Saturday, April 16, 2022

Deer : A Sacred Animal With Deep Roots in Korean Taoism

by Adeline Panamaroff

When Taoism came to Korea, symbolic animals and elements were usually depicted in art as separate entities. It was in Korea where the Symbols of Longevity came to be grouped together on landscape paintings, folding screens, furniture, hanji, and embroidered pieces. Later on when Buddhism came to Korea, it also absorbed the idea of the sacred 10-12 symbols. Today they can still be seen grouped together, but smaller objects may be adorned with only one or two of the symbols. An object, box, card, fan or other item that is adored with hanji that contains deer imagery is meant to help remind the owner of the traits of the animal, grace, gentle mannerisms, and quiet temperament.

Traditional deer pattern
 used for Hanji crafts

The white deer that is found in Korea has long been part of a family of sacred animals and elements that entered the country’s lexicon of deities as far back as when the original people of Korea were still a tribal people. Animism from this time period later melded with the imported Taoism, around the 5th Century CE, and also with Buddhist beliefs, both of which came from China. As a member of the Symbols of Longevity,

Ship-jangsaeng 十長生 십장생, the deer is one of 10-12 other animals and natural elements that are often depicted together on classic Korean landscape art. Together these symbols, depicted together, were at the height of their popularity during the Joseon era (1392-1910). They are meant to remind the viewer that living with the correct mindfulness now, in this life, to be in harmony with oneself, others and to respect nature, are the basics of Taoist philosophies. 

The graceful, long neck, and fleetful feet of these quiet, gentle animals can also easily be admired for their sleek, graceful bodies. In ancient tribal times, deer were believed to be a connection between the heavenly deities and their earthly representatives. Deers’ herd mentality has also lent to the belief that deer are community oriented, making sure that no one is left behind while they are on the move.

Traditional deer pattern used for Korean crafts,
including Hanji

The deer, silent, living its life out in the peaceful woodland, is the representation of being in harmony with nature. Gently taking what you need, and respectfully leaving nature intact, can be a lesson for everyone. Visual reminders of how we need to be harmonious, gentle, and mindful of each other, is something everyone should strive for, and can be found on beautifully executed pieces of hanji art. 


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