▲ Some of the pottery fired in the kilns at the the 4th Jeju Onggi Kiln Ritual Festival 2014. Photo by The Jeju Weekly
“They are twins,” said the man dressed in galot as he pointed to two boys also clad in the persimmon-dyed clothing traditional to Jeju. They stood at the south end of the stone and earthen edifice, tending the fires. They smiled cheekily, and self-confidently, in their positions as guardians of the kiln.
We were in one of the remotest parts of the island, Mureung-ri, Daejeong-eup, rich in history and famed for garlic. Partly thanks to its geology, it is also a last bastion of a proud Jeju tradition that stretches back 10,000 years and was on display for the 4th Jeju Onggi Kiln Ritual Festival 2014 from Nov. 13 to 16.
For a short time, in this village at least, Jeju’s religio-cultural traditions seemed intact. The elders, the original artisans, bowed for the ceremonial rite, “gulje" or "giwonje,” at the kiln entrance, calling upon the beneficence of the “Gul Halmang,” or kiln goddess, as they have done countless times before. Now, as members of hosts, the Jeju Onggi Trans-mission and Preservation Society, their gestures carry the weight of generations.
▲ Photo by The Jeju Weekly
Looking on, the boys, smoke passing over their faces, embody the future of Jeju tradition. The aging potters, numbering fewer by the year, are a reservoir of indigenous knowledge, and without intervention the Gul Halmang, no matter her beneficence, will no longer be called upon. Jeju Island will be all the poorer for it.
Once the rites are complete, the crowds share Jeju pork and vegetables within the main hall, itself constructed by hand with traditional materials. Then the twins sit down at their spinning wheels and begin moulding the pots, handed the clay by an elder beating it in preparation — intergenerational transmission before our eyes.
The earthen and stone kilns are large and long, and the one at Mureung-ri is known as “Noranggul,” so named after the yellow tinge of the pottery due to the soil, temperature and oxidation process. (Another under construction is called "Geomungul" (Black Kiln) for similar reasons.) The large size accommodated the pottery needed by the community and in another local adaptation, stones function as hotplates within the kiln.
Just as the artisans are becoming scarcer — the industry has been in decline since industrial kilns took off on the mainland in the 1960s — development and regulations make it harder to find the best soils. Few soil tracts on Jeju suffice, the largest of which sits under the swathe of the west on which Mureung-ri sits.
▲ Photo by The Jeju Weekly
The light, crumbly and iron-rich volcanic earth produces a thick and coarse pottery that doesn't glaze, rather breathing and enthusing the contents with carbon, adding to its preservative qualities, say locals.
While many festivals on Jeju Island seem as authentic as the “Mongol” tents which ring their perimeters, this endeavour was both humbling and inspiring. As Governor Won Hee-ryong calls on the province to become an island of culture, this is surely its essence.
A spirit of educational activism also enthused the festival site as youth volunteers, from the local community and NGO Global Inner Peace, made traditional mud bricks for the museum to be built there. Other activities on offer included making “mulhoebok,” Jeju’s traditional water vessels.
The apprentices — along with the twins, three others comprise the keepers of the flame — all have familial links to the original kiln artisans. Huh Eunsuk, director of the Jeju Onggi Museum, even explains that the land itself was donated by the late Ko Hongsu, former "guldaejang," or head of the kiln. His house became an art shop and residence, and a temporary museum has been constructed, previously being at a nearby disused elementary school.
▲ Photo by The Jeju Weekly
Huh says there is great local interest in preserving the tradition but the shortage of skilled potters is the priority. She hopes for policy support from local government to make soil extraction and wood-sourcing easier, both major obstacles at present.
“This could be a huge boost for authentic Jeju tourism,” she said, “as Jeju stone kilns are different from the mainland and unique in the world.”
The outlook for this distinct tradition is brighter than in years past. Among the apprentices is Kang Minji (23), who is learning the tradition while completing her history degree.
“We must carry this tradition forward. Young people might look at it and think it is hard work and boring, but it is inter-esting. Through ceramics you can explain our history,” she said.
The festival was sponsored by the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea, Jeju Special Self-Governing Province, Jeju Culture and Art Foun-dation, the Federation of Artistic and Cultural Organization of Korea – Jeju Association, Mureung-2ri Village Community and Global Inner Peace.
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