Gujangbok, a ceremonial robe symbolizing the king’s prestige


Gujangbok (front and back), Plain silk gauze, Joseon Dynasty (late 19th or early 20th century), Length: 137.5cm, Sleeve length (from center of collar): 94.5cm, Important Folklore Cultural Heritage 66 (National Museum of Korea)

Gujangbok (九章服, front and back), late 19th or early 20th century, Joseon Dynasty, plain silk gauze, 137.5 cm long, sleeve length (from center of collar): 94.5 cm, Important Folklore Cultural Heritage 66 (National Museum of Korea)

A “gujangbok” is a ceremonial robe worn by the Joseon king, adorned with nine symbols, either painted or embroidered, representing the consummate authority and virtue of the king. The gujangbok was a key component of “myeonbok,” the official ceremonial attire worn by the emperor, king, crown prince, and crown grandson from the Goryeo period (918–1392) through the Joseon period (1392–1897) and Korean Empire (1897–1910).

The myeonbok consisted of eleven different pieces of apparel:

  • gyu (圭, tablet),
  • myeon (冕, imperial crown),
  • ui (衣, outer jacket, such as the gujangbok),
  • sang (裳, skirt),
  • daedae (大帶, belt),
  • jungdan (中單, inner robe),
  • pae (佩, accessories),
  • pyeseul (蔽膝, decorative panel),
  • su (綬, ornament),
  • mal (襪, socks), and
  • seok (舃, shoes).

Two gujangboks from the National Museum of Korea have been designated as Important Folklore Cultural Heritage 66.

Gujangbok (front and back), Fine silk gauze, Joseon Dynasty (late 19th or early 20th century), Length: 136.5cm, Sleeve length (from center of collar): 97.0cm, Important Folklore Cultural Heritage 66 (National Museum of Korea)

Gujangbok (九章服, front and back), late 19th or early 20th century, Joseon Dynasty, fine silk gauze, 136.5 cm long, sleeve length (from center of collar): 97 cm, Important Folklore Cultural Heritage 66 (National Museum of Korea)

Legacy of myeonbok

In addition to festive ceremonies and auspicious occasions (such as royal weddings), myeonbok was also worn for ancestral rites, agricultural rites, and for funerary rituals after a death in the royal family. Derived from the official ceremonial attire of China, myeonbok featured a number of details that reflected the rank of the person wearing it, such as the number of beaded lines on the imperial crown and the number of emblems on the jacket and skirt. For example, the myeonbok of an emperor had twelve beaded lines and twelve emblems, while that of a king had nine beaded lines and nine emblems, and that of a crown prince had eight beaded lines and seven emblems. Following this protocol, the gujangbok of the Joseon king had nine emblems, while that of the crown prince had seven emblems.

It is not clear exactly when myeonbok was first introduced from China, but the myeollyugwan (imperial crown, 冕旒冠), is mentioned in a written record from the Three Kingdoms Period (57 B.C.E.–668 C.E.). The term “gujangbok” was in use by 1065, when Goryeo’s King Munjong received a gujangbok and jade investiture tablet from the Khitans.

It is also recorded that, during the years of the Yuan invasion of Goryeo, King Gongmin temporarily wore the myeonbok of an emperor, with twelve beaded lines and twelve emblems. After the founding of the Ming Dynasty, however, King Gongmin returned to wearing the myeonbok of a king (with nine beaded lines and nine emblems), which he received in 1370 from Emperor Taizu, the founder of the Ming Dynasty.

The first record of Joseon’s establishment of its own myeonbok system appears in the “Ancestral and Agricultural Rituals Section” from “Five Rites” (五禮儀) in the Annals of King Sejong (世宗實錄). After the fall of the Ming Dynasty, the newly established Qing Dynasty attempted to continue their predecessors’ practice of sending myeonbok to Joseon. However, the Qing did not consistently abide by the system, leading to some confusion. Accordingly, the Joseon royal court decided that the time had come to establish its own myeonbok system in accordance with the national cultural customs that had been introduced and detailed in Illustrated Supplement to the Five Rites of State: Follow-up Edition (國朝續五禮儀序例), published in 1744 under King Yeongjo. King Yeongjo’s guidelines for the myeonbok system remained in effect until 1897, when certain changes were implemented in conjunction with the proclamation of the Korean Empire.

Gujangbok (front and back), Plain silk gauze, Joseon Dynasty (late 19th or early 20th century), Length: 137.5cm, Sleeve length (from center of collar): 94.5cm, Important Folklore Cultural Heritage 66 (National Museum of Korea)

Black outer jacket (hyeonui, 玄衣) and inner robe (jungdan, 中單), Gujangbok (九章服), late 19th or early 20th century, Joseon Dynasty, plain silk gauze (eunjosa, 銀條紗), 137.5 cm long, sleeve length (from center of collar): 94.5 cm, Important Folklore Cultural Heritage 66 (National Museum of Korea)

Embodying the majesty of a king

Notably, both of the gujangboks from the National Museum of Korea consist of two actual garments: a hyeonui (black outer jacket) and a jungdan (inner robe). One of the gujangboks is made from eunjosa (plain silk gauze), a thin silk fabric formed by weaving a twist of two warp threads with the weft thread, while the other is made from gapsa (fine silk gauze), a silk fabric wherein the weaves form an even pattern of small rhombuses.

