the Twelve "Ten Symbols of Longevity"
widely used in Korea's traditional Paintings
One motif from Korea's religious traditions that is still most commonly employed and considered
meaningful is the Ship-jangsaeng 十長生 십장생 [Ten Symbols of Longevity]. This set forms a
very important part of the Korean decorative arts tradition, and was used on everything from folk
paintings and folding screens to embroidered decorations on fabrics for all kinds of uses in daily
aristocratic life. These days it is still frequently used, including on modern metal gateways,
doors and the fences around residential or institutional lots. Zo Zayong treasured this motif.
Another very popular such symbol which is sometimes included in listings of these Ship-jangsaeng
(usually replacing either mountains or rocks) is bamboo (juk or daenamu in Korean), already
otherwise a favorite motif of Oriental painting and other arts. Bamboo grows extraordinarily
quickly, and remains green in the winter snows, being then a symbol of fecund vitality and
endurance, and some species of it are seen to live for very long stretches of time. The way that
it will bend very far under pressure, especially that of the wind, yet does not break, made it also
a Neo-Confucian symbol of the virtue of scholar-officials who are flexible in the conduct of their
duties under the pressures from powerful people and the common masses, yet will not break
from their core principles of right and wrong.
Chinese Daoism prominently features “the Peaches of Immortality”, supposedly grown in a
mystical orchard hidden in the mountains to the west of historical China by a powerful goddess,
as a symbol of long life and the attainment of spiritual immortality. The story goes that eating
just one of these will transform a person into a Daoist Sage with everlasting life or at least
centuries of healthy longevity, like one of the popular “Eight Immortals”. One of its most
commonly seen folk-deities, the “God of Longevity” (often depicted in a triad with companion
gods of Prosperity and Happiness), is always shown holding a large such peach.
These themes became popular in Korea during the past two thousand years, with the seondo
[immortality-peach] becoming a popular religious and artistic motif outside of but parallel to the
Ship-jangsaeng. The western sacred mountain of the Shilla Kingdom’s capital city Gyeongju
was and is named Seondo-san, with its female spirit considered a powerful protector of the nation
and benefactor of Buddhism. One of the greatest surviving early landscape paintings of Korea,
created by An Gyeon in 1447, is the Mongyu-dowon-do [Painting of a Journey in a Dream to the
Peach Orchard], beautifully depicting the western-paradise theme. Peaches appear in many
kinds of Korean folk-art from the past 300 years, from embroidered folding-screens dedicated
to longevity to paintings of Daoist/Shamanic deities such as San-shin.
So therefore there are really 12 of these symbols frequently used in interchangeable groups,
but still collectively thought of as Ship-jangsaeng.
|The sun is a constant source of light, in contrast to|
the ever-changing moon. It is the warming energy
of Heaven that gives and nourishes life.
|Supreme manifestations of Earth;|
mountains seem to keep their shape forever.
|Water, usually depicted in its moving forms such as|
rivers, waves and waterfalls, is the Daoist symbol of
infinite flexibility of flowing form that avoids harm and
destruction, and can even overcome earth & stone.
|Clouds are the heavenly form of water, ever|
changing their forms and drifting without care.
|Rocks, stone, minerals and jewels are the|
hardest and most enduring things in nature.
|Many pine species live for centuries, and|
they remain evergreen even in the winter,
indicating vitality and aristocratic dignity.
Red Pines are viewed as the King of all Plants.
|This mythical kind of mushroom is famous in|
Daoism as “growing in the land of the immortals”
and brings eternal life to those who eat it. It is
depicted as quite similar to the actual fungus that
grows on rotting logs known as Yeongji-beoseot, a
valued and common ingredient in Oriental medicine.
|Tortoises and sea-turtles are famous throughout|
the Orient for living for centuries; their shells were
famous for decorations and ancient divinations.
|Most auspicious of Birds;|
they are shown as companions of the Daoist
Immortals, messengers that can communicate to
and from Heaven, and also Confucian symbols of
marital fidelity and the dignified grace of scholars.
|Also frequently companions of the Daoist immortals|
in classical artworks. Thought of as especially
spiritual and gentle animals, and medicine made
from their horns increases human health and vitality.
In 2005 Korea hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit of key global
leaders in Busan City, which built the “Nurimaru APEC House” assembly-pavilion on Dongbaek
Peninsula to host its key meetings. In the lobby of that building is displayed a huge masterpiece
of lacquer-ware inlaid with mother-of-pearl entitled Ship-i-jangsaeng [Twelve Symbols of
Longevity], incorporating all the ones I have discussed. The extensive publicity when it was
unveiled indicated that this “new” motif of “12 Symbols of Longevity” is now considered “official”.
As we have seen, these motifs inspire to grant their viewers more than simply many years of life,
but also refer to attainment of vibrant health and fecundity, while living wisely in harmony with all
aspects of the natural environment. Ship-jangsaeng might well be more broadly translated as
“the symbols of enjoying long and healthy life in harmony with nature, with ecological wisdom and
compassion for all beings” – values shared by most of those who trek in the beautiful mountains
for their hobby or pilgrimage. This is exactly equivalent to the theme-values of Korea's Sanshin
Mountain-spirit icons, which usually contain about half of the 12, sometimes more.
Whatever the number of them used, these symbols will be found in a wide variety of artworks in
the temples, shrines, monuments and public infrastructure that you will find all along the Baekdu-
daegan region; you may come to think of them as exemplifying its spiritual theme. In particular,
look for them on and within Samseong-gak or other folk-spirit shrine-buildings in Buddhist
temples or shamanic shrines, especially in paintings of the Sanshin and Dokseong Lonely Saint.
To enjoy a robustly healthy life in wise harmony with nature, in the beautiful actual places of
this planet for as long as possible, even for hundreds of years if one attains the highest forms
of enlightenment according to legends, is a key ideal throughout Korean culture. This is one of
the supreme values of Chinese and Korean Daoism, standing in contrast to the otherworldly or
afterlife obsessions of the religions that originated in the Middle East and South Asia. It is the
main goal of Korea's indigenous Shinseon-sasang [Spirit-Immortal Ideology] that permeates
and colors its Buddhism, Shamanism, Confucianism, folk-culture and other traditions.
The funny thing about the “10 symbols of longevity” is that there are now actually 12 of them,
used in a variety of combinations on various artworks that can be found. The classical list
of them, usually named in Chinese-character vocabulary, is:
I found this standard Ilwol-O-ak-do image falsely labeled as a "Sip-jangsaeng
painting" on an official tourism website... It is obvious and certain that these
two classical motifs are meaningfully related to each other.