Encyclopedia of Gerontology and Population Aging

Living Edition
| Editors: Danan Gu, Matthew E. Dupre

Longevity in Korean Culture

  • Yun Jin KimEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-69892-2_916-1


Korean traditional culture regards longevity as one of the five blessed items leading to a healthy and happy life. This culture has its root in Confucianism. Because of this tradition, the perception that living in Korea is a good thing for a long time is widespread. Korean traditional food is an indispensable part of Korean culture which has many symbolic meanings, for many international scholars and researchers have attempted to understand the origin of traditional Korean foods by analyzing Korean traditional culture and longevity. A commonly used symbol of longevity is Ship Jang Saeng, which is found only in Korea. This pattern is an important part of Korean decorative art tradition and is used in everything, from Korean traditional folk paintings and folding screens to embroidered decorations on fabrics for all kinds of uses in daily Korean traditional life.


The human desire to live long and postpone death has a long human history. In modern times, population longevity, as measured by the statistical dates of life expectancy, is taken as a measure of a nation’s progress and development (Cevenini et al. 2008). To prolong lives or to reduce mortality is a prominent goal of public health research (Mason 1999). Longevity is an interesting and important part for gerontologists and for demographers, actuaries, and the public (Garvrillov et al. 2017).

Korean Food Culture and Longevity

Koreans’ greater longevity is attributed to lower average body mass index (BMI) and well-controlled blood pressure compared to that of their counterparts in other countries (Yoon and Oh 2017). While a longer life expectancy could be attributed to the Korean nutritional diet in part, other experts suggest the contributions of spicy Kimchi (a basic ingredient from cabbage, which is high in probiotics and vitamins A and B) and small dishes from fresh vegetables and fishes (Park et al. 2014).

Traditional food has many symbolic meanings; it not only expresses but also establishes the relationship between people and their environment as well as between people and their view of longevity (Ma 2015). Many researchers have attempted to understand the Korean food culture and the origin of traditional Korean foods by analyzing Korean traditional culture and longevity (Jang et al. 2015).

Common Korean cuisine is impressively rich in the large number of small dishes, called Han Jeong Sik (韩定食). The extravagant Korean cuisine menu adheres to its Korean cultural tradition called love and kindness, which brings them health and good nutrition (Lois et al. 2000). The presentation of a dish is based on the number of small dishes to be prepared, ranging from 3 to 12. The value placed on laying a course menu at a mealtime based on a three-layered structure is deeply embedded in the life and philosophy of Korean, called Gil Su(吉数) or Shin Seong Su (神圣数), in which the harmony of heaven, earth, and human is deeply rooted in Korean traditional three-rule culture (三元文化) related from Zhouyi (周易) (Shin 2018), which had a deep influence during the Chosun Dynasty (Kim et al. 2016).

The essence of traditional Korean cooking is the idea that food has medicinal properties (Han et al. 2015). Korean traditional food is the same as that of other traditional cultures in that the vitality of nature is permeated with simple healthiness of food (Choe and Hong 2018). In Ancient Korea, people were taught the importance of food with the expression “medicine and food come from the same source (药食同源)” (Koh 2003), meaning that food is medicine. Most Koreans recognize the medicinal properties in a variety of traditional Korean foods and beverages such as local fruits, seasonings and spices, and liquors. Korean traditional medicine has long been an important part of Korean culture, known as “Han Yak (韩药),” and it is often thought to be associated with folk remedies (Lee 2015). The Yin and Yang doctrine, which is the over-arching principle behind Korea folk medicine, is still used as a theoretical tool for understanding and explaining the clinical experience and longevity in Korea (Lee 2014).

