Symbolism in Minhwa: Art of the Korean People

The literal meaning of MIN-HWA (민화) is “Painting of the People”. It ‘breathed’ with the people, as it means, and most of them were painted by uneducated, ‘common’ people– left un-signed. It was a humble expression of our life, wishes, and view of nature and the world– reflecting our people’s direct link and respect for it.

Hence minhwa spoke directly to the people and contained various symbolism with the use of nature and animal elements that could be recognized and understood by all. Below is a list of just some of that symbolism that can be found in minhwa (so the next time you attend a minhwa-viewing cocktail party, you can impress everyone with your advanced minhwa-reading capabilities! It’s also very useful when picking out a minhwa gift for a loved one, or if you’re ever curious what that painting that’s been hanging in your dining room for the last 5-years actually means).

 

Magpie: A bringer of good news. A messenger of the gods bringing directions or answers.

Tiger: A ferocious animal. Prevents fires, floods, and storms. A divine creature of strength that protects from war, disease, and hunger.

Phoenix: Reflects a high, precious position. Brings fortune.

Fish: Diligence. Protection from negativity. A fish couple symbolizes good relations between wife and husband.

Koi Fish: The koi is said to become a dragon, so stands for great success, or lots of offspring.

Mandarin Fish: Symbolizes passing of a test and getting to live in the palace with a high position. (In old Korea, passing the ‘GREAT TEST’ and earning a palace position was the greatest honor of all.)

Dragon: Green dragons are for fighting off evil. Yellow and White dragons are Kings. Black and Brown dragons are to wish for rain during droughts.

Lotus Flower: Purity and cleanliness. Many sons.

Chrysanthemum: Longevity and purity, dignity, grace.

Peony: Wealth and happiness- often drawn on room screens for palaces, bedrooms, newly married couple’s rooms, and for ancestor memorial-ceremonies.

Rooster: Success.

Apricot Blossom: Often drawn with books and still flowers, symbolizing passing of test and success.

Wild Goose: Symbol of easy retirement, often portrayed with reeds.

Crane: Symbol of longevity, often portrayed with pine tree(s).

Butterfly: 80-year old man (with flowers, married love).

Cat: 70-year old man.

Mynah bird: Filial piety.

Hawk: Protection from fire, flood, typhoon.

Duck Snowy Heron: Distinguished academic achievement. Pair of ducks: Successful marital love.

Dog: Happiness in the home. Protection of home and protection from disasters.

Squirrel: Diligence, abundance, material wealth.

Pig: Wealth, abundance.

Horse: Sacredness, greatness, loyalty and devotion.

Deer: Longevity, friendship love.

Cow: Prosperity, growth.

Sheep: Peace, stability.

Rabbit: Longevity when shown with the moon, or good marriage when rabbit couple shown.

Giraffe: Excelling at skill. Stable society.

Pheasant: Glamour, grace.

Owl: 70 yo man. Prevention of burglars.

Parrots: Married couple’s love.

Sparrow: Happiness

Bee: Diligence. A man if shown with flowers.

Turtle: Longevity. Harmony of heaven and earth.

Crab: Success.

Toad: Fortune, good luck.

Shrimp: Harmony in marriage.

Rose: Eternal youth.

 

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