New center aims to display beauty and versatility of hanji
Because of its long history and the craftsmanship required to produce just one sheet of hanji, as well as its fine quality and durability, the paper has long been regarded a proud cultural heritage to many Koreans.
But the affection doesn't seem to connect to actual consumption.
"When I first jumped into the industry 30 years ago, there were more than 100 ateliers creating hanji in Korea," said Jang Seong-woo, a hanji artisan who runs a hanji atelier Jang Ji Bang in Gapyeong, Gyeonggi. "They have rapidly vanished over the past years and now there are less than 20. What is worse, there's no young people in the industry to pass down the traditional techniques to."
In the past, hanji was much more than just a backdrop for writing and painting.
Koreans used it to build houses, using sheets of hanji to finish the walls, floors and windows.
Hanji was also employed in making various household items like sewing boxes, dressers, handheld fans, and lampshades.
Even used hanji was rarely discarded, and often was dissolved in water and woven into cords to craft baskets and shoes. Due to its versatility, hanji ateliers flourished during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) and different techniques developed in different regions of the country.
However, in the wake of modernization and the introduction of mass produced Western style pulp paper, the population of hanji artisans waned and the price of hanji increased.
However, hanji has slowly been regaining some recognition, but this time, outside of Korea.
Italy's Central Institute for Restoration and Conservation of Archival and Library Heritage has officially acknowledged hanji as an appropriate material for restoring and preserving artifacts.
In 2017, hanji was used by the Louvre Museum in Paris to restore a handle ornament on an antique writing desk from 18th century Bavaria that belonged to King Maximilian II.
In that same year, it was also used to restore a globe owned by Pope John XXIII (1881-1963) and was displayed in Sotto il Monte Giovanni XXIII in Italy, the hometown of Pope John XXIII.
But outside the field of restoration, hanji remains quite inaccessible for the general public.
In efforts to bring hanji closer to the general public and effectively promote it overseas, the Korea Craft & Design Foundation (KCDF) established the Hanji Culture and Industry Center and opened its doors late last month in Bukchon, central Seoul.
Thanks to the center, visitors can now touch and feel some 400 different kinds of handcrafted local hanji products from hanji ateliers across the country.
“Despite its excellence and long history, hanji seem to be relatively less known around the world compared to other Asian traditional papers while it’s not being as consumed as much we would like by Koreans,” said Vice Culture Minister Oh Young-woo at the opening event of the Hanji Culture and Industry Center. “This center will act as a platform where networks, seminars and workshops related to hanji take place to actively promote the traditional Korean paper not only to our own people but to people from across the globe.”
Colorfully-patterned hanji as well as at least 14 different types of plain hanji, or sunji, can be spotted on the first floor of the new center, where visitors can also have a go writing on it and examine and compare the distinct textures and different thickness of hanji made in different parts of the country.
Some handicrafts made with hanji are also on display on the first floor to allow visitors an insight into its various uses.
On the basement level, there’s a space where forums and workshops can be organized. There’s also a small lab where visitors can learn about modern applications of hanji.
The hanji archive is also located here, where visitors can access detailed information on the different varieties and their producers. Inside the archive cabinets, hanji from different ateliers is displayed along with the ateliers’ history and photographs of their design process.
The ateliers resist using bleaching chemicals, therefore, the hanji has a rough surface and a yellowish white color — the same outcome obtained by following the traditional method used during the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties.
Making hanji the traditional way is very laborious. The process involves cutting and steaming mulberry branches so the bark can be peeled and boiled in lye. It is then washed and pounded into a mixture before mulberry starch is added and then dissolved it in water for screening. Finally it is laid flat to dry and for the surface to be refined. All these steps are done by hand by an artisan — a “devotion,” says Kim Chun-ho, a fifth-generation hanji maker of Mungyeong Traditional Hanji.
Some other ateliers however, actively adopted modern technologies to produce less expensive yet more colorful and fine hanji, to make it more appealing and accessible to the general public.
“These days there are many hanji that get produced by fusing handwork and machine,” said Kim Hyun-joo, director and designer of KHJ Studio that makes handicrafts using hanji. “Such hanji are very popular among young people learning calligraphy using fountain pens. It’ll take time but if we continue to promote hanji and its charms, I believe it can become popular both in and outside Korea.”
Kim Tae-hoon, the new president of the KCDF said that the center ultimately “aims to function as a cultural platform where hanji can ride the Korean wave and increase its presence overseas.”
“I participate in international conventions and fairs with hanji,” said Kim Bo-kyung, president of Fides International, a local supplier of hanji. “The response is great. Both Europeans and Americans are definitely attracted to hanji but it stops there. Even by looking at craftworks made of hanji like lampshades, jewelry boxes, they think it’s so beautiful but they think it’s too pricey for a paper.”
“It’ll first attract people and then become popular as a material of their artwork,” she added.
For more information about upcoming workshops, seminars and more, visit www.hanji1000.kr or call (02) 741-6600.
BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [firstname.lastname@example.org]