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Industrial Designers of East Asia

I often look at Korea as industrial designers of East Asia way when it comes to inventions.

This is not to say that Koreans are not responsible for many inventions, this is to say that the larger role they played with inventions was the refining of those inventions. I like to put it this way and I will illustrate it with some examples from real life.

Say, you have a pig thrower. The people who would come up with the philosophy that the Pig thrower is possible are the Indians. The Indians would throw around this idea for a while and say maybe it is possible in theory.

The Chinese would take this idea of a pig thrower and actually put it into practice. They would make what you would call a draft of the pig thrower. So maybe this looks like a pig on the end of the pig thrower and a latch to let it go. After a few drafts of this they would throw it to the Koreans.

The Koreans tend to take the invention and refine it. So they would be the people that would take what the Chinese made and then refine the aim of it, the timing to let go of the latch, how many pigs and what weight of pigs could one throw with said pig thrower.

Then the Japanese tend to take the invention and what I would call “package it” and make it pretty. This would be, making it a piece of art, maybe slightly more functional, but definitely more pretty. So a lacquered pig thrower. Put sakura on the pig thrower. Put maybe a bow and then page it very, very tight with many levels of pretty wrappings around the pig thrower, thinking of maybe the environmental impact of said pig thrower and making sure that the pigs that go into pig thrower are specialized for the task.

This is not to say there are not exceptions to this, but I find that the general flow is like this. Let me give examples that go with and against it.

With it:
Rice was pretty much done in China first, then spread to Korea, who refined the tehniques, then it went to Japan.

Wood block printing.
First invented by the Chinese, taken by the Koreans and then the Koreans invented the first Moveable type. (It was not Gutenberg). The Japanese–I think you can say they would lacquer it, but they did refine it a bit more to make it pretty.

First invented by the Chinese, refined by the Koreans for poetry use and communication, made into an art form through Sumi-e where it was later attached to religion.

Idea by the Indians, took off in China, was refined in Korea, that version was pushed onto Japan and now you have Zen Buddhism as the end result.

Invented in China, refined in Korea (they are metal in Korea) and traditionally lacquered in Japanese. (Designer chopsticks exist).


Japanese were the first to invent pottery in East Asia. The Koreans refined these techniques quite a bit and most of the advent of pottery is actually the dialogue between these two countries until China picked up on it. The Chinese have commented that Korean pottery is quite beautiful. So in this case, it was more of a dialogue with the so-called mother country swooping to try to make their own versions. Korean pottery is very round.

Confucianism, is clearly Chinese, and it was refined by the Chinese. Then it was wholesale shipped to Korea and Japan. Not much changed in Confucianism, except where the emphasis was for each country.

Taoism kind of blended into the cultural landscape and synchronized with Buddhism in Japan. It’s not as much a religion as maybe a thought system and was adapted widely into medicinal uses. It never launched as much in Korea or Japan as it did in China for the lengthy time periods.

While Chinese did do pickling, the most evidence of pickling and the refining of pickling seems to be Korea. Korea depended much of the sauces, including soy sauce, bean paste, etc on pickling and even invented onggi, a special type of pottery just for that occasion. If you look at India, China and Japan there isn’t as much pickling as there is in Korea, and in fact it is thought that the pickling traditions of Japan came from Korea, but it never really took off anywhere else. This is why the national food of Korea is
Kimchi. But most people associate Japan with things like sushi–pickling was simply not as needed in Japan. In China, it varied by region, but because the emphasis was on salted meats and most of China’s population concentration is near shores and rivers, it probably wasn’t as practical.

On the whole, I can say generally, but not all the time, Koreans seem to have been the gateway to refining many ideas from the surrounding countries. This isn’t to say they can’t make something stunningly beautiful (the current hanbok, food plates, pottery) or can’t invent things (pickling, movable type), but that on the whole, it seems that my people liked to make inventions better. In fact, if you look at Chinese characters, Koreans on the whole invented all sorts of new hanja just because, while the Japanese tended to try to take Chinese wholesale, though there were a few changes and errors along the way.