Festival relives pottery’s glory yearsThe birthplace of the exquisite jade-colored pottery known as Goryeo celadon is the town of Gangjin, South Jeolla province, where pottery-making flourished during the Goryeo dynasty (918 to 1392). To this day, about four-fifths of all celadon pottery exhibited in museums worldwide emerged from kilns in the vicinity of Gangjin.
Those visiting Gangjin during the first week of August have a chance to try their hand at fashioning celadon. Since the launch of the Gangjin Celadon Cultural Festival years ago, it has grown into one of Korea’s most popular festivals, attracting 700,000 visitors last year.
More than 80 events are planned this year under the theme “Earth, Fire and Human Being,” among them exhibitions, dances, traditional and contemporary music concerts and hands-on workshops.
With the help of experts, tourists can learn to mix clay before crafting pottery on a wheel and firing it up. The pottery-making process begins by kneading the clay, sculpting a form, then baking it in a kiln at a temperature of 800 degrees centigrade (1470 Fahrenheit). The hardened clay is removed to be engraved or painted, then baked again at 1300 degrees centigrade.
Along the way, pieces with imperfections are destroyed; the ones that survive are appreciated that much more. This time-consuming process usually takes 70 days.
In addition to pottery-related events, festival organizers have arranged for tourists to get a taste of life during the Goryeo era by sampling cuisine and donning traditional costumes. Performances include outdoor theater and circus acts, the lion dance and mask dances.
Celadon production during Goryeo times was not limited to Gangjin. Initially, Korean potters were influenced by Chinese techniques and styles. But by the time King Yejong ascended to power around 1105, the peninsula’s craftsmen had developed a style of their own: plain and undecorated.
Later on, during King Uijong’s reign (1146 to 1170), inlaying, the use of paints made from iron, copper and gold, and iron and black glazes flourished. Celadon began its long decline after the Mongol invasion in the early 13th century.
It was during the Goryeo dynasty that Gangjin rose to prominence on account of the elegant celadon produced there. Nurturing this delicate art form were the area’s proximity to the sea and to China, the mild climate and abundance of clay and firewood. But along with the death of Goryeo celadon in most of Korea, Gangjin’s kilns also fell silent for centuries.
The turnaround in Gangjin began in 1977, when a new kiln was built to begin reclaiming Gangjin’s heritage. Today, one can find a museum here devoted to the craft, as well as pottery artisans who use techniques from the Goryeo period. Nearly half of the 400 kilns in existence across Korea can be found in and around Gangjin.
by Joe Yong-hee
For more information, visit the Web site at www.gangjinfes.or.kr (Korean only). The Korea National Tourism Organization site (www.knto.or.kr) offers some information in English.