Korea: the Taeguk symbol & the Mugung flower

Being 2 different symbols, the Taeguk symbol and the Mugung flower both symbolize hope for an eternal growth, vigorous vitality and the ability to always revive of the country and the people on the Korean peninsula. When one flower falls, another will bloom; when Yin reaches its peak, Yang will grow.

korean-peninsula
Location of the Korean peninsula (researchgate.net)

Theme song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4r7dqOCjsmA

1. History of Korea

giha2000_27408868
Dangun (단군) (wikipedia.org)

The history of Korea began when the first Korean kingdom, Gojoseon (고조 전), was founded in 2333 BC by the mythical king Dangun (단군).  Legend has it that Hwanung (환웅), who is the son of king of heaven Hwanin (환인), descended from heaven, used magic to turn a female bear into a beautiful woman, conceived her and thereby gave birth to a child, who later became king Dangun.

From the first century, 3 kingdoms Goguryeo (고구려), Baekje (백제) and Silla (신라) formed the Three Kingdoms era until 676 when Silla unified them all.  In 936, Goryeo (고려) replaced Silla as the next reigning dynasty in Korea.  Goryeo is also the origin of the English name ‘Korea‘.  In 1392, the Goryeo dynasty was overthrown and followed by the Joseon (조선) dynasty.  The Hangul alphabet was invented by king Sejong the Great in 1443. Sejong the Great is considered to be the king who brought Korean culture to the Golden Age.  The Joseon dynasty is also believed to be the longest ruling dynasty in East Asia in the last millennium.

sejong
King Sejong the Great (civilization.wikia.com)

After World War II, and as a result of the Cold War, the Korean peninsula was divided at the 38th parallel and became 2 separate countries : The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the North, following Communism and the Republic of Korea in the South, followingCapitalism.

Although being divided for historical and political reasons, the 2 countries in the Korean peninsula still share some traditional heritages from ancient times. The most prominent of all is the Taeguk symbol.  In addition, South Korea has proved to preserve the traditional culture values better than North Korea. The national flower and also the national symbol of South Korea is a 5-pointed flower called the Mugung flower (Rose of Sharon in English).  The symbolic meaning of the flower comes from its Korean name ‘mugung‘ (무궁), meaning ‘eternity‘ or ‘infinite abundance‘.

emblem_of_south_korea
Emblem of South Korea (wikipedia.org)

2. The Taeguk symbol

Taijitu
Taijitu (wikipedia.org)

Taeguk is a Korean word for Taiji, meaning ‘supreme ultimate’. It is a diagram depicting the Yin Yang theory in Eastern culture, it is encapsulated in a circle, consisting of 2 symmetrical halves, representing Yin (blue or black) and Yang (red or white).  In each symmetrical section, there is a small circle of the opposite color in it.

The Taeguk symbol clearly shows the meaning of the Yin Yang theory in Eastern philosophy:

  • In each whole, there are always 2 opposite sides: Yin (negative forces) and Yang (positive forces), those 2 sides offset each other into a perfect form
  • In Yin there is Yang, in Yang there is Yin, just like the small red circle in the black part, and vice versa.  Nothing completely Yin as well as nothing is completely Yang.
  • If Yin grows, Yang will shrink and vice versa, as the black part gets bigger, the red part will get smaller. But when one part reaches its peak, it will begin to fail. When a part reach its maximum size, the opposite element will appear immediately afterwards, and so on.

In conclusion, this circle of Yin and Yang symbolizes mutual development, the eternal circulation of 2 opposing forces of the universe.  Thus, if the 6-pointed star symbol represents balance and harmony of the universe’s opposites in Western culture, then the Taeguk is a symbol having the same meaning in Eastern culture.

