'Look at the Alcohol If You Want to Know the Country': Drinking Vessels as a Cultural Marker of Medieval Korea

  • Published : 2019.12.15


As 'a total social fact,' drinks and drinking may serve as a lens through which we can view a distant society. Although not frequently discussed, drinking vessels serve the same function for accessing a past world hidden or forgotten behind written records. The present article is an art history attempt to seek a cultural link between liquor vessels used in medieval Korea and the political and social change of the period. The Goryeo period (918-1392) saw an unprecedented abundance of drinking vessels in various forms and decorations. Goryeo artisans and craftsmen produced ewers, pitchers, flasks, bottles, and others in addition to the pre-existing shapes of vessels mainly consisting of jars and bowls. I argue that this sudden burst of creativity during the Goryeo period was closely related to Goryeo's constant and diverse contacts with foreign powers. Their zone of international connections was not confined to the Chinese world, as we have commonly presumed. Even before the Mongol intervention, Goryeo was in contact with regions beyond East Asia through the northern nomadic states. Khitan Liao was recorded as having worked as a kind of international intermediary to link the Chinese and Islamic worlds. This medieval global culture became a norm in Goryeo society when it became an important part of the Mongol Empire. These nomadic powers brought global trends to Goryeo, and foreign drinks were among them; kumis, araq, and grape wines are just three cases of them discussed in this article. The change of alcoholic drinks led to, or was accompanied by, a new range of drinking vessels. Three types of ewers, familiar to East Asian consumers but foreign in their origin, are discussed in the main text to highlight such social change. Three more cases of drinking cups are also presented. The article shows that medieval Korean society was far more open to international art and culture than our usual understanding, and in their drinking vessels, Goryeo culture embraced global trends reaching China, the Islamic world and Europe.


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