The Kojong Era 1864-1907


Japanese Rule


The End of the Closed Land Era, 1885

New Emblems, 1892

The Empire of the Great Han

Japanese Rule

Post War Korea


Back to Korea


The End of the Closed Land Era, 1885


King Kojong succeeded his great-granduncle Chŏngjo (1776-1800) in 1864 at the age of twelve. After he had become of age in 1873 international diplomatic relations were established after 1881.

In the first years of his reign the socio-political emblems were not changed. Thus we see the eum-yang emblem for the state and the dragon for the king.


The Eum-Yang Emblem



The Korean eum-yang symbol (known in China as yin-yang) consists of a disc divided in four concentric rings parted per pale counterchanged. Its colors differ and can be blue and red, black and white or white and yellow. On the throne the disc was all gold.

100-mun stamp 1885

The emblem of the Kingdom in red and blue.


ð Its origin is based on the oriental philosophy of eum-yang. It was originally thought that this philosophy was developed in China by Chou Fung-i (1016-1073 AD), a metaphysical philosopher of the Sun Dynasty, who published his theory of tai-chi in 1070 AD and supposedly designed the tai-chi (yin-yang) symbol. However, a piece of stone with the eum-yang (yin-yang) symbol carved on it was discovered at the site of the Korean Buddhist temple Kam-Eun, which was built in 682 AD. This is the oldest known use of the eum-yang symbol. This discovery indicates that the symbol was in use in Korea as early as 682 AD, well before Chou Fung-i was born.

The eum-yang symbol expresses the dualism of the universe, the perfect harmony and balance among opposites, and the constant movement within the sphere of infinity.

Eum (blue portion of the symbol) means dark, cold, or negative, while yang (red portion of the symbol) means bright, hot, or positive. A very old Chinese book called Choo-Yuk claims that all objects, through the movement of yin (eum) and yang, express events by their dualism. For example, the moon is eum, the sun is

yang; the earth is eum, the sky is yang; night is eum, the day is yang; and the winter is eum, the summer is yang.Eum and yang are relative. Therefore, "A" can be eum with respect to "B" while being yang with respect to "C." For example, the spring is eum to the summer yang while also being yang to the winter eum. Eum and yang compliment each other. Neither exists of itself alone, they must exist together. To appreciate beauty, you must have ugliness.  What benefit is good (yang) if evil (eum) does not exist?

Lao Tsu (known No Ja in Korea), a famous Chinese philosopher who founded Taoism, wrote a chapter on dualism in his book Tao Te Ching. The following is a summary of the chapter:


Under heaven all may see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.

All may know good as good only because there is evil.

Therefore having and not having arise together.

Difficult and easy complement each other.

Long and short contrast each other.

Front and back follow one another.

Therefore, the sage goes about doing nothing, teaching no talking.

The ten thousand things rise and fall without cease,

Creating, not possessing,

Working, yet not taking credit.

Work is done, then forgotten,

Therefore it lasts forever!


The Government



Royal or Imperial Achievement as on coins, 1884.

The dragons and the moon as before, being the achievement of China


The Flag


To meet the requirements of international representation it was decided to adopt a national flag. King Kojong the installed a commission which had to make a design for such a flag. According to an article published on October 2, 1882 in the Tokyo daily newspaper, Emperor Go-jong designed the original flag, which was adopted in August 1882. In August 1882 a Tae-guk-flag was adopted by King Kojong which was hoisted for the first time on 27 January 1883.

The Emperor then ordered Young-Hyo Park to use the flag on his trip to Japan as a diplomat. Park used the flag again in 1887 on a trip to the United States.  

It consisted of a red cloth, charged with a yellow and white tae-guk surrounded by eight yellow  kwae (trigrams), and surrounded by a bordure of green points.



The eight trigrams originate from the Phags-pa script and are combinations of a line (yo) and an interrupted line (in). They are also associated with the points of the compass.

