Korean Arts and Culture

Korea has existed in various forms for almost 2,000 years on the peninsula. Over this period, the country has established an extensive and unique form of art and recreation. Everything from jade pottery to pop music reflects Korea’s unique and frequently troubled history. Distinct arts and humanities are a few of the many aspects which makes Korea such a fascinating nation.

Korean Literature

Korean literature is divided into two distinct periods, the classical and the modern.  It is difficult to make generalizations about the classical literature due to its rapidly varying forms. In contrast modern literature is published after the mid-19th century which deals heavily with Western influences, and Korea’s relatively recent economic rise.

Classical Korean literature developed when Chinese characters were brought by Chinese citizens. As Korea had no written language system, literature up until 2333 BC was non-existent. Naturally, writing was heavily influenced by Chinese trends, along with traditional Korean folk beliefs. Prior to the creation of the early Korean alphabet, literature was exclusively written as poems, and had little relevance to the average Korean. They were mostly religious ceremonies and prayers used by those of high social-caste. In effect, the literature excluded most of the people. With the introduction of the Korean alphabet in 1392 BC, literature took a marked turn and reflected the simple lives of the Korean peasant. It still retained its poetic structure, but was heavily influenced by Neo-Confucianist thought, due to Korea’s proximity to China.

Korean fiction arose during the onset of the 17th century, with heavy influence from earlier literature written in Chinese characters. This early fiction featured stories rooted in musical expression and commonly had related musical or live performances. Later works dealt with the strict Korean social hierarchy, and the problems this created for common Koreans. Literature was often written in parables and were critical of the many social problems inherent in Korean society.

During  the 19th century, modern Korean literature arose against the background of a crumbling society, foreign western ideas, and imperial encroachment from Japan. This change was largely due to the effects of education and literature movements. After reforms in 1894, Western style education and thought prevailed in Korea. As a consequence, literature shed its earlier form, and resembles Western literature at the time. Although professionals were the predominant writers during the 19th century, an increasing number of korean commoners wrote and read. Works published after 1920 dealt with Japan’s imperialist domination of Korea and the subsequent division of the country. Themes such as industrial exploitation, regional disparities, and the loss of traditional customs dominate much of the literature after 1920. Korean literature has a long and intriguing history based on the  experiences and thought patterns unique to the Korean people.

Traditional Korean Dance

Dance is one of the most prominent displays of Korean culture. Drawing from Buddhist and Shamanistic traditions, traditional Korean dance is performed with intricate costumes and music driven by beating drums. Traditional dances are divided into two categories: court dances and folk dances performed by common Korean villagers.

Court Dances

Court dances were traditionally performanced solely for royal audiences and banquets for Koreans with high status and privilege. Heavily influenced by Confucianism, court dances have two forms, Hyang-ak and Tang-ak. Hyang-ak is an ancient, indigenous tradition in which dancers recite passages, and dance after. Tang-ak differs slightly with the oral piece as an aside with the dance the main attraction.

Folk Dances

While court dances were only for the enjoyment of the privileged few, folk dances were performed for the common Korean villager, and deals with related themes. In contrast to the constrained and staid royal dances, folk dances express plenty of emotion and improvisation.  Folk dances are typically accompanied by fast-paced music from traditional korean drums. The dances are closely tied to the Buddhist and Shaman rituals from which they draw inspiration.

One of the most well known folk dances is the Bucheachum, or fan dance. Performed with bright costume and large fans, this dance is relatively recent is tied to shamanistic rituals. It is always performed in a group and has a flexible construction, which allows it to performed for various occasions, unlike some of the other dances.

The Salp’uri is the most difficult and perplexing of the korean folk dances. It was originally intended to depict an exorcism, which speaks to its raw emotion. The dance is performed solo, typically be an experienced female dancer. She wears an all white costume and dances with swift and abrupt movements, enhanced by a flowing handkerchief. The theme of the dance is quite somber and portrays a grieving widow expressing pure sorrow.

