Back To Top

[Lee Kyong hee] Missing Han Chang-ki, a cultural icon and pioneer

Han Chang-ki led Britannica Korea when South Korean society was on the threshold of rapid economic growth. Modernization was often synonymous with Westernization, and having a set of Encyclopedia Britannica bestowed instant status onto families.

Han, in his early 30s, took advantage of the trend, introducing modern marketing strategies in direct consumer sales for the first time in the country. His sales network expanded to include as many as 1,500 personnel at its peak, whom he trained rigorously. Britannica Korea grew fast, achieving eye-popping sale rates. Han became known as a “master of persuasion.”

Around that time, Han began to be seen browsing antique shops in Insa-dong frequently. It was a curious scene itself: a tall, handsome, fluent English speaker known for his international business acumen and dandy fashion style, strolling the old alley crowded with small curio shops. He also started hosting weekly recitals by pansori singers. They were the only such gatherings at the time. Folk music was on the verge of disappearing amid widespread indifference toward native Korean performing arts. In addition, Han tenaciously persuaded the Chicago-based publisher and distributor of Encyclopedia Britannica to back a groundbreaking venture.

In March 1976, Britannica Korea launched a monthly magazine, oddly named Deep Rooted Tree. The name was borrowed from the first line of “Songs of Flying Dragons,” the first epic song written in Hangeul after its invention in 1443. It denoted Han’s profound love of Hangeul that guided his life.

In all respects, Deep Rooted Tree was an unprecedented magazine in Korea. From its lengthy, pure Korean name (Ppuri Gipeun Namu) to its larger size, meticulous grid layout employing the concept of visual design, writing and typefaces, the magazine completely reset the Korean magazine style.

The eye-grabbing cover image of an old farmer’s hands grasping a palmful of rice delivered a clear message that it would explore and discover the beauty and value of Korea’s native culture nurtured by the grassroots. Looking back, it embodied the vision of a pioneer who looked far ahead.

In his inaugural message, Han explained, “We at Deep Rooted Tree believe that our cultural foundation lies in our native culture. We believe that our culture will grow more lushly when this native culture can manifest its hidden value that has been belittled through history, without withering in the shade of high-brow culture that doesn’t touch us or being overwhelmed by the sweeping popular culture of our times, thereby meeting harmoniously with the progress achieved through change.

“And we believe that only when our culture grows in such a way will we be able to live well in stable minds and comfortable livelihoods amidst change. And, above all, we think that world culture can advance further when our culture grows vigorously as one of its streams.”

As publisher and executive editor, Han revealed that Korea’s native language, environment, education as the “vehicle of cultural development” and the arts as the “skin of culture” would be central to the magazine’s content. Considering that Korea was undergoing rapid development, with its rural culture recklessly destroyed, it was a solemn manifesto to safeguard and document the nation’s native cultural legacies for readers.

Han and his staff especially focused on the healthy and correct usage of Korean language and script. Back in the 1970s, most publications in the country adhered to the conventional mixed use of Chinese characters and Japanese idioms and terms, and vertical writing. The commitment by Han’s magazine required no less than a revolutionary endeavor. It often led to heated debates between editors and with contributing writers, the results even overbearing some readers as well.

Han, an avid student of native Korean vocabulary and grammar, manned the front line of the debate. It was not in vain. The “Deep Rooted Tree style,” represented by pure Hangeul and horizontal writing, gradually took root. Today it is widely adopted as the standard style in all types of publications.

Though it openly defined native culture as its major concern and mostly carried articles dealing with rural cultural heritage, the magazine stayed steadfast in its support of the nameless mass. Literary and artistic critiques and commentaries inevitably contained metaphors of resistance against military dictatorship. On July 31, 1980, Deep Rooted Tree was among the 172 periodicals forcibly shut down by the government of Chun Doo-hwan in the wake of the Gwangju Democratic Uprising. Deep Rooted Tree had published only 53 editions by then, but its impact remains palpable to this day.

The magazine’s manpower and editorial policy were largely succeeded by another monthly magazine, Water from a Deep Well, published from 1984 to 2001, targeting mostly women. During the four-year interval from 1980 to 1984, the editors and artists stayed together to produce the series of “Discovery of Korea” and “Autobiographies of Mass,” both milestone works in the humanities approach to Korean studies, and the lyrics and CD albums of pansori. These projects continued into the 1990s, consuming what remained of Han’s resources. He died of liver cancer in 1997, at the age of 61. He is buried in his hometown, Beolgyo, South Jeolla Province.

In Suncheon, near his hometown, where Han attended middle school, the Deep Rooted Tree Museum houses his collection of some 6,500 antique objects. A special exhibition is currently underway, marking the 10th anniversary of the city-operated museum. It features various types of boxes and chests from the Joseon era. On the museum grounds are displayed stone Buddhas and steles, which also constitute an important part of his collection.

Looking around the museum, I couldn’t help but wonder what Han would think if he was alive today to witness the sea change that has occurred to the international community’s perception of Korean culture and arts, especially of Hangeul that he loved so deeply. And I wondered what he would say about the global craze for K-pop and dramas -- its bright and dark sides. 

Lee Kyong-hee
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. She is currently editor-in-chief of Koreana, a quarterly magazine of Korean culture and arts published by the Korea Foundation. -- Ed.

By Korea Herald (