They are subdivided into two groups: the male and the female trigrams. [1]


























































New Emblems, 1892


Plum Blossom


Plum-blossom on Korean coins,



Also about 1892 a plum-blossom was introduced which took the place of the sun as the emblem of the empire. It illustrates the change in orientation of Korea from declining China to Japan, then a quickly developing nation.




Japanese plum blossom


ð The plum blossom originates in Japanese heraldry. Early Japanese chronicles speak of plum-blossom-viewing festivities in Japan as early as 730 A.D. and as a textile design the plum blossom was already a popular motif in the Nara perios. The plum-blossom pattern was particularly fashionable in the early Heian period, when it was displayed on clothing, furnishings, carriages, and especially on the backs of mirrors. In some of its versions, the plum-blossom design tended to become virtually indistinguishable from the depiction of circular stars. As the T’ang dynasty collapsed and Chines infkluence on Japanes culture waned, the plum-blossom tended to declaine in favor in Japan and become replaced by the native cherry blossom.

This transition was vividly exemplified in the year 960 when a fire ravaged the imperial palace, destroying a famous plum tree by its entrance; when the palace was reconstructed, a cherry tree was planted in the plum tree’s stead. Despite this chill breath of nativism, however, as a decorative pattern the plum blossom remained true to its tradition of endurance and emerged as one of the more popular motifs in Japanes heraldry. To a large extend, this was due to the fact that it was known to have been admired by Sungawara Michizane, a late ninth-century courtier of such heroic accomplishments that he was posthumously deified as Tenjin, patron god of poetry, calligraphy, scholarship, and the like. The Temman Shrine, associated with worship of Tenjin, adopted the plum blossom as ist official crest, and during the later centuries when Japanes heraldry was in flower, many families adopted the plum blossom as their familiy crest either to commemorate  a lineage tracing back to Michizane or to signify their religious devotion to Temmangu. [2]



The Emblem of State


Emblem of the State of Korea 1892-1905


About 1892  the design of the yin-yang symbol was changed. The new design showed a disc divided in two equal comma-shaped parts, red and blue.

When looking at the two comma-shaped sections ‘ukwdrops’ in the eum-yang symbol, the thicker part of a section indicates the beginning and the slender part indicates the end. The eum begins where the yang gradually vanishes and vice versa. The red section is always on the top half of the circle.

The harmonious state of the movement of eum-yang is called tae-guk in Korean (tai-chi in Chinese).


Royal Achievement


Royal Achievement as on coins, 1892

The Qing moon  replaced by the new symbol of the state.




We may presume that, together with the change of design of the eum-yang symbol a new flag was adopted but the existing literature is a bit confused about that.[3] In fact, the new flag was noticed in Europe only in about 1895. [4] Another picture appeared in 1899 in an American Flag Book. [5]

The new flag consisted of a white cloth charged with the Emblem of the state surrounded by black trigrams, the number reduced to four: Kwen, Ken, Li and Kan (heaven, earth, water and fire)


Flag of Korea, 1899 

Ancient Korean Flag 1892ca-1905


In Korea the flag is called Tae-Guk (the origin of all things in the universe) or Tae-Guk-Ki ( ki means flag). Tae-Guk is also known as the flag of great extremes.


Taehan Cheguk (‘Empire of Great Han’)



As a result of the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), the 1895 Maguan Treaty (Treaty of Shimonoseki) was concluded between China and Japan. According to Article I of this treaty, which stipulated the abolition of traditional relationships with China, China recognised the complete independence of Joseon and repudiated the former's political influence over the latter.

In 1897, Joseon was renamed the Korean Empire, and The imperial government aimed to become a strong and independent nation by implementing domestic reforms; strengthening military forces, developing commerce and industry, and surveying land ownership. Organizations like the Independence Club also rallied to assert the rights of the Joseon people, but clashed with the government which proclaimed absolute monarchy and power.


