The Eight Immortals in Joseon Dynasty Painting

Nelly Russ(Korea University)

2023.03.23 | 조회 3044

2021년가을 증산도문화사상 국제학술대회 발표논문

The Eight Immortals in Joseon Dynasty Painting

조선시대회화에 나타난 팔선


Nelly Russ(Korea University)



1. Introduction

2. The Context

3. Introduction of the Eight Immortals to Korea

4. Group images of the Eight Immortals in multifigured Sinseondo

5. Conclusion





Images of the Eight Immortals were an essential part of the genre Sinseondo (Paintings of Immortals) of the late Joseon period. Korean painters domesticated a theme that was particularly popular in Chinese art, however, group images of the Eight Immortals failed to form an independent theme in Joseon painting in the sense they did in China. Although the majority of small and large group representations of immortals include its members, the assembly was not treated as a separate painting subject. Questions arise as to what extent was the Eight Immortals’ integrity preserved following its transmission to Korea, how was the theme adapted by Joseon painters, and what specifically Korean versions were produced in response to the local discourse. In this survey, their depictions will be approached in the broader context of multi-figured compositions of the genre Sinseondo with addressing the related issue of their perception and practical use by Joseon intellectuals who had a predominantly Neo-Confucian mindset. Regarding the parameters of transmission of the assembly to Korea, an important factor defining the initial perception of the Chinese Eight Immortals by the Korean people was the existence of an indigenous cult of Eight Immortals deeply rooted in the tradition of mountain worship and native to the peninsula.


In the collection of Dong-A University Museum there is a painting of the Eight Immortals floating on the sea waves attributed to Kim Hongdo. The tightly crowded figures fill the whole space of the painting surface while the waves are hardly noticeable at the bottom part. The painting is square and cropped at the four sides. Zhongli Quan is depicted heavily drunk and supported by Han Xiangzi. This work stands in sharp contrast to Korean depictions of the Eight immortals that gained sway in the 18th - 19th century. With figures in close up and tightly packed, it rather stands in a row with Chinese representations from the Ming and Qing dynasties. The most essential mark though is that it features exclusively the members of the Eight Immortals assembly, with no inclusion of other characters, which is highly unusual for the Korean tradition. In producing this work, Kim Hongdo was most probably inspired by a Chinese original.

The Eight Immortals is only one among the numerous themes derived from China in Korean art. However, its special status in its homeland makes the issue of the ways it was transformed and reinterpreted in Korea a matter of particular interest. Images of the Eight Immortals produced by Korean painters pose a number of questions. Their ubiquitous presence in Korean figure painting from the 17th-early 20th century is a fact. The large majority of small and large group paintings of Daoist immortals include some or all members of the group; however, there is no painting where the whole assembly is featured together as an independent subject. The purpose of this survey is to investigate more deeply the Eight Immortals in Joseon art in order to cast light on this paradox. I will address the following issues, to what extent was the Eight Immortals’ integrity preserved following its transmission to Korea, how was the theme domesticated by Joseon painters, and what specifically Korean versions were produced in response to the local discourse. I will also address the question, what Chinese prototypes served as a referential source of knowledge in iconography and hagiography for Korean painters. Providing answers to these questions would explain the status of the assembly in Joseon and unveil the ways in which Korean painters manipulated a theme, marked by exceptional popularity in Chinese art. In addition, I will propose some clues to the problem of the highly versatile iconographies characteristic for the assembly, starting from the earliest stage of its development in Joseon painting.



The Context


Pictures of the Eight Immortals were a part of the genre called Sinseondo 神仙圖 (Images of immortals) which occupies a significant part of figure painting extant from the Joseon dynasty. Sinseondo includes individual and group representations of Daoist sages and illustrations of famous episodes from their mythical biographies. Many professional and literati painters have worked in the Sinseondo genre and a considerable number of such paintings are extant in the form of individual and group images in a variety of formats and techniques.

The background of the Joseon dynasty immortals’ paintings is extremely complex as here we talk about Daoism generated non-religious painting. They were not used in prayer or ritual and were not understood as the vessel of the supernatural power of the depicted character, as their predecessors in the Goryeo period. Sinseondo from the Goryeo dynasty has not survived, but textual evidence testifies that images from the Daoist pantheon were used in the Daoist rituals conducted at the Goryeo royal court. After the abolishment of ceremonial Daoism in the mid. Joseon period, images for religious needs were not needed anymore and ceased to be produced. In result, painting on Daoist subjects came to be created extensively for artistic appreciation, auspicious house decoration, as New Year painting, or as a gift on birthdays and festive occasions wishing for happiness and long life. On the wave of their popularity in the 18th 19th century, images of Immortals have also penetrated mural decoration in Buddhist temples.

