Korean Garden Forms

As previously mentioned, if the standards for a traditional Japanese garden or Chinese yuanlin are applied to the Korean residential setting, no garden form as such exists. Thus it is clearly necessary to adopt a completely different standard by which to define the gardens of Korea, and this standard might be termed the “uncultivated” garden. Based on this standard, traditional Korean gardens can be summarized as follows:

Inner Gardens Within the Residence

Prospect and borrowed scenery are the foundation upon which inner gardens (madang) are composed and have traditionally served as essential prerequisites in the selec­tion of residential sites, though more as underlying factors than openly recognized conditions.

In the composition of the traditional Korean residence, open interior spaces such as the taech’dngand numaru are located at points of connection and intersection between the adjoining madang, twitmadang, and surrounding scenery outside the residential compound. An attempt is made to link them all through prospect and borrowed scenery. This leads to the supposition that residences were built to match the prospect.

Rear Garden Within the Residential Compound

The rear garden (twitmadang) of a yangban estate is essen­tially a private outdoor space for the family, and forms an integral part of the living space of the anch’ae. It is related to the parklike rear gardens of royal palaces, which also fall into this category of private garden spaces where prospect is again the chief consideration.

Outer Garden Beyond the Residential Compound

The composition of the outer garden, based as it is on the philosophy of the hermit wizards, is completely different stylistically from the garden spaces within the residential complex. These outer gardens do not qualify as “unculti­vated.” Their angular configuration and abundant use of

quarried stone, with buildings looking directly onto the surface of a pond, makes them highly symbolic, and places them within the same tradition as the outer gardens of royal palaces.


It is at first difficult to understand why there was no garden even remotely similar to the Chinese yuanlin in the yang – ban estates of Choson Korea despite the direct influence of Chinese Confucianism on Korean society in that peri­od. However, this phenomenon appears to be related to the fact that the true meaning of “retirement” was very different in Choson—a small and homogenous nation­state where the Yi family held centralized power for a very long time—and the vast, multiethnic state of China, where local chieftains vied constantly for influence.

In Korea, the ilmin hermit scholars had no desire for entry or reinstatement to political life, so perhaps their “retirement” would be better termed a “retreat.” The iso­lated environments which they created deep in the moun­tains ensconced in nature, stand as another form of traditional Korean garden.

Unfortunately, as Soswaewon is the only example of an extant pyolsd garden, material for research is limited. The destruction and loss of these special environments is a great pity, but it is heartening to note that they are cur­rently the object of study by the Graduate School of Environmental Studies at Seoul National University.

The Aesthetics of the “Uncultivated” Garden

Late Professor Kim Won-yong of Seoul National University described the sense of aesthetics that dominated the Korea of the Three Kingdoms period as “the development of Korean naturalism,” and characterized Unified Silla as having the “aesthetics of refinement and harmony,” Koryo the “originality of nonartificiality,” and Choson “a world of thoroughgoing ordinariness.” Throughout all the ages, he emphasized, “nature and self-effacement remained con­stant aesthetic ideals.”

Yanagi Soetsu defines the Korean aesthetic in the Buddhist terms “just as it is,” and Tanaka Toyotaro terms it “something born, not created.”

As we can see from all of the above, the word “nature” is crucial to any understanding of the Korean sense of aes­thetics. Indeed, works of art can be summarized into the single expression “an offspring of nature.” However, the meanings of these words may be difficult to grasp, as they are sometimes taken to mean no more than the unaware, immature efforts that precede true art. For this reason, a comprehensive consideration based on the interrelation­ship between the structure of space and the structure of lifestyle, and on the historical roots and social back­ground of Korea, is essential to the questions of what con­stitutes the Korean sense of aesthetics and how it has taken form.

Updated: October 13, 2015 — 12:28 am