Sumptuous Korean Bandaji with Mother-of-pearl Inlaid Double Happiness Characters

Ca. 1860, Yi Dynasty; black lacquer, chestnut wood; iron fittings
H: 34”, L: 37”, D: 19.75”

This big Bandaji (meaning half-close chest) has black lacquer applied over a chestnut wood body.  The front, sides, and top panels are all sumptuously decorated with the “Double Happiness” Chinese characters inlaid with mother-of-pearl.  The half door across the top half of the chest opens outwards and downwards.  It is closed by a long tongue fastener that stretches from the top panel to a big round iron lock-plate on the half-door.  The plate has a stylized magic fungus (pulloch’o) design around the circumference.  On the plate are incised three Taoist “t’aeguk” motifs based upon the interlocking yin-yang design, a symbol of everlasting, longevity.  This Taoist-inspired design later appeared on the Korean national flag.  The half door has two basic swallowtail design door hinges.  Each has the “longevity fungus” (pulloch’o) motif on the top part of the design, and the “t’aeguk” motif on the bottom part.  The half-door is pulled down by two double-hook handles.  Such a hook is also attached to each side of the chest for ease of moving this very heavy chest around.  All the metal fittings are made of iron.  The chest sits on two removable boards to keep it off the “ondol” system heated floor.  A sumptuous chest like this, with so much expensive mother-of-pearl inlay and costly labor, was undoubtedly made as a wedding present for a couple from the Yangban class (land-owning aristocracy).

This chest was found after the Japanese Occupation on Kanghwa Island, a prison colony for the Kingdom of Korea for two thousand years.  It was recovered by an American missionary doctor who was invited to go there to treat the sick and the dying.  He was allowed to take any furniture the exiled took there as the ruling scholar/official class did not care for furniture.  For his humanitarian work, the doctor was honored with Korean citizenship.  He lived the rest of his life in Korea.  The chest was eventually passed on to a Korean Professor of Korean History and Antiquity who certified this chest as rare.  Except for some thin crack lines over the black lacquer surface of the chest, which often happens to a piece with thick lacquer application, this chest survived in very good condition.