Friday, May 14, 2021

Lacquerware : A Korean Craft

I first heard and learnt of lacquerware was back in the 80s, my late dad just got back from his business trip to South Korea; Seoul to be specific. South Korea then was different from what we’ve seen and known now. That was what my late dad always said.

I remembered distinctively, wondering about the word ‘lacquer’ itself, the artwork and the intricacy of mother of pearl craft. Everything in this craft spells beauty, love and romance. Captivating indeed. So much so, I personally own 2 pieces; one of it was my mom’s and I claimed its mine (typical eldest daughter characteristic, what’s yours is mine too. Hahahaaa…). She have this mesmerizing vanity box, a heavy one I must say and to this date I still wonder how my late dad packed and brought it home. If you think this is ‘too much’, he also brought home an exquisite vase… one of the most valued item at our home.

I also got myself a trinket box where I kept my jewelry in. Jadi lah….

Got this during my 1st trip to South Korea, I remembered telling myself ‘I must get one for myself as this is a Korean craft’. Now that I am more matured and experienced traveler, I begin to wonder the origin and evolution of this craft. 

Lacquerware or ‘Najeonchilgi known to the locals was produced in the Neolithic period (6000–1000 BCE). Najeon means mother-of-pearl inlay and is said to originated from China, reached South Korean by the eighth century and has established its presence till todate. 

Based on my reading, at the time of the Three Kingdoms period; between 212-686 CE, refined lacquerware was mostly produced in the north, Goguryeo as well as Baekje and Silla in the south. I learnt that the tombs of Goguryeo kings was an exceptionally remarkable lacquered wood coffins, and that it was decorated with red and white floral motifs on a black ground. I would certainly love to view this if it is in a museum, I bet I will be spellbound.

It was also said that in Goryeo period, this intricate craft was a symbol of wealth amongst the elitist as it was largely produced by the imperial workshop. However, later during the Joseon dynasty lacquer was more accessible to the commoners, according to history this was because the Buddhist influence has weakened. Thanks to this, lacquerware is now more affordable and obtainable by anyone and everyone as a d├ęcor and/or souvenir piece.

The najeon design motifs has gone through many evolution covering auspicious plants, animals and mythological figures such as dragon and phoenix. Often, a dragon motif symblozes a scholar’s status back in those days whereas dragon paintings bring good fortune to the home. Some might noticed a phoenix motif, this depicts that the owner belongs a royal family member as a phoenix are only allowed to be used by the royalty.

Desktop research has brought me to a beautiful and opulent piece - Red Lacquerware Document Chest inlaid with Mother-of-pearl dates as far back as 19th or early 20th century that was exhibited at the Jeju National Museum some time ago. The fact that it is in red, captivates me. I feel like I should own a similar piece as well, a red armoire cabinet perhaps.
With coloured lacquerware gaining popularity back in those days, a sub art form of lacquerware has since been borne. It is called chaehwa chilgi, basically mixing the lacquer with mineral pigments that is further coated with sap of the Chinese lacquer tree to give a glossy finish. Having said that, this art form has existed for more than 2,000 years (not so recent). This shall be in my bucket list in my next trip to South Korea, foreseeing plenty of coloured lacquerware souvenirs too.
Well, aren’t you intrigued now? Care to join me in my South Korea trip, lacquer hunting.
#ImagineYourKorea #KTOSuperstarFriends

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