The best books to understand traditional Korean culture

Who am I?

My kids tease me that I’m the family member (Nordic-European ancestry all the way) who first became fascinated with Korean culture despite their dad having been born in Busan. (Like me, my husband was raised on bologna and French’s mustard sandwiches, not bibimbap and kimchi). My research journey led me to travel to Korea multiple times. There, I discovered the remote island of Jindo, famous for delectable seaweed, the Jindo dog, a decisive battle in which Admiral Yi Sun-shin outwitted the Japanese, as well as a mysterious land bridge that parts the sea every year. I photographed the magnificent sunset overlooking Jindo and pictured my characters there. 


I wrote...

Moonlight Dancer

By Deb Atwood,

Book cover of Moonlight Dancer

What is my book about?

Kendra JinJu MacGregor can resist neither the antique Korean doll in the dusty warehouse nor the handsome Hiro Peretti who sells it to her. Once she brings the doll home, Kendra pays little attention to misplaced objects or her beloved dog’s fear. That is, until one terrifying night forces her to question her very sanity. 

Soon, the mysterious NanJu manifests herself, and Kendra travels through time to 16th century Korea into a history of conflict and intrigue. Kendra is about to discover the dark past of her ghostly visitor. It’s up to Kendra, with Hiro by her side, to understand the past and prevent murder. Everything depends upon Kendra’s success, even—she discovers to her horror—her own life. 

The books I picked & why

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Nanjung Ilgi; War Diary of Admiral Yi Sun-sin

By Pow-key Sohn, Tae-Hung Ha (translator),

Book cover of Nanjung Ilgi; War Diary of Admiral Yi Sun-sin

Why this book?

If you want to learn about a time or a culture, I think an excellent way to start is to consult a primary source. Since I was setting my novel in the 16th century during the Japanese invasion of Korea, I wanted to learn as much as I could firsthand. This diary, written by Korea’s most famous admiral, is rich with cultural information and personal anecdotes. Admiral Yi Sun-Shin is a legendary war hero—brilliant, brave, and scrappy—whom Koreans compare to Admiral Nelson of the British Royal Navy. As I wrote my novel, I was inspired by the words of a man who accomplished greatness despite political intrigue and palace traitors, and who defeated a Japanese fleet that outnumbered his forces by 333 ships to 13. 


Art of the Korean Renaissance, 1400-1600

By Soyoung Lee,

Book cover of Art of the Korean Renaissance, 1400-1600

Why this book?

An easy and enjoyable way for me to learn about a culture is through its art. I spent hours meandering through museums and cultural sites in South Korea. What’s cool about this book is that you can do all that from the comfort of your favorite chair. This book is specific to a period of two hundred years—1400 to 1600, which happen to be the years I’m interested in. So often the Joseon era cultural books focus on the 18th century, so I was happy to find a book for the earlier years of the dynasty.  


Early Korean Literature: Selections and Introductions

By David McCann,

Book cover of Early Korean Literature: Selections and Introductions

Why this book?

Just as art offers invaluable insight into traditional culture, so does writing. Maybe I’m biased, but I think literature provides a more exact view than any other art form. I enjoy indulging myself in the mythology and poetry of this book, especially the poetry of the Joseon era. Early Korean Literature introduced me to the traditional poetic form called Sijo, which is both beautifully simple and incredibly complex. Some of my favorite examples of sijo McCann includes are from the famous kisaeng courtier Hwang Jin Yi. Her soulful poems so inspired me that I tried my hand at writing my own sijo—so much harder than it looks!—and included one in my novel. 


Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits: Women in Korean Ritual Life

By Laurel Kendall,

Book cover of Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits: Women in Korean Ritual Life

Why this book?

Because I have a mudang (Korean shaman) in my novel, I wanted to research everything I could about the shamanic tradition. Among the many sources I read, this one stands out as both informative and approachable. Shamanism in Korea is an ancient religious form, yet the custom is still honored in modern Korea, and people consult mudangs for business or personal advice even today. Laurel Kendall, a cultural anthropologist, takes readers on a journey into the lives of these remarkable women as they consult with ghosts, dispatch malign spirits, and offer advice and comfort to families. I am a believer in the power of women, especially women who navigate a patriarchal society,    


A Single Shard

By Linda Sue Park,

Book cover of A Single Shard

Why this book?

I adore this Newbery Medal book and read it with my students often. I especially love this edition because it includes the author’s Newbery Medal acceptance speech. A Single Shard features a plucky homeless orphan and the incorrigible master potter he yearns to emulate despite limitations placed on orphans by the remnants of Confucian philosophy and hierarchy. In addition to absorbing social customs of the Joseon era, readers will learn about the creation of celadon pottery that renowned Korean artisans have produced for centuries. A Single Shard is a beautiful novel I recommend for all ages.  


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Korea, Japan, and the Korean War?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Korea, Japan, and the Korean War.

Korea Explore 28 books about Korea
Japan Explore 291 books about Japan
The Korean War Explore 32 books about the Korean War

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like China, Korea & Japan at War, 1592-1598: Eyewitness Accounts, The Book of Corrections: Reflections on the National Crisis During the Japanese Invasion of Korea, 1592-1598, and Immovable Object: North Korea's 70 Years at War with American Power if you like this list.