Hanji - Traditional Korean Paper
Exhibition in the Craft Museum of Finland in May 16 - June 17, 2001

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What is hanji?

Hanji is a traditional Korean paper made from the bark of mulberry tree. Mulberry trees grow in low-lying hills and fields throughout Korea and are often found on ridges around dry farmland and on the slopes of small mountains. Korean mulberry tree fibers are especially long, resilient and shiny. Hanji lasts for more than 1,000 years, and despite its durability, its surface is still smooth. It permits ventilation and retains hit as well as cotton. Due to its unique characteristics, the manufacturers of hanji have relied on the bark of mulberry tree for more than 1,600 years.

History of Hanji

Hanji has two general uses as stationery and as everyday household good. With its fine texture and smooth surface, brush strokes of ink on hanji appear deep and elegant. Therefore, hanji has been popular for calligraphy and printing for centuries. Due to its remarkable durability, it was also used in recording of important documents. Avatamsaka Sutra, a copy of famous Buddhist text believed to have been written in 755 A.D., includes by far the most complete record of early Korean paper making, with a description of how craftsmen of Shilla dynasty used mulberry paper to print Buddhist sutras. In trade with Song dynasty of China, Koryo dynasty of ancient Korea (A.D.1145-1188) exported a lot of white hanji, which the Chinese regarded as the world's finest and used for writing of Buddhist sutras.

Hanji has also been used extensively in Korean households and everyday life. From the 15th century on, the paper was used in variety of handicrafts, especially for clothes and accessories: coats, hats, garments, curtains, purses, armors, tubes for arrows, ammunition cases, ropes, rings, baskets and seed cases. Hanji was also used in furniture and building. Other common paper products included containers for the storage of rice, corn, peas and other grains. These paper crocks were cured in oil, making them not only insect repellent but also humidity resistant.

Hanji has been essential in creating a harmonious home atmosphere for Koreans. In the old times, Korean people lived through the cold, windy winter in houses with doors and windows covered with no more than a single layer of hanji which was also laid to the floors - a great testimony to hanjis utility. Because hanji is translucent, it conducts light into a room when pasted on latticed windows and doors. At night, the moonlight shines through hanji windows to create a calming, cozy atmosphere.

In traditional Korea, paper craft was practiced not only by skilled artisans but also by common people. Even retired men of the noble class would make simple objects, such as tobacco cases and chess boxes from hanji torn out of old books. Servants would also make simple pieces in their spare time, as well as Buddhist monks who had plenty of old books around and found the craft a good way to spend their leisure time in the temple. The tradition of using print paper continues to this day in Korea, as a reminder of Korean ancestors frugality and respect for the environment.

The process of Hanji making

Western influences during the last century have encouraged the mechanized production of traditional folk crafts. However, the soft texture and natural pattern of hanji fibers cannot be reproduced by machine. Traditional production of hanji takes no less than ten steps:

One-year-old branches of mulberry tree are cut between the month of November and February. The branches are steamed, and then the bark is stripped from the branches and boiled in lye. The resulting fibers are washed repeatedly to remove impurities. Boiled bark is then beaten for 2-4 hours. This crushed fiber is carefully mixed with water and roots of Takpul grass. The roots release gluten, a substance that acts as a natural gluing agent, which ensures even mixture of the crushed fiber and ultimately hanji's durability against the test of time. The cleaned fibers are strained through a wooden frame, which is shaken back and forth to create a crisscross pattern of fibers, which is the key to hanjis extraordinary resiliency. This crushed fiber is carefully mixed with water.

Water is an essential ingredient in papermaking. In order to make resilient paper, the water must be pure and soft, with low calcium and magnesium content. If it contains too much iron or magnesium, the paper retains these chemicals and oxidizes easily, dramatically reducing its longevity. Moreover, if the water is contaminated with dust or tiny sand particles, the papers fine texture suffers. For these reasons, hanji has traditionally been made near brooks flowing past isolated mountain hamlets.

Hanji today

After reaching its economical prosperity in the 1980's, Koreans have become more aware of their unique cultural heritage of five thousand years. Contemporary artists have started to rediscover their own cultural traditions and identity, which have been threatened by modern times and Western influence. In recent years, the use of hanji has been rediscovered in both contemporary and traditional art.

for more information please contact

Seija Heinänen
puh (014) 624 940
email seija.heinanen(at)jkl.fi

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