This strong belief is based on the natural powers of Yin and Yang and the five elements (五行) – wood, fire, earth, metal, and water (Dashtdar et al. 2016). Undoubtedly, traditional Korean foods and Korean traditional medicine have strong roots in Confucianism. This belief treats humans as products of nature; thus, it is necessary for us to absorb and depend on the blessings of nature (Yoo 2010). Through long term development and living practices, the Chinese ancients recognized that wood, fire, earth, metal, and water are five indispensable, basic material elements of nature. The ancients summarized them as the “five materials”, and it was deducted that everything in the real world is produced by the motions among and variations of these five basic material elements. The five elements theory is that the material world can be kept in a dynamically balanced stats through these relationships (Ma et al. 2014). Therefore, five element theory is respect to cognizing human physiology and pathology patterns, and health is achieved by including natural green (wood), red (fire), yellow (earth), white (metal), and black (water) present in the gradients’ in equal amounts in the diet. This diet displays the colors of all five elements. It means that with each meal, all gifts of nature should be included for a healthy life. The expression of these beliefs in Korean foods can still be seen in the modern Korean food style. This style is also evident in another similar popular Korean cuisine called Ku Jeol Pan (九折坂), an imperial course dish of the Chosun Dynasty, in which nine ingredients are present. Served from eight different colored ingredients put in each item from the eight surrounding sections with white colored ingredients put in the center section, this cuisine is included in the menu for events celebrating happy occasions and long life (Chung 2015).

Of all the healthy Korean cuisine currently in Korea, the most popular longevity and healthy cuisine undoubtedly is Korea temple food (Han and Lee 2017), which is prepared by Buddhist nuns and monks who represent the oldest and the most traditional vegetarian cuisine in Korea. In general, the Korea temple food is characterized by avoidance of food of animal origin, except milk products; five pungent vegetables, such as garlic, Welsh onion, chives, and others; alcohol; and high amounts of processed food (Pan et al. 1993). Recently, interest has been in the nutritional and medicinal effects of the traditional temple food of Korean Buddhism. This interest was prompted by the observation that monks and nuns were better in general health and showed a longer average life span than the general population (Kim et al. 2006). A brief survey monitoring the research showed that, most Korean seniors enjoyed typical Korean cuisine, especially multigrain rice and fermented foods like soybean paste. These foods have low GI and high dietary fiber content that prevent metabolic diseases. The seniors in the survey regularly ate a balanced diet three times a day (Chung and Kim 2012). These traditional fermented foods might have played a role in complementation of nutritional balance for the vegetable-based dietary pattern, which thus may have contributed to a considerable level for enhancing longevity in Korea.

Korean Traditional Art Painting and Longevity

In Korea, traditional art paintings explain the desired harmony with nature and contribute to a healthy life (I 2018). It is one of the supreme values of Korean and Chinese Daoism, standing in contrast to the other worldly obsessions with the religions that originated in South Asia (Yim 2002). It is the main goal of Korea’s indigenous Shin Seon Sa Sang (神仙思想, Spirit God Immortal Ideology) or Ship Jang Saeng (十长生, Ten Symbols of Longevity) which are creative, and related with Buddhism, Shamanism, Confucianism, Folk-culture, and other traditions (Shin 2012). This set forms a very important part of the Korean decorative art tradition, and is used in everything from Korean traditional folk paintings and folding screens to embroidered decorations on fabrics for all kinds of uses in daily Korean traditional life (Mason 2019). The Koreans enjoy a robustly healthy and long life in wise harmony with nature as long as possible, which is a key ideal throughout Korean traditional longevity culture.