Most of the dances are accompanied by non-dancing performers beating a traditional drum or changgo, which is worn loosely or tied to the waste. Beats can be somber and slow, or very rapid, depending on the dance being performed. Drummers typically have designated costumes and may dance small parts.

Korean Pop Music(K-pop)

Korean Pop Music, or K-pop, is a music phenomena that has swept the globe.

It might seem to many that PSY single-handedly started the K-pop phenomenon that has swept the globe. With “Gangnam Style,” his sound and comedic choreography have broken YouTube records, notching over 1.7 billion views since its July 2012 and drawing international attention.

However, at the core of K-pop, there are “idols.” Their combination of Western and Eastern sounds, perfectly in-sync choreography and fashion choices have all helped K-pop stand out among other genres. Here,  takes a closer look at the history of idol groups.

Idol groups hit the scene in the 1990s. The idol phenomenon came about after the 1992 debut of Seo Taiji and Boys, a trio of hip-hop singer/rappers who fused American pop music with Korean lyrics. Thanks to their ability to meld Eastern and Western styles, Seo Taiji and Boys experienced immense popularity in Korea. Seeing their popularity as an opportunity for profit, entertainment companies jumped on this new style of music, and began creating copy-cat groups.

Seo Taiji and Boys were so influential in changing Korea’s modern popular music that most followers mark the date of their debut as the definitive genesis of K-pop. After Seo Taiji and Boys came a renaissance period in which a first generation of idol groups, such as boy bands H.O.T. and Sechs Kies, became incredibly popular and amassed large, passionate and extremely competitive fandoms. The ’90s-style idol creation formula was so successful, it remains the norm today.

The idols continue to evolve, but their roots remain the same. Second-generation idol groups TVXQ! and BEAST assumed a charisma reminiscent of H.O.T. and Sechs Kies. Even promotional strategies have been passed down from generation to generation of idol groups. Time and time again, the success formula for promotion has proven to be a hip-hop-based lead single followed up by a fun dance track or a ballad, and idol groups follow this formula almost religiously.


Second-generation idols also borrow the over-the-top fashion sense, unique hairstyling and meticulously choreographed dance moves from their predecessors. First-generation idols built the foundation for current idols. For an example, g.o.d., who had fangirls swooning with their boy-next-door wholesomeness, can be compared to current idol groups like 2AM, as these two groups interact more with fans and give off a friendlier vibe, unlike H.O.T. and Sechs Kies, who were all about a sort of snobby mysteriousness.

Likewise, the debut singles of both B.A.P and H.O.T. show similar musical roots, both displaying strong hip-hop tones with a unique twist. B.A.P.s debut track, “Warrior,” and the H.O.T. smash hit “Warrior’s Descendent” both deal with school violence and the the groups both use “shouting” vocal methods in the bridge of the song. The charismatic, highly technical choreography is also very similar.

The six-member group Apink currently stands out from most girl groups, ones who have been attracting viewers for their skin-showing outfits and provocative dance moves. Apink’s innocent, schoolgirl charms resemble first-generation girl groups such as S.E.S. and Fink.l.

Perhaps what is most astounding is that the formula created twenty years ago by Seo Taiji and Boys and followed by idol groups today has proven effective not only on the Korean peninsula, but worldwide. While the fashion and musical stylings that idols use are constantly evolving to conform to current popular culture, the roots that Seo Taiji planted have not only managed to remain firm, but have allowed newly created branches to grow and reach every corner of the globe.

Today, idols have gone international, performing concerts from Rio De Janiero to Paris and Los Angeles to Bangkok. Their fans are no longer exclusively Korean speakers — one can conduct a simple Internet search and find the lyrics to K-pop songs translated by fans into Arabic, French, Vietnamese and more. While new idol groups continue to push the envelope with new concepts, styles and sounds, it’s clear that they remain true to the foundation created by Seo Taiji and Boys, a group that in 1992, probably never imagined that their influence would carry K-pop across borders and oceans 20 years later.