Korean Royal Double Blanket Chest with Sharkskin Inlay

1860, Cho Sun Dynasty; found in Kanghwa Island
Chestnut wood, sharkskin and brass-wire inlay
H: 114cm, L: 135cm, D: 62cm

This is a monumental chest and is very unusually constructed.  It has been labeled as a blanket chest which in Korea is commonly called a “bandaji”, but it is so big and so sumptuously decorated no blankets would be expected to be piled on top.  It has two storage compartments contained in one chestnut frame.  The top compartment has a small door opening outwards and downwards.  This top storage space is separated inside by a shelf below which is a larger storage compartment also having a small door opening same as the top one.  Each door is closed by an iron tong-fastener.

This big chest is sumptuously decorated.  The top, front, and side panels have clusters of flower heads with petals inlaid with sharkskin, scattered among twisting yellow brass wire tendrils.  The upper storage unit has a tongue fastener latching on to a simple rectangular lock-plate.  The bottom plate has a stylized swallowtail with two carved swastika symbols on the bottom part of the design.  This symbol in Buddhism signifies “unlimited, eternal”, meaning long life, but it also has other meanings, among them perfection, harmony, and happiness.  The hinges on the two pairs of doors are all the same.  Each has the top part designed with a variant of the “ruyi” motif, signifying “grant all wishes”, and the bottom part that of the fishtail.  Incised on each fishtail is the yin-yang design, symbol of long life.  Both doors are pulled open with double-hook handles.  There is no handle on each side of the chest as this chest, solidly constructed with sturdy chestnut wood, is meant to be stationarily put in one place.  The fittings on the piece are all of iron, a metal the Buddhist elite social class of the period favored for its purity and quiet strength.  The chest sits on an attached stand with cusped low edges.

This chest was found after the Japanese Occupation on Kanghwa Island, a prison colony for the Kingdom of Korea.  It was found by an American missionary doctor when he was invited to go there to treat the sick and the dying.  He was allowed to take away 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.  He certified it as “royal” probably because only a member of the royal family could afford such an expensive piece.  This chest has survived in excellent condition with only a few brass-wires loosened.