The ten symbols of longevity in Korea’s tradition mean that the whole universe wishes for long life and health. (1) The sun means a constant source of light, warming energy from heaven, and the sun gives an active, nourished, and healthy life. (2) The mountains seem to keep their shapes forever. In ancient Korea and China, important state rituals were conducted in the mountains, and the dominant mountain peak became the emblem of the emperor. (3) The water is the Daoist symbol of infinite flexibility of flowing form that avoids harm and destruction. (4) The clouds sustain long life, contain the Daoist Qi, or breath of life. (5) The deer is frequently shown as the companion of the Daoist god of longevity. The use of deer horns in traditional medicine increases human health and vitality. (6) Mushrooms, regarded in Daoism as “immortals,” bring eternal life to those who eat them; thus, they are also used in common traditional medicine. (7) The pine tree is one of the common symbols of longevity in Korea and China; it stands for resilience, endurance, and strength against adversity. (8) The cranes live for a long time. It is the mate of life, and thus symbolizes harmony, a wish for a long marriage and respect for one’s parents and ancestors. In Daoism, the crane symbolizes transcendence and serves as a means of transport to heaven. (9) The bamboo symbolizes long life, because it remains green throughout the four seasons. (10) The turtle stands for long life span. In Korean mythology, the turtle is a messenger of good news (Philadelphia Museum of Art 2018). These symbols are found in many kinds of Korean traditional arts, including ceramics, furniture, and paintings (Mason 1999).


Human longevity is a complex and multidimensional trait, the study of which has become an issue in previous years because of the increase in the number of people over the age of 65 or 80 years in the world. Becoming aged, for example, has been seen as a sign of divine favor or validation of bodily practices. In modern times, human longevity, as measured by statistical estimates of life expectancy, is taken as a measure of nations’ progress and development. The promotion of longevity, principally through reduced mortality at younger ages, is a prominent goal of public health research. Other measures are higher education, advances in economic and social and political status, and lower road-traffic-induced accident rates. These improve prevention and survival rates from serious diseases. As such it is suggested that longevity could be achieved by the interaction of many different values, which are actively interacting and compensating (Park 2012). These compensating and balancing mechanisms of longevity may be useful to explain the recent trend in knowledge in the increasing human longevity (Kwon and Park 2015).



