Monday, February 15, 2016

What Is Hanji?

Hanji literally means “the paper of Korea”. It has been a part of Korean life and tradition for over a thousand years. Hanji is an extremely durable and high-quality paper, made from the fibrous inner bark of the mulberry tree, which grows well in Korea. 

Hanji is used in very many ways : 
  • covering for doors and windows of traditional Korean houses
  • printing paper for important documents and books 
  • household objects: fans, tobacco pouches, notebooks, shrouds, rope and string, baskets, shoes, clothes, umbrellas, lamps, kites … 
  • furniture making
  • calligraphy paper
  • wall papering 
  • arts and crafts 
The durability of hanji allows it to be used in a multitude of ways. Before Korea opened its ports, Koreans even used hanji as a suit of armor after varnishing it with lacquer. There is an old saying that paper lasts a thousand years and textiles (such as silk or hemp) last 500. In the West, products made of paper more than 300∼400 years old are rare, but Korea has preserved quite a few books and drawings which are almost 1000 years old. In fact, the oldest printed material in the world, created in 751, was printed on hanji. 

The strength and durability of the traditional paper comes from its natural materials. Mulberry bark is strong and can even be immersed in water for a year without decomposing. The mulberry fibers are wide and the fibers stay aerated with air and light passing through. The high-quality Korean paper can be produced with young trees—trees that are one year old—while cheaper modern paper requires pulp made from trees 20-30 years old. 

Manufacturing hanji is complicated, slow and labor-intensive. Dry mulberry branches are cut after the frost and steamed. The branches are then immersed in water for one day, dried under sunlight, then the bark is peeled off and once again the plant fibers are steamed, this time immersed inside an iron pot with caustic soda. The steamed bark is then smashed with a mortar to squeeze the water out, and then placed in a wrapper and rinsed in flowing water. The fine mulberry fibers are then mixed with water and a natural adhesive in a large cauldron from which the fibers are lightly dipped out with a bamboo screen and rhythmically swished back and forth to create a crisscross pattern of fibers. The pulp remaining on the screen is then dried in a stack of wooden panels with good aeration and exposure to the sun, and once dried, peeled off the screen in a sheet of paper. The Korean Paper Museum in Jeonju gives visitors a more detailed perspective of hanji making ( 

Because of its laboriousness in production, traditional masters of hanji want less difficult jobs for their sons. As one master says, “I will not let my son be a container man (the person who strains the fiber through a bamboo screen) even if I am driven to the worst”. The small quantities, a long production process and distribution limited to specialty markets make traditional hanji production difficult to compete with the mass distribution of cheap easily produced modern paper. Therefore, he Korean government has appointed the masters of Korean paper making as intangible cultural assets and makes efforts to protect the industry. 

With global changes, hanji is finding new markets, and currently the hottest market trend for hanji is in the art industry. 

Artists for calligraphy and dyeing find hanji more suitable for applying ink than with less expensive, modern papers because of their impurities. For example, black Chinese ink spreads evenly because the hanji is strong and lacks impurities despite being thin. Also as it is very fibrous, it soaks up ink rather than letting it pool and puddle, which results in streaks and smears. Fashion shows featuring hanji clothing have been held on the Champs Elysee in Paris. Hanji has been developed as a substitute for styrofoam as internal pack material. And currently underway is a joint study by Korea and the US to study the potential protective properties of hanji paper for space shuttles. 

What makes hanji so special? How can it be so durable?

The answer is in the bark of the mulberry tree. This bark is so strong that it can be immersed in water for an entire year without decomposing! Also, as the fibers of the bark are wide, it allows both air and light to go through. The mulberry pulp is naturally pH neutral and has an incomparable longevity; the fibers of the mulberry pulp are longer, more flexible and more resistant than other plants' fibers. Its extraordinary resilience makes it a prime choice for archival use; that's why the most important documents in the history of Korea have been written or printed on hanji.

Traditional Korean hanji is made with mulberry pulp and clean water, without any fillers or additives.

"Since 1945, Korean lifestyle underwent a dramatic overhaul. Traditional thatch top houses, which used a lot of handmade paper for walls, doors, windows, and flooring, were replaced by western architecture. Hanji was no longer an integral part of daily life and its main consumers were reduced to artists who practiced traditional ink painting or calligraphy. However, in recent years, a renewed awareness and appreciation is growing and the excellence of paper-making tradition is being rediscovered. More people are accepting the responsibility to carry on this invaluable legacy for next generations, opening a new era of hanji." (History of Hanji, Fides International).


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