Author:
Prue McKay

In December 2015 I travelled to South Korea for the Hanji Workshop for Foreign Paper Specialists. This event was hosted by the Korea Crafts and Design Foundation, a public institution of the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, with the aim of promoting traditional Korean paper to paper conservators. The KCDF has been actively promoting hanji internationally for several years as part of their Hanji Globalisation Strategy, emphasising its suitability for not only conservation, but also art, calligraphy, craft and design.

The group of 11 foreigners (nine paper conservators, an art historian and a Fulbright scholar) gathered in Seoul one frosty morning where we met our hosts and boarded a wonderfully luxurious coach for our trip to the southern region of Jeollabuk, near Jeonju city. On the way, we stopped at the home of a traditional papermaker, Mr Kim, at Mungyeong, to see a working hanji studio and get a rundown of the papermaking process. Mr Kim senior is listed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register as Intangible Cultural Heritage. His son Mr Kim junior has now taken over most of the work of the studio, but his father still keeps an eye on things and maintains the old equipment.

That evening we arrived at our home for the next few days, the Daeseung Hanji Village. This is a purpose built training and production facility for traditional Korean papermaking, and has accommodation in a traditional Hanok (Korean wood and paper house) as well as a dining hall and various studios and outbuildings. Local papermakers teach there as needed – a lot of the business they do is with school groups. We slept in rooms with traditional heated floors, on mattresses a bit like futons, and with bedding woven from dak (paper mulberry) fibres.

On our first morning, we met Mr Kwok, the papermaker, who over the next two and a half days walked us through the papermaking process. The village has a small crop of dak and hwanchokgyu (hibiscus) to give participants the experience of harvesting these two raw materials (although for actual large scale papermaking, the raw materials are brought in from other areas of Korea). We were able to have a go at most stages of the process, from harvesting mulberry stalks and hwanchokgyu roots, to processing the bark (steaming, stripping, beating) and the roots (soaking and beating to extract gel), to mixing the pulp and finally learning to cast sheets. We spent one whole day practising this last step. Along the way we were treated to traditional Korean food cooked especially for us by local ladies; we watched a (rather odd) Korean film called Hanji: Scooping Up The Moonlight based around a true story of using hanji to reproduce important Korean historical documents; and we learnt to write our names in Korean as we spent an evening making “Happy New Year” cards from lots of coloured hanji. We brought home our own sheets of hanji – I have two made the Korean way, and two made the Japanese way.

There are several things that make traditional hanji a unique product. The first is the use of domestic dak only; secondly, the way the sheets of paper are formed; and lastly, the use of the dochim finishing process.  Korean paper is formed on a screen known as a webal (way-bal) or “single screen” (as distinct from the Japanese style sangbal “double screen”) using a unique method called heullim (hoo-lim) or “flowing”. The screen is made of a wooden frame with a bamboo mat on top. It is held at one short end, thumbs holding down the bamboo mat, with the other end suspended by a chain or rope up to a rigid pole across the vat. After an initial dip towards the papermaker, the screen is dipped into the water sideways, first in one direction, then the other, for about 20 dips. The mat is then removed and the sheet couched onto a felt-covered post. Then comes the second part of sheet formation: the mat is flipped end for end. Korean mats have chain lines (the threads holding the strips of bamboo) that run lengthways down the mat, but which do not meet in the middle – each end is offset from the other. This is because traditional hanji is laminated – each sheet is made from two separate pulls of the screen through the pulp. By offsetting the chain lines and flipping the mat for the second pull, the chain lines do not “double up” and create weak areas of the sheet.

Dochim involves the finished sheets being dampened, and then beaten, either wrapped around a cylinder and beaten by hand with a large stick, or using a very heavy stamping machine that bashes the sheets between stone plates. When complete, paper that has undergone dochim has a smooth surface, and more densely packed, flattened fibres, giving a bleed-free, almost silken, writing surface. It is highly prized for Korean calligraphy.

The sideways motion of the screen through the pulp and the lamination produces a final sheet that has no particular grain direction. The properties of such sheets have been tested and the results can be found in the paper Permanence, Durability and Unique Properties of Hanji, by Minah Song and Jesse Munn. They found that the high quality, traditionally made hanji expanded and contracted (when wet out and dried) equally in both directions and did not change final dimensions. This quality makes hanji an ideal candidate to consider for use in repair and linings of paper artifacts.

The Hanji workshop was a fantastic opportunity to see and experience traditional Korean papermaking in a unique environment. A traditional Korean saying is “Silk lasts 500 years, but Hanji lasts 1000” – because of its high quality, many ancient Korean texts survive in good condition today. I learnt that hanji is not just used for writing and painting on, but has a long tradition of use in the fabrication of lacquered homewares (both woven and papier maché), clothing (crocheted and knitted), and houses (windows, wallpaper, floor linings and ceilings). The workshop was a wonderful initiative of the KCDF and one that they will hopefully repeat, so that more of you can find out about this lesser-known Asian paper. I would like to thank the Korea Crafts and Design Foundation and the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism for their very generous offer to attend the workshop, and the National Archives of Australia for letting me go away on yet another fact-finding mission.

(There are videos online where you can see the webal method in action – for example, this one on Youtube.