Such perception of Sinseondo was part of a larger process of secularization of the cult of Daoist immortals, which had begun in the early Ming period China with the decline of the Quanzhen school of Daoism. While only one painting has survived from the early Joseon period the number and quality of these images started to increase by the mid-Joseon period with the rising allure of internal alchemy, the increasing production of local hagiographical literature and the introduction of a number of Chinese illustrated books about Daoist immortals, such as Liexian Quan Zhuan (Collected Biographies of Immortals, 列仙全傳) by Liu Xiang of the Han dynasty, printed in 1600, and especially Xianfo Qizong (Marvelous Traces of Transcendents and Buddhas, 洪氏仙佛奇踪) by Hong Zicheng, printed in 1602. All characters from Sinseondo, including the Eight Immortals, were introduced from China, along with their iconography, that was largely based on these two compendiums.

In China, the Eight Immortals up until the Yuan dynasty were associated with religious Daoism. They were promoted by Yuan dynasty playwrights through zaju (雑劇 - miscellaneous performance) theatrical performances which illustrated and popularized basic tenets of Quanzhen Daoism of converting to the teaching, attaining Daoist enlightenment, and achieving immortality. Their function of phychopomps to the immortal world is also visually expressed in their earliest extant images in Jin and Yuan dynasty tombs.

At the same time, the Eight Immortals were utilized in contexts far from their religious function and related to birthday celebrations and associations with good fortune, longevity, and blessings in the present life. This is visible in the staging of these plays on the occasion of birthdays and in the use of their images as decoration on ceramic ware intended for everyday use.

Thus, already as early as the Yuan dynasty, the Eight Immortals exemplified a secularized religious theme, appealing to all levels of Yuan society.

The members of the group are Zhongli Quan 鍾離權 (Kor. Zhongni Gweon), Lu Dongbin 呂洞賓 (Kor. Yeo Dongbin), Li Tieguai 李鐵拐 (Kor. Yi Cheolgwae), Zhang Guolao 張果老 (Kor. Jang Gwaro), Han Xiangzi 韓湘子 (Kor. Han Sangja), Lan Caihe 藍彩和 (Kor. Nam Chaehwa), Cao Guojiu曹國舅 (Kor. Jo Gukku), and the only female member, He Xiangu 何仙姑 (Kor. Ha Seongo). They lived and attained the Dao in different periods of Chinese history and appear only individually in early records. The Yuan dynasty, when the first literary works featuring them as a group were produced, marked the beginning of their exceptional popularity. The reason for their particular importance in Chinese culture lies in encompassing different faces and statuses from society: wealth (Cao Guojiu) and poverty (Li Tiehguai), old age (Zhang Guolao) and youth (Lan Caihe), women (He Xiangu), and warriors (Zhongli Quan) and scholars (Lu Dongbin) and thus personifying the hope that every human can become an immortal.


 Introduction of the Eight Immortals to Korea


Textual sources and archaeological evidence suggest that the theme of the Yuan Eight Immortals was introduced to Korea during the last phase of the Goryeo dynasty while one of its members, Han Xiangzi, was mentioned in Goryeo poetry from as early as the 12th century, due to his relation to the great Tang dynasty writer Han Yu. The cultural milieu provided a breeding ground for such a theme since Daoism flourished during the Goryeo dynasty due to the ardent patronage of the royal court.

Goryeosa and Goryeosa jeoryo contain accounts on the existence of a local cult of the Eight Immortals, different from the Chinese Eight Immortals, starting from the early part of the Goryeo dynasty. The Korean cult of the Eight Immortals was closely related to the local tradition of mountain worship. It was associated with Mount Songak松嶽山in the Goryeo capital Gaegyeong since Silla times and represented a fusion of Daoist, Buddhist, and indigenous deities. According to the genealogy of Taejo Wang Geon, Pyeonnyeontongrok 編年通錄 (Full Record of Annals and Chronicles) compiled by Kim Guanui 金寬毅 around 1160, Mount Songak in Gaegyeong was known as the abode of the Eight Perfected Immortals 八眞仙, who were different from the Yuan Eight Immortals. It also contains a record about the construction there of a temple of the Eight Immortals (Palseongung八仙宮) with a shrine of the Eight Spirits of Mountains and Streams, at the very onset of the new dynasty.


