Men with poetry in their handsIn the field of traditional Korean architecture, there are two masters. One is Shin Eung-su, 64; the other is Choi Gi-young, 62.
There is an old Korean proverb, which said that master carpenters make good government ministers. The work of these two men suggests the proverb is true. In the superficially trivial act of hammering nails and sawing wood they are pursuing a grand design with profound implications for Korea’s heritage. Mr. Shin is currently working on a major restoration project at Gyeongbok Palace, in which the government has invested more than 179 billion won ($192 million). Mr. Choi is general director of reconstruction at a Baikje dynasty palace in Buyeo, South Chungcheong province, a project that will cost well over 500 billion won.
In 1984, Mr. Shin received a phone call from a secretary at the Samsung Group. He was asked to oversee the construction of Seungjiwon, a traditional guesthouse that the company chairman wanted built near his residence in Hannam-dong.
Mr. Shin, who was 42 at the time, refused, saying he was not qualified for such a major project, especially because his teachers were still alive, but the secretary was not prepared to accept that answer. “They told me that Chairman Lee Byeong-cheol [father of the current Samsung chairman] had personally selected me to work on the project,” he said.
Mr. Shin found he could no longer refuse the assignment and he became the chief director of construction for Seungjiwon.
As the project came to an end, a person from Samsung visited Mr. Shin to offer him an envelope. It was a ‘gratitude fee.’
“The chairman wanted me to pass on these words,” the functionary said. “This is not the company’s money, but his own.”
The news of the gift spread quickly among other carpenters specializing in traditional Korean architecture. Rumors multiplied, some saying that Mr. Shin had received a blank check from the chairman.
“That wasn’t true,” said Mr. Shin, bursting into laughter. “I realized then how rumors begin.”
Mr. Shin’s hometown is Seongjae-ri in the township of Ochang-myeon, Cheongwon county, North Chungcheong province. His family, who were farmers, suffered from severe poverty when he was young. Everyday he walked to school along a road that’s eight kilometers (5 miles) long.
“I was scolded at school, because I couldn’t pay the tuition,” he said. “But I was one of the top students in class. I was good at maths and abacus.”
When he got out of middle school, however, his future wasn’t bright. The only occupation available to him was farming.
It was then that Mr Shin’s cousin from Seoul paid a visit.
“He asked me to tag along with him to Seoul, saying there was an opening for an office boy at the district office,” he said. “That was my first train ride. I was seventeen.”
He liked Seoul, whichwas bigger than he had imagined, but the job had been given to someone else. He had no choice but to follow his carpenter cousin and work on construction sites.
“At first I did miscellaneous work for other people,” he said. “I ran around to buy everything from cigarettes to rice wine for other workers. I didn’t get any pay. I was thankful that I was at least getting fed.”
At this time jobbing carpenters were not in demand. He frequently owed people money because of the inconsistent flow of jobs.
“I had my own list of debts I had to pay back in almost every store near my house,” he said. “During the slow winter season I owed more money. Then when the spring came I paid back a little. When the winter came back I owed again. It was a vicious cycle.”
It was easy for him to decide that he didn’t want to be a carpenter for the rest of his life.
Then, one winter, he was asked to help out on the construction of Bongwon Temple in Sinchon. It was a type of work he hadn’t considered before. There he met Lee Gwang-gyu, who was already an established carpenter in the field.
“I discovered for the first time that carpenters could also work on cultural assets,” he said. “I thought about becoming a carpenter again. I had a new ambition to learn.”
Mr. Shin said he volunteered to clear the snow in the backyard every morning. He warmed water and fixed Mr. Lee’s tools.
He even worked in cold water as he washed the socks of other carpenters until his hands got dry. His devotion caught the eyes of Mr. Lee who decided to teach him how to hammer, chisel and saw.
In 1961 during the project to rebuild Seungryemun(better known as Namdaemun), Korea’s national treasure No. 1, Mr. Shin met Jo Won-jae, whom he calls “a teacher of teachers.”
Mr. Jo, who was the top man in the field, had complete authority on the site. It was not easy to approach him. Even when the workers ate, they sat far away from him.
“I was scared,” he said. “I became nervous and clumsy when we ate with him. But I was there to do work for him.”
Then one day, while they were eating together, Mr. Jo took a spoonful of rice and put it into Mr. Shin’s bowl.
“After you eat, go buy some papers,” Mr. Shin recalls his teacher’s remark. “I said ‘yes’ without asking what kind of paper he meant.”
After some hesitation, Mr. Shin bought ten sheets in different sizes and textures.
When he came back, his teacher spread the papers on the table and said, “Draw the basic structure of a hanok!”
Mr. Shin shook in fear. He had never learned to draw an architectural plan.
