|Kim Chun-ho, a fifth-generation hanji maker, poses for a photo after an interview with The Korea Times at the Hanji Culture and Industry Center in Seoul, May 20. / Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk|
By Kwak Yeon-soo
Kim Chun-ho, 46, is a fifth-generation hanji maker following in his father's footsteps. His father, hanji master Kim Sam-shik, was designated as Intangible Cultural Heritage No. 23-B of North Gyeongsang Province in 2005.
"Since I was six years old, I've been trained to make hanji. I became fully involved in the papermaking business in 2000," Kim said during a recent interview with The Korea Times.
Hanji refers to traditional Korean paper made from the bark of paper mulberry trees. It is formed with laminated sheets and finished sheets are pounded to compress the fibers.
Although the hanji making process has evolved over centuries, the most traditional method involves the same steps used during the Goryeo and Joseon Kingdoms.
To make hanji, Kim harvests bark from paper mulberry trees usually between November and February from his own land that covers approximately 10,000 square meters.
"The busiest time for traditional hanji makers is from mid-October to early April as rice paddy agriculture begins in April and crop production comes in September," he said.
According to him, hanji making season ahead of crop production is the result of old Korean farmers' wisdom. "Although we're not involved in the crop production, we try to stick to the annual cycle of our ancestors," he said.
Once the paper mulberry trees are dried under the sun, Kim puts them in water where they are steamed for eight hours. Kim then removes the outer layer. The inner bark is then boiled in lye for four to five hours. Then, the boiled bark is washed and pounded before mulberry starch is added.
The fibers are scooped out of the water and lined horizontally and vertically on a wide rectangle sieve. Finally, the hanji is placed on top of a wooden board to dry.
"Hanji is similar to the Japanese paper 'washi,' but they are different in terms of the sheet formation technique," Kim said. "In contrast to washi that lines fibers in one direction, hanji requires fibers to flow up and down, side to side to make the paper stronger and more durable."
|Kim Sam-shik makes hanji in his workshop named Mungyeong Traditional Hanji in Mungyeong, North Gyeongsang Province. / Courtesy of HCIC|
Each year, Kim's workshop named Mungyeong Traditional Hanji produces about 15,000 to 20,000 sheets of hanji (60x90 centimeters). His hanji has a rough surface and a yellowish white color because he does not use bleaching chemicals.
Kim recalled that for his first five years as an apprentice, he followed his father's principle of producing as much paper as possible. In the past, hanji was in high demand because it was widely used to meet basic daily needs. Hanji makers were often specialized in making jangpanji (floor covering paper) and changhoji (window covering paper).
Over time, Kim wanted to improve the quality of the resulting products while upholding the traditional craft. He realized that they needed different approaches in order to preserve the centuries-old practice of hanji making: focusing on quality, not quantity.
"Today's customers use hanji for different purposes compared with customers from my father's generation. Nowadays, people rarely use hanji for basic daily needs but instead use it for decoration or the conservation of works of art," he said. "So I persuaded my father to make thinner, high quality hanji that caters to individual needs."
However, this does not mean Kim wants to adopt modern devices to streamline the production process. "I think following the ancient method is all about preserving our cultural heritage. Some ask me if I'd be willing to use a machine that pounds mulberry bark, and my answer to them is 'no' because it affects the quality of the resulting paper," he said.
"The purpose of running our workshop is to follow the exact same principle of artisans of the Goryeo and Joseon Kingdoms."
Thanks to his dedication to keeping the tradition alive, Mungyeong Traditional Hanji gained international recognition. In 2017, hanji was used by the Louvre Museum in Paris in the restoration of a handle ornament from an antique writing desk from 18th century Bavaria that belonged to King Maximilian II.
"The members of the cultural asset restoration team at the Louvre Museum visited our workshop three times to inspect the entire hanji making process. I also flew to Paris to introduce the traditional papermaking process at a Louvre Museum academic seminar," he said. "I heard in Europe, roughly 99 percent of the paper used for restoration is from Japan. I was glad I could share hanji's excellence."
|Hanji left to dry naturally on a wooden panel / Courtesy of HCIC|
Kim's ultimate goal is to promote hanji as the most resilient and durable paper in the world. He expressed his desire for hanji making to be inscribed on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
"Japanese washi paper and Chinese xuan paper were listed as intangible cultural heritage assets by UNESCO in 2014 and 2009, respectively. I hope the Korean government, artisans and industry experts come together to discuss how hanji can achieve a similar feat," he said.
Kim stressed that hanji masters do not have much time left because many of them are in their 60s and 70s, and if they pass away, their traditional methods will not be passed down and could potentially be lost.
Another major problem is that these hanji masters don't have apprentices who can succeed them. "There are about 20 traditional hanji workshops remaining nationwide, but that number will be halved in less than 10 years because young people from their 20s through to people in their 40s are not willing to learn the craft," he said, citing that hanji making is a labor intensive business with a low salary.
"One needs to spend at least three years learning the hanji-making process. Because hanji workshops are located in the countryside and cannot grant fulltime employment, many young people give up in the middle of learning the craft and leave," he said, adding that he had personally taken fewer than 20 vacation days in the past seven years.
On ways to attract more young people to learn the traditional craft, Kim said government subsidies can help improve the working environment. Kim also urged the government to support young people who pursue their studies in using hanji for the restoration of ancient archives and cultural assets.
"Of course, hanji makers should make their own efforts to create a decent working environment for young people because the current skilled makers are getting older and older," he said.
"However, government subsidies can help increase the apprenticeship wage, giving them reasons to stay in the hanji making business. Support programs for those specializing in using hanji for restoration projects should also be implemented."