My body is as sore as if I had run a marathon, even though I have been sitting all day long. My left hand, which wields the knife, is swollen and cramped, and my legs and back ache. I wonder how much longer I will have to sit here, as a seemingly endless supply of unscraped bark keeps piling up next to me. I scrape hurriedly, thinking that once I finish I will get to work on a more exciting task. But something must have been lost in translation, because little do I know that I will be sitting in this position, scraping bark next to this ahjummah1, for eight hours a day, seven days straight.
[scrape scrape scrape]
The sounds of scraping relentlessly and consistently come from across the room, where the 77-year-old ahjummah sits wielding a knife and hunched over a long piece of bark. The bark is dark brown on one side, white on the other, and she masterfully scrapes off the dark brown side, leaving only clean white bark. Her hands work quickly, moving the bark up the raised wooden stand as she scrapes off every bit of brown. From my workstation, I glance up at her occasionally as we both work in silence, save for the sounds of scraping.
How did I end up working in the home of this ahjummah, scraping bark all day long?
I had come to Korea to research traditional Korean bookmaking, with a particular focus on papermaking and printing. I spent the first several months visiting museums and examining old books at the Kyujanggak Royal Archives in Seoul. In particular, I was curious about the process of making hanji, or Korean handmade paper. I wanted to learn first-hand what made it so special, and why it was on the brink of extinction, like so many other slow, traditional crafts.
In order to deepen my understanding of this material, I decided to spend the month of January at Jangjibang, a small hanji mill located in Gapyung, Gyeonggi Province. I had learned about Jangjibang from a former Fulbright researcher named Aimee Lee, who apprenticed there in 2009. My teacher was Jang Seongwoo, fourth-generation papermaker, whose father, Master Jang Yonghoon, was designated an Important Intangible Cultural Property holder in 2010.
On the first day of my apprenticeship, after I got settled into the motel where I would stay for a month, Mr Jang dropped me off at the ahjummah’s house, and I barely saw him again for a full week.
[scrape scrape scrape]
When people think about traditional papermaking, they might imagine the process of dipping a screen into a vat of pulp and water, lifting the screen, shaking it around, and voila! A piece of paper. Indeed, when I made my very first sheet of paper, it felt miraculous, almost effortless. So when I first started my apprenticeship at Jangjibang, I expected to dive right into papermaking, spending long days next to my teacher at the vat. But little did I know, and little do most people suspect, how much of papermaking, particularly Korean-style papermaking, requires multiple laborious steps of processing fiber, long before you even get to the vat.
Hanji is sometimes called 백지, 백 meaning one hundred, because they say to make a single sheet requires 99 touches by the maker and one final touch by the user. Hanji, which comes from the inner bark of a mulberry tree called dak, first requires the cultivation of these trees, which are harvested during the fall. Once the dak trees are gathered, they are steamed in bundles in order to loosen the skins, which are peeled off of the inner core. The cores are discarded, and the dak skins are dried.
The dak skin contains three layers: an outer brownish-black layer, a middle green layer, and an inner white layer, containing long bast fibers. One reason that hanji is so incredibly strong is because of these long fibers. Traditionally, only the inner white layer is used to make hanji, and the only way to separate the outer layers from the inner white layer is to manually scrape them off with a dak knife.
[scrape scrape scrape]
Every morning when I arrive at the ahjummah’s house, I am met with the slightly sweet stench of soaking dak. I peel off the layers of jackets that I had been wearing during the frigid 10-minute walk from the motel to the ahjummah’s house. I greet the ahjummah, who had already started scraping at the crack of dawn, long before I had arrived. I go to gather a bundle of dak that had been soaking overnight in a large plastic bin of water in the bathroom. The dak is damp and slimy, and I lay it down in a pile to my right, before sitting down at my workstation. I put on my work gloves, pick up the dak knife, and select a piece of dak to begin my scraping work for the day. I work as quickly as possible, trying to keep up with the ahjummah, who already has a nice big pile of scraped white dak next to her.
