Emperor Gojong (1852-1919) is a hero of Korean nationalism. He lived during turbulent times and worked tirelessly to promote Korean independence from both China and Japan. The screen celebrating his fiftieth birthday (forty-ninth by Western count) in 1901 marks a moment when he was at the peak of his powers.
Gojong was the twenty-sixth king of the Joseon dynasty, taking the throne as a child. His father ruled for him as regent until 1873. Gojong had an ambitious and brilliant wife, known as Empress Myeongseong or Queen Min (1852-1895), who fought fiercely for Korean independence.
In 1897, Gojong proclaimed the founding of the Empire of Korea, severing Korea's ties with Qing-dynasty China and ending the traditional tributary system. His government was faced with pressure from both Japan and China, however, and with domestic unrest in the form of peasant rebellions. Following a peasant revolt in 1894, Gojong requested military aid from Japan, which gave the Japanese a foothold that they never relinquished. Japan won the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), both fought on the Korean peninsula. A Protectorate Treaty of 1905 stripped Korea of its rights as an independent nation and the Japanese forced Gojong to abdicate. In 1910, Korea was annexed by Japan. Gojong died in confinement in his palace in 1919.
The screen shown here commemorates the royal banquet for the celebration of Gojong's fiftieth birthday. The owner purchased the screen in Korea in the 1960s. It may be the last example of a Korean royal celebratory banquet (jinyeon) screen ever produced. The event, which took place over a period of days in late July, followed set ritual imbued with Confucian ideology. The painting here is accordingly in archaic style prescribed by long-established convention dictating seating arrangement, food, drinks, flowers, musical instruments, costumes and so on. There are a few unusual details, however. The imperial guards standing in the gateway and along the walled enclosure at the bottom of the first and second panels from the right, for example, are in Western military uniforms.
The first and second panels record the Oejinyon, the large public event with government officials, foreign guests and members of the royal clan in Chunghwajon Hall. The emperor's presence is symbolized by the Sun, Moon and Five Peaks screen behind the empty throne. A large white canopy covers the courtyard. The third and fourth panels document a more private banquet, Naejinyon, held for family members at Hamnyongjon Hall. Women participated in this event. The fifth and sixth panels show the night banquet, Yajinyon. Lanterns are strung below the eaves and along the partitions to illuminate the courtyard. The seventh panel shows the small private banquet given by the Crown Prince. The first line of the last panel of this screen bears the name of the temporary royal supervisory office in charge of this banquet. The next eleven lines list the titles and ranks of the eleven officials appointed to the assignment. The inscription also records the date.