Why Knot in Life?
This is the first in a series of articles about Korean masters in traditional arts. _ Ed.
By Chung Ah-young
Maedeup, or Korean knots, has evolved from a basic technique to produce textiles to skills such as knitting, knotting and weaving. It was a skill necessary for survival, rather than a creative art.
In the past, maedeup was used to make tools for hunting, fishing, communication and records or even symbols of status.
But later on, knots became an art form employed in ornamental creations, handed down from artisans' fingertips to fingertips because of its delicate and aesthetic nature.
Kim Hee-jin, 74, master of maedeup, the state-designated Important Intangible Cultural Asset No. 22, has revived the art over the last 44 years to preserve a rare Korean tradition.
Born in 1934, Kim first developed her interest in traditional ornamental knots in 1963.
``Making a knot requires fine and complicated skill requiring delicate fingerwork. So I have to discipline my pupils through man-to-man tutorship to develop the skill,'' Kim said in an interview with The Korea Times.
Kim said that she started making maedeup as she loves the process as much as the result itself.
``If I only loved the finished product, I would have given up this job. But I have never felt my job was hard or boring because I love the whole process itself,'' she said.
She said that the natural beauty of maedeup lies in the clean, organic structure of the knots, a fine balance between order and form.
``Making each knot is like a symphony for me, each making a different sound in the ultimate harmony as each strand becomes a harmonized and organic cord and later a beautiful knot,'' she said.
The making of maedeup requires a laborious process involving four different divisions _ dyeing, dahoe (cord), maedeup (knots), sul (tassels).
She argued that the government should designate four different masters. ``In the past, four different masters worked with each specialized part, but today there is no division between sections, so that I and other followers should master all parts of the process,'' Kim said.
Some 38 kinds of traditional basic knots from the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) have been restored by Kim over the last 44 years.
But she has also recreated traditional styles that can be adapted to modern society for practical use like in interior decorations and accessories.
``In the past, maedeup was used as a supplementary product to decorate the main subject to look more beautiful and functional. But I want to transform this subordinate function to an independent artwork like a painting that looks distinctive in its own right,'' she said.
She said that she regards maedeup as an independent textile art in modern times.
``For me, maedeup is a bridge connecting the past with the present. Many people cross over the bridge by exploring the beauty of maedeup from fingertips to fingertips,'' she said.
Maedeup was fondly used in royal courts, women's ornaments including necklaces, pendants and earrings and ornaments of other living items for noble class and decorations for Buddhist banners in religious rituals.
During the Joseon era, maedeup ornaments were an integral element of a refined lifestyle, as evident in the fact that the royal court employed dozens of master dahoe and maedeup artisans.
The symbolic significance of maedeup has been found in its use on royal portraits, seals, palanquins and biers.
However, since around the late 1870s, when the nation was westernized and didn't have its royal court anymore, maedeup art was on the verge of disappearance.
Kim has devoted her entire career to learning the techniques. She has sought masters around the country from 1963 when she began learning the skills.
She received the techniques from five masters, each holding a different and specialized skill.
``I learned from five different teachers _ three maedeup masters, one cord master and one tassel master. It took about 10 years to discipline myself from five masters,'' she said.
After training herself for a decade, she has developed all of her excellent skills from her five teachers into her own style.
She invented a new device, called a ``Kim Hee-jin Cord Frame,'' which allows artisans to make the desired width of cord in which a number of dyed silk threads are twisted together to form what can be called the base string, tied to spools and hung on the weaving plate.
This cord frame is a combination of the frame that was used by court artisans at Unhyeongung Palace and an eight-strand frame that was used in the town of Namwon in North Jeolla Province, with some additional functions to make it more practical and efficient.
Asked about the declining number of disciples of traditional masters, she argued that more courses in traditional maedeup should be offered by departments at universities around the country.
``One single traditional art subject can inspire students who don't know much about our traditional arts which are to be preserved,'' she said.
Kim said that many youngsters know little about maedeup or other Korean wonderful crafts.
She stressed that the government should promote these beautiful traditions to younger generations by introducing them into education programs and come up with measures to protect traditional craftsmen and nurture more trainees.
Kim said that the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage offers educational materials, including videos and books, carrying the whole process of making the artifacts by the state-designated masters.
``I hope many schools adopt these materials as the educational tools in an effort to hand down our traditions to young students. There would not be a need to set up a special traditional school, but the ordinary schools could serve this purpose,'' she said.
Kim has donated a total of 430 pieces she has made and collected for 44 years, including historical relics, to the National Museum of Korea in 2004.
``I hope my works can be used as important materials for youngsters to understand the past. So I have never sold my own artifacts,'' she said.
``I originally planned to set up a private textile museum to show my pieces. But I am too old to run the museum. So I decided to donate my precious works to the national museum,'' she said.
Kim attended Jinmyeong Girls' High School in 1946 and first began engaging in traditional ornamental knots, maedeup, which in the aftermath of devastating social turmoil in the first half of the 20th century, was quickly dying out.
After studying the various techniques with the masters, Kim organized and developed them into the art of Korean traditional ornamental knot-making.
In 1973, Kim established the Kim Hee-jin Traditional Craft Institute where she began to offer individual classes in maedeup.
She was designated a master in the field of maedeup, a state-designed Important Intangible Cultural Asset in 1976.
In 1979, she founded, along with her students, the Korea Maedeup Research Institute to help train and nurture a new generation of maedeup artists.