Early Emblems

The Joseon (Yi) Era

The Kojong Era

North Korea

South Korea





Since the 1st century AD, the kingdoms of Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla grew to control the Korean peninsula and Manchuria as the Three Kingdoms (57 BC – 668 AD) until the unification by Silla in 676. In 698, Dae Jo-yeong established the Kingdom of Balhae in old territories of Goguryeo which led to the North South States Period (698–926).

In the late 9th century, Silla was divided into the Later Three Kingdoms (892–936), which ended with the unification by Wang Geon's Goryeo Dynasty. Meanwhile Balhae fell after an invasion by the Khitan Liao Dynasty and the refugees including the last Crown Prince emigrated to Goryeo. During the Goryeo period, laws were codified, a civil service system was introduced, and culture inlfuenced by Buddhism flourished.

In 1392, Yi Seong-gye established the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910) after a coup. King Sejong the Great (1418–1450) implemented numerous administrative, social, and economical reforms, established royal authority in the early years of the dynasty, and promulgated Hangul, the Korean alphabet.

From the late 16th century, the Joseon dynasty faced a number of foreign invasions, internal power struggle and rebellions, and it declined rapidly in the late 19th century. In 1897, the Korean Empire (1897–1910) was founded. However, Imperial Japan forced the Korean Empire to sign the Eulsa Treaty and in 1910 annexed the Korean Empire, though all treaties involved were later confirmed to be null and void.

Korean resistance was manifested in the widespread nonviolent March 1st Movement of 1919. Thereafter the resistance movements, coordinated by the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in exile, was largely active in neighboring Manchuria, China and Siberia.

After the liberation in 1945, the partition of Korea created the modern two states of North and South Korea. In 1948, new governments were established, the Democratic South Korea ("Republic of Korea") and Communist North Korea ("Democratic People's Republic of Korea") divided at the 38th parallel. The unresolved tensions of the division surfaced in the Korean War of 1950, when North Korea invaded South Korea.




Early Emblems


In Chinese cosmology the four points of the compass are symbolized by the four mythological beasts. This is related to the early cosmological views  in China that heaven consisted of four parts. Every part  had the shape of a beast and so every beast was the symbol of the corresponding part of heaven, season and point of the compass.

The East, related with Spring had the shape of a dragon, the West and Autumn was symbolized by a white tiger. Both animals were looking to the south. The South, residence of the Summer was symbolized by a bird, the North, residence of the Winter, by a tortoise fighting or copulating with a snake. Their heads were directed to the west.

In addition every beast was associated with one of the main colours: they are called the Blue Dragon, the White Tiger, the Vermilion Bird and the Black Warriors.


These beasts were also known in the Korean Koguryeo kingdom, one of Three Kingdoms of Korea, located in the cities of P'yŏngyang and Namp'o and existing from 37 BC to the 7th century AD.. This is demonstrated by the mural paintings of the Complex of Koguryo Tombs. In these tombs 5th century paintings were found of dragons, a phoenix, and a tortoise.


Blue Dragon


Tortoise and Snake


Another interesting Koguryo mural painting shows an achievement which can be an achievement of state. It is:


Koguryo Mural Painting, 6th century AD.


Emblem: A moon Argent charged with a three-legged bird Sable.

Supporters: D.: The the sun god Fuxi riding a dragon; S.: The moon goddess Nu-wa playing a flute and riding a phoenix, all proper.


í There is no satisfactory explication of the meaning of the three-legged bird.


The Joseon (Yi) Era




The Chinese Achievements


Of the Imperial Chinese Achievement there are two kinds, thus reflecting the dualism of the Chinese social organisation:


The Achievement of the Chinese Emperor


Everywhere in the Gyeongbokgung palace are pictures of two dragons curling around a moon. This is the actual achievement of the Chinese Qing Government, the Government considered to be a function of the state, supported by the Emperor, head of the military hierarchy.

It illustrates the suzereinty of the Chinese Emperor (1632-1895).