The crowd flocked in to watch the scene.
“I don’t know,” Mr. Shin recalled replying. He expected anger from his teacher. But the man said, “Come and stay at my place from now on.”
The next day Mr. Jo began to teach Mr. Shin how to draw plans, a tool that he calls “a stepping stone” to becoming something more than a jobbing carpenter. That was how he made his first move into traditional Korean architecture.
Later, in 1970, he became an assistant director for the first time when he worked on the restoration of Bulguksa Temple. In 1975 he became the general director of restoration for Suwon Fortress, at the age of 35. In 1991, he was designated a master carpenter by the government and was classified as an intangible cultural asset.
Names that are used to describe Mr. Shin are telling. He has been dubbed “a man who can eat all other carpenters alive.”
“It’s all in my hands whether a house will last 100 years or 1000 years,” he said.
Nowadays Mr. Shin spends most of his time on the restoration of Gyeongbok Palace, a project that will restore the main palace of the Joseon Dynasty to the original shape it had before it was reconstructed during the colonial era. He’s been working on the project for 16 years. He’s set up a lumber mill for the restoration in Gangneung, Gangwon Province.
“For every tree I cut, I feel like my heart is getting chopped into pieces,” he said.
For the future he has bought a giant forest of pine trees, which he declares will not be chopped down until after he dies.
“You only use pine trees for palatial architecture not other types of construction like a hanok,” he said. “We will need proper pines to restore palaces in the generations ahead.”
As soon as the restoration of Gyeongbok Palace is completed, he plans to hold a one-man protest in front of Cultural Heritage Administration.
“I was in my lively 50s when I first got my hands on the project,” he said, laughing. “Now I am in my mid 60s. I am going to yell at them to give me my youth back.”
Even though his age has advanced, he still has much to do.
“I have got to raise a student who’s far better than me,” he said. “That’s the duty of a master.”
When Choi Gi-young was working on the restoration of the worshipping hall at Bongjeong Temple in Andong, North Gyeongsang Province three years ago, he found something. He peeled off the paint that coated the wood and saw a drawing of a peony that was about 1000 years old.
“I had goose bumps all over my skin when I saw the drawing,” he said. “It was as if a drawing that was 1000 years old was breathing. It really seemed as if the flower was dancing in the wind. Surely someone had blown a breath of air into the drawing. I felt that was the true spirit of a master.”
Despite this memorable moment, the reconstruction was far from smooth. As he tore apart the wooden joints of the temple, which was several hundred years old, the wood inside began turning sideways.
“As time passed, humidity had sneaked into the gap in the hinged lids of the roof,” he said. It was a difficult project. After some thought he ordered the carpenters to pour on cups of perilla oil.
“Because perilla oil softens the wood,” he said. “We were able to insert the joints after the woods got softened.”
Mr. Choi lost his father when he was seven. He often skipped meals because of his impoverished life with his stepfather. He barely finished his elementary education and had no chance of going to a middle school. Instead he studied Chinese under a private teacher for three years. Then he hopped from one job to another, from a bus assistant to working at temporary theaters.
“At the time I was mostly envious of the presidents of construction companies,” he said, “because they often drove in jeeps.”
Mr. Choi decided to learn how to be a traditional carpenter. He headed to Sudeok Temple in Yesan, South Chungcheong Province, a town he visited briefly in his childhood.
There he met Kim Deok-hee and Kim Jung-hee, who were masters in the field.
Mr. Choi was 17.
“I was paid 5 won a day,” he said, “But that wasn’t enough to buy any tools.”
To become familiar with the tools of his trade he secretly took away his colleagues’ saws and rubbed them hard against the rocks while the workers were out to lunch. When they came back and found that their saws had flat teeth, Mr. Choi volunteered to take them home to fix and tinkered around with the saws during the night. That’s how he learned to saw.
He learned how to draw plans in an unconventional way too. He jumped over the walls of Changgyeong Palace to examine the shapes of traditional architecture with his torch.
“I stayed all night in the palace sometimes,” he said. “I quietly sneaked out in the morning when the gate opened.”
It was a special experience.
“When I stayed overnight at the palace I felt a bit lonely and sad,” he said, “but then when I looked at the palace I screamed with amazement.”
He developed a habit of sleeping four hours a day during this time and he has kept to that ever since, perhaps due to his teacher’s advice that “you can never become a master if you sleep as many hours as the others.”
In 2000 he became an intangible cultural asset.
For his current reconstruction of Baekje Palace in Buyeo, he imported over 40 tons of lumber from Russia and Canada and mixed them with local trees.
But when asked to name his most successful work, he said there is none.
“There isn’t any,” he said. “As far as an evaluation, that’s the job of future generations.”
by Baek Sung-ho