The Eight Perfected Immortals are recorded in Volume 127 of Goryeosa as follows:


Hogukbaekduak Taebaekseonin Sildeok Munsu Saribosal護國白頭岳 太白仙人實德 文殊師利菩薩 (The Taebaek Immortal of Baektu Mountain who is also the Bodhisattva Manjusri, associated with Mt. Baektusan白頭山)


Yongwiak Yuktongjonja Sildeok Seokkabul 龍圍岳 六通尊者 實德釋迦佛 (The Venerable One of Six Transcendental Powers of Mt. Yongwiak, who is also Sakyamuni Buddha, associated with Yongwiak, the Embracing Dragon Peak, another name of Mt. Yonggolsan 龍骨山 in North Pyongan Province)


Wolseongak Cheonseon Sildeok Daebyeoncheonsin 月城嶽 天仙 實德大辨天神 (The Heavenly Spirit of Wolseongak, the Moon Fortress Peak, who also is Daebyeoncheonsin, the Heavenly Spirit of the Great Change, associated with Mt. Tosan 兎山 in Hwanghae Province)


Guryeo Pyeongyangseonin Sildeok Yeondeungbul 駒麗 平壤仙人 實德燃燈佛 (The Immortal of Guryeo Pyeongyang who is also Buddha Dipamkara, associated with Mt. Geumsusan 錦繡山, the guardian mountain of Pyeongyang)


Guryeomokmyeokseonin Sildeok Bibasibul 駒麗 木覓仙人 實德毗婆尸佛 (The Immortal of Mount Mokmyeok, who is also Vipassi Buddha, associated with Mt. Mokmyeok木覓 near Pyeongyang)


Songakjinjugeosa Sildeok Geumgangsaekbosal 松嶽震主居士 實德金剛索菩薩 (The Hermit of Songak Mountain, who is also Vajrapasa Bodhisattva, associated with Mt. Songak 松嶽山in Kaesong)


Jeungseongak Sinin Sildeok Reukchacheonwang 甑城嶽神人 實德勒叉天王 (The Immortal of Jeungseongak, who is also Virudhaka, the guardian of the South, one of the Four Guardian Kings, associated with Mt. Gukryeongsan 國靈山 near Pyeongyang)


Duak Cheonnyeo Sildeok Budongwubai 頭嶽 天女 實德不動優婆夷 (The Heavenly Maiden of Mt. Duak, who is also the Immovable Upasika a devout female lay follower of Buddhism, associated with Mt. Marisan 摩利山 on Ganghwa Island) the only female deity among the eight.


As visible by their names, the Eight Sages were related to mountains in the northern territories near Pyeongyang and the capital Songdo, and represented a fusion of mountain worship and Buddhism.

Palseongung is mentioned in poetical works of a number of Goryeo Confucian literati, such as Yi Jaehyeon 李齊賢이제현(李齊賢) (1288-1367), Yi Saek 李穡 (1328-1396), Yi Sungin 李崇仁 (1347-1392), etc. Their poems suggest much about the perception of the Eight Immortals by Goryeo literati and the ways they practiced their cult. They show that the Eight Immortals were looked upon as guardians of the country in the framework of a state-protecting faith (similar to the concept of Hogukbulgyo 호국불교) and as guardians of common people in private life, protecting them from vicissitudes, illnesses, and granting blessings and longevity. While the former function has faded out over the centuries and practically disappeared, the latter flourished during the late Joseon dynasty and paintings of the Eight Immortals of Chinese origin became conventional auspicious symbols, imbued with the same wishes of good fortune and long life, as their indigenous predecessors.

The Eight Immortals temple existed for more than 600 years, up to the early 16th century, testifying to a strong and vibrant tradition of the indigenous Eight Immortals worship in Korea.

The worship of the Korean Eight Immortals was taken to a new level during the reign of King Injong 仁宗 (r. 1122-1146) and was actively used in political struggles at the time. Following the recommendations of the influential Buddhist monk Myocheong 妙淸 (? -1135), Palseongdang 八聖堂 (Hall of the Eight Sages) was erected in the newly built royal palace in Pyeongyang in 1131, with their portraits enshrined there. During the reign of King Injong’s successor, King Uijong 毅宗 (1146-1170), the worship of the Korean Eight Immortals continued to receive special attention and was of foremost importance for political stability.

