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WINTER 2008 Vol.22 No.4
Beauty of Korea
Byeoru (Ink Stone)
Background and Development of Korean Kimchi
Kimchi Ideal Health Food for a Well-being Lifestyle
Regional Influences Create Wide Varieties of Kimchi
Sharing Kimchi with Consumers Around the World
Seoul Hosts XXII World Congress of Philosophy 2008
Poet Ko Un “I am my own future!”
Archery Craftsman Yoo Young-ki Blends Strength with Resiliency
Elegant Earthenware Figurines Reveal Silla’s Spirituality
Magnum Korea Exhibition Images of Korean Society’s Diversity
Kevin O’Rourke Passionate Translator of Korean Literature
Sung Shi-yeon A Humble yet Forceful Presence at the Podium
Jeongseon’s Natural Beauty Endures the Passage of Time
Yaksik Rice Cake Tasty and Healthy Treat
Korea Delivers with Speed and Agility
Dance of Exorcism at the Fringe of Existence
WINTER 2007 Vol.21 No.4
  Yi Sang-jae Handicrafter of Sedge Masterpieces
  Lee Min Young
Freelance Writer
Photos by Seo Heun-kang
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In the past, Koreans used sedge, which could be found around every village, to weave household items, such as round-shaped mats, containers for the storage of food, and baskets for sewing implements. Since these everyday products were practical and could be made from readily available materials, sedge handicrafts were prized possessions of all social classes. After learning the basic techniques, sedge craftsmen would show off their advanced skills by adding elaborate decorative elements to their works. Whenever a sedge artisan became known for his impressive craftsmanship, he was certain to be deluged with orders from merchants and members of the elite class. Although sedge handicrafts long enjoyed widespread popularity, they were eventually supplanted by mass-produced plastic products, which people found could serve the purpose at a cheaper price. Accordingly, handicrafts made from natural materials soon fell out of favor, while age-old traditions slipped into oblivion. In spite of these difficult circumstances, you can still find someone like Yi Sang-jae (64 years old), a master maker of sedge handicrafts, designated Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 103, who continues to persevere, magically turning sedge into exquisite works of art.
Sedge Handicrafts
The wancho (sedge) plant, which grows to a height of about 1.2-1.5 meters, is commonly found in the rice paddies and wetlands areas of tropical and temperate zones, where Korea and Japan are situated. Although sedge grows in the wild throughout Korea, it is found in abundance in the Gwanghwado area. Sedge has long been regarded as a quality material for the making of mats, containers, and decorative items. Artisans who specialize in sedge handicrafts are known as wanchojang (master of sedge handicrafts). According to references in the Samgguksagi (Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms), sedge was being used as early as the Silla era (57 B.C. - A.D. 935). During the Goryeo period (918 - 1392), Korean kings regularly presided over sacrificial rites dedicated to the earth god (tosin) and crop god (goksin), on behalf of their subjects. For the ceremony, sedge would be placed under the mortuary tablets to help summon the two deities. In addition, various types of sedge handicrafts were used as decorative works in the royal palaces. According to “Taejongsillok” (Annals of King Taejong), which is a section of Joseonwangjosillok (Annals of the Joseon Dynasty), sedge products, being valued possessions of members of the royal family and the elite class, were regularly included under various names in tribute items presented to China. As such, sedge handicrafts have long been appreciated for their practicality and elegance. There are two basic techniques for making sedge handicrafts that have been passed down to the present day. One involves the use of special tools, while the other calls for the sedge to be woven by hand. Ganghwado Island is known as the home of hand-weaving techniques, which Yi Sang-jae applies for the making of his sedge handicrafts.
A Half Century of Dedication
Yi Sang-jae stands out as a true master of sedge handicrafts who is intent on continuing the longtime traditions of sedge-making that are rooted in Ganghwado Island. Yi first worked on sedge products shortly after his completion of elementary school in 1956. After having learned the basics of sedge craftsmanship from his mother, Yi surprised everyone when he won first prize in a handicrafts contest, a mere three years after he had been introduced to sedge-making. Although this occurred while he was still quite young, this award served as a foundation that would vault Yi to the status of master maker of sedge handicrafts, a distinction which he has maintained for the better part of the past 50 years. “Sedge was so common in my home village of Gyo-dong on Ganghwa Island that all the neighbors made sedge products. I think that I was able to get to where I am today because I came into contact with sedge craftsmanship at such a young age.” The first product that Yi created was a kkotbangseok (floor cushion with woven or embroidered flower design). At that time, kkotbangseok and kkotsamhap (flower-design basket set of three similarly sized units) were the most common products made with sedge. Thereafter, Yi went on to create such items as dongguri (box with cover for the storage or transport of food), sajuham (container for presenting a document with the year, month, date, and time of the groom’s birthday to the bride’s family so that they could decide on an auspicious date for the wedding ceremony), and banjitgori (container for sewing materials, such as needles, thread, thimbles, and fabric). More recently, Yi has expanded the focus of his sedge craftsmanship to include the manufacture of hats, bags, and accessories. “Sedge products can be used to store food in during the summer because they allow for air circulation. Moreover, in the winter they can absorb the cold by serving as a kind of insulation. In my opinion, there is no better multi-purpose material than sedge.” For Yi, despite his lifelong involvement with this craft, the natural attributes of sedge continue to be a source of amazement and admiration.