090603_p2_oldest1
1400-year-old wooden carvings with the Taegeuk pattern at the tomb of Bogam-ri (koreatimes.co.kr)

Taeguk is also a traditional symbol that the Korean people have used since ancient times, extremely important in Korean religion and culture.  In this peninsula, the oldest taeguk symbols were found on antiques during the Three Kingdoms era.  One of them is an ancient sword dating to the 5th or 6th century at an ancient tomb of king Michu of Silla, and a wooden artifact found at Baekje tombs of Bogam-ri in Naju, South Jeolla province in 2008. Today, the Taeguk is often associated with Korean tradition and identity.

According to historical documents, during the Song dynasty in China, the philosopher Zhou Dunyi, a scholar contributing to the development of Neo- Confucianism, officially created the Taiji diagram.  In the Joseon period, the Taiji diagram of Zhou Dunyi and the 8 trigrams (Bagua) were displayed on the royal Joseon flag.

joseon-flag
Royal flag of the Joseon dynasty (wikipedia.org)
park_yeong-hyo
Park Yeong-hyo (wikipedia.org)

In 1882, a politician under Joseon dynasty, Park Yeong-hyo (박영효), designed an official national flag for the Joseon dynasty and a united Korea peninsula for the first time, called the Taegukgi (the Taeguk flag).  Park Yeong-hyo was inspired by the former Joseon flag, but changed the colors of Taeguk symbol into blue and red blending together, and a reduction of 4 Bagua trigrams, leaving only 4 trigrams: heaven (건), fire (리), water ( 감 ) and earth (곤), representing the most important elements in the Eastern cosmos, with their respective meanings as follows:

朴泳孝作_朝鮮國旗
Taegukgi by Park Yeong-hyo (wikipedia.org)
Name Celestial body Season Cardinal direction Virtue Family Natural element
Geon
(건 / 乾)
heaven
(천 / 天)
spring
(춘 / 春)
east
(동 / 東)
humanity
(인 / 仁)
father
(부 / 父)
heaven
(천 / 天)
Ri
(리 / 離)
sun
(일 / 日)
autumn
(추 / 秋)
south
(남 / 南)
righteous
(의 / 義)
daughter
(녀 / 女)
fire
(화 / 火)
Gam
(감 / 坎)
moon
(월 / 月)
winter
(동 / 冬)
north
(북 / 北)
intelligence
(지 / 智)
son
(자 / 子)
water
(수 / 水)
Gon
(곤 / 坤)
earth
(지 / 地)
summer
(하 / 夏)
west
(서 / 西)
courtesy
(예 / 禮)
mother
(모 / 母)
earth(토 / 土)

3. The Mugung flower in nature

shan-hai-jing
‘Shan Hai Jing’ (wukong,com)

The Mugung flower (hibiscus syriacus) is native to Asia Minor, namely Syria, but is widely distributed in India, China and the Korean peninsula. Mugung flowers have been present a lot in Korea since ancient times.  The oldest record of Mugung flowers is in ‘Shan Hai Jing‘ (Classic of Mountains and Seas), an ancient encyclopedia of Chinese geography and neighboring countries, believed to have been compiled before the 2nd century. The ‘Classic of Regions Beyond the Seas: East‘ chapter of the book states:

‘In the kingdom of honorable men, there is a kind of grass that blooms in the morning and withers in the evening’.

The ‘kingdom of honorable men‘ here is Korea itself, and that kind of grass is the Mugung flower.

Mugung flowers belong to the group of hibiscus flowers, which are deciduous trees.  The tree is about 2 to 4m high.  Normally, a small tree blooms about 20 flowers a day, while a big one produces 50 flowers, and it blooms about 100 days a year.  Therefore, a tree blooms from 2000 to 5000 flowers a year.  Flowers bloom early in the morning, begin to close in the afternoon and wither at sunset.  This cycle is repeats daily, continuous blooming and falling daily is considered a very unique feature of Mugung flowers.

mugung-tree
The Mugung tree (pinterst.com)

There are more than 100 species of Mugung flowers in the Korean Peninsula, including single, semi-double and double types of flowers.  Based on the colors of flowers, Mugung flowers are divided into 3 groups: Dansim (flower with red center), Baedal (pure white flower), and Asadal (pink dots on the edges of the petals).  The flower type chosen as Korean national flower is the Dansim single flower.

