The geography of Korea is ideal for growing lacquer trees. Optimal climate, topography, and soil conditions can be found across the country, and the lacquer produced is of the highest quality. This led to lacquerware crafts being highly valued in Korea over the years, and a uniquely Korean culture of lacquerware being developed.
It is impossible to pinpoint when lacquerware crafts started in Korea or the path by which it entered the culture, as no documents of its origin exist. However, Bronze Age artifacts indicate that lacquerware had been in common use around the late Bronze Age or the third century BCE at the latest. This theory is based on fragments discovered with bronze plates in the stone mound tombs of Namseong-ri, Asan, Chungcheongnam Province, and Cheongok-ri, Seoheung, Hwanghae Province, dated to around the third century BCE. As these artifacts belong to the late Bronze Age, it is possible that the use of lacquer began several centuries earlier.
Prehistoric lacquerware artifacts, numbering over twenty pieces, include a round lacquer ritual dish discovered in Daho-ri, Euichang-gun, Gyeongsangnam Province, in 1988. These artifacts indicate the independent development of Korean lacquerware crafts and culture.
The historical development of Korean lacquerware by period can be clearly observed in terms of styles and techniques. The prehistoric age was the inception and introduction of lacquerware to Korea. The period from the three kingdoms of Korea to the unified Shilla era (57 BCE–935 CE) can be seen as a period of establishment and development, when wide range of manufacturing methods and techniques were developed. During the Goryeo era (918–1392) Korean lacquerware crafts advanced significantly, with newly created techniques such as the najeon (shell inlay lacquerware) technique. The Joseon era (1392–1897) was a transitional period in which lacquerware crafts spread from aristocratic culture into folk culture. The modernization period (1860–1900) was when the state-led lacquerware production of the past ceased and free private sector production began.
One characteristic to note about Korean lacquerware crafts is that all products made before the modernization era of privatization were produced under the control of the state. Red lacquerware was exclusively used in the royal court. Thus, lacquerware craftsmen were able to practice their craft freely only from the modernization era onward.
During the Shilla era, a government office called Chiljeon (Lacquer Office) was placed in charge of not just the production of lacquerware but also the creation, management, and supervision of lacquer farms. In the Goryeo era, a state-owned production facility called Jungsangseo was in charge of the systematic and organized production of najeon lacquerware through division of labor. The Jeonham Joseong Dogam (Lacquer Box Production Supervisory) was also installed to produce the najeon gyeongham (najeon scriptures box) to hold the complete collection of Buddhist sutras, contracted by the Yuan dynasty. In the Joseon era, lacquerware was managed and supervised by the state as both government and military supplies. Lacquerware craftsmen (chiljang) and shell inlay lacquerware craftsmen (najeonjang) were employed in the Gongjo (Office of Industries) of central government craftsmen (gyeonggongjang), Shangeuiwon (Office of Royal Attire), and the Gungisi (Office of Military Supplies) to solely produce goods for the royal court and government.
In this process, Korean craftsmen created a wealth of lacquerware artifacts over the course of history. The craftsmanship and skill contained in these artifacts are truly awe-inspiring. The different kinds of lacquerware artifacts remaining include moktae chilgi (wooden lacquerware), namtae chilgi (bamboo lacquerware), geumtae chilgi (gold lacquerware), pitae chilgi (leather lacquerware), jitae chilgi (paper lacquerware), hyeobjeotae chilgi (hemp lacquerware) as well as embellished lacquerware, such as chaehwa chilgi (colored lacquerware), pyeongtal chilgi (metal inlay lacquerware), and najeon chilgi (shell inlay lacquerware). Among these, the najeon chilgi is recognized worldwide for its outstanding artistry.
Although lacquerware crafts had flourished as a point of pride for the nation in the past, its privatization in the modernization era led to harsh working conditions and a lack of skilled masters to train craftsmen. This ultimately led to a decline in product quality. The tide of modernization also led to an indiscriminate embracing of foreign culture, leading to a further loss in originality. The greatest blow came during the Japanese occupation, which almost brought an end to Korean lacquerware crafts.
Recognizing these challenges, the Korean government enacted the Cultural Heritage Protection Act in 1962 to safeguard, transmit, and develop ICH, including lacquerware crafts. Comprehensive efforts are being made to provide adequate infrastructure for lacquerware crafts, including the designation of the Okcheon Special Lacquer Industry District, the construction of a lacquer tree plantation, and support for producing raw materials and lacquerware.
At the same time, educational institutions such as schools, workshops, adult educational institutions, and transmission centers are conducting lacquerware crafts education to train professionals and practitioners. These professionals have in turn created groups and organizations such as the Korean Lacquerware Crafts Association that act to further develop lacquerware crafts in Korea by conducting projects such as academic research and holding exhibitions.
With continued efforts from the central government, local governments, lacquerware crafts organizations, and groups to promote lacquerware crafts, I believe that the intangible cultural heritage of Korean lacquerware will continue its legacy and development even in an increasingly diversified and scientifically advanced future.
Chung Hae Cho, Honorary Professor, Pai Chai University