In-creasing confidenceFollowing the lead of an origami teacher, 700 pregnant mothers fold, cut and paste colored paper in the lecture hall of a YWCA building in central Seoul.
“I heard origami is good for the mother and also that it builds up children’s intelligence,” says Lee Yeon-hwa, who is expecting to give birth within 10 days.
Word has spread among Korean mothers that origami assists children’s education and helps stave off old-age dementia.
The Korea Jongie Jupgi Association, an origami organization, estimates there are 100,000 origami instructors across the peninsula, many of whom regularly appear at prenatal training classes.
But origami can offer much more. The handicapped, homeless, orphans and even North Korean defectors have reported finding strength when creating origami, and at least 300 origami instructors nationwide volunteer their origami-making skills to the needy.
Lee In-suk, an origami instructor for 13 years, has volunteered at an institute for the blind every week.
“It may be hard to believe, but the blind are not much different from other students,” says Ms. Lee. “I instruct both normal and blind people the same way.”
After teaching the blind awhile and learning how good they were with their hands, Ms. Lee said she believed that life was fair.
“I thought they (the blind) had been endowed with the gift of extraordinary tactile senses, but later I cried when I realized that the blind underwent enormous trial and error to acquire those senses,” says Ms. Lee.
The blind appear passionate when folding the fine, colored papers, she adds. “Although the origami was limited to simple objects such as flowers and boxes, after completing one piece of origami they were filled with joy. They were thrilled because of the confidence they had gained creating something on their own.”
Among the blind there are even some who take the challenge of passing the certification exam to become an origami instructor.
Teaching origami to the blind can be difficult because the instructor must speak continuously and slowly throughout the class.
But Ms. Lee insists she will continue working with them. It is hard for Ms. Lee to forget these students, who feel the origami they created are so precious.
Paper-folding teacher Lee Sang-eun has visited Hanawon, the government-run orientation center for North Korean defectors, every other week since last summer.
According to Ms. Lee, one of the best ways to comfort a North Korean defector is to teach them the ancient art of paper-folding.
“Every single North Korean at Hanawon has a hard expression on their face,” says Ms. Lee. “At first I was so scared while teaching them origami that I couldn’t hold my head up straight.”
A group of North Koreans in their 20s finally broke the awkwardness by cracking some jokes.
“Since then I have become very close to the North Korean defectors, and I learned that they were really pure and innocent at heart,” says the 40-year old.
During class, every North Korean listened raptly to her instructions and indulged in their origami studies. Ms. Lee said an old woman once thanked her for letting her create something by folding papers; it was her first time doing it, she told Ms. Lee, as paper was so precious in North Korea.
“I felt a pang in my heart and I felt the North and the South becoming as one,” says Ms. Lee. “Something hot was burning inside me.”
They folded, but still did well enough to win crown
From morning to night, the boys at the Cheongju Correctional Institute for juveniles fiddled with colored paper. They must have folded for 10 hours a day.
Only a few days remained before the origami competition, so the boys did not mind logging the extra hours. Usually, the boys would kick a soccer ball around in the afternoon ― but not this day. Not when they had found a purpose to their pursuit.
The entrance deadline for the national paper-folding competition for middle and high school students, sponsored by the Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development, was inching ever closer. One day before the June 20 deadline, 10 boys from the reformatory completed their work and submitted it.
Ten days later they were ecstatic after learning they had won the grand prize of the competition. Lee Yong-gu, their teacher, shared the joyful experience with them.
None of the judges knew that the institution has a second name, Mipyeong Middle-High School, the name under which the boys’ work was submitted. None of them knew that the prize-winning origami was folded by society’s outcasts.
When Ms. Lee first met the youthful delinquents three years ago, she was accompanied by a guard. Scissors were removed from the room for safety’s sake.
“In the beginning I felt as if we were going nowhere,” recalls Ms. Lee. “Then I began to interact with the boys ― I scolded them, I praised them and slowly the wall between us broke down. Then I gave them the scissors.”
In February 2002, she decided they should enter competition. It took one month to persuade school officials and complete the necessary paperwork, while she personally covered expenses.
She still remembers a note one of her pupils wrote late last year before his release. It read: “I felt you were a mother to us, rather than a teacher. Please wear some heavy clothing, the weather is pretty cold.”
The note was tucked in among storks that she and the boys had folded at the start of her class. Paper storks.
A controversy colors historical paper chase
How did Koreans come up with colored paper?
To find an answer to this question, this reporter flew over to the American Museum of Papermaking at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.
At the museum, three documents by Dard Hunter (1883 to 1966), an American scholar and authority on papermaking, were reviewed.
As a researcher, Mr. Hunter journeyed to Asia several times in 1933, visiting paper manufacturers in Korea, China and Japan. In his autobiography “My Life With Paper,” Mr. Hunter writes: “Koreans are the first ones in the world to dye textiles, the raw materials of paper, with natural colors,” while the Chinese invented paper in the first place.
Mr. Hunter writes confidently, but there is little if any proof to back up his theories. Kim Jung-tae, an official with the Pan Asia Paper Museum in Jeonju, supports Mr. Hunter. “What Dard Hunter says is the textbook in the world of papermaking. Provided that there are no facts to rebut his theories, we have no choice but to trust his authority.”
But here is Yu Gwang-ryeol at Hansol Patech, a Korean paper manufacturing company, with a different perspective: “It is a universal belief that dyeing technology moved from China to Korea along with the introduction of paper.”
One thing is clear: Korean papermaking was among the best on earth, according to academics in this esoteric field. Kim Gyeong-ho, a historian specializing in the study of Korean paper, says, “It’s in fact impossible to trace back the exact time when Koreans started to dye paper.”
Kim Yeong-bok, another scholar, voices accord. “Koreans grafted dyeing together with religious culture, which spurred the art of dyeing to its zenith. Korean dyeing culture developed alongside the transcription of Buddhist scriptures. Mantra Sutra in Silver on Indigo Paper, a National Treasure, is one such example. The natural dye on this piece of paper prevented this cultural asset from being consumed by moths.”
by Son Min-ho
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