Traditional Art of Sign-Carving: Chips off Very Old Blocks

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Traditional Art of Sign-Carving: Chips off Very Old Blocks

The "Palmandaejanggyeong," or Tripitaka Koreana, is a set of 80,000 wooden printing blocks upon which is carved the Buddhist sutra. The Tripitaka dates to the Koryo dynasty (918-1392) and is on UNESCO's World Heritage List as one of the world's important cultural assets.

Koreans, to say the least, are very proud of these artifacts, kept at Haeinsa temple in South Kyongsang province, because they demonstrate Koreans' use of printing technology long ago.

Numerous inscriptions in stone and calligraphic-style carvings adorning old buildings all over the country are testament to a particular Korean knack for carving. But this craft has been on the wane since the early 20th century, and on the rare occasion when a professional woodblock carver is needed, finding one is quite difficult. But one master of carving letters on wooden plates or stone - a gakja-jang - continues the tradition.

Oh Ok-jin comes from a family that has handed down the art of carving over four generations. He used to earn his living as a repairman, but was drawn to Korean traditional culture while repairing some old furniture, and set about learning to carve letters (gakja in Korean). He also studied Chinese classics and calligraphy, as knowledge of both is essential to letter carving.

By adapting what he learned from the masters of calligraphy to carving, he created his own style of traditional carving. In 1979, after much effort, he succeeded in recreating the wooden plates of the "Hunminjeongeum," a book of the Choson dynasty about the Korean alphabet (Hangeul) and its usage. This achievement has been cited as a remarkable feat.

Carving letters requires patience and a careful touch. Watching Mr. Oh at work imparts the degree of difficulty involved. He has lost the upper third of his right index finger. He has not been able to bend two fingers on his left hand since damaging the nerves while working with a knife and a hammer.

According to Mr. Oh, dexterity with a knife does not make a good carver. "Gakja is not just glorified seal engraving," he said, comparing his work with the more everyday job in Korea of engraving personal stamps for signatures. "It is not a job of carving letters mechanically but of interpreting each letter in a creative way. A carver should know how to arrange each letter to fit a particular plate."

His favorite carving medium is the wood of a pine tree that has grown tall and straight in the sun and is then felled and dried in the shade for five or six years. He attaches a paper pattern of his design to a block of the wood after it has been filed and begins to carve.

The basic techniques of carving are engraving - cutting the letters into the wood, and embossing - carving the letters in relief. Engraving involves adapting technique to achieve various effects. For instance, carving angular Chinese characters (in Korean, yeseo) requires bold, wide, and quite quick movements of the knife. A printed style (haeseo) needs a light, slow touch. Semi-cursive (haengseo) and cursive (choseo) require a very quick touch. As for carving Korean letters (Hangeul), it is important to add liveliness to every stroke of each letter. Korean letters, though they look very simple, said Mr. Oh, are the most difficult to carve. Engraved wood boards are used mainly as signboards or nameplates.

Embossing requires a similar technique, but because embossed plates are usually used for printing, the carver must pay particular attention to spacing and, of course, remember to carve each letter backward.

Mr. Oh has created wood signboards for such famous traditional buildings as Gyoengbok palace, Changgyeong palace, Songgwangsa temple and Hwaeomsa temple. He has also produced signboards for contemporary buildings, such as the Independence Hall of Korea and Hyeonchungsa, a shrine built in honor of the renowned Admiral Lee Sun-sin.

Mr. Oh is recognized as a cultural asset by the government, and his carving style, which combines the modern and traditional, is considered unique. He has even created his own trademark style of writing, which adapts the oldest extant Chinese characters (found on "oracle bones" and turtle carapaces dating to around 1,400 B.C.) into letters that resemble human figures.

These days, Mr. Oh does not accept private orders except those from the government. Instead, he is creating his own artistic achievements. Currently, Mr. Oh and his son are carving samples of the calligraphy of 200 contemporary master calligraphers.

by Lee Chul-jae

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