Goryeo literati became familiar with the Yuan Eight Immortals around the 14th century. The earliest reference to the assembly in poetry appears in the poem “Contemplating the Past on Shamen Dao” 沙門島懷古 by Yi Sungin 李崇仁 (1347-1392) where the Eight Immortals are described as floating in the skies on their way to the immortals islands in the Eastern Sea. While it is not explicitly mentioned which Eight Immortals are referred to, only the Yuan Eight Immortals are related to the five legendary islands in the Eastern Sea (Fangzhang方丈, Yingzhou瀛洲, Penglai蓬萊, Daiyu 岱輿 and Yuanjiao 員嬌), as they were believed to be their home. This poem gives a clue to the questions, in what context the Yuan Eight Immortals were introduced to Korea and what were the terms of their perception during the Goryeo, where the cultic function was allotted to the Korean Eight Immortals.

The above-cited poem by Yi Sungin, relating the Eight Immortals to the Eastern Paradise demonstrate that the Eight Immortals were introduced and perceived during the Goryeo period in close connection with their abode on Mount Penglai in the Eastern Sea, where they return after the celebration at the Peach Banquet at the abode of Xiwangmu in the Western Paradise at the Kunlun Mountain. Thus, they were devoid of all elements of Quanzhen Daoism and of the religious function to guide the devotee to Daoist transformation and enlightenment, characteristic of the group in Yuan dynasty China. From the onset of their existence in Korea, the Yuan Eight Immortals were associated with Kunlun and Penglai mythology and birthday wishes for longevity and prosperity. The same function is allotted to paintings produced during the late Joseon period.

Archaeological evidence also suggests such a relation. The only extant depiction of the Yuan Eight Immortals from the Goryeo dynasty is found in a bronze mirror from the National Museum of Korea. It is decorated with their figures, placed symmetrically around the central lobe, and their symbolical accoutrements along with the Old Man of the South Pole 南極老人 are depicted at the top of the scene. Longevity wishes are rendered by their grouping with the Old Man of the South Pole, who is responsible for the length of human life and is a common symbol of longevity in painting. The four large characters 百壽團圓 (baeksu danwon One hundred years of life in peace and harmony) are carved at the four sides of the lobe. This mirror, most likely an object of Chinese import, demonstrates that the grouping of the Eight Immortals with the Old Man of the South Pole was already known in Korea during the Goryeo dynasty and adds one more dimension of their perception at the time.

There is no extant painting of the Yuan Eight Immortals from the early Joseon period; however, an important testimony about a painting titled Palseonyanggido 八仙養氣圖 (The Eight Immortals Nurturing their Qi) is left by the early Joseon dynasty scholar Seo Geojeong 徐居正 (1420-1488).

The divine, otherworldly landscape described in the poem, suggests that in this painting the Eight Immortals were depicted in the Western Paradise.


Group Images of the Eight Immortals in the Joseon Dynasty


As mentioned above, except for the painting of Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea attributed to Kim Hongdo at the Dong-a University Museum, but most probably of Chinese origin, there is no extant example of a work by a Korean painter exclusively featuring all members of the group as an independent subject. Nevertheless, the assembly is indispensably present and allotted an essential role in images of a crowd of immortals, where they are depicted along with other immortals and attendants. The earliest examples of this type appeared in the mid. 17th century and the theme gained sway in the second half of the 18th-19th centuries. The Eight Immortals were featured in paintings of:


1) Immortals Celebrating Birthday (Gunseon gyeongsudo 群仙慶壽圖) along with the God of Longevity, Shouxing (Kor. Suseong 壽星) or the female deity Mago;

2) Immortals on Waves (Pasanggunseondo 波上群仙圖);

3) the Feast at the Yoji Pond (Yojiyeondo 瑤池宴圖), where the assembly is depicted as part of the immortals host flocking to the Peach Banquet in the Western Paradise on the Kunlun Mountain;

4) Crowd of Immortals (Gunseondo 群仙圖), where the figures of the immortals are depicted against a plain background or in idealized landscape setting.


The depiction of a multitude of immortals in one painting was meant to unite their magical abilities and powers and thus to increase its auspicious symbolism by rendering multiplied blessings. All these types of paintings were closely related to birthday wishes of good fortune, happiness, and longevity, and this functional aspect appeared as more important than the need to depict the group per se. For this reason, although the Eight Immortals were allotted a central role in the painting, they are usually loosely connected, mixed with other immortals and only some members were selected.

The representations of the Eight Immortals in these collective paintings of a Crowd of Immortals exhibit different degree of reception and distance from Chinese prototypes. It is remarkable that the Eight Immortals are mostly depicted floating on waves, thus testifying that the crossing the sea mode was essential in domestication of the assembly in Korea.