Decoration of the ceiling in the Gyeongbokgung palace


Qing moon (shining pearl) as on the Chinese Emperor’s Robes


The Chinese Achievement of State


The achievement of State consisted of a moon supported by two phoenixes, symbols of the Head of State and supreme official of the civil hierarchy. It was painted on buildings, on the ceiling above the throne, and carved on the steps of the Gyeongbokhung Palace or Throne Hall. It was also embroidered on breast patches of official dress.

The achievement is identical to the Imperial Chinese moon-and-phoenixes achievement and as such can be qualified as another sign of Chinese suzereinty. 


Gyeongbokhung Palace ceiling above the Throne

Gyeongbokhung Palace, steps to the Throne Hall


Ceiling of the Gwanghwamung-gate, opening to the Throne Hall.


The Throne


Gyeongbokgung throne


Early political symbols of the Yi era of Choson or Korea are integrated in the throne which is a symbolic picture of the socio-political constellation of Korea. There have been many thrones in Korea which were set up in as many palaces as there were ‘The Hall of the Government of Truth’ (Ingjǒngjǒn)  the ‘Palace of the Flowering Virtue’ (Ch’angdǒkkung), the ‘Hall of the Shining Government’ (Myǒngjǒngjǒn) the ‘Palace of the Flowering  Celebration’ (Ch’anggyǒnggung), the ‘Hall of te Government of Respect’ (Kǔnjǒngjǒn) the ‘Palace od Shining Happiness’ (Gyeǒngbokgung) the ‘Hall of Straithforward Harmony ‘(Chunghwajǒn) and the ‘Palace of the Happy Longevity’ (Tǒksugung). The throne in the Palace of the Shining Happines was first constructed in 1394 A.D. and reconstructed in 1867. It was nearly destroyed during the Japanese invasion of the early 20th century and, since 1989, has been in the process of being restored to its original form. Of all the palaces built in the Joseon Dynasty era, Gyeongbokgung was the main palace as well as the largest.

The throne in its extended form consists of the royal seat standing before a screen covered by a baldachin below a large canopy supported by four pillars.


Portrait of King Kojong on his throne [1]


The King, when seated on his throne, is a part of this symbolic socio-political constellation. Together they make the symbols for the Empire, the State and the Ruler.


The Screen


The Screen shows the Sun and the Moon which are the symbols of the Empire and the State. They are depicted in a landscape consisting of five mountain-tops washed by the sea and between some pine-trees. This landscape is the symbol of the territory of Korea.

The Sun is depicted as a red disc and is identical to the Chinese and Japanese sun and in fact to the suns of many other countries. The oldest known red sun is the one of Ancient Egypt.

The Moon is depicted as a white disc and has its counterparts also in China and Japan.

The Mountain-and-Sea is also a symbol of Chinese origin and symbolizes Earth. Such mountains are also in the national emblems of Tibet and some other Indian states. The cascades and trees make it the earth of Korea.


Screen with the pictures of the sun, the moon and the five mountains.

Unknown painter of the Yi-court 18th century.

Composed of six panels of painted silk. 196.2 Í 352.8 cm. From the Palace of the Flowering Virtue. National Museum of the palace treasures, Seoul.


Whenever during the Yi-era a royal seat was set up, such a screen was placed behind it. The sizes were different and also the number of panels varied but the iconographic program was always the same. This can be seen on many pictures from this era. An example is the picture from a screen from 1795 called “The Procession of King Chongjo to the Mausoleum of his Father.” from the National Museum of Seoul.[2]


Detail of number five of eight panels from “The Procession of King Chongjo” 1795.

In the little temple below a version of the tae-guk can be seen coloured black and white. [3]

See illustration in the head of this essay


The Royal Seat



The Royal Seat of the Gyeongbokgung throne consists of a bench with a back decorated with little suns, single dragons-and-suns and dragon’s heads. In the upper part of it is an achievement consisting of a yin-yang symbol, charged with a trident and supported by two dragons and on top a sun in the clouds. This program is repeated on a larger back behind the bench.


The sun in the clouds is a larger and embellished version of the symbol of the Empire.

In Ming China it was the emblem of civil officials of the 10th rank and lower.

The single dragons-and-moons are the symbols of the ruler i.c. the King.


The King






King Yeongjo (1694-1776)

From: Searching for original portraits of King Sukjong

Circular patch on the King’s Robes

A dragon guardant and a moon.


