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
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
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.
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.
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
Q: What is the most difficult part when working as a
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