Myeong Gwan Ok and hanji art craft, Jeju, South Korea
The open smile and warm eyes belonged to Myeong Gwan Ok (명관옥) as she greeted me on arrival at Yae Ji Won (예지원) in Bomok Village, not far from Seogwipo’s city centre. Visits to Seoul have kept Gwan Ok very busy during the last month or so. A couple of weeks ago time allowed her to share knowledge about her craft with me. Gwan Ok calls her craft Hanji Art Craft and if translated literally, one would be saying Korean paper art craft: A craft that uses paper made from the Mulberry tree.
Hanji’s road has not been a short one. Disagreement among scholars has prevailed as to exactly how, and precisely when, papermaking was introduced to the Korean peninsula. An oral history about the origin of Hanji exists but cannot be supported with documentation. Discovery of a piece of paper in an ancient tomb, Jeongbaekdong Old Tomb No. 2, left some no choice but to conclude the possibility that papermaking occurred in Korea before the 4th Century. Subsequent to this time, and during a period of high levels of trading between China and ancient Korea while King Sosurim (371-384) reigned (Goguryo Dynasty), handmade paper was imported from China to Korea. Ensuing time observed the refinement of papermaking skills in Korea.
As these skills were honed, the final product began to enjoy renown throughout Asia. From the Royal Court of the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), Buddhist scripts, medical and history books emerged on Hanji. The Joseon (1392-1910) Dynasty witnessed further development of Korea’s papermaking technique. As Hanji’s application began to become part of the daily lives of ordinary people, coloured Hanji (then possible through the use of plants such as rice straw, bamboo and pine tree bark) emerged as a popular choice. Gradually, this handmade paper became an indispensable material used for money; keeping of religious ceremonial records; doors; walls; windows; furniture; umbrellas; lanterns; boxes; baskets; fans; shoes; clothes; and flooring.
Hanji does not have the same ‘indispensible’ reputation today. However, for many, it represents an important window into Korea’s history. In China, the Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Manchu (1644-1911/12) Dynasties received much of Korea’s paper, as did Buddhist monks for the printing of religious texts. Depletion of supplies in Korea resulted. An interruption to the evolution of Hanji became more apparent during the Japanese invasion of 1592 when, by some accounts, craftsmen were taken away to Japan. Despite disruptions and depletion of supply, the tradition continued. The paper that is known by many as living paper (because the paper breathes) remained, indeed, alive.
Although still ‘alive’ during the colonisation by Japan (1910-1945) and modernisation in the early 20th century, change was inevitable. The construction of western-style paper mills and new influences began a quiet time for Hanji. Recent years have observed a rediscovery, or new era, if you like, for its application and production.
The Korean Ministry of Culture and Tourism can be said to be ‘in step’ with the idea of rediscovery. The Ministry’s recent Han Style Campaign, a campaign aiming to symbolise Korean traditional cultures including Hangeul, Hansik, Hanbok, Hanji, Hanok, and Hanguk-eumak, was launched in 2007.
The new era has served and is serving Gwan Ok well. Being able to be part of this pleases her. Gwan Ok’s relationship with Hanji began at about the same time as the political movement Minjung Misul (People’s Art) was gaining momentum in the late 1980s and also at the time when artist Park Seo-bo begun using Hanji. As these events were taking place Gwan Ok studied Korean traditional music on the mainland and she met a teacher of Korean paper art craft. During the past twenty years her mind and hands have developed her interpretation and representation of the craft. A sense of history and a very real connection with nature guides her decisions when sitting down to create pieces that find homes throughout Jeju Island and sometimes beyond the borders of Korea. “Originally I liked nature, and Hanji is similar to nature”, says Gwan Ok. Not surprisingly, a permanent move to Jeju Island held much appeal, and by the year 2000 Bomok Village had become her home.
Inspiration for her work was increasingly drawn from her new home. Gwan Ok noticed a gradual change in her selection of colours and traditional motifs that decorate pieces adorning her craft room. She says that “when I made things in Seoul the colours were very distinct and bright. Now, for many pieces, the colours are more subdued and close to nature’s colours”. Gwan Ok only wants to make things that are natural, but sometimes small concessions become a necessity. This does not detract from the belief that Hanji is special. It has a unique strength and “the air can go through the paper. When they make other paper, things are used that cause the air to become blocked” says Gwan Ok.
A sense of being blocked holds no aspiration for Gwan Ok. The idea of conducting free classes for the local community reveals her hopes. Local people who wish to make things for their homes can receive free instruction in her craft room and then, if inspired, can continue exploration of their abilities. It is agreed that this way of thinking allows the craft to continue its development.
An opportunity to benefit from Gwan Ok’s knowledge is extended to the foreign community also. Gwan Ok welcomes anyone wanting an experience to contact the writer so that a free (except for material costs) three-hour hands-on demonstration can be arranged. Participants will leave with a small piece of self-created Hanji art craft and a memorable first-hand experience about an ingredient of life on Jeju Island.
From Seogwipo City Centre, catch the number 2 bus. Look out for the very small bridge marked by yellow paint (the bus will turn right off the main road). Get off at the yellow bridge and walk back to the main road. Keep walking in the direction the bus was travelling. Eventually, on the right hand side just off the footpath you’ll reach the big rock with yellow writing 예지원 (Yae Ji Won): For those that can read Korean – no probs.). Walk up to the building – a dog will bark loudly! You’ve found it.
If you wish to telephone first (advised) then please do so, but you’ll need to speak Korean or have someone with you who does. Telephone: (064) 732 5542.
– Chris Evans