Friday, September 25, 2015

Korean Calligraphy: Writing a "Gahun"

The Itaewon Global Village Center offers special cultural programs for foreigners with the stance that Korea is marketing their culture to foreigners to "take home" or "use" within the host country. The program today was a special Korean calligraphy learning experience with participants choosing and completing a gahun (family motto) to not only remind one of the principles of the family but also to dual-function as a work of art.

In years gone by, many Korean families had a gahun or family motto, and from it parents taught their children the importance of good behavior and morals via promulgating the gahun, which expressed filial piety to one's family, and promulgating the hyangyak (the village creed), which was a marker of respect to elders and the group beyond one's family. The Korean Confucian culture places great emphasis on education, so parents used the gahun for edifying their children morality and righteous behavior, a practice that has been passed down through the generations. The present-day younger generations, however, don't understand the meaning or the importance of the gahun, an example of traditional teaching methods being flung by the wayside as western education is embraced more and more.
Traditional Calligraphy Tools-of-the-art
벼루 - a plate of stone for grinding inkstones on 
- inkstone, made of charcoal and oil. Because it is an all natural product without chemicals that break down over time, the inkstone and ink on paintings can last for over 1000 years. 
먹물 - ink, which literally derives from "inkstone" and "water"
- brush. The handle of a brush for painting calligraphy is typically made of bamboo while the brush fibers can be made from many organic substances, animal hair mostly; however, the most preferred fibers are made from goat hair, which is boiled free of the natural lanolins before the fibers are dipped into ink. In older times, when parents cut their baby's hair, they used the hair to make a brush and presented the gift to the baby. This practice seems rather auspicious for trying to form the child into a scholar by presenting a scholar's symbol. 
화선지 - This is a special type of hanji (Korean traditional paper) and is specifically used for writing a letter, which of course was always written with moist calligraphy ink. Because hanji is unlike modern paper that causes ink to pool and run, 화선지 easily absorbs the ink liquid. Extra ink spots can even be blotted, which, if carefully done, does not smear or streak the painting -- rather amazing as modern paper smears and streaks horrifically. 
도장 and 작관 - 도장 means a type of identification stamp, and is needed for "signing" one's artwork. However, the specific type of 도장 in calligraphy is referred to as 작관, basically a 3-piece stamp set. The smallest stamp, a small rectangle, is the 두인 roughly meaning "head" and "stamp", or a stamp at the beginning or head of the work. The other two stamps are for one's name and for one's nickname, which a Confucian scholar often had, and it was the Confucian scholars that painted and those paintings are what are stocking present-day museums. The 두인 our teacher used was 빔, "emptiness", which denotes emptying one's mind and heart of wants and desires in order to be more satisfied. Beautiful concept!
The stamps are vigorously dabbed into a red paste and then stamped in their proper locations on the artwork. The 두인 at the beginning of the gahun or proverb and the other two beside one's painted signature. In traditional times the red inkstone was harmlessly edible, but no one in their right mind would go about sampling the modern concoction now.
Just before one signs the artwork, the date is painted on (not required). Our teacher painted the date in the Asian order on his model - 2015.10.2 - but in ancient times there was no specific date attributed to a painting but rather one of the 16 seasons comprised its "date". Each of the four common seasons (spring, summer, autumn, winter) were further divided into three seasons, e.g. early-spring, mid-spring, late-spring. On the Chinese calendar these 16 seasons were accurate markers of the passage of time, as was the 만월 or full moon, and the observer could then know the circumstances of the time by reading the "date" of the painting.
Creating our own hanging scrolls
The teacher was a professional calligrapher, who spoke almost nil English but was very quick to understand body language and knew that modeling was the better way of "teaching" for a hands-on learning session. This was a foreigner-only class. Koreans are taught calligraphy sometime along the way in grade-school and this class was more for promulgating things Korean rather than teaching a serious and deep concept. About 20 of us were there, and we all loved it! It was my first experience in using a brush for Korean calligraphy and I was excited about the freedom we were allowed to try and find our "voice" in the ink.

