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23 Korean Master Calligraphers of 20th Century

A fabulous exhibition at the Seoul Calligraphy Art Museum (Seoul Arts Centre) is showcasing the work of 23 Korean Master Calligraphers of the 20th century.

The calligraphers specialised in Chinese characters (hanmun), Asian painting with calligraphy, or hangul.

So there’s a lot to talk about, but in this post I’ll just introduce seven of the 23 calligraphers who I find noteworthy due to their background, calligraphy style, philosophy, or accomplishments.

(I’ve written the pen name of the calligraphers first, followed by surname and first names.)

Seokjeon HWANG OK (1898-1993) 
calligraphy by seokjeon one of the Korean Calligraphy Masters

The first and second generation of Modern Korean calligraphers were all influenced by Chusa KIM JEONG HUI (1786-1856) (pen name Chusa), the most renowned calligrapher from the Joseon period. Some studied directly under him too.

But they also stepped away from the more traditional approach to develop their own individual calligraphy styles.

I love the quirky strokes in this work (above) by Seokjeon. He developed this distinctive style by grasping the brush in his hand, not with his finger tips. 

But apparently this was because in his 60s he was struggling to hold the brush with his right hand so he started to practise with his left as well!?!

master calligrapher seokjeon

related posts:

A review of Beyond Line: The Art of Korean Writing

First Generation of Modern Korean Calligraphers

see more from dramasrok about life in Korea on Facebook Pinterest and Instagram 


Certainly, if you wanted to make it to the top, the bios of the 23 master calligraphers reveal that being an aristocratic was pretty much essential!

Aristocrat fathers and grandfathers who were scholars of the Chinese classics taught sons and grandsons to read and write Chinese characters. And then sent them to study with renowned scholar calligraphers.

Pyeongbo SEO HEE HWAN (1934-1995)
calligraphy screen in hangul by Pyeongbo one of the Korean Calligraphy Masters

So with those advantages, I’m surprised that anyone from an ordinary background managed to make it onto the list of the 23 Korean master calligraphers!

But there is ONE name. Although he wrote in hangul not Chinese characters:

Pyeongbo SEO HEE HWAN (1934-1995) came from a poor farming village in Jeollanamdo in the south of the country. But he worked hard and then met master calligrapher Sojeon SON JAE HYEONG (1903-1981) (who was also from Jeollanamdo) and studied under him. Then he developed his own style of hangul.

Pyeongbo is one of only two of the 23 master calligraphers who specialised in hangul only. The other calligrapher is the only female calligrapher in the collection Galmul, Lee Cheol Gyeong. The rest were masters of Chinese characters (hanmun).

I wrote more about Sojoen, Pyeongbo, and Galmul in this post on hangul and the First Generation of Modern Korean Calligraphers

Youngun KIM YOUNG JIN (1878-1968)
calligraphy and painting by Youngun

My next choice is Youngun, KIM YOUNG JIN (1878-1968) because he is the first born of the 23 masters and he has the quintessential aristocratic background.

He grew up in Bukcheon in Seoul which is near the royal palaces where many scholar officials lived. The hanok village there is now a tourist attraction as it’s one of the few places you can still see traditional houses.

His family were members of the elite Andong Kim clan who were powerful in politics in the late Joseon period. So he was able to study under the most renowned calligrapher of the Joseon dynasty Chusa KIM JEONG HUI.

Most of his works on display are flower ink painting with calligraphy. As the earliest of the modern calligraphers his work still looks traditional.

related posts:

Staying at a hanok house in Andong

Late Joseon Kings and Historical Drama (1649-1910)


So the calligraphy world is a small world. Master calligraphers became the teachers of the second generation masters. Aristocrats educated their children and sent them to renowned calligraphy masters. And inevitably siblings could also become noted calligraphers.

For instance, Galmul, Lee Cheol Gyeong who was one of three famous sisters working in hangul.

And in this list of 23 Master Calligraphers, two are brothers!

Ilchung KIM CHUNG HYEON (1921-2006) and his younger brother Yeocho KIM EUNG HYEON (1927-2007)

(note they have the same surname, Kim, and part of their first name is the same too: hyeon)

BOTH worked in Chinese characters (hanmun) and hangul. BOTH have a gallery dedicated to them. And they BOTH studied under master calligrapher Youngun Kim Young Jin (above) who in turn studied under the biggest name of them all CHUSA Kim Jeong Hui!

The hangul work of younger brother Yeocho made the news back in 2018 when it was featured at the Inter-Korea summit in 2018 and I wrote a post about that here.

Here’s a section from a rubbing on display of ilchung’s Monument for Admiral Yi Sun-sin. It’s written in a combination of Hangul and Chinese characters:

a rubbing of a hangul calligraphy piece by ilchung

See more work of older brother Ilchung in this post on Different styles of hangul

see more from dramasrok about life in Korea on Facebook Pinterest and Instagram 

Namjeong CHOI CHEONG GYUN (1924-2001) 

Namjeong’s story also follows the typical path of the Korean Master Calligraphers. He learned Chinese literature and calligraphy from his father who ran a Seodang, village school. And he also studied under master calligrapher Sojeon Son, Jae Hyeong

But his claim to fame is that he managed to establish the first ever calligraphy department in a university (at Wonkwang University in Iksan North Jeolla).

The department was set up in 1989 and after this China followed suit and developed calligraphy departments in universities there too. Unfortunately, in 2014 the department was closed due to cuts and lack of students.

That really is too bad.

7 GANGAM STYLE (NOT Gangnam Style!)
Gangam SONG SEONG YONG 1913-1999) 
calligrapher gangam
The last scholar calligrapher and painter of the 20th century.

Calligraphy was not generally a full-time profession. But the ability to write poetry in Chinese characters in skilful calligraphy was the mark of a gentleman.

But this generation of calligraphers lived through changing times. There was the Japanese Occupation (1910-1945), the Pacific War (1941-45) and the Korean War (1950-53).

So values and lifestyle in Korea saw a dramatic transformation. But whilst others turned to western dress and a faster pace of life, the calligrapher Gangam continued to wear the traditional clothing and hairstyle.

And he devoted himself to the lifestyle and ethics of Confucianism, Chinese Classics, and calligraphy.

He established his own calligraphy style named after his pen name Gangam style.

And the Gangam Calligraphy Museum in Jeonju Hanok Village is dedicated to him and his work. He is said to be the last traditional scholar calligrapher and painter of the 20th century. And looking at his picture, we can really see how life has changed!

The 23 Korean Master Calligraphers exhibition is on until 6 August 2020 at the Museum of Calligraphy Art at the Seoul Arts Centre. Free admission!

related posts:

First Generation of Modern Korean Calligraphers

A review of Beyond Line: The Art of Korean Writing

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