|Ancient Korean poets often used expressions such as ‘blind silhouettes’ and ‘blind waves’ when they wrote lyrical
prose about a summer day. For them, trembling images captured through a bamboo blind waving gently in the cool
summer breeze were an important source of poetic inspiration. The role of Korean traditional woven bamboo blinds is
similar to curtains in that both are used to reduce light or heat. However, while curtains block out light or heat, the translucent
bamboo blinds allow air to circulate through them and let those inside to see out. But what is seen through the bamboo
blinds is mysteriously and intriguingly separated from the real image, becoming shapes, forms and colors, details blurred.
In Korea, traditional blinds are mostly made by weaving
thinly-cut bamboo or wooden strips, although other natural
materials such as hemp stalks are also used. These woven
blinds create a particularly attractive addition to traditional
tile-roofed houses, called hanok, and become a practical
solution for doors and windows that tend to remain open
almost all day long during the summertime.
The most wonderful advantage of using these bamboo
shades is that they give a clear view to the outside without
revealing what goes on inside, a brilliant effect naturally made
by the optic difference between light and shade. In the past,
these bamboo shades were essential to Korean women who
needed to be very careful not to reveal their private home life to
people outside the family, according to traditional customs.
Today, even though hanok dwellings are becomes
increasingly rare, Koreans enthusiastically seek bamboo
blinds, desiring their natural beauty as well as their practicality
in achieving the perfect balance between openness and
closeness between people.
A record in the “Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms”
("Samguk Yusa") regarding the ceremony of ‘receiving
a royal order in front of a blind,’ shows that the use of
woven bamboo shades in Korea dates back at least to the Three
Kingdoms Period (57 B.C.-668 A.D., the period when the
three ancient Korean kingdoms, Koguryo, Baekje and Silla,
rivaled each other). According to the book “An Illustrated
Book of Goryeo," ("Seonhwa Bongsa Goryeo Dogyeong"), written by a Sung Dynasty envoy from China who visited
Korea in 1123, “… Every room in the mansions of Goryeo senior officials is hung with luxurious bamboo blinds.”
The strict Confucian custom prevalent during the Joseon Dynasty that forbid women from revealing their faces
to male strangers also helped spread the use of bamboo blinds in the home. In fact, women of noble families had to live
behind blinds or veils for most of the day. Even the palanquins (covered litters) that used to carry upper-class women
or brides were also tightly covered by little blinds, which hung on windows and doors. The widespread use of blinds
in Joseon society, which was connected with the Confucian custom segregating women and men, created a unique
political establishment called, suryeom cheongjeong. This term translated means ‘listening to the politics behind
the blind,’ and refers to the regency of a queen mother for her child king. This tradition of governing the nation
' behind a blind,’ in place of a young and inexperienced monarch, resulted in blinds often being regarded as a symbol
of authority or real political power. While the female regent had to remain behind a blind during a cabinet meeting,
for instance, the screen gave her the advantage of spying on the cabinet ministers without being detected. All four
Joseon queen mothers were able to effectively rule the kingdom thanks to the effective use of bamboo shades.
Located at the southernmost part of the Korean peninsula, the city of Tongyeong in Gyeongnam province is famous
for its spectacular scenery. Located on the coast, Tongyeong is close to Hallyeosudo, one of Korea’s most beautiful
national parks that comprises more than 140 islands. The city is also well known for the triumphant victory of Korea’s
greatest war hero, Admiral Yi Sun-sin, against Japanese naval forces 400 years ago. It was in this city that Jo Dae-yong
was born and became a blinds weaver following the family tradition of three generations before him.
In 1856, the great-grandfather of Jo Dae-yong, Jo Rak-sin, turned to the art of blinds weaving to make a tribute
for King Cheoljong after the king appointed him to a minor government post following a success in the military
service examination. The art of blinds weaving for the Jo family developed into a profitable family business as it
passed down to Jo Dae-yong’s grandfather, Jo Seong-yun, and his father, Jo Jae-gyu, who was introduced to the
art at the age of 10. The family gained a nationwide reputation when his father won a prize in a Joseon Craft Contest
when he was 24 years old.
The lifelong relationship between Jo Dae-yong and the art of blinds weaving began at the age of 12 when he
decided to help his father, who had already become a Master Craftsman of Tongyeong bamboo shades. For more
than 30 years, his sole concern has been to continue the 140-year family tradition of producing Tongyeong blinds.
With the course of time, however, his passion faced a major blow when Korea entered the era of industrialization,
triggering a mass production of cheap plastic blinds. Even after Korean consumers rediscovered the beauty of
natural bamboo shades, he found it was hard to revive the family business due to imported cheap Chinese products.
Weaving traditional bamboo shades in modern times became a challenge to protect the traditional art rather than
to make money, and he sometimes felt it was a losing battle.
What kept him from giving up was his determination not to let his family’s tradition of four generations fade
into oblivion. He knew both his father and grandfather also faced hard times but got through them. So he turned
his attention to broadening the public’s awareness of Tongyeong blinds’ beauty and practicality by participating
in craft shows and art contests. His first award was the Teukseon (Critics Choice) Award in the 1975 National
Tourist Crafts Contest. However, his most prestigious award came 20 years later when he entered his Gwimun
Daebal (“Turtle Motif Bamboo Blind”) and won the President’s Prize in the National Traditional Craft Contest, Korea’s
most esteemed competition of its kind.
But in 2001, Jo Dae-yong’s distinguished achievements were publicly acknowledged by the Korean government
when the Cultural Property Administration appointed him as a Master Craftsman of Bamboo Blinds Weaving, or
Yeomjang, and designated his art as ‘Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 114.’ Jo Dae-yong, a craftsman
who followed the single path of bamboo blinds weaving for more than 30 years, became one of the youngest ‘human
cultural properties’ in Korea at the age of 51.
View the master's works