In 1897, King Kojong, yielding to rising pressure from both overseas and the demands of the Independence Association-led public opinion, proclaimed the founding of the Empire of Korea, (T’ae-han Hwang-je Pye-ha) effectively severing Korea's superficial historic ties as a tributary of Qing Dynasty, which Korea had adhered to since the prior Manchurian invasion in 1636. King Kojong became Emperor T’ae-han Cheguk Kwangmu (shining warrior), the first imperial head of state and hereditary sovereign of the Empire of Korea.


About 1900 a new emblem was introduced and a new achievement of the government was adopted.

In the Kwangmu era (1897-1910) the plum blossom of the Kingdom became the emblem of the Empire and the Eum-Yang symbol remained the emblem of the state.

Also the dragon guardant remained the emblem of the Ruler now titled Emperor.


Ruler and Head of State


In about 1905 the dragon was repositioned from guardant to turned to the dexter.

A phoenix was introduced as the emblem of the head of state.



Imperial Emblem and Emblem of the Head of State, as on coins 1905


National Emblem


An emblem consisting of the emblem of the empire and the emblem of the state appeared on Korean stamps issued in 1900, that is three years after the proclamation of the Empire.

In the first version the eum-yang symbol is between two plum-blossoms.

A second version show the eum-yang symbol crested by the plum-blossom.


1 & 2   (chon), stamps 1900

Showing the national emblem (mirror-wise)


The combination can be qualified to be the national emblem as it is composed of the emblems of two of the three socio-political elements of society. It is also a reduction of the former screens by omitting the earth-symbol of the mountains and sea, the cascades and the pine-trees.

The idea is confirmed by the later national emblems of Korea which is also composed of such emblems, a term for the ruler or head of state missing.


The Achievement of State


At the turn of the century a new Achievement of State was adopted. In it the traditional two phoenixes are replaced by a single phoenix. The achievemt is:


Achievement of Government, 1897/’99-1905


Arms: A eum-yang symbol proper surrounded by eight discs Argent charged with the eight kwae Sable.

Supporter: A phoenix wings upwards charged with eight eum-yang symbols, crowned with the Imperial Korean Crown, in his dexter claw the sword of state, and in his sinister claw a globe [all proper].


The achievement is an illustration of the Russian political influence in Korea. It was applied on coins issued 1901-1903 and on stamps.

An explication of the phoenix on coins reads:


‘When Russia gained influence over Korea while several world powers were competing in Korea in the late Yi Dynasty, Alexieff, who was an advisor of the Takjibu (Finance Bureau), established the Korea-Russia bank in March of the 2nd ruling year of Emperor Kwangmu (Kojong) in order to overturn influence of the Japan First Bank. However, the bank was closed on May 9th of the same year because of the anti-Russia movement of the Korean Independence Association. At that time, silver coins, Ojeon white copper coins, and Iljeon brass coins that were decorated with a phoenix design were distributed. Afterwards, when Japan took over Korea these coins were collected. Only a few of these coins are left today.’


The Crown



Korean Crown

on the Imperial 50 Years Felicitations Commemo-rative Medal, instituted by Emperor Kwangmu to commemorate his fiftieth birthday on  07.09.1901.


Emperor Kwangmu wearing the Imperial Crown


The crown is a version of the ceremonial crown worn by high ranking offcials. It consists of a cylinder closed with a cap of black silk, the cap decorated with golden lines, the number of which indicates the rank. The cap is pierced by a golden needle with purple tassels.[6]

On the portrait of Kojong, the number of golden lines on his crown counts twelve.

The royal crown worn by his predecessors consisted of a cap and a two-lobed screen behind it of black silk. It was a version of the Ming imperial headdress which consisted of a cap of golden gauze with two golden dragons respecting mounted on it, the whole cloaked by a black silken cap.



About 1900 the design of the emblem of the Empire was changed again, this time by making the two comma-shaped parts looking less like whirls and turning the emblem upside down. The flag was changed accordingly. [7]

An early version of the new shape of the eum-yang emblem was on the star of the Kumch'ok Taehunjang (the Grand Order of the Golden Ruler), founded by Emperor Kwangmu on 17 April 1900.