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During the Three Kingdoms period, the Silla kingdom even called itself Geunhwahyang which means ‘the land of Mugung flower‘.  There exists an elite military force called Hwarang, consisting of male youth who were educated very early about Korean art, culture and Buddhism.  Ancient Chinese texts refer to them as warriors who are very charming with flamboyant use of make-up, cosmetic decorations and accessories. The history of the Hwarang was not well known before Korea gained independence in 1945, after which the force took on a symbolic importance to Korea.

hwarang
Poster of Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth drama, 2016 (dramabeans.com)

4. Meaning of the Mugung flower

mugunghwa
The Korean eternal flower (crowdpic.net)

The Mugung flower is a symbol of the Korean personality of determination and perseverance.  Comparing to other flowers, the Mugung has very tough endurance, it can resist insects and diseases that are capable of ruining trees.  It symbolizes the vigorous vitality, the continuous growth and the prosperity of the nation.  The word ‘mugung’ itself in Korean means ‘eternity‘. Korean people love and care for this flower very much because it symbolizes the glorious history of their country as well as the challenges and sufferings that they had to go through.  Even if one flower falls, another will continue to bloom, so it is also a symbol of indomitable spirit.

mugung-teamugung-tea
Mugung tea (pinterest.com)

In addition, Mugung flowers have many other uses: flower buds are used as vegetables, petals and fruits are used for medicine or tea.  With such great uses, the Mugung flower is considered to be the flower born ‘for the people and to serve the people‘.

The Korean people’s love for this flower was further heightened in the lyrics Mugunghwa samcheolli hwaryeo gangsan’ (Mugung flower, blooming on thousand miles of beautiful mountains and river) that begin the chorus of Korean national anthem.

flag-of-president-of-south-korea
Flag of the President of South Korea (wikipedia.org)

Because the Mugung flower has been a very important part of the country for centuries, Korea chose this flower as its national flower after being liberated from the Japanese rule, symbolizing the revival of the nation as mugung petals bloom again after a long dark night.  Nowadays, most of Korean legislative, executive and judicial institutions take the Mugung flower as their official symbol.

References: 

Mã văn hóa: Lá cờ Thái cực  (Cultural code: The Taegukgi) – http://thongtinhanquoc.com/ma-van-hoa-la-co-thai-cuc/

Chevailier, D. & Gheerbrant, A. . (2016). Từ điển biểu tượng văn hóa thế giới (Dictionary of symbols). Đà Nẵng

Han Sang-hee. (2010). “Oldest Taegeuk Pattern Found in Naju”. The Korea Times – http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/art/2010/05/135_46228.html

Joseph, A. .(2014). Reconstructing the Confucian Dao: Zhu Xi’s Appropriation of Zhou Dunyi. SUNY Press

Kim, S. Y. & Ro, Y. C. .(1984). Hanism as Korean mind : interpretation of Han philosophy. Los Angeles, Calif.: Eastern Academy of Human Sciences

Korean overseas information service .(2003). Handbook of Korea (11. ed.). Seoul: Korean Overseas Information Service

National symbols. Seoul city tour – http://www.seoulcitytour.net/English/eng_menu_05_01_5.html

(Nguyễn Đức Vịnh translated). (2019). Sơn Hải Kinh (Shan Hai Jing). Hà Nội: Văn học

Nguyễn Trường Tân. (2017). Tìm hiểu văn hóa Hàn Quốc (Understanding Korean culture). Tp. HCM: Thanh niên

Rutt, R. (1961). “The Flower Boys of Silla (Hwarang), Notes on the Sources.” Transactions of the Korea Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society

Shin, C. Y. . (2005). Glossary of key terms. New York: New York University Press

The National Flower – Mugunghwa – https://www.mois.go.kr/eng/sub/a03/nationalSymbol_3/screen.do

 

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