Sunday, June 24, 2012

Onggi Pottery & More Tea Culture

the long traditional onggi kiln capable of holding up to 50 vessels
Earthenware Kiln in Bugeo-ri, Gimje
Registered Cultural Heritage No. 403

The RAS (Royal Asiatic Society) Tour continued onwards to an onggi kiln site. Onggi is the traditional fired pottery used for holding kimchis, fermenting soy sauces and bean pastes and is now creatively made into dishes, pots, vases, tea sets, and in other non-traditional ways.

Making the onggi is a labor-intensive process. First the clay has to be harvested from nearby clay pits. Then it is washed and soaked and allowed to suspend in water where the clay-water is floated out leaving behind the sand, grit and other heavier debris. Then with an electrical devise (hurray for that because this is a one-made operation!), the clay-water is processed and pulled and through working the water the water is wrung from the clay. At some point, the onggi-maker treads on and pounds the softening clay to squeeze all the trapped air bubbles out. Once the clay is more workable, it is heaped in a mound in a work building where it is scraped and kneeded by hand, scraped and kneeded by hand, then formed into bricks for further work in the next process.

chamber kilns - also for firing pottery, but of much smaller size than the huge onggi pots
After the moist bricks are all stacked, the clay is ready for forming into long slabs. The style employed at this onggi kiln is not to make pottery using coils but to make the pottery by working the clay into long thin slabs, and stacking the slabs as needed and pinching them together to make the vast pots demanded for Korean food preservation. The glaze is the secret that strengthens the onggi and gives it a weather-resistant sheen. It is principally a combination of suspended clay and pine ash - I'm sure other secrets are employed and not told, even though the formerly competing five other onggi kilns in the area are no longer in operation and even no longer in existence.

a peek inside the long onggi kiln - already a few large onggi are sitting,
ready to be fired when the kiln is full
Eventually the clay pots, the principle production at this kiln, are formed and are ready to be fired. The long kiln can hold up to 50 vessels, of course that depends on size. The smaller chamber kilns (time 5 or 6 at this site) are used for smaller pieces.

inside the cool earthy-smelling workshop
When firing a kiln, it reaches temperatures of 1200C and the temperature must be maintained. The chamber kilns usually need one day to fire and one day to cool. The long kiln needs five days of constant tending and constant maintaining of temperature before the pieces are adequately fired, and I'm not sure how long to cool before breaking the seal to see how successful the firing process was.

An interesting historical point about this onggi kiln site is that Buchang village, where this kiln and five others were located about 200 years ago, was formed by Catholics escaping from religious persecution. Not much is known about the events themselves but the village and the art of onggi did continue and was passed down until today. The present owner is a rather young man who, after finishing his studies of pottery at university, came and was taught by the former owner (and I think descendant of the original villagers). The former owner was not only firing onggi-ware but also being a farmer - very unusual, and demanding. He taught the university graduate, who by graduating, is also certified to make tableware of plates, bowls, vases and other culinary pieces that I understood would not be acceptable without having his university degree in pottery.

The onggi guest shop and greeting room

Modern-day use of the onggi pottery clay production and glazing

beautiful, rustic, graceful teapots available

Preparing tea for the guests - this was a warming fermented tea served with cool watermelon,
a barley baked bread and rice cakes with honey and sesame filling

a light refreshment to say 'thank you for coming' to the guests

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