Culture
When Ox Turns into Art
Lim Ga-eul Reporter  |  autumn86@yonsei.ac.kr
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승인 2005.03.01  00:00:00
트위터 페이스북 구글 카카오스토리

MAKE-UP table is elegantly adorned with a majestic peacock. Next to it, a wardrobe decorated with women dressed in colorful hanboks shines in all its beauty. A small jewelry box embellished with flowers is placed on top of it. This is the view of a traditional noble household. One can only stare in awe at the technique that transforms these everyday life tools into a work of art, Hwagak Kong-ye.

The origins of Hwagak

Hwagak Kong-ye is a traditional royal Korean industrial art. It literally means the craft of horn painting, using ox horns as its primary material. Its products are diverse, from large furniture such as chests to small items used in needlework and accessories for women. The origins of this unique craft are not clear, but it is believed to have been handed down from the Shilla Dynasty (57 B.C. to 935 A.D.). Its basic techniques come from a much older craft from ancient Egypt that used tortoise shell as the decoration material. Throughout time, this technique reached Asia. Although it soon disappeared in China and Japan, failing to acclimate itself to the countries' characteristics, it flourished into a unique skill according to Korea's particular taste. The products of this technique were very popular among the upper class. However, tortoise shell had to be imported from China and this worked as a burden to Korea. That is why, during the Shilla era, the use of tortoise shell was restricted to all social classes, except the royalty. However, the price did not become any lower. The solution that craftsmen found was to use much cheaper and more common, but equally adequate ox horn instead. This developed into the one and only Korean Hwagak Kong-ye.

A complex process

The steps of producing Hwagak Kong-ye are very complicated. "The process is divided in 26 essential steps but when counting all the steps including the minor ones, it adds up to over 40 steps," says Han Ki-duck, the son and trainee of Han Chun-seop (Intangible cultural property No. 29 of Kyeonggi-do), a professional Hwagak craftsman. Basically, it first consists on making the ox horn as thin and semitransparent as a sheet of paper. Then the thin sheets are cut to an appropriate size. The next step, the coloring step, is one of the most intricate steps of Hwagak Kong-ye. The painting of Hwagak Kong-ye is done in reverse to most other paintings. After drawing the lines of the desired patterns, the painting process starts with what would come last in normal paintings. The final step of painting is covering the whole picture with the background color. As a result, one cannot see the drawing on the side on which it was drawn. One has to reverse the horn sheet to see the completed art. Then, glue is applied to the sheet so that the paint does not peel. When the glue dries, the fully decorated horn sheet is attached to a wooden vessel with heated iron. After filling the blank left between the different horn sheets on the vessel, the product are polished, trimmed and decorated until it is finally completed.

A natural and noble craft

Hwagak and its extremely elaborate process have special characteristics. One of its remarkable features is that all the materials used in the process are specific natural substances. The main substance is the horn from a two to four-year-old Korean ox. The most desired wooden vessel is pinewood. To fill in the remaining space between the horn sheets, bones of the ox's legs or ribs are used. Another important material used in Hwagak Kong-ye is the color. The paint is actually a powdered mineral obtained by grinding colored stones, called seokche. Of course, one must not forget the adhesives that hold the entire piece together. Glues are made from the air bladder of fresh-water fish, by extracting the liquid from the boiled scales and bone of a Pollack, or from the skin of an ox.
The most distinctive feature of Hwagak Kong-ye is that it is a very colorful and aristocratic technique intended to please the royalty. The main used color is red, which is also the symbol of the elite, but also the color that best enhances horn sheets. The other colors include blue, yellow, and white and black each with its specific meaning and use. Hwagak products display harmony involving several different motives. Animals such as tigers, dragons, deer, birds and fish are beautifully drawn along with flowers, bamboo and charming landscapes. Recently, scenes of daily lifestyle are also represented.

Special but weak points

However the particularities of Hwagak Kong-ye are also its weaknesses. Because it was a royal craft, only a few chosen people from each generation used Hwagak products. The majority of common people have ignored the existence craft for a long time. "The government preached simplicity to its people. Yet, the highest person of the country enjoyed luxury through expensive Hwagak products. The king would not have wanted his people to know it, so for a long time, Hwagak Kong-ye was a silent inside job," explains Han.
Moreover, the natural materials themselves are a problem. Although they are unique, they do cause a problem in matters of preservation. Because they are degradable and very sensitive to humidity and heat, they cannot be preserved for a long time. Despite the fact that the technique has existed for over a millennium, remaining original products available now only date from the 17th to 19th century. The materials are also getting rarer. Until now, professional craftsmen have continued preserving natural substances, making only a few changes. For example, the seokche has been partially replaced by dancheong which is artificially made but has the same composition as seokche. Just as our Korean ancestors decided to replace the tortoise shell with ox horns, it is important to look for suitable replacements to keep on transmitting Hwagak Kong-ye.
An art with perspective. A hopeful consequence is that in spite of being a relatively unknown technique with rare materials, Hwagak Kong-ye is being continually preserved in Korea. Professional Hwagak craftsmen such as Han Chun-seop and Lee Jae-man (Important Intangible cultural property No. 109) still hand down this technique to apprentices and continue to make beautiful products. Also, Hwagak Kong-ye is starting to be known to the general public. Their prices are high but the increasing demand for Hwagak products make this craft one of the few traditional assets with an economic viability. Because of their luxury, they have been presented as gifts to queens and the wives of presidents of U.S., Japan, Germany and Italy.

Know the true Hwagak

Hwagak Kong-ye has long decorated the homes of noble Korean ancestors charmingly and vividly. Since the beauty of this craft began to be generally known, much cheaper and far less qualified imitative products have been circulating. These products do not express the hard work and uniqueness of the real Hwagak Kong-ye. People however do not realize the differences, causing Hwagak Kong-ye to lose its integrity. It is important to help them grasp the vivid taste and amazing technique of the traditional Hwagak Kong-ye. It is our duty to put these misleading and false products aside and fully comprehend the depths of Hwagak Kong-ye.

Interview
Han Ki-duck
son and apprentice of Han Chun-seop

Q: Why did you decide to continue your father's work and become a Hwagakzang, a Hwagak craftsman?
A: I believed that someone had to continue handing down this traditional craft. I also really wanted to become an artisan, a professional. It is not about being recognized. It is about being a master craftsman.

Q: What is the most difficult part when working as a Hwagakzang?
A: The biggest problem is financial. The government has named this craft an intangible cultural property but it does not offer enough assistance. With the small amount of financial interest the government is providing, it is hard for us Hwagakzang to even support ourselves, let alone maintain the craft.


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