In fact, some of the earliest representations of the assembly or its members on bronze mirrors from the Southern Song and the Yuan mural in the Chunyang Hall of Yongle Palace are in the sea-crossing mode. They suggest that the sea-crossing theme was a basic concept for the group and its symbolic function from the initial stage of its existence. In Chinese painting, the motif of the Eight Immortals crossing the sea was in vogue from the Yuan dynasty on, under the influence of Yuan drama. The idea of a transcendent journey across the sea or a river, implying the idea of Daoist transformation, was included in every performance of zaju plays.Water crossing, designated by the Chinese character du (Kor. do), is a homonym of another character with the same pronunciation , a basic religious concept denoting salvation through spiritual conversion. Duis a translation of the Buddhist term paramita attaining completeness, perfection by reaching the other shore. The process of attaining enlightenment is compared to a journey through the sea of suffering and delusion (samsara) and arriving to the shore of awakening (nirvana), crossing over from ignorance to enlightenment. These Buddhist terms were adopted in Daoism and became an intrinsic part of its teachings, where the notion of Buddhist nirvana was replaced by the idea of attaining immortality. Not only has the Daoist concept of salvation Buddhist roots, but the Daoist iconographic formula of deliverance the Eight Immortals or chosen members of the group crossing the sea has its prototype in Buddhist iconography of salvation in the scene of the Lohans’ Journey across the Sea, which appeared as early as the Song dynasty and gained popular appeal during the Ming.

Crossing the sea mode was particularly favored in representing immortals during the late Joseon dynasty. A number of paintings of individual figures of immortals floating on waves is extant from the 17th century, showing that it was already popular in the mid. Joseon period as an illustrative way to demonstrate their transcendental nature and magical abilities. Depicting a crowd of immortals floating on waves was meant to enhance the auspicious effect of the image and was closely related to its practical function of wishing longevity and blessings for a birthday. The paintings of the type Gunseon gyeongsudo of immortals on waves paying homage to the God of Longevity or to the female immortal Magu from the 18th century testify to its early connection to birthday greetings. Immortals crossing the sea as a painting subject came into vogue in the late 18th century and in the 19th century interest in the theme notably increased.


Gunseon gyeongsudo 群仙慶壽圖 (A Group of Immortals Celebrating Birthday) feature the Eight Immortals paying homage to the Star of Longevity Shouxing (Kor. Suseong 壽星), also called Shoulaoren (Kor. Sunoin 壽老人) or Nanji Laoren (Kor. Namgeuk Noin 南極老人), the Old Man of the South Pole. The origin of this deity is rooted in astronomy and is a colorful example of deification and personification of celestial bodies in the Chinese cultural tradition. It designates Canopus, the largest of the stars in the southern constellation of Carina and the second brightest star in the sky after Sirius. The association of Shouxing with longevity is documented in the Book of Jin from the 7th century the star was believed to govern the destiny of the country and the lifespan of its ruler down to every human on earth.

The iconography of the God of Longevity in anthropomorphic form developed between the Tang and Northern Song periods. In the following centuries he became a basic and representative symbol of longevity and heavenly blessings and an essential motif of seasonal paintings and auspicious design in applied arts. His images, serving mainly as wishing for blessings in birthday or New Year’s greetings, were of a highly practical nature.

Although the God of Longevity was venerated in Korea since the Goryeo dynasty, the earliest extant Korean images of Shouxing (four paintings by Kim Myeongguk) date from the mid. 17th century. Paintings of the Old Man of the South Pole were a typical present from the king to high officials on New Year’s Eve and on special days close to the end of the year. Individual images of the Old Man of the South Pole vastly circulated, serving as gifts wishing for longevity at birthday banquets in the homes of the literati. However, there are only a few extant paintings of the type Gunseongyeongsudo where the Eight Immortals are paying homage to the God of Longevity, demonstrating that the subject appeared as a short-lived interest in the 18th century.

Gunseongyeongsudo includes an album leaf by Yun Deokhui 尹德熙 (1664 - ?) from Yunonghwacheop 尹翁畵帖 (A Painting Album of the Old Man Yun), dated to 1732-33, a painting attributed to Kim Hongdo’ teacher, Kang Sehwang (1713-1791) and an anonymous painting from the early 18th century.

The Eight Immortals are also depicted in paintings of Immortals on Waves (Pasanggunseondo 波上群仙圖). About twenty works of this type are extant from the Joseon period. They represent a procession of a host of immortals crossing the sea, treading on the surface of the surging waves, all headed in one direction, without indication to their destination. The background is devoid of details and reduced to the waves, variegated with foaming crests and auspicious clouds, thus placing the emphasis on the figures. The Eight Immortals or some of the members form the core of the host and are accompanied by other immortals. The three above-mentioned 18th century works of Immortals Paying Homage to the God of Longevity and Magu have undoubtedly influenced the painting tradition of Immortals on Waves, which was elaborated in the 18th and flourished in the 19th century.

