Hanji (한지) literally means “Korean paper”. It is hand-made paper made from the inner bark of paper mulberry (which is also known as dak tree in Korea). When the Mugujeonggwang Daedaranigyeong (literally “Great Dharani Sutra of Immaculate and Pure Light”) hidden in a casket in the Bulguksa Temple for nearly 1,200 years was discovered, the hanji on which it was printed remained perfectly intact. Medicine made from the ashes of burnt hanji are said to be used as medicine to help stop bleeding. In this blog post, let’s talk about this wonderful paper, hanji, which has a history of over 1,000 years.
How is Hanji made?
Hanji is made from the inner bark of paper mulberry trees which is very strong and does not decompose even if it is immersed in water for a year. The fibers are wide so they allow light and air to pass through them. The process of making hanji is very labour-intensive and complicated.
The bark of the dry mulberry is first processed by peeling, steaming, immersing in water and alkaline solutions, removing particles, beating it with a wooden club, and creating a glutinous mixture made from the fibers, clean water and glue. Then the glutinous mixture is strained using a bamboo screen which is shaken back and forth to create a crisscross pattern of the fibers which now form a sheet of paper. The paper sheets are then stacked on the wall or a panel and are dried either in the sun or on a heated steel panel. After drying, the paper is pounded to make it softer and denser and the thickness of the paper can be reduced from a half to a third. You can watch this video which depicts the major steps of the hanji-making process.
The Multi-purpose Hanji
Since hanji is soft but tough, it can be creased, twisted, torn and weaved together with other pieces. Hanji is also light, biodegradable and durable. The fabrics made by blending hanji with cotton or silk are washable and cannot be torn easily. Moreover, because of the presence of hanji, such fabrics can suppress the proliferation of harmful bacteria and fungi so prevent bad odors from perspiration.
In the traditional Korean society, hanji had already been used to make clothes, for example, oil-soaked hanji garments for rainy days and hanji-padded winter clothes for soldiers. It was said that the soldiers wore suits of armour made of layers of lacquered hanji – because of the densely crisscross patterns of the fibres which made up the paper, it’s so strong that even the arrows could not penetrate through them. The nobility also wore shoes made of hanji.
Nowadays, hanji has also been used to make a lot of everyday items like wallpaper, furniture, lanterns, bed covers, sneakers, wrappers, lamps, pencils, bags, baskets, gift boxes, paper fans, apparel (e.g., garments, socks, ties, scarves, etc.), and even audio speakers (with vibration plate and outside panel made of hanji). With increasing environmental concerns, BC Card, one of South Korea’s credit card issuers, rolled out a credit card made of several layers of hanji in 2009. You can watch this video for a variety of crafts items made from hanji.
As hanji is permeable to light and air, it can be glued to the frames of windows and doors to replace glasses. In fact, the Korean traditional houses called hanok all use hanji instead of glasses for their windows and doors.
Hanji as a Theme in Pop Culture
There was a Korean movie entitled “Hanji” (달빛 길어올리기 – literally means “scooping up the moonlight”) which was directed by Im Kwon-taek and released in 2011. The movie is about a civil servant being assigned to revive Jeonju’s traditional hanji industry. He also met a film-maker who was in the process of shooting a documentary about hanji. As he discovered the beauty of the craft, he even joined others to try to make hanji using the traditional method under the moonlight. You can watch this video for the trailer of the movie.
Hanji Tourist Spots in Jeonju and Wonju
Jeonju and Wonju are the two cities in South Korea well-known for their high quality hanji and they hold hanji festivals annually. Subject to changes, the Jeonju Hanji Culture Festival is held in May every year and the Wonju Hanji Festival is held in September every year.
The Jeonju Hanji Culture Festival offers various programs relating to hanji like contests, exhibitions, seminars, hands-on experience programs for making hanji and handicraft items, fashion show and other cultural programs like traditional Korean music performances. It is scheduled to be held on 2-5 May this year. You can visit the Festival’s website (in Korean) or the website of Korea Tourism Organization (in English) for more information.
The Wonju Hanji Festival offers fashion shows, exhibitions and hands-on programs for making hanji and handicraft items and is held in the Hanji Theme Park. You can visit the Festival’s website (in Korean) for information about the 2014 festival. You can watch this video for snapshots of the festival held in 2010.
In Jeonju, there is also a Hanji Museum which has a collection of about 3,000 artifacts relating to hanji and a database documenting the long history and characteristics of hanji. The Museum may also hold special exhibitions from time to time. You can visit the museum’s website (in Korean) and the website of Korea Tourism Organization (in English) for more information.
Next time you visit South Korea, please don’t forget to visit the Jeonju Hanji Museum and if your schedule fits, also participate in the annual hanji festivals in Jeonju and Wonju. You can also buy souvenirs made from hanji in most of the souvenir shops in South Korea. Enjoy the hanji experience! 🙂
Reminder: The next blog post will be published on 2 June 2015. Watch this space!
Arirang TV, “Hanji“, 100 Icons of Korean Culture, 2013-08-22
“Hanji, living paper that breathes“, Korea.net, 2012-07-31
Lee Hyo-won, “Im Kwok-taek: directing beyond his years“, The Korea Times, 2011-03-15
Jung Ha-won, “BC rolls out hanji paper credit card“, Korea JoongAng Daily, 2009-05-18
“Hanji paper“, Korea Tourism Organization