The University of Iowa

Korean hanji: a disappearing craft

November 5th, 2014

By Steph Rue

Steph Rue, a MFA candidate in Book Arts/Center for the Book at the University of Iowa, spent last summer studying the role of Buddhist spirituality in Korean papermaking in South Korea. The making of Korean paper, or "hanji," is an ancient craft that played an integral and often sacred role in the lives of Koreans for over 1,500 years. Like many traditions, Korean hand papermaking is rapidly declining, with only a few remaining masters of the craft. The purpose of Steph's research was to explore the sacred and spiritual role of hand papermaking in Korea before this important craft disappears. Read on to learn more about Steph's journey.

Steph dries hanji.

For my Stanley project, I investigated the connection between traditional Korean handmade paper (hanji) and Buddhist spirituality in South Korea. My research began in Seoul, where I examined many artifacts made with hanji at the National Museum of Korea, the KyuJangGak Institute for Korean Studies, the National Palace Museum, HoAm Museum, Museum San, and Insadong, a traditional craft center.

I also visited Cheongju, home of the Early Printing History Museum and the Movable Metal Type Casting Center, where I learned about traditional printing in Korea. I then traveled to various paper mills throughout the countryside, including Jang Ji Bang, Shin Hyun Se, and Andong Hanji. I visited Gyeongju, the site of Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto, two UNESCO sites that are important Buddhist landmarks.

I stayed at Haein Temple, which houses the Tripitaka Koreana, a collection of 14th-century woodblocks containing the entire Buddhist canon. I also stayed at Jikji Temple, where I participated in temple life and learned about Buddhist culture and practice. I spent one week in Cheungdo with Youngdam Sunim, a Buddhist nun and papermaker.

I learned how to make hanji and conducted informal interviews with Youngdam Sunim on Buddhism and traditional papermaking. Finally, I traveled to Jeonju and visited the Jeonju Hanji Museum, as well as Master Yu and his wife, who make traditional bamboo screens used for Korean papermaking.

My experience provided me with a wealth of information on traditional Korean bookmaking techniques and materials. This knowledge has expanded my understanding of book and paper history. I was inspired by the many artifacts I saw in museums and craft centers. I plan to incorporate many of the techniques and materials I observed, as well as approaches to Buddhist practice, into my graduate thesis work.

Here, Steph dyes hanji with indigo - a crucial part of the papermaking process.

Now that I have learned how to make hanji and was able to procure a papermaking screen in Korea, I plan continue my research here by making hanji using the papermaking facilities through the Center for the Book. During my trip I also learned about and met many traditional artisans who are struggling to keep their crafts alive. It was important to see the situation first-hand and to more fully understand the need to promote their work.

I have recently applied for a Fulbright Student Grant to return to Korea in 2015. I would like to continue my research on traditional Korean bookmaking and deepen my understanding of the techniques and materials used to make Korean books. I plan to incorporate what I learn in my own artwork. I also plan to open an art center that will connect the American public to traditional Korean book and paper arts. The center will encompass a gallery space for international exhibitions featuring artists using traditional Korean techniques, a curated museum of historical craft objects, a venue for lectures and workshops with visits from Korean specialists, and access to tools and supplies to practice Korean arts.

Steph has recently given two presentations on her Stanley research. The first presentation was on October 5 and hosted by the Iowa Working Group, a student-moderated group run by students from the Center for the Book. The second presentation was on October 18 at the American Printing History Association and Friends of Dard Hunter Papermaking joint conference, titled "Paper on the Press" and held in San Francisco. She also presented her Stanley research on traditional printing and papermaking in Korea.

Find out more information about the Stanley Graduate and Undergraduate Awards for International Research, funded in part by the Stanley-UI Foundation Support Organization.