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[Herald Interview] Craftsmanship behind Joseon woodblocks

Kim Gak-han has spent most of his life working with wood, from cabinetmaking to carving ancient texts and drawing on wood plates.

“Now that I think about it, I think I was destined to do it,” the craftsman said in his Seoul studio, which was filled with wood plates of different sizes alongside countless handmade cutting tools and chisels.

“One beauty of engraving is that you can’t think about anything else while you are doing it. It requires your full attention and there is something therapeutic about being completely immersed in your work.”

The 59-year-old is one of the few remaining “gakjajang,” the traditional Korean craftsmen who engrave letters or pictures on wood plates. Two years ago, Kim was designated a holder of important intangible property No. 106 for his work.

Kim’s traditional engraving techniques carry significance as the Korean government in February recommended the country’s Confucian printing woodblocks, all carved by Joseon craftsmen, for inclusion in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.

“I ended up here simply because I just loved what I was doing ― carving and engraving,” he said. “I never had the ambition to become or achieve something great.”

The very basic technique of Korea’s traditional engraving consists of carving the wood with a carving knife at a 45-degree angle, which is considered the “basic angle” in Korea’s traditional architecture, clothing and art.

The 45-degree angle can be seen in the distinctive shape of the sleeves of hanbok, Korea’s traditional garment, as well as the eaves of hanok, traditional Korean buildings.

“Japanese craftsmen hold their cutting knives at a 90-degree angle,” Kim said. “The Japanese technique is great for straight lines, whereas the Korean technique is useful for curvy lines ― it even enables you to carve circles.”

According to Lim No-jig, the head of the Woodblock Research Center in Andong, North Gyeongsang Province, the Joseon woodblocks ― mostly produced and used to print scholarly writing and poetry by Confucian scholars ― were costly to make at the time.

They were very often produced in Buddhist temples by monks, who also produced paper used to print academic writings and Confucian texts.

“The cost to have one’s writing engraved on a single wood plate would be almost equivalent to the cost of buying a male servant at the time,” Lim explained. “Only those who belonged to noble families were able to do it.”

Yet things are quite different for modern-day gakjajang, including Kim. The craftsman had been making a living mostly by making wooden signs for Buddhist temples, teaching engraving classes and selling wooden sculptures and decorative plates before being recognized by the government.

Once, as he was struggling to make ends meet in the 1990s, Kim wrote down all of his career options on paper including becoming a driver a driver, he recalled.

“Of everything I wrote down, I realized engraving and carving were the only things that I actually enjoyed doing,” he said.

Born in Gimcheon, North Gyeongsang Province, Kim started working for a local joiner ― a carpenter who joins wood together without metal fasteners ― shortly after graduating from elementary school to support his family.

“I couldn’t attend middle school because my father passed away when I was in sixth grade,” he said. “I didn’t have a lot of options. I didn’t hate it, but I can’t say I absolutely loved working for the joiner.”

It was an exhibition organized by Oh Ok-jin, a renowned traditional engraving expert, in Seoul in the early ’80s that changed his life. Kim had seriously injured both ankles and was in the capital to receive necessary medical treatment.

“I had been told by my doctor that I might not be able to walk again,” he said. “And engraving seemed like something I could do without having to worry about my legs. You just need your eyes and two hands for the job.”

What particularly struck him at the exhibition was the engraving Suseonjeondo, the famous map of today’s Seoul drawn by Joseon cartographer Kim Jeong-ho between 1846 and 1849, on a wood plate.
Kim Gak-han, one of the few remaining gakjajang (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)
Kim Gak-han, one of the few remaining gakjajang (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)

“I had never seen anything like that before,” he said. “I didn’t know one could do something like that on a piece of wood, although I had already spent so much time working with wood before. I visited Mr. Oh Ok-jin shortly after and asked him if I could be his student. I started late, but I learned faster than others. After all, I had been an experienced joiner.”

So began his career spanning more than three decades, in which Kim became the only holder of the intangible cultural asset title for calligraphic engraving following the late Oh, who died in January.

“It certainly feels strange without Mr. Oh. It feels almost as if I’ve lost my own father,” he said.

“Even if your father is ill, bedridden and can’t even speak to you, it’s still so much better to have him in your life. His very existence meant a lot to us.”

Kim, who has studied the Tripitaka Koreana, an 800-year-old set of Buddhist scriptures engraved on over 80,000 woodblocks, as well as Joseon woodblocks used to print writings by Yi Hwang ― one of the most prominent Korean Confucian scholars of the Joseon era ― said Korea’s traditional calligraphic engraving has its own distinctive style that is distinct from the ones in Japan and China.

“I would say the Korean style can be described as delicate and detail-oriented,” he said.

“When you look at the Tripitaka Koreana and the Confucian printing woodblocks, it looks as if they are all carved by a single person ― because the style, especially the length and thickness of each and every character, is so consistent throughout. But they were, in fact, carved by many different craftsmen. They all followed their rules strictly and were extremely well trained.”

On top of creating copies of the nation’s famous Confucian and Buddhist woodblocks, including the UNESCO-designated Jikji, for research and restoration purposes, Kim also gives lectures on traditional calligraphic engraving at a number of universities nationwide.

“I really try to make time for teaching because I’m still searching for someone young who would be willing to be my successor and carry on this tradition,” he said.

“But I have to say it’s been very difficult. There are a lot of people who are into traditional engraving as a hobby, but not many are willing to do this as a vocation. I wish there was more support so whoever followed in my footsteps could make a living just by practicing our tradition, our art.”

By Claire Lee (dyc@heraldcorp.com)
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