In 2015, the Lunar New Year will fall on February 19th and we’ll enter the year of the sheep/goat. ( hangeul: 양 yang; Chinese character: 羊) So there’s a small but cute exhibition on at the National Folk Museum of Korea at the moment telling us all about sheep/goats. This confuses me as I’ve always seen sheep and goats as completely different animals with their own characters.
I think of goats as nosy little fellas who want to sniff and eat absolutely everything in sight – even the clothes you are wearing if you stand too close to them. Sheep on the other hand are shy and run away when they see you coming. (I’m more of a sheep than a goat. 😉
But apparently in Korea historically sheep were not common animals, and so yang 양 was used to describe both sheep and goats because they looked similar. Actually, I don’t remember ever seeing a sheep in the countryside of Korea. In England you won’t go far before stepping in some raison-sized poo on the grass. Sheep are never very far away.
At the exhibition I learnt that the custom of raising sheep dates back to the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392). It was imported from the Jin (1115-1234) and Liao (915-1125) Dynasties in China. But raising sheep was not a wide-spread or common occupation. But it became popular in the 1930s. And after that using wool in the textile industry was common during the 1950s and 1960s.
In the museum, a line of sheep on the floor lead the way into the exhibition room. The layout is part of the experience and effort has been made to make it look nice – perhaps partly because there isn’t a huge amount of information on display.
I did see an example of an embroidery, which included sheep, and a ceremonial flag with a goat on it. There are books dating back to the Joseon period open on pages that relate to sheep. And there’s a large stone ram which was used to protect tombs. The 12 animals of the zodiac have been used to guard tombs since the Shilla period. In Buddhism they were seen as guards of Buddhist teaching.
In the Joseon period sheep played an important role in ritual ceremonies. 양석 yang-seok is the name of the stone sheep statues (below) that guarded the tombs. (with stone tigers) This ram is at King Sukjong and Jang Hee Bin’s tomb
SHEEP GUARDING TOMBS
In the Chinese zodiac, sheep are considered to be obedient, good-natured animals who travel well in herds. So they are associated with positive attributes such as 祥 (상) goodness, 善 (선) loyalty, 美 (미) beauty, and good fortune. They represent the 8th year of the 12 Chinese Zodiac animals. They reflect the time period between 1pm and 3pm. And symbolise the south-southwest direction.
The exhibition made me think about paying more interest in future to how animals were used in history. And I think it’s worth popping in if you are already at the museum, but I wouldn’t make a special trip just to see this.
I thought it would be quiet at the National Folk Museum of Korea on a weekday in winter in the afternoon, but I was WRONG. It was absolutely heaving! The car park was full of coaches and every available seat inside the museum was occupied by a member of a tour group 😕
The Folk Museum is in the grounds of Gyeongbokgung Palace but it has its own entrance from the road opposite the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA).