Exceptional Korean Blanket Chest with Inlaid Chinese “Fortune” Characters


Circa 1860; black lacquer on chestnut wood frame, pear wood inlay; Kang Wha Island, Korea.  One hundred Chinese characters inlaid instead of painted on.

The chest was likely used by a member of the elite scholar class who found himself in disfavor with the Imperial Court and was sent into exile.  The Yi Court paid homage to China at that period, so all high officials had to be able to read and write Chinese in order to hold high office in the palace.  The chest has inlaid (not painted) on its front panel the Chinese character “fortune” in 100 different styles of writing, all with same meaning.  The sides and top are covered with a diamond design signifying “prosperity and wellness”.  All this inlaying is very labor intensive and costly, making this a very expensive piece of furniture, affordable only by members of the royal palace or the elite Yangban class (land-owing aristocracy). The metal fixtures are simple and made of iron, preferred by scholar/officials of that period who were adherents of Buddhism, favoring iron for its purity and quiet strength.

This chest was found after the Japanese Occupation on Kangwha Island, a political prison colony for the Kingdom of Korea for two thousand years.  It was recovered by an American missionary doctor who was invited to go to the prison to treat the sick and the dying.  He was allowed to take away any furniture the exiled took there as the ruling scholar class did not care for furniture.  For his humanitarian work, the doctor was honored with Korean citizenship.  He spent the rest of his life in Korea.  The chest was later passed on to a Korean Professor of Korean History and Antiquity, who certified this chest as rare.