Around mid-morning, the ahjummah gets up to gather her pile of white dak and hangs it outside to dry. I watch as she lowers the clothesline with a pole and slings the cleaned dak over the line. The sunlight both dries the dak and provides a natural bleaching effect. After the ahjummah comes back inside, she gives me a few tangerines or tomato juice and encourages me to take a break. We eat our snacks in silence.
[scrape scrape scrape]
As the days go on and my body begins to adjust to the position of sitting and clutching a large knife, I become more curious about the ahjummah sitting next to me. I ask her how she came to be employed as a dak scraper. Serious and kind, with small bright eyes, she shares with me about how she married into a papermaking family at age 18; her father-in-law was a papermaker in the Gapyung area. At age 20 she began working at the mill, scraping dak and drying paper onto wooden boards, both of which were traditionally women’s work, while beating pulp and forming sheets at the vat were men’s tasks. When I ask her where the mill was located, she points out the window towards some neighboring houses: “Right around there.”
Eventually, like many mills in the 20th century, the mill closed down. For many years, she and her husband worked as farmers, but when the Jang family moved their mill to their current location in Gapyung in the 1980s, they, along with two neighboring households, were hired to help with scraping dak. Since the ahjummah worked at a papermill from a young age, she was considered the most skilled at scraping. When her scraped dak arrived at Jangjibang, it was incredibly clean with barely any specks of black bark left on the surface.
I ask her how much she gets paid for her work, and she tells me she earns around 20,000 to 30,000 won a day, even if she works for 12 hours a day. Though this sounds like a very small amount to me, employing such labor significantly hikes up the cost of hanji. Another step that requires careful manual labor is picking the dak clean after it is cooked. At Jangjibang, this picking work is done by four elderly ahjummah, who sit in a fluorescent-lit room all day long, their hands in water, picking out any stray bits of bark in order to ensure that the dak is completely clean before it gets formed into sheets of paper at the vat.
I tell the ahjummah how many people complain that hanji is too expensive. I ask her why she thinks that using Korean-grown dak and scraping by hand is necessary. She says to me: “The paper has to be expensive, because there is a lot of handwork involved.”
She goes on to say: “For normal hanji, you have to be careful that it doesn’t get wet, because then it can easily rip or tear. But with Jangjibang hanji, since it is made with good materials, the paper is strong and won’t rip or tear. These days, many mills do not go through the process of scraping or picking the bark; instead, they just throw in chemicals while cooking the fiber. But then the paper is weak and can break easily.”
As she speaks, I think about the rich history of Korean papermaking, as well as the sad state of papermaking in modern times. There was once a period when hundreds of mills actively made paper used for windows, doors, flooring, important government and religious documents, books, crafts, furniture, and clothing. But machine-made paper has largely replaced handmade paper, and now in the 21st century, there are only 24 hanji mills left. Of the mills that have survived, most have been forced to employ cost- and time-saving methods like importing lesser-quality dak from Thailand or China, or using harsh chemicals to bleach the fiber, thereby reducing the need to carefully scrape and clean the fiber by hand. Though these materials and processes drastically reduce the cost, they also dramatically decrease the quality and integrity of the paper.
[scrape scrape scrape]
On my last day with the ahjummah, we weigh all the dak that I had scraped that week: five and a half kilograms. If I were getting paid, I would have earned less than 80 USD for a week’s worth of labor. Mr Jang and I transport this dak to the mill, where the dak gets cooked, picked, and beaten before it finally gets mixed into the vat and formed into paper. With this dak, I make over 200 pure, lustrous sheets of hanji, which I eventually take back with me to Seoul. Now that I am back in this fast-paced, bustling city, celebrated for its rapid modernization, I wonder if all of those hours spent scraping dak next to the ahjummah were for nothing. But then I grab hold of the hanji that I made with my own hands, I sense its warmth and luster, and I feel that I have tangibly experienced the soul of traditional Korean culture.
Steph Rue is a 2015-2016 Fulbright Junior Researcher affiliated with the Kyujanggak Institute for Korean Studies at Seoul National University. Her research covers traditional Korean book and paper production.