[Visual History of Korea] Ancient art of traditional calligraphy

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The late Kim Tae-gyun works on a piece of traditional calligraphy as his wife, Rhie Myin-zha, looks on at their home in Yeongju, North Gyeongsang province, on June 22. He died on July 19. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

Civilizations are judged by the quality of the historical knowledge they document and leave behind.

For around 3,000 years, “soye”, the art of calligraphy, has been a visible documentation of East Asian civilizations and culture.

The ink used in traditional calligraphy, “meok”, made from burnt carbon, is long lasting.

In traditional calligraphy, each brushstroke carries philosophical thoughts beyond the mere literal meaning of the written characters.

For example, a dot represents the sky, while a horizontal line represents the earth. The vertical brushstroke represents the person.

There have been dozens of eminent calligraphers and a large number of talented calligraphers throughout history.

Calligrapher Kim Tae-gyun puts his seal on a piece of calligraphy. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

Studying seoye, in all its different styles, is a lifetime commitment to endless learning.

Using Hanja characters in traditional calligraphy is an act steeped in meticulous traditions.

The “Seonbi”, traditional scholars, would have four friends in their studies: a brush, a black ink stone, an ink stone grinding tray and mulberry paper.

Korea has produced the finest quality inkstones and paper.

Historical records held in neighboring kingdoms mention the importation of large orders of inkstones and mulberry paper from the Silla kingdom (57 BC – 935 AD).

Korean paper, originally called “gyelimji”, became “goryeoji” during the Goryeo period, then “joseonji” during the Joseon era, before being called “hanji” in modern times.

During the Goryeo period, when there was active international trade across the West Sea, Goryeo paper and inkstones were in high demand in Yuan Dynasty China across the water.

Inkstones are made from burnt pine roots.

When the world’s oldest wood-printed paper was discovered inside the time capsule of Sakyamuni Pagoda during its renovation in 1966, researchers investigated mulberry paper that had the Pure Light Dharani Sutra printed on it. . Paper made with mulberry fibers was found to be from the Silla period.

The Pure Light Dharani Sutra was printed around 1,300 years ago, between 704 and 751, when the Sakyamuni Pagoda of Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province was built.

The incredible longevity of the meok and the paper on which the ink is used is an enduring attraction of traditional calligraphy.

As Goryeo published books printed with movable metal printing types in the early 13th century, brush calligraphy on mulberry paper proliferated as a genre of artistic expression.

For example, a traditional cursive script in calligraphy called “choseo” bears no resemblance to the original Hanja characters.

“The chosen cursive script is called the flower of Hanja characters. It has endless variations, and the calligraphy best reflects a person’s thoughts,” said the late Kim Tae-gyun, who headed the Byeongsanseowon Confucian Academy in Yeongju, North Gyeongsang Province.

Calligrapher Kim Tae-gyun in his studio at his home in Yeongju, North Gyeongsang Province on June 22. Kim died on July 19. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

Kim started calligraphy at an early age by learning from her village elders. He became one of the foremost authorities on Korean calligraphy and taught at universities. He died on July 19, according to his wife, Rhie Myin-zha, a retired teacher. He was 88 years old.

Kim was a modest man of very few words and lived a life of quiet isolation.

I had the privilege of documenting Kim working with her seemingly effortless brushstrokes.

During the interview, Kim said, “I have yet to produce a piece that I am completely satisfied with.”

By Hyungwon Kang ([email protected])

Korean American photojournalist and columnist Hyungwon Kang is currently documenting Korean history and culture in pictures and words for future generations. — Ed

By Korea Herald ([email protected])

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