Kkokdu – a cortege’s colourful attendants

by Philip Gowman on 5 September, 2012

in Conference reports, Event reports and reviews, Exhibition reviews and comment, Gallery, KCCUK, Minhwa

Accompanying the KCC’s exhibition of Korean funerary figures, Charlotte Horlyck gave a helpful lecture providing some historical background and context to these colourful wooden characters. The talk was particularly valuable as the introduction provided by the director of the Kkokdu Museum a few weeks previously had lacked much content.

A pair of earthenware figures that were used as vessels for carrying liquids or as lamp holders, excavated from the Gold Bell Tomb in 1924. National Treasure No 91

A pair of earthenware figures that were used as vessels for carrying liquids or as lamp holders, excavated from the Gold Bell Tomb in 1924. National Treasure No 91. [Image Source]

While generally admitting that not much is known about Kkokdu, Horlyck pointed out some interesting parallels. The first known example of little characters accompanying a person to their grace is from the famous Gold Bell Tomb (금령총 Geumryeongchong). Here, though, the exquisite lamps were actually buried with the deceased. The wooden kkokdu which were the subject of the KCC exhibition simply accompanied the bier on its journey from the deceased’s home to his grave-plot which would normally be on a hillside somewhere outside of the village or town.

Dragons were at the front and back of the hearse for protection; entertainers provided musical accompaniment on the side of the bier, along with attendants and soldiers, and scholars on horseback or riding mythical animals or even tigers. The dragon might hold a fish in its teeth, signifying abundance. There might be a series of animals representing the signs of the zodiac on the top layer of the bier, the very top of which might be adorned with a phoenix.

The whole kkokdu menagerie seems to be a fusion of shamanistic, Buddhist, Confucian and Daoist elements mixed in with plenty of down-to-earth folksiness. The corpse wants maximum comfort and security on his way to the next world, and the kkokdu were there to provide it.

Korean Funerary Figures: Companions for the Journey to the Other World has been at the Korean Cultural Centre 11 July 2012 – 8 September 2012 as part of the All Eyes on Korea cultural festival coinciding with the 2012 Olympics.

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