Gujangbok (front and back), Fine silk gauze, Joseon Dynasty (late 19th or early 20th century), Length: 136.5cm, Sleeve length (from center of collar): 97.0cm, Important Folklore Cultural Heritage 66 (National Museum of Korea)

Black outer jacket (hyeonui, 玄衣) and inner robe (jungdan, 中單), Gujangbok (九章服, front and back), late 19th or early 20th century, Joseon Dynasty, fine silk gauze (gapsa, 甲紗), 136.5 cm long, sleeve length (from center of collar): 97 cm, Important Folklore Cultural Heritage 66 (National Museum of Korea)

In both cases, the hyeonui and jungdan consist of a single layer of cloth, with double layers forming the hems of the sleeves and skirt, as well as the collar, which takes the form of a lowercase “y.” There are four buttons on the interior of the jacket: three along the line where the sleeve meets the chest and one in the center of the collar. These buttons were likely used to respectively attach the belt and a separate round collar worn around the neck. Extra padding is sewn inside the shoulders and armpits, and both the inner and outer coat strings are made from double layers of fabric.

Gujangbok (front and back), Fine silk gauze, Joseon Dynasty (late 19th or early 20th century), Length: 136.5cm, Sleeve length (from center of collar): 97.0cm, Important Folklore Cultural Heritage 66 (National Museum of Korea)

Part of the dragons are visible on the shoulders. Gujangbok (九章服, front and back), late 19th or early 20th century, Joseon Dynasty, fine silk gauze, 136.5 cm long, sleeve length (from center of collar): 97 cm, Important Folklore Cultural Heritage 66 (National Museum of Korea)

Each gujangbok is adorned with nine emblems symbolizing the virtues required for a king to rule a country: five emblems representing yang on the hyeonui and four emblems representing yin on the sang (裳, skirt) and pyeseul (蔽膝, decorative panel). The five emblems painted on the hyeonui are a dragon, mountain, fire, pheasant, and jongi (a pair of ritual vessels with a tiger and monkey design). Symbolizing mystical transformation, a dragon is painted on each shoulder, facing one another.

Detail of the mountain (here painted green) and the line of emblems on the left sleeve of the hyeonui. The jongi show the monkey design. Gujangbok (九章服, front and back), late 19th or early 20th century, Joseon Dynasty, plain silk gauze, 137.5 cm long, sleeve length (from center of collar): 94.5 cm, Important Folklore Cultural Heritage 66 (National Museum of Korea)

Detail of the mountain (here painted green) and the line of emblems on the left sleeve of the hyeonui. The jongi show the monkey design. Gujangbok (九章服, front and back), late 19th or early 20th century, Joseon Dynasty, plain silk gauze, 137.5 cm long, sleeve length (from center of collar): 94.5 cm, Important Folklore Cultural Heritage 66 (National Museum of Korea)

On the back of the robe is a mountain, representing the world as the king’s dominion. On the back of each sleeve (running parallel to the hem) is a vertical line of nine small emblems: three flames (representing splendor), three pheasants (symbolizing the beauty of writing), and three jongi (symbolizing filial piety). The jongi vessels on the right sleeve have a tiger design (symbolizing courage), while those on the left sleeve have a monkey design (symbolizing wisdom).

Gujangbok (front and back), Plain silk gauze, Joseon Dynasty (late 19th or early 20th century), Length: 137.5cm, Sleeve length (from center of collar): 94.5cm, Important Folklore Cultural Heritage 66 (National Museum of Korea)

Detail of black outer jacket (hyeonui, 玄衣) and inner robe (jungdan, 中單), Gujangbok (九章服), late 19th or early 20th century, Joseon Dynasty, plain silk gauze (eunjosa, 銀條紗), 137.5 cm long, sleeve length (from center of collar): 94.5 cm, Important Folklore Cultural Heritage 66 (National Museum of Korea)

Just below the hyeonui (black outer jacket) is the jungdan, a blue inner robe made from a single layer of fabric. The jungdan has the same shape as the hyeonui, with wide sleeves and black hems, but it is a bit longer than the hyeonui, extending out by the length of the lower hem. It also has a “y-shaped” collar, decorated with eleven embroidered “亞-shaped” motifs.

Interestingly, every historical record related to myeonbok indicates that the color of the jungdan was white, but both of the examples housed in the National Museum of Korea have a blue jungdan. How can this discrepancy be explained?

In 1793 (seventeenth year of King Jeongjo), government officials engaged in frequent discussions about jobok (朝服), a type of official attire. Notably, jobok also includes an inner robe, called a “changui” (氅衣), which corresponds to the jungdan in myeonbok. In particular, the officials argued about whether the color of a changui should be blue or white. Although no final decision was reached, blue changuis began to be worn from this point. Thus, it is estimated that blue jungdans were also worn with myeonbok starting around this time. However, white jungdans were still worn for certain occasions and state rites.

As mentioned, the jungdan is slightly longer than the hyeonui. We cannot confirm the respective lengths of the jungdan and hyeonui in the early Joseon period. In 1743, however, King Yeongjo ordered that the hyeonui should be slightly shortened, in order to avoid completely covering the skirt. Based on the two extant examples of gujangbok, this order was still being followed in the late Joseon period.

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Cite this page as: The National Museum of Korea, "Gujangbok, a ceremonial robe symbolizing the king’s prestige," in Smarthistory, August 25, 2022, accessed December 10, 2022, https://smarthistory.org/gujangbok-ceremonial-robe/.