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Coded Morality in Korean Art and Squid Game

Sooa Im McCormick, CMA’s Curator of Korean Art
December 16, 2021
Munja-Chaekgeori Screen (Character-Books Screen), early 1900s. Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). 2017.6

Deeply coded across traditional Korean culture is the importance of having good moral character, or Confucian morality, a concept often knitted into Korean dramas (K-dramas) and movie storylines. Take for instance the popular Netflix show Squid Game, a South Korean survival drama by Hwang Dong-hyuk: a sense of unfulfilled filial piety, or strong desire to fulfill familial duty, motivates many of the players to participate in a series of deadly games.

Scene from Squid Game with main characters: Sang Woo Cho, Gi Hoon Seong, and Sae-byeok Kang

The idea of Confucian morality is also woven into 18th and 19th-century Korean paintings rendered in colorful pigments that often served as successful agents in the promotion of the moral virtues that formed the socio-political backbone of Neo-Confucian Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). Under the patronage of ruling elites, many types of folding screens and hanging scrolls coded with moral messages were produced to adorn the living spaces of Korean aristocrats’ homes as well as the classrooms of local Confucian academies.

Among such paintings, a genre that clearly demonstrates the values of Neo-Confucian morality, is Munja-do, literally translating to Painting of Characters.

Munja-Chaekgeori Screen (문자책거리; Character-Books Screen), late 1800s. Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). Eight-panel folding screen; ink on paper; overall: 150.5 x 330.2 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Severance and Greta Millikin Purchase Fund, 2017.6

Eight Korean characters are shown in this example in the CMA’s collection, (from right to left): filial piety (孝; hyo), brotherly love (弟; je), loyalty (忠; chung), trust (信; sin), propriety (禮; yae), righteousness (義; eui), modesty (廉; yeom), and humility (恥; chi) are written on the upper portion of each painted panel. Each calligraphic character, however, is transformed into a whimsical pictograph decorated with symbolic images.

Detail of Munja-Chaekgeori Screen

The character that refers to filial piety (the far right panel), for example, is accompanied by images of a bamboo shoot and a carp, symbols of enduring filial devotion described in The Twenty-Four Exemplars of Filial Piety, a classic Chinese Yuan-period text written by Guo Jujing, highly popular in Joseon-period Korea.

Detail of Munja-Chaekgeori Screen

While six characters each represent a different moralistic value, the two last characters, “yeom” and “chi,” express the same value: humility or the feeling of shame. These two characters are almost always paired as Korean expressions that caution one’s blatent insensitive behavior toward others.

The character “yeom” is accompanied by the image of a crab. In the East Asian language of symbolism, the crab, a creature that moves sideways, represents insightfulness, particularly when it is time to retreat. The character “chi,” on the other hand, is drawn along with the image of the moon in which a rabbit is pounding a mortar. The product of the rabbit’s relentless pounding is the elixir of immortality, representing the immortal legacy of two ancient brothers, Boyi (伯夷) and Shuqi (叔齊), who served the Shang dynasty. After the fall of the dynasty, they retreated deep into the mountains, refused to eat anything growing in the land of the new dynasty, and eventually starved to death. Death was their way to express their profound sense of shame.

Squid Game Spoiler Alert!

Could hyperviolence be justified in performing filial piety, as expressed in Squid Game? It was in fact expected to be intense, as stated in Confucian texts published during the Joseon period.

Samgang Haengsilto (삼강행실도; The Principles of Three Basic Human Relationships), c. 1600. University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Library, Asia Collection, Gift of Dr. Marshall R. Pihl, BJ1558.K6 S6

In Samgang Haengsilto (삼강행실도; The Principles of Three Basic Human Relationships), first published during King Seongjo’s reign (1457–95) in Korea, a number of stories involve violence, including gruesome self-immolation to save the life of aging parents. In the Confucian moral context, one must be ready to endure extreme hardship, even death, in fulfilling filial piety.

Finally, many fans wonder why Squid Game’s main character, Gi Hoon, seemingly the most incompetent — an unemployed man who gambles with his elderly mother’s money and doesn’t pay child support — becomes the final winner. The answer could be found again in Confucian morality. Gi Hoon excels in his ability to feel humility or shame. It is this sense of humility, also reflected in the iconography of the Munja-do screen, that helps Gi Hoon win several games in the fictional world of the Squid Game trials. However, it no longer appeals to today’s hypercompetitive society or prevalent flex culture.

Gi Hoon carving out the shape of an umbrella in the dalgona challenge trial with a pin

Fun fact: Dalgona (달고나), also called honeycomb, is featured in the show as one of the many games where players race against the clock to produce an intact cut-out of a particular shape etched into candy. This was a street food popular in the 1970s and ‘80s. The author of this essay, native to South Korea, never tried it because it was considered to be 불량식품, meaning “bad food.”

The CMA’s take on Squid Game’s dalgona. Photo: Jessica Ketz

The munja-do screen is now on view in the Korea Foundation Gallery (236) as part of the free exhibition Popular Art from Early Modern Korea.