Ancient paper-making art won’t fold anytime soon

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Ancient paper-making art won’t fold anytime soon

GAPYEONG, Gyeonggi
Paper can survive millenia, as ancient Egyptian papyrus reveals to us, and its longevity has been valuable in communicating the past. Hanji, Korea’s own form of paper, has existed for over 1,600 years. Though its importance in everyday life has long faded, it continues to be highly regarded for its quality and durability.
Up to the 1960s, hanji was widely found in paintings, furniture, crafts, clothing and houses. Because brush strokes appear deep and refined on its finely textured surface, calligraphers and other painters select it as a medium for their work.
“Hanji is valued more for its durability than for anything else,” says Jang Yong-hoon, 69, the master craftsman of Jangjibang, one of Korea’s few remaining hanji makers (for which he’s earned the government honor “Cultural Asset No. 16.”).
“The fibers can last a millenium and the surface will remain smooth and intact, not deteriorating at all,” Mr. Jang says. “It is because of this that hanji is still highly sought after.”
Mr. Jang, a tall, lanky man with a maroon beret, has a face that alternates between weariness and sternness. Bits and pieces of paper fiber are sprinkled over his contemporary-styled hanbok, his hair and even his cheeks and chin. More than perhaps anyone on the peninsula, he is a man who ― quite literally ― breathes, eats and sleeps hanji.
The superiority of his paper, he says, derives more from the production process than the raw material ― the bark of mulberry trees ― that goes into it.
With his two sons, Mr. Jang spends most of his day toiling in the high-ceilinged workshop, a small factory, which also doubles as the family homestead.
The process, as he demonstrates, is laborious, time-consuming ― and unchanged from the method used in centuries past.
First, bark from the mulberry tree, whose branches are cut between October and March ― are boiled in lye for five to six hours. Washing the resulting fiber mesh iin water several times, which removes impurities, comes next. The fibers are then fed into an oversized mixer, which mashes and crushes them for another five minutes.
Afterward, fibers are carefully mixed with water containing roots of takpul grass, he explains. The grass releases gluten, a substance that ensures an even mix of the crushed fiber. This ultimately enhances the hanji’s durability.
At this point the craftsman displays his skill. Mr. Jang strains the fibers by shaking a wooden frame back and forth to create a criss-crossed pattern, forming a wet sheet of fibers.
“Using the right strokes, say swaying the frame at the right angle, helps to smooth the fiber paper,” explains Mr. Jang.
Then he piles together the soaked sheets and compresses them to let the water out. After the pile dries for three to four hours, Mr. Jang delicately separates each fibrous paper from those attached to it, and places them on a steamed iron wall to complete the drying. The paper is pounded a bit more to smooth its surface before it ends up on the shop shelves.
All told, the hanji-making process needs 10 days from start to finish. In one day, from 500 to 800 hanji of differing sizes can be produced.
Because of the painstaking measures involved, most manufacturers resort to chemicals to attain a similar result. But Mr. Jang feels that its impact is tested by time. “If I used chemicals in any of the processes of making hanji, the paper would die before me. I don’t want to outlive what I create.
“There’s an old saying that to make paper, one has to use one’s hands a hundred times,” he notes. “That’s exactly the way it should be.”
Jeonju, in North Jeolla province, was regarded as Korea’s center for hanji manufacturing, but activity there has all but disappeared. Cho Hyeong-gyun, head of a hanji guild, believes only a handful of workshops adhering to the genuine Korean method exist. That may be a historical low. During the 1950s and 1960s, production thrived, as hanji was regularly used to cover walls and ceilings of traditional homes known as hanok, and for government documents. The decline in the 1970s, Mr. Jang says, occurred during the nation’s modernization campaign, and aside from a brief blip in popularity in the early 1980s, when Mr. Jang appeared on TV and papers, it has faded into obscurity.
Originally from Jeolla province, Mr. Jang settled in Gapyeong due to the abundant mulberry trees. Jangjibang (literally “Jang’s paper shop”) sells hanji of all sizes and colors ― but from the shop only.
“We don’t distribute through Insa-dong because merchants will make us cut our prices,” explains Jang Gap-jin, the youngest of Mr. Jang’s four sons. “We cost three times more than hanji imported from China, but because of the care that goes into what we make, we can’t afford to slash our prices or shoot for mass production.”
Customers must trek to Gapyeong to buy Mr. Jang’s precious paper. Not surprisingly, most of his clients are artists or calligraphers.
Rim Hyo, a professor of oriental art at Hongik University, has been a client of Mr. Jang’s for more than a decade.
“Jangjibang produces the finest hanji you can find in Korea,” he says. “Mr. Jang displays a strong sense of pride in his craftsmanship by adhering to the traditional techniques. I’ve visited his workshop and seen how he makes paper and I know he’s an honest artisan.”
On weekdays, no more than half a dozen people visit the workshop, which is not reachable without a car. But on weekends, boisterous groups of schoolchildren on field trips pour in for a firsthand lesson on this ancient craft.
“My father always said, ‘When you die, bequeath paper,’ and I have abided by that philosophy,” Mr. Jang says.
He has lived by his father’s trade for over five decades and two of his sons now plan to continue the family tradition. In the past, Mr. Jang has been invited to Japan, France and the United States to exhibit his work.
Mr. Jang cannot adopt mass production. “We make little and sell little, but that’s our capacity for manufacturing the right way.” With a chuckle, he says “I’ve not made much money selling hanji, but someone’s got to preserve the old way of making hanji and that just so happens to be me.”


by Choi Jie-ho

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