.Seo was born in Damyang in 1930, the second son of a farming family. He graduated from elementary school in 1944, but in keeping with the customary practice then, in which a family supported the continued education of only the eldest son, Seo remained at home to help out with the family’s farming.
.“I was about 16 years old when I began to make bamboo products. When I first started, I had no inkling that this would become my destiny. But I guess it was meant to be since I had seen bamboo crafts being made all my life. At that time, there were about a 100 households in my village and more than 70 of them made bamboo products, in addition to farming.”
.The young man who started making bamboo crafts at the age of 16 is today an elderly gentleman, who has devoted himself to the creation of bamboo products for the past 60 years. In 1987, Seo was designated Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 53 by the Korean government, which includes the title Chaesangjang, Master of Chaesang Craftsmanship, the ultimate honor for an artisan of bamboo handcrafts.
.The term “chaesang” refers to a set of boxes made with long, thin paper-like strips of bamboo. As the most sophisticated form of bamboo-crafted products, chaesang requires an intricate production process and highly advanced craftsmanship. During the Joseon Dynasty, women of the yangban, or the aristocratic class, used chaesang to store clothing, valuables, and household necessities, such as needle and thread. Since all women desired to have a chaesang of their own, mothers would often use them like a dowry chest to store the items that their daughters would need for getting married.
.A well-crafted chaesang is so refined and elegant that people find it hard to believe it is actually made from bamboo. Chaesang boxes can be woven from natural or dyed strips of bamboo. Typically, for the outer box, natural and dyed bamboo strips are combined to create decorative patterns. On the other hand, when used in an unadorned state, the natural subtleties of bamboo can be better appreciated.
.“Large bamboo stalks are the best for making chaesang. Because the bamboo strips should be lustrous, flexible, and resilient, three-year-old bamboo grown in fertile soil is ideal. Older bamboo is too stiff and cracks easily, whereas young stalks may be pliable but are not as resilient. Bamboo stalks cut down around the time of the winter solstice are especially good.”
.Although Seo often wonders what he might be doing today if he did not become a bamboo craftsman, he still remembers wanting to run away several times a day when he first started working with bamboo strips. Back then, it must have been extremely difficult for a normal young man like Seo to pursue the making of bamboo handcrafts, which most people considered to be women’s work. Moreover, this was not the kind of career that would bring him financial wealth. And while he did manage to get married and somehow provide for the education of his seven children, Seo readily admits that it was no easy matter to make a livelihood from bamboo crafts.
.“There is an old saying that although a bamboo forest is like an untapped gold mine, the people who make bamboo products are hard-pressed to make a decent living. I remember thinking that this saying was applicable to my situation as well. I felt I had to do something to overcome this difficulty. So, I decided to produce high-quality products. And thereafter, I began to focus my efforts on making chaesang.”
.In the early 1970s, Seo happened to come across an object that would forever change his life. It was a small chaesang, which originally belonged to his maternal grandmother, that had been in his family for three generations. But not knowing anyone who knew how to make chaesang, Seo carefully studied the family heirloom and then learned the special techniques through trial and error.
.Although Kim Dong-yeon (1897-1984), who became the first to earn the Chaesangjang title in 1975, was living in another area of Damyang at that time, Seo never had an occasion to meet Kim. And in spite of Kim’s Chaesangjang designation, Seo preferred to conduct research on chaesang and develop the related techniques on his own. That being said, it was a daunting challenge for Seo to discover the finer points of creating traditional chaesang. Although Seo has distinguished himself as the foremost master of Korean bamboo handcrafts, he still marvels at the intricacies of making a chaesang like that of his grandmother.
.Attributes of Bamboo
.In the past, chaesang were traditionally made by married couples, with the husband preparing the thin bamboo strips, which the wife used to weave the boxes. But in the case of Seo, until 1980, when his second daughter, Seo Shin-jeong (b. 1960), began to help out with the weaving, he took care of every detailed step by himself.
.“Preparing the raw materials is an important part in making chaesang. The most critical task in this regard is the making of the finest bamboo strips possible. The level of sophistication of a particular piece is in large part determined by the quality of the bamboo strips. Chaesang usually consists of a set of three, five, or seven boxes, called samhap, ohap, and chilhap, respectively. However, there are no absolute rules about how many boxes a chaesang should comprise. So, there could be chaesang with nine (guhap) or even eleven boxes (sibilhap).”
.As such, a traditional chaesang is a set of boxes of progressively smaller sizes that can all fit within each other. Because of the intricate nature of the production process, it requires at least 15 full days of work to produce a three-box chaesang. Of note, everything is still done by hand, with no short cuts for the sake of expediency.
.Seo’s daughter usually handles the dying of the bamboo strips and planning of the color schemes and decorative patterns. The colors and decorative motifs of Seo’s chaesang have become more diverse thanks to his daughter’s creative input. Moreover, she insists on using only natural dyes, never synthetic coloring. Due to the efforts of Seo and his daughter to modernize and popularize bamboo handcrafts, the chaesang, which had been on the verge of becoming a museum artifact, is now gaining international recognition as a unique Korean art form.
.In his youth, the mere thought of bamboo was enough to make Seo want to run away. But bamboo handcrafts would later become his livelihood, while his lifelong dedication to this craft has earned him the well-deserved title of master craftsman. It seems natural that he would acquire the traits of uprightness and resiliency, which have long been characteristics attributed to bamboo.
.Creating Handcrafted Chaesang
.A. After soaking bamboo stalks in water for a day, the dried bamboo is split into strips
.B. The bamboo strips are trimmed into uniform thickness and length
.C. Bamboo strips are colored with natural dye, such as safflower, gardenia seeds, or mugwort, so that decorative patterns can be created
.D. The bamboo strips are woven together to produce the desired designs and patterns
.E. The usually unadorned bottom half must be properly sized to fit snugly within the decorated cover
.F. When weaving of the cover and bottom has been completed, the excess bamboo strips are trimmed
.G. The edges of the cover and bottom are finished with satin fabric
.H. The interior of the bottom is lined with two layers of traditional Korean paper. Photography: National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage