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The Korean peninsula – currently divided into the countries of North Korea and South Korea – lies between China, Russia and Japan in East Asia. This geographical fact has played a crucial role not only in establishing Korea’s diverse cultural heritage, but also in the development of East Asian culture and art.
The British Museum’s collection covers over 5,000 years of Korean art and archaeology, from prehistory to contemporary, from ornate ritual objects to everyday folk arts.
In AD seventh century, the various states of the peninsula were unified for the first time under the Silla Kingdom (57 BC-AD 935). During this period, great achievements in historiography, mathematics, astronomy, metal works and technology of woodblock printing were made. Active cultural exchange and trade with China and Central Asia contributed to a more diverse society, whose achievements spilled over into Japan.
Religion has exerted a profound influence on the arts and way of life in Korea.
Buddhism was introduced to Korea through China in 372 AD and soon many Buddhist temples and sculptures were built. The collection’s lacquered sutra box, used to contain Buddhist scriptures, exemplifies the significance of Buddhism and characteristic of the refined craftsmanship in the thirteenth century Koryo period. During the Choson dynasty (1392 -1910), Confucianism, with its tenets of frugality and self-cultivation, was followed by scholars. A reconstruction of a traditional Korean scholar’s study (Sarangbang) and white porcelain wares, redolent of Confucian philosophy, form part of the collection.