Faces in History
A face is commonly compared to a signboard. This means that a face is an indicator showing most directly the man's character. As an individual's character is revealed plainly in his face, faces of Koreans reflect distinctively their common mentality and mind. A people's faces reflect their culture well, as their mentality and minds are built culturally. It is the reason why we can distinguish our people easily among various nations' peoples. As any other nation has done, the Koreans have made various expressions about their faces with religious, aesthetic or practical interest. They are described sometimes realistically, abstractly or ideally (sometimes only some parts are emphasized). These faces reflect the values and culture of that period, meaning the face reveals interests of that time. Faces of people are meant to keep changing. Face shapes and conditions keep changing according to historical circumstances, socioeconomic conditions, nutrition conditions, etc.
These circumstantial changes are reflected in facial expressions, too. It is a fresh and interesting approach to understanding culture to look at how faces of the Korean were expressed through history in that relation.
There were various purposes, materials and methods with and in which our ancestors described faces. First, let's examine the purposes. They were roughly divided in two: religious and aesthetic purposes (in addition to the two, there was practical purpose).
We can see faces created with religious purpose in Buddhist statues, altar portraits of Buddha, shamanistic paintings, portraits, totem poles, the ancient tomb murals, and so on as well as in prehistoric remains. On the other hand, we can see, among the modern art, aesthetic expression in figure paintings, paintings of beautiful women, face carvings and cultural works.
Faces drawn in masks or Confucian portraits had a double purpose. Masks were originally religious, because they were used in shaman ceremonies. At the same time, however, they were used for satire and recreation. Confucian portraits were produced as an educational means in order to praise and spread the figure's learning, virtue and remnants, as well as with the purpose to embody the idea of religion and politics.
It is difficult to enumerate varieties of their materials, methods and shapes. There are a lot of materials of Buddhist statues, paintings, masks and murals which we know they come from, but all kinds of materials possible to use were used. Take some examples, there are bones and shells with simple faces on them in the prehistoric age and su-mak-sae(convex tiles at the edge of eaves) with smiling faces on them, which are excavated from Yeongmyo temple site, Sajeong-dong, Gyeongju and possessed by the Gyeongju National Museum. Drawings of faces on rocks are often said to be of a special material and shape.
There is something to know about facial shapes and expressions. The Koreans heart and mind are expressed on them and sometimes Koreans ideal, too. For example, Buddhist statues in the period of the Three Kingdoms have a childish shape with smiling, happy faces. In the end of Unified Silla and in the first half of Koryo the sizes of faces get smaller and broader, eyes are narrow and long and cheekbones are emphasized. That fact reveals characteristics of Korean faces well. Also it is possible to explain the changes otherwise; Introduced for the first time into this country through China, the early Buddhist statues were accepted as the ideal shape of the Korean and came to resemble their real facial shape, as they gradually settled down. In the latter half of Koryo they were changing again.
Masks in the Chosun Dynasty are an example where expressions of faces make a good reflection of characteristics of the times and the social conditions. Yangbantal (mask of a yangban) has the most well-shaped face and cho-raeng-i-tal's face is extremely unbalanced, which reveals clearly that the former is a master and the latter a servant. Bunetal and Gaksital have curved noses to express discrimination against women. Seonbital is characterized by a double face with the tender left side and the sharp right side that shows the tenderness of an intellect, and sharp wit against yangban. Masks of Baekjeong (butcher), Halmi (old woman) and Jung (Buddhist priest) have many deep wrinkles, which show their appearances surely careworn with their lives.
From the modern arts period in the latter half of 18th century, faces of the Korean began to be expressed variously and abundantly by our own artists. The masks before this period had religiously ideal products, but they increasingly got to be much more realistic.
Especially, they painted beauties and figures. From the fact that artists after liberation painted faces of many women, the traditional Confucian idea of predominance of men over women was overcome considerably. But these days the standard of beauty is set to that of the West, which shows the Korean society is correspondingly westernizing.