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Throughout her long history of several thousand years, Korea has cultivated unique cultural characteristics reflecting the optimistic, unpretentious and yet highly rich aesthetic sensibilities of the people. These sensibilities found adequate outlets of expression in the form of fine arts, literature, architecture, lifestyles, culinary culture and many other areas. UNESCO has recognized the richness of Korea's time-honored cultural heritage, having placed seven Korean treasures on its World Heritage list.

World Heritage Treasures

Bulguksa and Seokguram

Bulguksa Temple, considered the quintessence of Korean architecture, integrates essential Korean styles and has since been the standard for temple construction. Built in 751-774, the temple symbolically represents the 'Buddha Pure Land' in its layout, with its interlacing stone structures giving the temple an exquisite sense of majesty and elegance. It was constructed under the auspices of Chief Minister Kim Dae-seong of the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C.-A.D. 935), which had unified Korea. Constructed around the same time was Seokguram Grotto, one of Korea's greatest masterpieces. Carved from white granite, it exquisitely combines Silla Kingdom's knowledge of architecture, math, geometry, physics, religion and art into an organic whole. The Buddha figure in the center of the grotto embodies a sense of the profound and sublime. Surrounding him on the walls are 38 other Bodhisattvas, disciples, Dharma-protectors and the Four Heavenly Kings.

Tripitaka Koreana and Janggyeongpanjeon

Janggyeongpanjeon at Haeinsa Temple, a repository of the woodblocks used to print the Tripitaka Koreana, and the Tripitaka Koreana are another treasure registered on the UNESCO World Heritage list. First constructed in 1488, the repository has thus almost miraculously protected the Tripitaka Koreana, a compilation of Buddhist scripture, for centuries. The building is not only beautiful architecturally but is unique in the respect that its design allows for natural ventilation as well as temperature and humidity control. The Buddhist cannon, the oldest and most comprehensive compilation of Buddhist scripture in existence today, was carved on 81,340 woodblocks between 1236 and 1251. The characters on each block are uniform as if carved by a single hand testimony to the advanced engraving techniques of the kingdom at the time.

Other World Heritage Treasures

Five other cultural properties on the World Heritage List include Changdeokgung Palace, Jongmyo Shrine, Hwaseong Fortress, the Gyeongju Historical Area and the Dolmen Sites in Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa.

Known as the "Palace of Illustrious Virtue", Changdeokgung was built in 1405 as an annex palace. It boasts the oldest gate in the Seoul Metropolitan area, Donhwamun, constructed in 1412, and a garden known as Huwon or the Rear Garden. The palace currently features 41 structures altogether, the most interesting of which are Injeongjeon, the main hall which has an elaborate throne and Nakseonjae, the residence of the last descendents of the royal Yi family. Jongmyo, the Royal Ancestral Shrine, is where the spirit tablets of Joseon (1392-1910) kings and queens are enshrined and rituals performed. The ritual and music used for the ceremonies have been designated as Intangible Cultural Properties.

The Hwaseong Fortress was built by order of King Jeongjo (1776-1800) as he planned to move his court from Seoul to Suwon, south of the capital, to be near the tomb of his father. The most scientifically designed and constructed among ancient Korean fortress walls, the fortress was built to withstand spear and arrow, as well as rifle and cannon attacks.

As for the Gyeongju area, the capital of the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C.- A.D. 935), UNESCO once cited it as one of the world's ten historic sites, and Koreans still call it a "Museum without Walls", due to a remarkably intact collection of historical buildings, temples, tombs, royal burial mounds, sculptures and other artifacts. One of the area's most famous landmarks is Cheomseongdae Observatory, the oldest astronomical tower extant in the Orient built between 632 and 647. Finally, dolmens are megalithic Bronze Age (1000-300 B.C.) tombs. Korea has the largest concentration of dolmen in the world, and several prehistoric cemeteries have been discovered in Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa.

Fine Arts

Korea has long been noted worldwide for its ceramic ware, which has developed into one of its most highly developed fine arts. After the Silla unification in A.D. 668,Korean potters began to glaze their pieces. Items included urns, bowls, cups, and jars, sometimes decorated with stamped or engraved designs or ink drawings. It was during this period that the celadon glaze for which Korea would later become so famous began to be developed. The Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392) later mastered that art, employing inlaying and other sophisticated decoration skills.

