A boy and his train: Dak Hanji artists must study for at least 3 years before they are able to make paper dolls anywhere near the quality of this skillfully crafted model. Photo by Cat Lever
With joyful faces, the paper dolls at the Dak Paper Doll Museum in Seogwipo depict activities and events traditional to Korean culture. Boys dressed in brightly-coloured Hanbok bobsleigh down a snowy incline; shamans beat out a rhythm on their drums; children play with their grandparents; villagers celebrate the lunar New Year and, for the sake of the modern, a B-boy band pose mid-routine. Each figurine is entirely made from Dak tree paper known as Dak Hanji- from their blushing cheeks and playful expressions to their colourful clothes and toys.
Dedicated artists Dak Hanji craft is a painstaking labour of love for the Korean artists who create them. They are trained for a minimum of three years before taking paper crafting as their profession but despite the intensive training, this is not the end of their education.
Each doll can take between one and three months to make, depending on size, and with each one the artists’ skills are practiced and honed. The only materials they use are paper and gluing paste- which is similar to that used in paper mache. The colours of the dolls’ skin, hair and clothes are all created using natural dyes. Although a full spectrum of colour can be achieved, the natural origins create warm, earthy tones befitting the ethos of the craft.
When creating a new figurine the artists will progress through a series of steps. Firstly, a stiff frame is created, looking a little like a stick-man, then Dak Hanji is wound around the frame. Gradually more paper is applied, building up the ‘flesh’ of the doll, which the artist carefully shapes as the doll takes form.
Once the ideal shape is achieved an outer layer of coloured paper is applied to represent the skin of the doll. Finally, the doll is dressed with coloured Hanji clothes. What is most striking about viewing the finished dolls is the accuracy with which artists can portray emotions; the facial features really are quite extraordinary.
Different aspects of traditional culture as represented, including this music-making hobo. Photo by Cat Lever
Superior quality Hanji first arrived in Korea from China, around 1,100 years ago, during the reign of the Koryo Dynasty. The techniques borrowed from China were quickly improved upon and it was not long before Korea was producing higher quality Hanji than the Chinese; so much so that it became one of the country’s largest exports, along with ginseng. Historical records show that Chinese royalty frequently requested Korean Hanji as possessing it had become the ultimate symbol of wealth.
Durable, strong and insulating, Hanji paper ventilates well and feels smooth to the touch, making it the perfect material for a variety of uses. Traditionally it was used as wallpaper, to make screens and as a flooring material in Korean homes. In the Joseon period, Dak Hanji was even used to make armour, as it was water resistant, warm and resilient. In modern times it is popular as calligraphy paper because its density makes ink strokes appear deep and elegant. It is also used to make boxes, kites, flowers, fans, pouches, books, and of course dolls.
Part of what makes Korean Hanji so superior is the tree used to make it. Dak grows across the Korean peninsula and is longer, stronger and has a higher sheen than trees used for Chinese and Japanese paper. It is this combined with the unique Korean method of production that stands Korean Hanji apart from all other papers.
A village girl carries a traditional water jar. Photo by Cat Lever
Intensive production First, branches are harvested from the Dak tree and boiled in water. Once they have softened up, the bark is stripped and the flesh just beneath the bark is cut away and shredded. The young flesh is then pounded repeatedly, to make it strong and dense. After being boiled a second time it is strained to remove the moisture. The flattened paper sheets are then left to dry before being piled together and pounded a final time to add even more strength. It is repeated pounding that causes Korean Hanji paper to become so strong and therefore be suitable for so many uses.
A story illustrating the strength of Korean Hanji, well-shared among Hanji artists and enthusiasts, is that many years ago a book of Buddhist scripture was found buried beneath a stone tower. Upon retrieving it from the ground its discoverers realized it that was over 1,000 years old, yet thanks to the durability of Hanji it was not only intact but still readable. From this comes the legend that Hanji lasts a thousand years.
The exhibition of Hanji dolls at the Dak Paper Doll Museum offers Koreans a very nostalgic and comforting look back at a simpler time. For non-Koreans, it offers a fascinating insight- not only into the skills of Dak Hanji artists but into Korea’s past, its people and way of life.
Beat rocking B-Boys are another visitors’ favourite. Photo by Cat Lever
The Dak Paper Doll museum is the first of its kind in Korea and welcomes visitors. It is open 9a.m-7p.m and tickets cost 6,000w. It is located inside the Seogwipo World Cup Stadium. More information can be found at: www.storium.co.kr (Korean only) or by calling 064-739-3905-6
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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