Remembering Korea’s best-known calligrapher

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Remembering Korea’s best-known calligrapher

What makes the Korean language unique is that the Korean script, hangeul, is used along with Chinese characters. For centuries, Korean scholars considered it intellectually and culturally important to master Chinese characters. The tradition continues today, as it is mandatory for Korean students to learn 1,800 characters during their six-year secondary education.
To inspire young students, the tale of Han Ho, one of the most celebrated calligraphers in Korean history, is told: The aspiring young calligrapher became arrogant about his skills at school. His mother then asked him to write in the dark while she sliced rice cake next to him. When light returned, he saw that his mother had sliced the cake perfectly while his work was sloppy, and realized that he was far from being the best. Han Ho later became the principal calligrapher in the Joseon royal court.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of the calligrapher, also known as Han Seok-bong (1543-1605), who left behind some of the earliest Korean versions of “The Thousand Character Classic,” known as “Cheonjamun” in Korean.
The commemorative exhibition “Haneul Cheon Tta Ji: The Korean Thousand Character Classic,” which opened yesterday at the Seoul Calligraphy Museum in the Seoul Arts Center, showcases the belated appreciation of the calligrapher whose life was dedicated to the Korean language and chronicles the evolution of the language through more than 100 original calligraphy works and prints made from ancient wood blocks.
“The Thousand Character Classic” is a Chinese poem used as a primer for teaching Chinese characters to children in the old days. It is said that Emperor Wo of Liang county (502-556) in the Southern Dynasty period made the scholar Zhou Xingsi compose this poem for his son, the prince, to practice calligraphy. It is composed of 250 phrases of four characters each, from “Tian Di Xu Hung” to “Yan Zai Hu Ye.”
In ancient Korea, Chinese characters, or hanja, were the sole means of writing until King Sejong invented the hangeul script in the 15th century. Although the use of hanja gradually decreased, Korean scholars continued to write in Chinese characters until the early 20th century.
The Korean version of “The Thousand Character Classic” combined Chinese characters with the phonetics and meaning in hangeul. The “Classic” began to be used as a writing primer for children in the late 15th century, when King Seonjo ordered Han Ho to carve the text into wood blocks.
The title of the exhibition, “Haneul Cheon Tta Ji,” is in fact the first two characters ― heaven read as “cheon,” earth read as “ji” in Korean ― in the poem. “Haneul Cheon Tta Ji” is also a popular term that Koreans affectionately use to refer to the study of Chinese characters.
The Korean “Cheonjamun” is more than a list of Chinese characters. It is a series of verses detailing important events, seasons, farming and ethics taught in ancient China. Ancient Koreans believed that the poem was an ideal comprehensive textbook, teaching the significance of literature and language, which was important in the maturation of a person’s character. Also influential in the use of Chinese characters in the Korean language were the teachings of Buddhism here.
Lee Dong-guk, the curator of the exhibition, says it offers a close look at the evolution of the Korean language. “Because both hangeul and hanja are still used and are important, we wanted to have the audience be part of it through various events,” he said.
The exhibition includes a 15-minute animated film incorporating Chinese characters and the writing of the 1,000 characters by visitors to the museum. On Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m., a Korean dance troupe, Yeoulmok, performs live for 20 minutes, under the title “Mo Bei Si Ran.” The verse is from “The Thousand Character Classic,” and is roughly translated as “White paper tainted with ink/Sadness sweeps the heart.”


by Ines Cho

The exhibition runs until Sept. 19. The Seoul Calligraphy Museum is located in the Seoul Arts Center in southern Seoul. The museum is open from 11 a.m to 6 p.m. daily except Mondays. Admission is 5,000 won ($5) for adults, 4,000 won for students and 1,000 won for children. For information, visit the Web site, www.sac.or.kr.

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