Sedge-making Process
The making of sedge handicrafts starts with the gathering and preparation of high-quality sedge. Typically, sedge would be planted in April and then transplanted into rice fields in early May. After being harvested in late summer (July-August), the stalks are cut into strands and dried. When the dried strands turn a bluish color, they are then soaked in water and left to dry out in the sun. The strands eventually turn white after this process has been repeated five or six times. The white sedge strands thus become the materials for the making of sedge handicrafts. A dyeing process is necessary to produce the colored strands that are used for the decorative elements. Round-shaped products, such as kkotbangseok and kkotsamhap, are the representative types of sedge handicrafts. First, eight sets of no are woven, of interlocking sedge strands, with horizontal (naljul) and vertical lines (ssijul). After the bottom section has been completed, the samori phase is undertaken, in which vertical lines are added to areas of intersection for reinforcement of the sides. The samori phase includes the tteumjil process, during which decorative characters or design patterns are incorporated. “The most important aspect of sedge craftsmanship is ensuring that the woven strands have been properly created and evenly rendered. To attain this, the same amount of hand strength should be applied when creating the horizontal and vertical lines. As a successful outcome rests solely on the touch of your hands, a significant amount of concentration is required from start to finish.” Yi Sang-jae makes note of the fact that the fundamental skills, including hands with a sensitive touch, and an acute perception of weight and balance, can only be acquired through countless hours of practice. He also went on, at considerable length, to point out that the tteumjil process, which provides the artistic beauty of a work, is a painstakingly tedious endeavor. Sedge handicrafts are generally adorned with the Chinese characters for good luck and prosperity (˝Ï and ‹ÿ), but can also feature a variety of decorative designs, such as arirang and turtle patterns. “It is natural for products that feature more advanced tteumjil techniques to be more popular. This reflects the fact that the craftsman has given much thought to the composition of the characters and designs, as well as the coordination of the colors. The quality of a finished product is also determined in great part by the ability of the maker to properly apply his hand strength when working with the colored strands, which is undertaken during the tteumjil process. Since you have to apply the colored strands onto an already woven surface, twice the normal hand strength is required. In the end, the decorated section should appear to be a single-layer surface.”
Innovative Masterpieces
The most treasured works that Yi creates include the sajuham and pyebaek dongguri. In the pyebaek wedding ritual, a bride bows deeply to greet her new parents-in-law just after getting married. Pyebaek dongguri is used by the bride to present foodstuffs that she had prepared to her in-laws. Although tradition calls for these items to be round in shape, Yi now creates works of a variety of shapes, such as squares, hexagons, and octagons. He began by creating a square sajuham and then designed an innovative rounded-square shape. He thus created an all-new rounded-square pyebaek dongguri, which exhibits a consummate level of artistic craftsmanship. “To make a work with a rounded-square shape, numerous sets of no, of horizontal lines, the naljul, should be rendered into a square and then woven together with vertical lines, the ssijul. After the bottom section has been completed, the sides are rendered into a rounded shape during the samori phase, which is an especially tricky process. Significant hand strength is required to join the square and round areas, otherwise the naljul and ssijul will not be properly aligned.” Much time and keen concentration are necessary for such difficult tasks as the undu procedure, in which the sides are slightly built up; samori process, for seamlessly joining the square-shaped bottom to the rounded sides; and tteumjil process, when decorative characters or designs are painstakingly applied to enhance the refined appearance of a finished work. However demanding it might be for Yi to create a single work, he finds satisfaction in his impeccable craftsmanship.
Future of Traditional Handicrafts
“The sincerity of the craftsman is deeply embedded in the 100 percent handmade Ganghwa sedge handicrafts. Even when tools are used, they only play a secondary role. Each strand must be handled with your full attention, without distraction. It would be no exaggeration to say that I have invested my entire life into the making of sedge handicrafts. I cannot express the exhilaration that I experience whenever I create something out of only sedge material.” As a result of the industrialization age, our life has come to be dominated by mechanical production processes; however, Yi doubts that any machine can be developed that could match the intricate craftsmanship that goes into the making of sedge handicrafts. Accordingly, he is also focused on efforts to see that the traditions of this craft can be kept alive. “The basic sedge products are no longer a part of our everyday life. Nevertheless, sedge craftsmanship must survive. I currently work with two students and two assistants who are making diligent efforts to learn the trade.” For Yi, there is a sense of regret that the younger generation does not have a greater interest in traditional craftsmanship. Still, whenever visitors, and especially foreign tourists, stop by to see Yi’s works thanks to word of his storied reputation, his spirits are buoyed and he looks to the future with renewed confidence.
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