisaeng but also as one of ancient Korea’s greatest female poet. 

To read some of Hwang Jini's poetry, click here.

(P.S. Ctrl/cmd F Hwang Jini)

 

To wrap things up...

Till date, we can still see the influence of beauty in Korea. South Korea is famed for the plastic surgeries, beauty products and not forgetting their flawless looking celebrities. It is interesting to find out that as much as beauty carries a superficial connotation to most of us, we see that it is actually a culturally ingrained aspect of the Korean society that stems back to history that was influenced not by mere pursuit of vanity but by adopted religious beliefs. So before we adopt our own defintitions of what we think something is, let's always remember that every culture is unique and something trivial to us might be significant to them!

 

ADDITIONAL NOTES 

  1. Hwang Jini's section is solely based on a biography. The link to the original paper is hyperlinked in the heading of the section.  
  2. Ancient Beauty Tip #1 (Li, Hyun, Belk, Kimura & Bahl - Pg 445)
  3. Ancient Beauty Tip #2