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Treasure Cabinet (Kap-kae-suri)
Treasure Cabinet (Kap-kae-suri), 19th century
Lacquered wood with brass wire and dyed ray skin inlay; gilded metal fittings
24 x 26 x 17 inches (61 x 66 x 43.2 cm)
Bequest of Eleanor M. Witmer, 1990
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About This Cabinet

By examining the decorations on this small treasure chest (kap-kaesuri), we can infer that is was used in the women's quarters (an'chae) of an upper-class household. The doors are adorned with a pair of phoenixes—mythical birds said to be wise and compassionate, bearers of good fortune, and often symbols of feminine qualities. Delicate, cloudlike forms surround the birds, and elaborate strings of tail feathers flow out and around them. On the bottom frame below the doors are four circles, symbols of yin-yang principles said to represent the whirling forces of the universe. The rest of the chest is decorated with floral and leaf designs, echoing shapes found on the two front doors.

To achieve these delicate decorations, craftsmen began by creating the chest out of wood. Next, they laid out the design motifs in brass wire and attached them to the wooden surface. They then covered the wood and brass with the malleable skin of a stingray, pressing it into place so that the wire designs would show. Finally, they applied dye to the ray skin to achieve the desired colors.

The last elements added to the chest were shiny metal hinges and handles, and front, joint, and corner plates. Such metal embellishments prevent shrinkage or expansion of the wood, camouflage flaws, and provide an additional layer of beauty to the chest. They are hallmarks of Korean furniture of the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910).

Interior of a Traditional Korean House

A traditional Korean house is called a hanok. All aspects of the house—its position in relation to the natural environment, the construction materials, the arrangement of rooms and furnishings—were carefully selected to bring positive energy to the household. The layout of rooms is based on Confucian ideas of distinction between social classes, gender, and ages. An elaborate house had specific living quarters for each type of resident, and walls with gates separated each section. The sarang'chae was the part of the building reserved for the head of the household. The an'chae was the inner living quarters for the head woman of the household and her children. The servants lived in the haengnang'chae, and the family worshiped the spirits of its ancestors at a shrine called sadang'chae. A treasure chest like this one was probably used in the an'chae. In the center room of the an'chae quarter, the head woman ran various aspects of the household, most often relating to clothing and food. This chest would have been useful for holding clothing, accessories, and valuables.

In traditional Korean houses, shoes are removed before entering, and people sit on the floor. Tables and chests are typically low to the ground to be within easy reach of those who are seated.The people of the household slept on mattresses rolled out on the floor. Traditionally mattresses and coverlets were folded and stacked on top of chests similar to this one during the day.

This object is included in Learning from Asian Art: Korea, a teaching kit developed by the Division of Education and made possible by a grant from the Freeman Foundation of New York and Stowe, Vermont.

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