There is a distinction between earlier and later works in terms of format. Paintings of Immortals Crossing the Sea from the 18th century are of scroll format while during the 19th century the screen format of eight to ten panels becomes prevalent. The two types demonstrate substantial iconographical and artistic differences. The scrolls from the 18th and 19th centuries are drawn with ink and light colors, following the tradition of literati paintings. They are marked by iconographical and compositional variability and a small number of figures between seven and ten is represented. The screens, which were in vogue during the 19th century and are mostly executed with colors on silk, are characteristically crowded compositions containing more than twenty figures and have a tendency towards standardization and repetitiveness. A converging point between the two types are the works by Kim Hongdo, who stood at the beginnings of the screen type of Immortals on Waves. His paintings were closely reproduced by painters of the next generation, entailing a conventionalization of the type and a number of reoccurring motifs. Joseon painters were able to break free from Kim Hongdo’s influence only in the last decades of the 19th century. In the early 20th century, the theme lost popularity and ceased to represent the main form of group Sinseondo, giving way to screens combining individual or a small group of immortals’ images.

The 18th century scrolls concentrate on the depiction of chosen members of the Eight Immortals assembly while none of them feature a full set of the assembly. A special emphasis is placed on Zhongli Quan and Lu Dongbin as figures of key importance. Their iconography follows the illustrations in Xianfo Qizong Zhongli Quan with an exposed belly and double-knot hairdo and Lu Dongbin in scholar attire and headgear with a sword on his back. A characteristic feature of Lu Dongbin’s representation in these scroll paintings is the prominent role of his companion, the Willow Spirit. Unlike Xianfo Qizong, where he is leaning out from behind his master, here he is depicted at some distance as an independent personage playing a flute.

Three members of the group of the Eight Immortals are not represented in scroll-type paintings of Immortals on Waves: Zhang Guolao, Lan Caihe, and Cao Guojiu. The latter two appear in Gunseong gyeongsudo, thus revealing a conscious selection facing the necessity of the format, which required fewer of figures. The preference of one figure over another also became one of the features of the gradual domestication of the theme in its departure from the Chinese tradition.

A number of paintings of Immortals Crossing the Sea from the 19th century executed in screen format are strongly influenced by Kim Hongdo and mark the next stage of development of the theme. This type features an exceptionally large-scale multi-figured rendering of the subject. During the 19th century, court painters followed, modified, and standardized the style and iconography of Kim Hongdo. The procession of divinities is headed in one direction, whereas each panel features an independent self-sufficient composition. The Eight Immortals are scattered on different panels and hold a central place on each of them.


Screen paintings of the Banquet at the Yoji Pond (Yojiyeondo 瑤池宴圖) are another type of group paintings of immortals where the Eight Immortals assembly appears crossing the sea.

As a painting subject, the Banquet at the Abode of Xiwangmu was introduced from Ming China during the mid. Joseon period. In spite of its Chinese origin and specifically Chinese legendary characters, the theme took its own path of development on Korean soil and produced an independent iconographical version. More than thirty Yojiyeondo are presently extant from the Joseon period and presumably more will be discovered in the future. Five works come from the 18th century, nineteen from the 19th, and two from the early 20th century. They maintained a similar iconographical scheme although with certain variations. The banquet scene centers on Xiwangmu and her guest King Mu sitting on the Jade Terrace of Xiwangmu Palace on the Kunlun Mountain at tables laden with peaches and cups with elixir of immortality. Waves of a repetitive schematic pattern surge beyond the terrace and serve as a background for the second scene immortals on their way to the Peach Banquet. A crowd of heavenly beings Daoist and Buddhist flocking to the event includes a wide range of personages. The Eight Immortals form the core of the immortals host while the Old Man of the South Pole riding a crane and Buddha surrounded by the Four Heavenly Kings floating on a cloud descend from the sky.

As in Pasanggunseondo, there is a clear difference between 18th century Yojiyeondo following the style and iconography of Ming and Qing paintings and Yojiyeondo developed by Korean court painters in the 19th century. They have different format that reflects two stages in domestication of the theme and a different use. The 18th century paintings, like Chinese representations of the Xiwangmu Banquet, are usually mounted as hanging scrolls, pointing to their perception as paintings for appreciation. The screen format and size of Korean Yojiyeondo from the 19th century speak of their ritualistic use as part of a symbolic event a birthday banquet, anniversary, or wedding. While earlier works are limited to the depiction of the banquet on the Jade Terrace centering on the figures of Xiwangmu and King Mu of Zhou with heavenly maidens dancing and attending to the venue, screens of the late 18th 19th century are characterized by a symmetrical composition where the scenes of the Peach Banquet and the immortals crossing the sea are treated with equal importance.