As suggested by the Royal Seat the emblem of the King was a dragon and moon.

The image of the king is known from a series of royal portraits which suggests that the royal official dress was decorated with three dragons curling around a moon.


The Royal Achievement


The achievement on the throne is the achievement of the Royal Government, the trident symbolizing armed authority.


This achievement is different from the achievement of (the Chinese) government because a trident is added. For that reason it might be called the achievement of the Korean Royal Army Staff.


The seal


Korean Seals

The seal was first introduced to Korea in approximately 2nd century BC. The oldest record of its usage in Korea states that Kings of Buyeo used a royal seal (oksae) which had the inscription ‘Seal of the King of Ye’. The use of seals became popular in Three Kingdoms period.

The State Seals of the kingdom of Korea, were of two kinds: Gugin which was conferred by the Emperor of China to Korean kings, and were meant to confirm the brotherhood (Sadae-jui) of the Chinese Emperor and the Korean King. These seals were used only in diplomatic intercourse with China and at the coronation of kings. Others, generally called eobo or eosae, were used in diplomatic intercourse with countries other than China, and for domestic purposes. Seals were also used by government officials in documents. These types of seals were called gwanin and it was supervised by specialist officials.


The royal seal after 1392, was made of gold. On its face was an inscription in phags-pa script, and its prints were made in red ink. Its handle was a tortoise, the symbol of the north in Chinese cosmology, thus making the seal “the Seal of the King of the North”. In the time of Chinese suzereinty the seal was kept in a box decorated with the achievement of the Imperial Chinese Government, consisting of a moon supported by two dragons.

Recently articles about the royal seal of King Mokcho and the seal of King Kojong have been published. [4]


Seal of King Mokcho, handle and face, 1411 ca.

Gilded metal and silk  9.8Í9.8Í9.8 cm. From the Chongmyo, the royal ancestor’s shrine. Made for king T’aejong (1400-’18). National Museum of the Palace Treasures, Seoul.

The inscription in phags-pa script reads: Merciful, Good and Wise King Mok (Inmunsong Moktaewang).[5]


Seal of King Chŏngjo (1776-1800)

The incription changed accordingly


By King Kojong the inscription in phags-pa script was replaced by an inscription in Hangeul.


With the proclamation of Republic of Korea in 1948, its government created a new State Seal, guksae and it is used in promulgation of constitution, designation of cabinet members and ambassadors, conference of national orders and important diplomatic documents.


Other Emblems


The badges of civil and military rank closely followed the Chinese system. Their development however was slightly different from the Chinese model. So, we meet the lion and the crane as emblems of high ranking military and civil officials but these are not always worn on a square on the breast patch of the official dress, like the Chinese Mandarin square.

These badges of rank were abandoned in the Kojong-era.


Embroidered breast patch of a Korean Inspector Gen-eral, 15th century.

In 15th century China a lion, shizi, was the badge of rank of a military official of the 1st rank.

On the breast patch of Admiral Yi-sunshin (1545-’98) were two leopards (bao, military official of the 3rd rank).



Embroiderd breast patch of  Kang Se-hwang (1712-’91)

showing two cranes and a sun.[6]

A crane, xianhe, was the badge of rank of a civil official of the 1st rank in Qing China. The badge in fact means: The office of  a civil official of the 1st rank of the Empire.




Æ Kojong Era



Back to Main Page



© Hubert de Vries 2012-02-01


[1] Lithography by Joseph de la Nezière. From: l'Extrême Orient en Image, 1903.

[2] Korea. Die Alten Königreiche. Essen, 1999.  With an extended bibliography

[3] On this most interesting screen the banner of state and the royal banner can be seen, the first square charged with two dragons, the second triangular with a single one, both on a yellow cloth and on staffs crested with a trident. Also, the drum from the orchestra is decorated with a buddhist whirl and has a standard with a crane.

[4] Korea, op. cit., pp. 345-348. Garcia, Cathy Rose A.: A seal used by King Gojong. In:  Korea Times, 2009.03.17. 

[5] From Korea, loc. cit.

[6] From Korea, op.cit. No 82, pp. 324-27