The tables were set up with a dark cloth for soaking up excess ink and hiding ink spills. Shared plates of ink and brushes were set out for groups of four to gather around and use. And of course stacks of hanji was waiting for our drippy brushes. But before we just dove in with painting, it was of course assumed that we foreigners didn't already have a family gahun so there were a few copies of compiled idiom books that we could choose from and claim one as our family motto. Proverbs are not unusual family mottos although I do understand that many families carefully considered their mottos and preferred to shape language in creating something unique. I'm also guessing that a few, if not many, of these unique gahun became, over time, what we know as traditional proverbs today.
행복이 남는 집 - Home of overflowing happiness
참 부지런한 집 - Home of diligence
언제나 부끄럽지 않게 - Always without shame
구름일 벗어난 달처럼 - Like moon fresh out of cloud
참 향기로운 가족 - Family of real fragrance
흐르는 물처럼 - Live like flowing water
After practicing several times on loose-leaf hanji, we were given an elegant scroll and were to paint our gahun on it. Many of the participants didn't like their lettering and the teacher was only too happy to paint their gahun professional for them. 
As for me, I didn't want to just grab a proverb for creating a scroll painting, which is supposed to have deep significance to the painter and his or her family by extension, so beforehand I translated my favorite Bible verse, Psalms 46:10, "Be still and know that I am God." It has deep personal meaning and so it became my family gahun. I'm sure my family won't mind :)
Practicing my gahun in the traditional left-to-right top-to-bottom method. 
Certainly not perfect but I'm satisfied as it was a first attempt at Korean calligraphy.

시편 46:10. 이르시기를 너희는 가만히 있어 내가 하나님 됨을 알찌어다. 
"Be still and know that I am God." Psalms 46:10. 

Korean/Chinese calligraphy has more than 3000 years of history and development. Traditionally it was a meditation art and was to be done methodically, heart-felt-fully, and with deep intentions and pure thoughts. Nowadays, however, the strokes have become quick and less methodical. I understand the purity of thought in writing calligraphy as one cannot write well if there is emotional overflow. One must be at peace to keep the strokes even and smoothly flowing.

Calligrapher at Insadong

The day before going to the 2-hour class at the Global Village Center I was inspired by a street calligraphy in Insadong. It seems a lot of other people were too because many were stopping to watch, and even there were a few small transactions. So I watched him a while and started preparing my questions about the three dojangs (stamps) being used. I'd never noticed more than one, but one is more typical of personal paintings. There is so much about this art form that is fascinating. I think I could seriously enjoy this as one of my many hobbies!

This calligrapher attracts a lot of attention in Insadong, and even little kids watch with fascination!

Using the 작관 or 3-piece stamping set for calligraphers, the man stamps his name and nickname (아호) at the far left, or the end, of his art form.
Then the calligrapher adds a mood seal at the beginning of his art. The mood seal can be a Chinese character or even a picture (I think this might be a modern-day addition). Basically the mood seal might state the season in which the painting was created, a Chinese character reflecting a sentiment the calligrapher wants to commute to the viewer, or a proverb idea. 

1 comment:

  1. For courses in calligraphy, speakers must have basic Korean, but lectures are in English:

    조윤곤 선생님 서에
    Venue: 용산구청 서에 3개월 과정 (수시모집)
    1반: 매주 월요일 18:00~20:00
    2반: 매주 화요일 16:00~18:00
    3반: 매주 화요일 18:00~20:00
    fee: 3개월 90,000원
    모집인원: 각반 선착순 20명 (수시모집)
    접수방법: 전화접수
    조운곤 선생짐 (010-8864-9607)과 통화하여 수강할 반 덩한 후 수강료 잡부

    우림서에원 (Yurim Seoyewon)
    080-506-9999 / 02-722-2262
    서울시 종로구 인사동 10번지 4F (located at Insa-dong intersection)
    Fee: W150,000 개월