Temple Colours – Dancheong

Gyeongunsa

The intricate Dancheong colours on the main hall at Gyeongunsa Temple in Gimhae, Gyeongsangnam-do.

Hello Again Everyone!!

One of the most recognizable things that distinguishes Korean Buddhist temples from the neighbouring Buddhist nations’ temples like Japan and China are the elaborate colour styles and schemes. Korean Buddhist temples are decoratively painted in a myriad of colours that include reds, blues, greens, yellows, blacks, whites, and any other colour included along the colour spectrum. So why exactly are they adorning Korean Buddhist halls, and what do they look like?

The painted colours and designs that adorn Korean Buddhist temples are known as “Dancheong.” Dancheong literally means “red and blue/green” in English. Originally, this word referred to the specific minerals used to create the varying pigments in the paints that adorn the temples. More recently, it has come to refer to the vibrant colours and styles that adorn the wooden halls. And while the Dancheong style of painting are also used at Korean palaces, city gates, and Confucian shrines, the most elaborate styles of Dancheong paintings are at Buddhist temples. The reason they are so elaborate in comparison to the other structures is that the ornate style was reserved to honour the most sacred realm beyond the secular world.

In total, there are four types of main grades for the decorating style that adorns Korean Buddhist temples. They are: 1. Gachil-Dancheong; 2.Geutgi-Dancheon; 3. Moru-Dancheong; 4. Geum-Dancheong.

Bukjijangsa

An up-close of some of the colours and patterns of Dancheong at Bukjijangsa Temple in Daegu.

Out of the four styles of paintings, Gachil-Dancheong is the simplest style. This style employs the four basic colours of grass greens, reddish brown, white, and yellow earth. These four colours are then applied to the bare wood of the temple hall. Only then are the four colours left plainly, or they serve as the base-coat for a more elaborate dancheong style.

The second dancheong style is the Geutgi-Dancheong style. This style involves painting straight lines around the border of a painted area. “Geutgi,” in English, literally translates as “single stroke.” Most often, a black border will be first drawn in Indian ink. Only after the black line is drawn is a white line added beside it. Occasionally, this line can be done a number of other colours other than black and white.

The third of these painting styles is Moru-Dancheong. This style of painting is first painted on rafters, various beams, and shrine hall pillars. Moru refers to the Korean word that means “end patterns.”

The fourth, and most elaborate style, is Geum-Dancheong. In English, “Geum-Dancheong” means “elegant dancheong.” This feature is an embellishment of the Moru-Dancheong style. The entire surface of the wooden face is covered in colourful and complex patterns. This style of painting consists of straight and curved lines that are woven through geometric shapes like the circle or triangle to create continuous repetitive patterns. This interconnected pattern symbolizes the idea of the infinite.

Wonhyo

Some of the amazing Dancheong colours and patterns on the main hall at Wonhyoam Hermitage in Gyeongsan, Gyeongsangbuk-do .

Specifically, Dancheong patterns have exclusive meanings to Korean Buddhism. In total, there are four unique patterns that have exclusive meaning to Korean Buddhism. They are: 1. The Radiant Wave; 2. The Circle Patterns; 3. Semi-Circle Image; 4. Triangles.

The Radiant Wave symbolizes the illumination that is spread by the power of the Buddha. The Circle Patterns, on the other hand, stands for the continuous cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (Samsara). This pattern also symbolizes how human beings receive wisdom from the Buddha if they believe strongly enough in the Buddha. The third unique pattern is the Semi-Circle Image. This pattern closely resembles a nose-ring for cattle, which acts as a metaphor taken from the Ten Ox-Herding Murals that adorn Korean Seon Temple Halls. Specifically, this pattern and the ten murals refer to the process of discovering the Truth. Finally, the fourth and final image, Triangles, are called the “Iron Armour” pattern. This pattern encourages Buddhist to have a firm resolve on their way towards the Truth.

Something as simple as a painted pattern or style at a Korean Buddhist temple can mean so much. So the next time you’re at a temple in Korea, have a look around at the painting designs and patterns because they might be reminding you about a few Buddhist Truths.

DSC_0367

A detailed look at the main hall at Biroam Hermitage near Tongdosa Temple.

2 thoughts on “Temple Colours – Dancheong

  1. Hi Dale,
    Thanks for this essay on dangcheong.I have been taking lots of photos of it myself for my Korean Gardens book. I am especially interested in the plant symbolism, such as the representations of lotus, plum and apricot flowers. I notice you have a lovely panel of twin mushrooms of immortality under the eaves in your first photo.
    Cheers,
    Jill

    • Hi Jill,

      Glad to hear that you enjoyed the entry on dancheong. I think a lot of people look past the seemingly innocuous paintings adorning Korean temple walls without knowing their full meaning. Again, glad you got something from it!

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