Posted : 2007-05-22 17:13
Updated : 2007-05-22 17:13

Dancheong: Spiritual Colors of Korea

By Chung Ah-young
Staff Reporter

When a visitor steps into a temple called Sudosa, in Incheon, west of Seoul, decorative colored patterns on eaves, walls and pillars might be the first thing to come into sight.

Jung Sung-gil, 50, a dancheong artisan, painted the delicate colors and traditional patterns in every corner of the temple.

Dancheong is the use of Korean-style decorative colorful patterns on wooden buildings and other wooden items to convey beauty and dignity, using five basic colors _ red, blue, yellow, black and white.

From Sudosa in Incheon to Yonghwasa (Yonghwa Temple) in Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, Jung has worked in over 150 temples. His work has led him to wander about all over the country for over 30 years since 1975.

Jung, who was designated as Intangible Cultural Property No. 14 of Incheon for dancheong in 2004, has painted not only temples but also palaces around the country over the three decades.

Jung started learning at the age of 18 in 1975 under the renowned artisan Hyegak, a Buddhist priest.

Dancheong has various meanings in Korean architectural and painting spheres. In addition to its decorative function, it was used for practical purposes such as to protect building surfaces and conceal the crudeness of materials.

Dancheong is also used to emphasize characteristics and represent the grade or rank that a building or artifacts commanded.

``Whenever I paint, I exert all of my energies and infuse my soul with it. After finishing the works, I sometimes cannot believe what I have done because I am overwhelmed with its beautiful colors and patterns,'' Jung said in an interview with The Korea Times.

When he began learning, his job was dismissed as manual work or mere painting work.

``In the early days of when I started learning dancheong, there was not enough work to make a living because of the lack of demand. I earned only 150 won a day at that time,'' he said.

Things have changed as the government began increasing support to revive tradition and culture to promote Korean culture to the world around 1988 when the nation held the Olympic Games.

Before that landmark period, Buddhist monks were the major artisans for dancheong. But recently a growing number of ordinary people have been eager to learn the discipline.

``But it is a pity to see that most of them are learning as a means of earning money not with an artisan spirit,'' he said.

``A firm and strong artisan spirit is the most important aspect of being a dancheong master because it takes at least 10 years for a trainee to master the art. Trainees are supposed to stay at temples and palaces to become a master during that period,'' he said.

Jung said that dancheong provides both a sense of conformity to certain traditions yet at the same time diversity within the tradition.

He stressed that diversity and recreation should be sought based on tradition. For example, dancheong has certain traditional patterns and styles such as ``janggumoricho,'' an hourglass shape, which is a widely used basic pattern.

``I never forget that every creative attempt should be developed from the basic traditional patterns,'' he said.

Using traditional forms, Jung has been recently applying the art form in more diverse usages and styles so that more people can acquaint themselves with its beauty.

He has made about 500 pieces of wooden saucers and tea tables adorned with dancheong as cultural products for the first time.

``I am trying to recreate the tradition to curry favor with modern people. The 500 pieces are my first modernized products,'' he said.

Korean dancheong has its own uniqueness, which is distinguishable from similar forms in other neighboring nations such as China, Japan and other Asian countries, he said.

``Korean dancheong is very delicate, bright and sophisticated, while the Chinese style is bold and simple in colors,'' he said.

In the Goryeo Kingdom (37 B.C.-A.D. 668), Buddhism, as a national religion, contributed to the development of dancheong, featuring the simple patterns and green and blue tones for temples.

He said that usually dancheong includes the Buddha paintings, which are now recognized as a separate genre of Korean cultural heritage.

The patterns, however, have experienced changes in accordance with the eras. The history of Korean dancheong goes back to murals in old tombs during the Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C.-A.D. 668).

The murals of old tombs from the Goguryeo Kingdom show diverse colored patterns, which indicates the appearance of dancheong and architectural characteristics of that period.

Not only with the murals, colored pictures and lacquer works excavated from tombs show the evidence of a long history of dancheong.

Buildings from the Goryeo Kingdom retain bright and soft coloring as techniques were further developed during that period when the Buddhism was flourished.

During the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), the art form progressed and became diverse, featuring an expressive, complex patterns and decorative composition, compared to the simple patterns used during the Goryeo era.

Jung explained that the historical evidence shows that in the past, dancheong would last thousands of years because it used natural dyes such as powdered stone dust, rusty lead, which made the architectures or artifacts more stronger and durable.

Traditionally, typical pigments employed were created from a kind of copper ore, for dark blue and navy blue colors and from malachite for dark greenish blue.

In addition, the vermilion pigment produced from clay, which was also a popular color, was mostly imported from China's western regions and was highly appreciated.

But nowadays, many artisans use artificial dyes, which last merely 100 years. Five basic colors are mixed and turned into more than 20 different colors.

Patterns might be different, according to the part of the building they are located in, whose colors reflected the characteristics of the period.

During the Goryeo period, parts of a building exposed to outside sunlight, such as pillars, were painted in red.

But protruding corners of eaves or ceilings not exposed to sunlight were painted in greenish-blue to enhance the contrast of brightness and darkness.

Arrangements of colors usually were laid with different and complementary colors side by side.

A technique of alternating a warm color with a cold color was used to make the different colors more distinctive.

When coloring, each artisan uses only one color. The number of artisans necessary for painting is the same with the number of colors used in the design.

Jung said that he plans to establish the nation's first dancheong museum in near future to promote the art.

Jung also runs some classes for people who want to learn dancheong and was the first artisan to hold a private exhibition to show his 30-year career in 2005 and this year.

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