From Middlemen to Center Stage: The Chungin Contribution to 19 th-Century Korean Painting explores the rise of chungin technical officials in the painting world of the late Chosoˇn dynasty. In doing so, this dissertation provides a non-traditional perspective on Korean art history, and reveals the overlooked social and commercial aspects of art in the late Chosoˇn dynasty.
Late Chosoˇn society experienced a rise in consumer culture, and artistic activities such as painting, art appreciation, and art collecting were no longer the exclusive realm of the privileged yangban. Instead, there emerged new players, the chungin or "middle people," who were not part of the elite class, but who were affluent, well-educated, and often well connected to foreign intellectuals. The chungin mediated between the yangban and commoners, between Koreans and foreigners, and between the pre-modern and consumer societies. In the art world, they became a major force as professional artists, patrons, collectors, and distributors.
The chungin selected the flowering plum as a symbol to identify themselves, and a talented painter, Cho Huˇi-ryong, reinterpreted the flowering plum painting genre. Before Cho, plum painting was staid and monochrome. Cho's flowering plums were dynamic, sensual, and surface-oriented, often in large scale. This new style was very appealing to Korea's new consumers, flowering plums were in great demand, and Cho's lead was followed by other chungin painters.
Until recently scholars have failed to recognize the chungin contribution to late Chosoˇn painting. During the colonial period, Japanese scholar-officials who came to Korea during the period of Occupation, applied Sino-centric and Japanese aesthetic standards to Korean art and devalued indigenous Korean trends. Blaming Korea's downfall on the weakness of the Chosoˇn dynasty, Korean nationalists also denigrated the late Chosoˇn as a period of artistic decline. Even in the 1970s, scholars took a yangban-centric view of the late Chosoˇn, causing them to misidentify Cho and other chungin painters as mere disciples of the illustrious yangban calligrapher, Kim Choˇng-huˇi and to fail to recognize the rise of professional painting. In the 20th century, only the chungin calligrapher and voice of Korean independence O Se-ch'ang highlighted the role of the chungin through his compendium of artists, Kuˇnyoˇk soˇhwa ching.