Stumbling Upon the Taoist Hermit Drunk


Today was a beautiful day and wanting to do some more field research before writing my next piece on Kim Hongdo, I decided to drop by a museum that should have some more of his work. Bonus for me, as it was a museum that I had not yet visited! So off to the Kansong Art Museum, just a hop, skip and a jump from Hanseong University Station.

It was a spadoinkle day!

Unfortunately my sources for this museum failed to mention that the museum was currently closed for renovation. I only found out for myself at the gate.


But hey, thats ok, they have an exhibit going on at the DDP, only three stations down. Adventure ho!

The Taoist Hermit Who Never Stops Drinking

So good news and bad news. Good news, the exhibit is up, and is really, really well done. Seriously, if you have the chance, go see it! You only have two more weeks from the time I’m writing this. Bad news is the exhibit did not have anything I was looking for. Good news, I became familiar with another Joseon master and want to write a bit about him.

The Joseon master I’d like to introduce today is Jang Seung-Eop (장승업), and one of the first things you learn about him in this exhibit is his nickname, Chwee-Myeong-Gah-Sah-Rah (취명가사라), the Taoist hermit who drinks all the time. Seems that he drank all the time, preferred traveling to court life, and hung out with gisaeng (a Korean equivilant to geishas).

Jang Seung-Eop lived to be 54 years old, dying in 1897, only a few years before the end of the Joseon dynasty and the beginning of the Japanese occupation of Korea. As I did with Kim Hongdo, let me share one of Jang’s last paintings.

Three Heroes of Wind and Dust

Heroes of Wind and Dust

As you might notice, traditional work often has calligraphy and seals. Sometimes these are added years after the piece was made, giving notes, proof of ownership, or poetry. Unfortunately, I cannot read Chinese, nor Korean using Chinese script. Luckily, the exhibit translated one of these colophons, written 27 years after the painting was made by one of Jang’s students:

I visited Master Jang Seung-Eop at his studio by the bridge in the spring of 1891. Master Jang was painting this piece and told me it was a painting of the Three Heroes of Wind and Dust. I asked him where the third was. He told me that the third was a guest but had not yet arrived because he was late. It is already nearly thirty years since I saw Master Jang working on this piece. Now, as I am writing this colophon, the image of the Master comes across my mind vividly.

I love Jang’s humor! But humor aside, this has also opened a new rabbit’s hole for me. The Three Heroes of Dust and Wind (風塵三俠) are Chinese folk heroes with beguiling names like the Lady with Red Sleeves (Hong Fu Nü – 紅拂女), the Dragon Beard Man, and Li Jing. The last one is a real historical figure, but from what I’ve gathered, his role in these stories is about as historical as Abraham Lincoln’s role in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Final Thoughts

The literati of Korea highly revered Chinese literature and art, so it isn’t surprising that many of the topics of the Joseon masters are based on Chinese literature. But these painters were not only interested in Chinese tales but depicted topics closer to home as well. So barring stumbling across another exhibition introducing another master, my next exploration of traditional Korean painting will reveal something more indigenous.

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