The combination of the two scenes into one was designed by Korean painters by the late 18th century from Chinese pictorial sources which handled the two themes separately Ming dynasty paintings of the Xiwangmu Banquet, such as an album leaf by Qiu Ying (ca.1494-1552), and paintings showing the host of immortals floating on waves, or gathering on the Jade terrace, such as Immortals at the Jade Pond by Qiu Ying.

In addition, a number of Chinese sumptuously decorated lacquer screens produced in the late 17th -18th century exhibit close parallels with Korean Banquet paintings not only in the general composition but also in the framing of the Xiwangmu abode with steep green rocks of a peculiar diagonal form, achieving the effect of theater drapes. Chinese textiles of the Qing dynasty served as another source of inspiration for Korean painters. Scenes of the Eight Immortals and the God of Longevity standing on the Jade Terrace and greeting Xiwangmu descending from the sky on a phoenix was a popular motif for the decorative kesi scrolls presented at birthdays and many of them contain the scene of immortals crossing the sea. As kesi scrolls were usually copies of famous paintings, these motifs were likely based on painted prototypes. A number of parallels with Korean Yojiyeondo, especially in the iconography of the Eight Immortals floating on waves, are visible in two kesi scrolls of the Arrival of the Queen Mother of the West from the late Ming-early Qing dynasty. Such scrolls were more durable, affordable, and easier to transport than actual paintings; therefore, they were probably more often imported to Joseon as souvenirs or precious gifts. The depictions of the Eight Immortals in painted screens of the Banquet at the Jade Pond exhibit strong Chinese influence. Their iconographies draw their origins from Ming and Qing dynasty paintings and printed compendiums. However, as in Pasanggunseondo, the importance and special status of the group is degraded by the dissociation of its members, their placement at a greater distance from each other, and mixing with other immortals on equal footing. This peculiarity is in line with the process of deindividuation of the immortals in 19th century Joseon painting, where their collective wondrous ability to grant blessings was favored over exhibiting their individual personalities.


One more representation mode of the Eight Immortals in Joseon painting was the type Gunseondo a crowd of immortals depicted against a plain background or in a mountainous landscape. Gunseondo originated as an offshoot of the Immortals on Waves theme in the second half of the 18th century. It became the last stage in the process of losing the connection with the “Peach Banquet” narrative in the late 18th-19th century and enhancing the symbolic aspect of auspiciousness and longevity. Gunseondo from the late 18th-19th century developed under the strong influence of Kim Hongdo, whose work Immortals, dated to 1776, is the earliest extant and most prominent representative of the type. The scrolls are marked by a great deal of grotesque, eccentricity and a flair of improvisation in rendering the faces and postures of the figures. This artistic freedom reflected on the attributes of the immortals, which lost their importance as identifying elements and became mixed and typified. The trend of unclear and floating iconographies, already detectable in paintings of Immortals of Waves, became dominant in Gunseondo. Besides Kim Hongdo, it is also visible in the works of Kim Deuksin, Baek Eunbae, and Jang Seungeop and increased even more by the late 19th-early 20th century.

Gunseondo executed in the screen format contains small groups of one to three figures in a self-sufficient completed composition on each panel, which multiplied by unfolding the screen and achieved the effect of decorative multi-figured painting. This format became especially popular in the early 20th century and preferred by such painters as Jo Seokjin, An Jungsik, Kim Eunho, and Choi Useok.

