Hanji, the Traditional Korean Paper

korean handmade paper hanji closeup

My first encounter with hanji, the traditional Korean paper, is associated with the smell of herbal medicine. Koreans believe in the power of medicinal herbs as a health booster. In our house, there was often a claypot filled with herbal medicine simmering on the kitchen stove. The black claypot was always covered with hanji paper tied with string around the rim.

For some reason, the potters never made lids for these pots. My second encounter with hanji was in high school when we had to practice ink brush painting. There were only four subjects: bamboo, iris, plum and chrysanthemum. The shapes were formalized, so we were basically mimicking the brush strokes. Boring. (Yawn…)

My third encounter was many years later when I was strolling down the old part of town. I came across a shop displaying hanji lamps and fans in the window. I was literally blown away! For the first time, I saw the beauty of this exquisite paper. No longer did I associate it with the smell of medicine or tedious art classes.

korean hanji paper fan on hanji paper

History: Hanji has a long history. Paper in its modern form was invented in 105AD by a Chinese eunuch named Cai Lun(敬仲). Korea learned China’s paper-making technology and took it to the next level. Even the Chinese acknowledged the excellence.

According to a Chinese historical document, “Goryeo paper is white and strong like silk… It is a superb product that cannot be found in China.” So hanji was regularly sent to the Chinese royal court as a tributary gift. As evidence, there is a letter in the French National Archives which was sent by the 4th Khan of Mongolia to King Philip IV of France in 1289. The paper used for the letter and was hanji which was “Made in Goryeo(Korea).”

Lasting Power: Many call hanji rice paper, but this is a misnomer, because rice does NOT go into making this paper. Rather, hanji is made from the inner bark of native mulberry trees called dak namu(닥나무). In 1966, some tomb-raiders tried to steal the sarira(relics of Buddhist spiritual masters) kept in the stone stupa(pagoda) of a famous Buddhist temple. The robbery failed, but authorities decided to take the 3-story stupa apart and check the contents. They found that the sarira box was intact. But in this process, they also discovered an ancient scroll hidden inside the stupa.  

The scroll was a woodblock print of a Buddhist scripture. It was printed on hanji and had been sitting outdoors inside the stone stupa for 1,200 years. Talk about durability! 

Super Paper: There’s a reason behind this lasting power. Unlike the papers of China or Japan, hanji‘s acidity is lowered by soaking it in a type of hibiscus plant called muskmallow(닥풀). Lower acidity means that it will take much longer for the paper(cellulose) to turn yellow or disintegrate. In addition, this traditional Korean paper doesn’t have any directional grains, meaning it doesn’t tear easily in one direction like most papers do. Due to such strength, people even made combat armors out of hanji. Arrows couldn’t pierce it.

korean hanji paper fan closeup with leaves design
Green Hanji designed as leaves on top of white Hanji fan

Ubiquitous : Hanji was more than just paper for writing. It was used everywhere. We used hanji to make boxes, fans, trays, lanterns, and even small furniture. Hanok(한옥), the traditional Korean house) has wooden lattice doors and windows covered with paper. Even the floor is covered with thick hanji then polished and waterproofed with soybean oil. And my sister JinJoo has a post about our visit to a Korean artisan who makes Jiwusan 지우산 which is a traditional Korean umbrella made from using Hanji.

pink paper umbrella made with Korean Hanji paper

But, I have to say my favorite is hanji lamp. I love the way light glows through the different degrees of transparency to create a meditative mood. It’s somewhat similar to lamps made with frosted glass or fabric shades, but the effect is a more soft, subtle and soothing.  

International Recognition: As you probably noticed, I am an avid fan of hanji. And I’m not the only one. In 2016, Italy’s ICRCPAL(Central Institute for the Restoration and Conservation of Archive and Book Heritage) officially recognized hanji as a material to be used for the conservation of documentary heritage. In 2017, the Louvre of France chose hanji for restoring antique furniture and reproducing old paintings. So the world seems to be catching on. I believe we’ll be hearing a lot more about this wonderful Korean paper in the days to come. 

Where to Buy : The best place to buy hanji in Seoul is Insadong. There, you will see stores that specialize in hanji, but stores that sell brushes and other stationaries will carry hanji as well. One sheet is about 75cm x 140cm, and the price will vary depending on quality. The price can go up to even 30 dollars a sheet. Jeonju is the most famous city for paper-making, so you can travel to Jeonju and go to the paper stores in and around the Hanok Village(한옥마을). There’s a place(https://jeonjucity.kr/experience-hanjicraft-jeonju-hanok-village/) where you can even watch artisans make paper.

Written by Jean

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