Japanese Rule



In 1910 Japan effectively annexed Korea by the Japan–Korea Annexation Treaty. The Japanese officially adopted the name Chōsen for Korea in 1910 as replacement for the national Korean term Taehan Cheguk (‘Empire of Great Han’), formally proclaimed in 1897. Chōsen was ruled by a (Japanese) Governor-General of Chosen until Japan's unconditional surrender to the Allied Forces, on 15 August 1945.

Seal of the Japanese Governor of Korea [8]


The seal of the Japanese Governor of Korea showed the Kiri mon which was the emblem of the Japanese Regent.

A new national emblem for Korea was apparently adopted in the last years of WWII. It consists of a cherry blossom charged by the plum blossom which was the emblem of Korea by then.


National Emblem of Korea as on banknotes, 1945-1947.



í The cherry blossom, Sakura.

Paintings of the late Heian period such as the Eiga Monogatari picture scroll reveal the popularity of the cherry blossom as a pattern on clothing and utensils, and some court families later maintained it as a family crest. Despite the widespread popularity of the cherry blossom, its adoption as a family crest was unremarkable. Few warriors appear to have used this motif. 

Probably in the 19th century it became the emblem of the Japanese armed forces. [9]



At about the same time an achievement or quasi achievement for Korea was adopted. It consisted of the new national emblem, supported by two Kiri-mon


Achievement of the Japanese Government of Korea as on  banknotes, 1944-‘45.


Such a composition is known from Japanese Meiji-coins, 1870, the cherry- and plum blossom replaced by the Kiku-mon


Provisional Government of Korea




1 won stamp, 1946

In December 1945, a conference was convened in Moscow to discuss the future of Korea and it was decided that the sovereign state of Korea would be restored. The de jure sovereignty was deemed to pass from the Joseon (Yi) Dynasty to the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea. A 5-year trusteeship was discussed, and a joint Soviet-American commission was established. The commission met intermittently in Seoul but deadlocked over the issue of establishing a national government. In September 1947, with no solution in sight, the United States submitted the Korean question to the UN General Assembly.

In that time stamps were issued showing the eum-yang emblem surrounded by four kwae.

Initial hopes for a unified, independent Korea quickly evaporated when the proclamation of the Republic of Korea in the south on 15 August 1948 was quickly followed by the proclamation of the Korean Democratic People’s Republic in the north on 9 September 1948.  On December 12, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations recognised the Republic of Korea as the sole legal government of Korea which resulted in the Korean War.


In the national anthem of the Provisional Government of Korea, Korea is compared poetically to the Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus - Malvaceæ). A verse of it reads:


Roses of Sharon and Three thousand Li
of splendid rivers and mountains full;
Great Korean people, To the Great Korean way
stay always true!


And this is the predecessor of the Hibiscus flower of the later Republic of South Korea.




Æ North Korea



Æ South Korea


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© Hubert de Vries 2012-02-01. Updated 2019-08-21


[1]  Ströhl, H.G. Wappen und Flagge von Korea. In: Der.Deutsche Herold. 190? pp. 117-118.

[2] Dower, John W: The Elements of Japanese Design. A Handbook of Familiy Crests, Heral­dry and Symbolism. Weatherhill Inc. New York/Tokyo, 1971. 170pp. ill. With over 2700 crests drawn by Kiyoshi Kawamoto. Pp. 74-75.

[3] Usually this flag is said to have been adopted in 1883, the red flag being abandoned at the same time.

[4] By Heyer von Rosenfeld, Friedrich: Die Staatswappen der bekanntesten Länder der Erde. Frankfurt a/Main, 1895.

[5] Flags of Maritime Nations. Prepared by the Bureau of Equipment Department of the Navy.  Washington, 1899.

[6] Korea, Die Alten Königreiche, Essen 1999,  pp. 343-344

[7] This flag was noticed by Hugo G. Ströhl at the Royal Korean Consulate in Hamburg.

[8] According to Wikipedia

[9] Dower, op. cit. pp. 50-51.