Immortals by Kim Hongdo from 1776, features an original, unusual version of immortals painting both in the choice of the characters and the format. It was originally designed as an eight-panel screen but was remounted as three separate scrolls during the Korean War. The figures are divided into three groups of increasing quantity, all heading west in procession. Compositionally, Immortals differs from later screens in that the figures are depicted across the surface, without regard to the separate panels as enclosed entities. A general feature of the painting are the unspecific iconographies in the larger group, raising a number of different opinions among scholars about their identification. However, considering that Kim Hongdo was well versed in Chinese printed compendiums, it was obviously the painter’s intention to create a sweeping vision of a divine crowd with supernatural powers where iconographical accuracy was not a priority. The choice of the members from the Eight Immortals group and some details of their iconography differ greatly from other multi-figured Sinseondo. As in Immortals on Waves the procession is led by Magu and He Xiangu. Three members of the group are depicted in the middle section Zhang Guolao sitting backwards on a mule and reading a book, Han Xiangzi featured as a young man holding a fish drum, and Cao Guojiu holding clappers and are easily identified due to their similarity to prototypes in Chinese prints and painting. While Li Tieguai and Lan Caihe are not explicitly represented, the figure of a young man peeping into the neck of his calabash with a basket of immortality plants hanging at his back might be a reference to both of them. The motif of peeping into a gourd is characteristic of later representations of Li Tieguai. It is noteworthy that Lu Dongbin and Zhongli Quan, the two most authoritative members of the group, are not depicted, thus, again, separating this work from the rest of multi-figured Sinseondo. Therefore, the selective representation of members of the Eight Immortals group is also present here and remains common for Gunseondo paintings until the end of the Joseon period.

In Gunseon juak (Immortals Performing Music) by Yu Suk 劉淑 (1827-1873) the three main immortals are Han Xiangzi holding a fish drum, Master Jiqiu 稷丘君holding a gomungo, and Li Tieguai represented in the unusual guise of a young man dressed in Daoist robes with a staff and a gourd issuing smoke with the figures of two bats. They are accompanied by four immortal boys holding various symbols of immortality. The figures of the boy with a double-knot hairdo at the left shouldering a hoe with a basket of immortality plants and the boy playing a flute are pointing to the transformations, which Chinese immortals underwent in the process of their domestication in Korea. The flute and the hoe with the basket were originally accoutrements of Lan Caihe and Han Xiangzi. However, in a number of Joseon paintings, they came to be carried by immortal boys who accompany the immortals in immortals’ processions. These figures were first introduced by Kim Hongdo and became an indispensable feature of Korean Sinseondo of the late 18th-19th century. The attributes became de-individualized, departed from their original “owners,” and obtained a broader meaning of general symbolism of immortality, rendering a festive and joyous atmosphere to the image. Thus, Gunseondo became the platform for the boldest experiments, where many of the figures became transformed and even unrecognizable and appear as the type, which departed furthest from the Chinese tradition and where the Korean concept of immortals paintings was elaborated most fully. It was characterized by reduced references to conventional iconographies, leading to moderate or strong deindividualization of the depicted figures, decomposing of narrative-born ties between them, free improvisations with attributes, age and general appearance, thus transforming the image of the immortal into a generalized auspicious symbol.





The variability of representational modes of the Eight Immortals in Chinese painting of the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties did not take root in Korea. The starting point of their development on Korean soil was marked by the introduction of a number of iconographical compendiums printed during the Ming dynasty. The illustrations in two of them Xianfo Qizong and Sancai Tuhui defined the appearance, attributes, general features, and posture in Korean depictions of the Eight Immortals of the 17th-19th centuries.

Kim Hongdo marked the beginning of a distinctive Korean tradition of visualization of the figure of the immortal. If painters from the 17th-18th century mainly followed the iconographies of the Eight Immortals fixed in Chinese printed compendiums, painters from the 19th century freely improvised, resulting in an interchange and conflation of attributes, thereby leading to the impossibility of identifying the depicted characters.

The paintings of the Eight Immortals in Korean context reflect the dynamics of the whole genre Sinseondo in the late Joseon period. They were not regarded as an independent subject of its own value, as in China, but as prominent representatives of the cohort of immortals. For this reason, their group representations did not obtain popularity in Joseon as a separate theme and the members of the assembly were mixed with other immortals in collective paintings. Тhis happened with a breakdown of the integrality of the group, which was not regarded as a meaningful whole with its own semantic field, and scattering of its members among other immortals. It is also reflected in the selective representation of some of the members and the frequent abbreviation of others. Although the Eight Immortals form the core of multi-figured Sinseondo, the connection between them is loose and they stand equally in a row with other immortal figures.

One suggested reason for such a phenomenon came from the use of these images in Joseon society. They were used as pictures giving blessings and good fortune and were presented at festive occasions like birthdays, coming of age banquets, and as New Year paintings. Their function appears as primal to the accurateness in rendering the depicted figures. Group paintings were valued over individual representations since they concentrated the powers and blessings of many divine beings. For this reason, individual images of the Eight Immortals did not obtain vast popularity in Joseon, as well as group paintings on the theme of the Eight Immortals. They were regarded as a part of a larger immortals crowd whose magical function was superior and who would render multiplied gifts of good fortune and longevity.



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