Flower of purity, the Lotus in Korean culture

Written by on July 20, 2012 in Arts, Lifestyle, Travel

Bees hovering over a field of lotus

It’s July. Edge of the monsoon season, when the lotus start to bloom. The lotus. It’s the swan of flowers. Well, to be frank, that’s not an absolutely accurate metaphor but the big difference in what you see above the water and what lies below somehow conjures up that comparison: the swan busily paddling its webbed feet all while containing its elegant composure, the lotus always blooming gracefully in even the murkiest waters.
As ubiquitous as the rose in England, the lotus is omnipresent in Korean culture. Not only the blossoms but also the roots, the leafy pads – the whole flower. It shows up in literature, in art, in architecture, in pop culture, and in food.

Lotus can be found everywhere, including the lanterns at Heungguk Temple in Yeosu

The lotus, of course, is a symbol of Buddhism. Either pink or white, it can bloom in even the foulest water; it retains its beauty without letting its environment taint its pure nature, like a Buddhist thrown into the ugliness of the world. The flower signifies a spiritual paradise; the bud of the blossom also resembles that of a person’s hands folded in prayer, the form of the meditating Buddhist with his legs crossed is called the lotus position.
The lotus can be found in Buddhist temples, both real and not. They bloom in ponds for contemplation, are painted into the eaves, carved into the lattice woodwork of doors and gates, and molded in the ironwork as well. They are also featured heavily in Buddhist paintings.

Phoenix surrounded by lotus motifs on the ceiling of Changgyeong Palace

The influence of Buddhism in Korean culture is immense. The Buddhist aspects in art and architecture reached far beyond the temples. You’ll always see the lotus in the palaces; it’s quite interesting to see the little differences between the designs of the lotus depending on the historic era and the palace’s unique characteristic.

The lotus seen in cheongja and baekja

The lotus can be frequently seen in sumaksae (수막새), the finishing tile at the end of roof eaves in Korean traditional architecture. There are many different designs which adorn sumaksae; mostly dragons and phoenix for palaces, while tigers and lions also make appearances. Although flowers such as chrysanthemums would occasionally show up, up till the Goryeo Dynasty (918 ~ 1392), the lotus was certainly the most prominent design.
In traditional pottery, the lotus was either painted on or carved into baekja (백자, white porcelain) and the more elaborate and intricate cheongja (청자, celadon). Modern day designs also incorporate the lotus into their designs quite frequently; chinaware, silverware, tableware and other kitchen products. The hems of hanbok (복), the traditional Korean costume, are commonly decorated with gold leaf of various patterns. The lotus is quite the popular motif for them as well.

Simcheong, the symbol of filial piety in a lotus blossom

As for the most famous lotus in Korean literature, it is from the folk tale of Simcheong (심청, read about famous Korean folk tales: here). Simcheong, the virtuous daughter of filial piety, rose up from the sea within a giant lotus blossom after sacrificing herself to the God of the Sea in order to help her blind father. The lotus’ significance can’t be clearer.

Grilled lotus roots and lotus root salad on a lotus blossom plate

Besides the many religious connotations, because the lotus brings forth many seeds, it was also considered a symbol of fecundity, something quite important in traditional society. The seeds, leaves, and roots were often used for medicinal purposes, and also became part of Korean cuisine.
A familiar banchan (반찬, side dish), lotus roots are the easiest to spy in Korean meals. Yeongeun (연근) are commonly sold in markets; they are stir-fried, fried, steamed, simmered down, made into tea, and may be cooked in every other creative way possible. They have a crunchy texture and because they are known to be good for the blood, they were abused as lunchbox banchan by mothers of anemic students before hot school lunches became the norm. (Although tasty, I have eaten more than my fair share of soy simmered lotus roots during those school years and try to avoid them as much as possible.)

Lotus roots on lotus blossom and lotus leaf wrapped rice

Yeonipbap (연잎밥), rice in lotus leaves, are less common but are usually found in specialty vegetarian places, such as restaurants serving temple food. The lotus leaves give the rice a subtle fragrance which pairs well with various vegetable banchan.
Unlike its name, traditional yeonyeopju (연엽주) is more like shikhye (식혜), a sweet fermented rice drink, than a hard liquor. It is a traditional drink made in Gangwon province by fermenting glutinous rice wrapped in lotus leaves. The leaves are unwrapped right before drinking and pine nuts are added to enhance the flavor. Yeonyeopju from the Chungcheong province is a more alcoholic drink, where different rice is used and there is no individual wrapping of lotus leaves. The fragrance of the lotus is prominent in both varieties; they both are considered regional specialties.

Muan Lotus Festival

The lotus is hailed in every aspect of Korean culture, so it is not surprising that there is a festival dedicated to them. In fact, there are several lotus festivals going on within the country, from July to August, when the lotus is in its full glory.

12th Haso Baekryeon Festival (2012/7/13 ~ 2012/7/22)
White lotus festival, North Jeolla province

2012 Muan Lotus Festival (2012/7/26 ~ 2012/7/29)
South Jeolla province

10th Buyeo Seodong Lotus Festival (2012/7/26 ~ 2012/7/29)
South Chungcheong province
(Shortened link goes to Traveling Buyeo’s official site.)

2012 Bongseon Temple Lotus Festival (2012/7/28)
Namyangju, Gyeonggi province

10th Seoul Lotus Culture Festival at Bongwon Temple (2012/8/4 ~ 2012/8/11)
Seodaemun-gu, Seoul

5th Taean Lotus Festival at Cheongsan Garden (2012/6/28~2012/8/27)

You don’t necessarily have to go to festivals in order to enjoy the sight of lotus, though. In Buddhist temples and every Korean palace there would be a pond or two, no outdoor Korean park would be without a pond of lotus; Namsan and Seonyudo Park are good places in Seoul to catch a glimpse.

Last but not least, I’ll leave you with a music video of popular K-pop girl band 2NE1’s recently released song “I love you”. See the lotus in true pop culture fashion. Nothing can beat it.
*Music video from 2NE1’s official YouTube channel

About the Author

Suzy Chung

Multilingual editor, writer, and translator. Coffee addict, bookworm, art junkie, foodie, oenophile, and a billion other things. I tend to talk a lot. @suzyinseoul