Korean Calligraphy: More Than an Artform

By Lucille Bamber

Calligraphy is an artform appreciated in every nation, and every civilization has placed importance on it. From the cryptic hieroglyphics on the pyramids in Egypt to the purely aesthetic writings of the modern Western world and the prophetic Arabic designs; calligraphy has always allowed scripts to advance and create wonderful pieces, admired and understood by all. Many Eastern Asian countries have a similar origins as to where calligraphy came from, and each has grown into their own unique techniques and styles. Korean calligraphy stemmed from Chinese characters and calligraphy masters, and is now so important and different that the story is worth telling. 

  • Why It Is So Unique

Korean calligraphy has been around for roughly two millennia. Those who have mastered it have successfully created visual art through Hanja (Chinese characters), and more recently, Hangul (Korean script) that conveys the artists’ feelings, making every calligraphy artist unique to their own emotions. 

To create calligraphy art in Korea requires years of training to develop the techniques and to discipline the mind. The artist will enter a state of meditation, where the only things that matter are the pen in their hand, and the emotions felt at that moment. 

  • A Brief History of Calligraphy

Calligraphy arrived in Korea around 100AD with the Chinese, but did not become popular until 600AD. The first known Korean calligraphy master was Kim Saeng, producing work to Chinese masters standards, and a century later Choe Chiwon, a poet, became well-known in both Silla and the Tang Dynasty (China) in the Three Kingdoms era. 

A rounded style of calligraphy remained popular throughout most of history, with it becoming slowly more formalistic. In the 19th century, Kim Jung-hee—one of the most celebrated and important calligraphers of modern Korea—revolutionised Korean calligraphy using his own styles in extremely unique ways, and always showing extreme beauty despite his life filled with tragedy. 

Hanja was the main alphabet used in Korean calligraphy until the Japanese occupation of Korea in 1910-1945. Nationalist sentiment made artist use the Hangul script, popularising it greatly. Nowadays, both scripts are popular and widely used. 

  • Tools Of An Artist

Paper - Not your usual paper, Korean mulberry paper is made using rice, and absorbs ink more than regular paper, as well as truly showing off the colours and shine of ink. 

Brush - The brush is straight, with a pointed tip. Although synthetic hairs can be used, the original brushes with animal hairs tend to be more authentic and have a better feel to them. 

Ink Stick - Better than a pot of ink, the ink stick is made with a mixture of soot from burned trees and glue. This makes the liquid create more vivid colours. 

Ink Stone - A container made from materials that will not absorb ink or water. One side is deep, where the liquified ink will be placed, the other side is shallow, which is used to remove excess ink from the brush. 

Yeonjeok - Traditionally used, this is a container that holds the water to grind the ink stick into a liquid. 

Boot Tong - A special container that hold the brushes, the brush side facing upwards, to not damage the hairs. 

Munjin - Paperweights which are used to hold the mulberry paper down, whilst being used. These tend to be long and flat, to hold an entire edge of the paper down (usually the top edge). 

Pilse - a small bowl used to wash the brush. 

And that wraps up this short lesson of Korean calligraphy! Most countries now have a lot of calligraphy artists, and it remains an undying art form, full of renovations keeping it relevant. If you had a chance to have Korean calligraphy lessons, would you take it? What is your favourite kind of calligraphy? Let us know in the comments below!

Written by Lucille Bamber

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