  1. Cevenini E, Invidia L, Lescai F et al (2008) Human models of aging and longevity. Expert Opin Biol Ther 8(9):1393–1405.  https://doi.org/10.1517/14712598.8.9.1393CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Choe SY, Hong JH (2018) Can information positively influence familiarity and acceptance of a novel ethinic food? A case study of Korean traditional foods for Malaysian consumers. J Sens Stud 33(3):312327.  https://doi.org/10.1111/joss.12327CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Chung HK (2015) The meaning and symbolism of Korean food culture. Asia Rev 5:97–121.  https://doi.org/10.24987/SNUACAR.2015. Scholar
  4. Chung HK, Kim MH (2012) Study on food culture of Koreans over 80-years-old living in Goorye and Gokseong. Korean J Food Cult 27(2):142–156.  https://doi.org/10.7318/KJFC/2012.27.2.142CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Dashtdar M, Dashtdar MR, Dashtdar B et al (2016) The concept of wind in traditional Chinese medicine. J Pharmacopuncture 19(4):293–302.  https://doi.org/10.3831/KPI.2016.19.030CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Garvrillov LA, Krut’ko VN, Garvrillova NS (2017) The future of human longevity. Gerontology 63(6):524–526.  https://doi.org/10.1159/000477965CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Han SJ, Lee SY (2017) A study on dietary behavior and food preference of Sramanera-Sramanerika Monks in Nationawide Buddhist Monk’s universities. Korean J Commun Nutr 22(5):387–400.  https://doi.org/10.5720/kjcn.2017.22.5.387CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Han SY, Kim SH,m Han SY, Han YR, et al (2015) Systematic review on the Yaksun study. J Physiol Pathol Korean Med. 29(4): 295-304.  https://doi.org/10.15188/kjopp.2015. Scholar
  9. I LF (2018) Ideal Wonderland: Korean “Eight views of Xiao-Xiang” poems and Folk Patings in Joseon Dynasty. J Korean Lit 38:7–27Google Scholar
  10. Jang DJ, Yang HJ, Chung KR et al (2015) Discussion on the origin of Kimchi, representative of Korean unique fermented vegetables. J Ethn Food 2:126–136.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jef.2015.08.005CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Kim H, Song MJ, Potter D (2006) Medicinal efficacy of plants utilized as temple food in traditional Korean Buddhism. J Ethnopharmacol 104(1-2):32–46.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jep.2005.08.041CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Kim SH, Kim MS, Lee MS et al (2016) Korean diet: characteristics and historical background. J Ethn Food 3:26–31.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jef.2016.03.002CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Koh KH (2003) A study of food culture in Korean folk painting in Chosun period. J Korean Soc Food Cult 18:211–225Google Scholar
  14. Kwon IS, Park SC (2015) Gender-specific and age-dependent changes in health status and medical characteristics of Korean centenarians. Korean J Gerontol 15:10–25Google Scholar
  15. Lee CY (2014) Understanding the Yin-Yang Doctrine of Korean medicine as a metaphor. J Physiol Pathol Korean Med 28(5):465–477Google Scholar
  16. Lee T (2015) The integration of Korean medicine in South Korea. Acupunct Med 33(2):96–97.  https://doi.org/10.1136/acupmed-2015-010796CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Lois L, Lynn MS, Keum JK et al (2000) Korean elderly. J Nutr Elder 19(2):1–15.  https://doi.org/10.1300/J052v19n2_01CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Ma G (2015) Food, eating behaviour, and culture in Chinese society. J Ethin Food 2:195–199.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jef.2015.11.004CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Ma ZM, Jia CH, Guo J, et al (2014) Features analysis of Five-element theory and its basal effects on construction of visceral manifestation theory. J Tradit Chin Med 34(1):115–121CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Mason DA (1999) Spirit of the mountains: Korea’s San-Shin and traditions of mountain-worship. Hallym International Corp, SeoulGoogle Scholar
  21. Mason DA (2019) Ship-jangsaeng the twelve “Ten symbols of longevity” widely used in Korea’s traditional paintings. http://www.san-shin.org/Ship-jangsaeng_Longevity-1.html. Accessed 12 Feb 2019
  22. Pan WH, Chin CJ, Sheu CT et al (1993) Hemostatic factors and blood lipids in young Buddhist vegetarians and omnivores. Am J Clin Nutr 58:354–359CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Park SC (2012) Comprehensive approach for studying longevity in Korean centenarians. Asian J Gerontol Geriatr 7:33–38Google Scholar
  24. Park KY, Jeong JK, Lee YE et al (2014) Health benefits of kimchi (Korean fermented vegetables) as a probiotic food. J Med Food 17(1):6–20.  https://doi.org/10.1089/jmf.2013.3083CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Available via https://www.philamuseum.org/exhibitions/795.html?page=1. Assessed 18 Nov 2018
  26. Shin HR (2012) How culture and economy meet in South Korea: the politics of cultural economy in culture-led Urban regeneration. Int J Urban Reg Res 37(5):1707–1723.  https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2427.2012.01161.xCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Shin JW (2018) A study of the 6 yao structure in Zhouyi through the perspectives of system theory-focusing on the relationship of Heaven, Eath, Man. J Humanit 36:79–111Google Scholar
  28. Yim HS (2002) Cultural identity and cultural policy in South korea. Int J Cult Policy 8(1):37–48.  https://doi.org/10.1080/10286630290032422CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Yoo YS (2010) Traditional oriental medicine and integrative Medicine. Hanyang Med Rev 30(2):142–147CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Yoon YS, Oh SW (2017) Recent shift of body mass index distribution in Korea: a population-based Korea National Health Insurance Database, 2002–2013. J Korean Med Sci 32(3):434–438.  https://doi.org/10.3346/jkms.2017.32.3.434CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Xiamen University MalaysiaKuala LumpurMalaysia

Section editors and affiliations

  • Danan Gu
    • 1
  1. 1.Population Division, Department of Economic and Social AffairsUnited NationsNew YorkUSA