|Venerable Sukyong holds a paper flower in Songdeok Temple in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province. Korea Times photos by Choi Won-suk|
Monk brings hanji flowers to life
By Chung Ah-young, video and photos by Choi Won-suk
PYEONGTAEK, Gyeonggi Province — Venerable Sukyong seems every bit a solemn Buddhist monk when he beats the drum and sounds the "moktak," a wooden percussion instrument. But when he grabs a piece of "hanji," or traditional Korean mulberry paper, he becomes like a skilled florist who turns the paper into life-like flowers.
"Jihwa" are flowers made from hanji and are a traditional Korean craftwork usually made for Buddhist rituals and shamanistic or private events in ancient times.
"The tradition of making hanji flowers was believed to have begun from the Buddhist belief that picking a flower is an act of taking a life," the monk said in an interview with The Korea Times.
He said in ancient times, flowers were not available off season, so Buddhist rituals used paper flowers, which can be made at any time.
"This tradition is a legacy of our ancestors, who respected life regardless of whether it was an animal or a plant. If we understand this tradition's significant meaning, we can appreciate it, even today," he said.
Venerable Sukyong is the chief monk at the Songdeok Temple in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, and has been involved in the tradition of making hanji flowers for more than 30 years. He is one of the few artists who possess hanji flower making skills, which he acquired from his mentors from the Korean Buddhist Cheontae Order.
Hanji flowers were used to decorate altars during Buddhist rituals, such as Yeongsanjae, or "Vulture-Peak Ceremony," which was listed on the UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. In shamanism, the paper flowers were called "sinhwa" and used as a mediator between humans and deities.
The monk began making hanji flowers in 1982 when he became a Buddhist. He became even more passionate about the craft in 1993, when he took part in Yeongsanjae, a ritual that involves singing; dances, such as the drum and ceremonial robe dances; and ceremonial embellishments. The event is a re-enactment of Buddha's delivery of the Lotus Sutra on the Vulture Peak in India.
Venerable Sukyong who is skilled at making ornaments including paper flowers for Yeongsanjae, designated as Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 50, along with two other Buddhist monks, has revived this forgotten tradition.
The art of hanji
The monk said he makes paper flowers by folding or cutting hanji into multiple layers. Hanji has a grainy texture and is easy to dye in a diverse range colors.
"It's the art of hanji. If I make the flowers from other papers, they will not last long and tear very soon," he said.
Venerable Sukyong said selecting high-quality hanji is the most important aspect of producing beautiful flowers.
"The papers should not be alkali or acid. That way, they can be dyed in any color. The papers should be neutral so that I can make what I want," he said.
The durability and textured fibers of hanji are key to create beauty of the paper flowers. "Making excellent hanji is a form of art, and making flowers using hanji another," he said.
Forgotten but returning
Venerable Sukyong can make more than 17 kinds of flowers that frequently appeared in the Buddhist Nectar Ritual Paintings from the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910).
He has recreated the paper flowers from the Buddhist paintings and researched numerous historical documents both at home and abroad. Only a few historical records about jihwa remain today, as the paper flowers that were used for the rituals were burned as part of the religious practice.
The monk has collected centuries-old Buddhist books from the Joseon Kingdom to show how much the paper flowers were used back then. While staying in Denmark in the 2000s, he even bought foreign books such as "I Korea" by Swedish journalist W. Ason Grebst (1912) that captured the images of banquets decorated with paper flowers.
During the Joseon Kingdom, various types of jihwa appeared in "uigwe" or royal protocols, as well as Buddhist and local shamanist rituals.
"The flowers carried more than religious meanings and were integral to the lives of the noble class and commoners alike. The techniques for making the flowers were difficult, so only master craftsmen made them," he said.
The paper flowers look so sophisticated that they could easily be mistaken for actual flowers. He excels in creating "salmoran," a kind of peony that has numerous wrinkled petals. He folds the petals using a knife to create the wrinkles. "I usually focus on creating the flowers appropriate for Buddhist rituals. But they can be used for other things. We can expand the scope of their use in our everyday lives."
He said Buddhist paintings show how the use of the paper flowers changed over time. The 1589 Nectar Ritual Painting housed in Yakusen-zi, Japan show that various flowers decorate the altar, while the 1868 Nectar Ritual Painting show that the flowers were small and simple. The paintings in the 1900s show that the flowers are arranged like an open folding fan to be more visible to the public.
"The flowers were often used for Buddhist rituals, but they were used on many other occasions, such as for wedding ceremonies and birthday banquets, up until the 1950s to 1960s. But owing to the rapid industrialization, flowers can now be cultivated in vinyl greenhouses and thus, are available even in the off-season. Artificial flowers have also replaced the paper flowers," he said.
But when Yeongsanjae was inscribed on the UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009, its significance reemerged among the public, he said.
To promote the craft of jihwa making to the public, Venerable Sukyong has been holding exhibitions almost every year since 2008. He has also published books to share his skills with those who want to learn the craft.
"It had long been forgotten, but I am glad to see that it has been returning in recent years. Owing to my frequent exhibitions, people are beginning to recognize it. I want to share this art to make it loved by more people," he said.
Who is Venerable Sukyong?
Venerable Sukyong became a Buddhist monk at the Guin Temple, the headquarters of the Korean Buddhist Cheontae Order, in Danyang, North Chungcheong Province in 1982. He has been involved in the tradition of making "jihwa," or flowers made from hanji (Korean traditional mulberry paper) for more than 30 years.
He is the chief monk at Songdeok Temple in Pyeongtaek and Baekin Temple in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province.
He is skilled at making ornamental paper flowers for Yeongsanjae, or "Vulture-Peak Ceremony," designated as Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 50, and also inscribed on the UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009.
He is one of the few artisans who can make traditional paper flowers. He has recreated more than 17 kinds of paper flowers that frequently appeared in Buddhist paintings.
The monk has been promoting this tradition both at home and abroad through exhibitions and publications.
What is 'jihwa'?
"Jihwa" refers to traditional paper flowers that, in ancient times, were used in Buddhist or shamanistic rituals, or royal court and private banquets and events for commoners. Jihwa are often created in the form of peonies, chrysanthemums and lotuses.
The paper flowers frequently appeared in the Buddhist Nectar Ritual Paintings from the Joseon Kingdom.
The tradition of making jihwa had been on the verge of disappearing until Yeongsanjae, a Buddhist ritual, was included on the UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009. The paper flowers are an important element of the ritual.
In shamanism, the paper flowers were called "sinhwa" and were deemed as a mediator between humans and deities.