Korean painting has developed steadily throughout its long history, from the Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C.-A.D. 668) to modern times. The best-known paintings of the Three Kingdoms period are the murals painted on the four walls and ceilings of Goguryeo (37 B.C.-A.D. 668) burial chambers. While Goguryeo paintings were dynamic and rhythmic, the paintings of the Silla Kingdom were more meditative and meticulous. Silla painting bloomed after it unified the Three Kingdoms in the 7th century. During the Joseon era (1392-1910), professional painters mostly produced landscapes. It was in the late 18th century that artists began creating genre paintings. Today, Korea has become one of the world's versatile fine art communities.

Prime examples of traditional Korean sculpture art include the Goguryeo-era gilt bronze Tathagata Buddha and the half-seated Maitreya (Buddha of the Future) in meditation, both of which wear their famous benign smiles. Baekje Kingdom (18 B.C.-A.D. 660) statues exhibit elegant facial contours and smiles, representative elements of Baekje art.

Korean Lifestyle

Apart from the high-art aspects of Korean culture introduced above, everyday Korean customs can be effectively explained in three areas: housing, clothing and food. What is considered traditional Korean housing is that dating to the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) or evolving from that period. The simplest home is a rectangle consisting of a kitchen and one other room, covered by a thatched roof. These houses were found in the mountains and farming areas. Side by side with these simple homes, there developed L-shaped and U-shaped homes and a double L-shaped or a square layout around a central courtyard. While traditional houses were all one story, the homes of the upper class often were a complex of several tile-roofed buildings surrounded by a wall with an impressive gate. All types of traditional houses, however, have become hard to find since the late 60s, when Korea became urbanization. Both private Western housing and apartment complexes have since become the rule in much of the nation.

Traditional Korean clothing, Hanbok, has evolved over many hundreds of years, and served as everyday attire before the arrival of Western-style clothing about 100 years ago. The male outfit typically consists of a short loose shirt-jacket, or jeogori, with wide, baggy trousers, or baji, tied at the ankle and waist. The women wear a long, highwaist full wrap-around skirt and a short blouse, also called jeogori, which is crossed in the front and tied with long ribbons. Today traditional clothing is worn for occasions like weddings, special birthdays, and national holidays.

The traditional Korean diet, evolved over many centuries, is generally heavy on cereal and vegetables and relatively light on meat and fat. It usually features pungent spicing. The main dishes of a typical Korean meal are a bowl of rice, often cooked with other grains or beans, and a bowl of soup. These are accompanied by assorted side dishes of meat, poultry, fish, vegetables, roots, beans, eggs and more. The side dishes may number from only one or two to a dozen or more, but must always include at least one kind of kimchi, a fermented pickle made of cabbage, radish or cucumber. Kimchi and bulgogi, a marinated meat dish, are among the most popular Korean foods.

Korean Wave

The "Korean Wave" is a fairly recent socio-cultural phenomenon spreading across Asia, especially China, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam, resulting in the fans of these countries nurturing a growing interest in Korean popular culture, more specifically in the areas of television dramas, cinema and music.

It was first triggered by the TV drama "What is Love?" which initially became very popular with viewers in Chinese-speaking countries. "What is Love?" has since been followed by a string of hits such as "Autumn Tales," "Stars in My Heart," "Winter Sonata" and "Daejanggeum" (A Jewel in the Palace), all creating great enthusiasm for Korean dramas, which is quickly spreading beyond Chinese-speaking countries. Since the broadcasting of these dramas, many fan clubs for Korean entertainment personalities have been formed; some of them, including Bae Yong-joon, the mesmerizing star of "Winter Sonata", have become the hottest entertainment personalities in Japan, China and other countries that came under the spell of the Korean Wave. The most recent hit, the charming 16th century court drama Daejanggeum, is said to have provoked a new level of interest in traditional Korean clothing, herbal medicine and Korean court cuisine. The "rage" for this drama, many experts agree, explains "the strength of the cultural software" of Korea.

Korea's booming film industry, which ably produced 10-million-ticket blockbusters like Silmido and Taegeukgi, as well as Korean pop music, now at the height of popularity, has also been forces intensifying the popularity of the Korean Wave.

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