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S. Korea Reveals a Racy Past

The opening of Seoul's Asian Eros Museum suggests a renewed recognition of sexuality in a changing Confucianist society.

June 09, 2003|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — Until recently a museum devoted to erotic art was unimaginable in Korea, which for centuries closely followed the conservative principles of Confucius.

Thus, the opening of Seoul's Asian Eros Museum is a cultural milestone, say sociologists, curators and average Koreans alike.

"I found some of the pictures, especially the Japanese prints, a bit graphic," said Choi Hyun Soo, a 27-year-old student, as she blushed slightly. "But it's also educational. I think it's good that a subject long considered taboo is finally out in the open."

Past the 3-foot-diameter column guarding the front door, shaped like a phallus, and congratulatory banners that read, "Good going!" and "What's there to worry about?" are three floors of erotic art, talismans, fertility objects and sexual aids spanning several centuries.

Museum curators said the exhibits aim to celebrate South Korea's growing openness and demonstrate the central role that eroticism has played in Asian art, belief systems and rituals.


'Yin-and-Yang Forces'

"A difference between the Eastern and Western views of sexuality is that Asia, especially Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism, generally views sexuality as a natural element of human expression and religion, yin-and-yang forces merging into the whole," said curator Shim Gwang Woong. "Often in the West, on the other hand, it's viewed in a more limited way largely focused on the act itself."

Asian artisans often had something other than religion on their minds, however, judging from the intricate carvings, graphic Japanese woodblock prints and suggestive figures depicted on opium boxes and silk robes.

"When you see all this, you realize anything you can think of went on centuries ago," said Lee Sok Woo, 79, a retiree, as he peeked at a small, wooden box with interlocking couples behind sliding doors. "Nothing under the sun is really new."

The museum's Korean erotica falls into two broad categories reflecting in part their original purposes. Talismans, carved wooden fertility objects and suggestively shaped stones, most roughly hewn, were worshipped by farmers and fishermen hoping for a bigger harvest, larger catch or expanded family.

One 7-foot wooden totem from South Kyongsang province designed to induce rain, for example, used women's underwear hung on a forked top in a symbolic bid to join the earth's yin force with the sky's yang.

At the other end of the social spectrum, intricately crafted lewd pictures, carved boxes, paintings, etchings and figurines were collected by rich and powerful Koreans for their private enjoyment.

In fact, erotic art in Korea was generally so well suppressed over the centuries that some museum visitors expressed surprise -- even a touch of national pride -- at its existence.

"With things becoming so open recently, I've always felt that Korea was more backward about sexuality than Western societies," said Han Il Soon, a 46-year-old kindergarten teacher. "Seeing these centuries-old Korean items, I'm actually quite relieved."

Ten years ago, boys and girls holding hands in public were frowned upon as trade restrictions limited the local impact of Hollywood and Madison Avenue. As recently as 1999, Korean art books were required to print black strips and dots over anything that government censors deemed suggestive.

Sociologists cite several factors behind South Korea's rapid turnaround, including globalization, the rise of the nation's democracy movement and the Internet.

But the speedy change also carries drawbacks, some Koreans say, including a wider generation gap and growing social problems. "When I was young, you couldn't think of ever having this sort of museum," said retiree Lee. "Society has now become so open, but that isn't uniformly good. We're paying a price in higher divorce rates and more illegitimate children that welfare agencies can't handle."

The 200 or so objects on display at the sexual culture museum were collected by Kim Young Soo, a former textbook publishing company president and the museum's founder, over several decades. In keeping with his educational focus, one display includes coins from Kaesong, a city now just over the border in North Korea, that were used several hundred years ago. Korean parents too embarrassed to speak directly about sex gave these to newlyweds to learn the facts of life from their suggestive imagery.


An Openness Earlier On

One advantage of bringing different genres of Asian art together is the opportunity to better reflect on one's own culture, said visitor Jin Jeong Wook, a 37-year-old businesswoman.

"While other countries prayed for more children, in Korea they prayed for more male children," she said. "Confucianism was actually an excuse for maintaining a male-dominated system. That legacy continues today."

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