an elegant and graceful plant symbolic of North East Asia, is typically
recreated by artists’
brushes and paints on canvas, paper or ceramic. But instead, one craftsman cut the bamboo into
strips as thin as paper, dyed them, and with deft fingers wove them into delicate, yet strong, boxes and
baskets. These pieces of classic beauty and extraordinary detail cannot be made by any artisan―they
breathe the soul of their Master and Creator who weaves his life experiences in with each strip.
Chaesangjang is an honorary title given by the Korean government to a master craftsperson who
possesses a high level of skill and knowledge in the Korean traditional art of weaving colored bamboo
strips into baskets and boxes. The art of making chaesang, literally meaning “colorful box,” developed
in Honam and Yeongnam, two southernmost regions of the Korean Peninsula, where the tradition of
bamboo crafts is still practiced today. In the past, high-quality colorful bamboo baskets and boxes
were admired for their artistic beauty and practicality, and only wealthy families were able to afford them.
The people’s admiration for colorful bamboo box is clearly represented by the belief that only
colorful bamboo boxes were used to contain the sacred earth used for the mound of a royal tomb.
These boxes were also used as containers for wedding gifts, needlework boxes, and gifts for
members of the royal family. In Korea, colorful bamboo baskets and boxes are often regarded as the
finest aesthetically of the approximately 700 different items made by weaving bamboo strips.
To make colorful bamboo wares, one needs to get fine paper-thin strips from fully-grown bamboo trees and dye
them with various colors, although traditionally red and blue have been favored the most. The techniques of creating
color combinations for colorful bamboo wares are largely divided into two types. The first type is to combine the basic
colors of red and blue with one or more additional colors. The second technique uses the natural tints, textures and
gloss of both the inner and outer parts of the bamboo stalk. Colorful bamboo wares that are made using the first
technique are noted for their delightful brilliance, while those of the second type are renowned for their calm,
unassertive elegance. Unfortunately, the number of colorful bamboo ware craftspeople has drastically declined
and today many fear that Master Craftsman Seo Han-gyu might be the last great colorful bamboo ware artist.
Surrounded by bamboo forests, the town of Damyang in Jeolla province is well known
for its thriving bamboo industry. No one knows exactly when people in the area
began creating bamboo wares; however, it is widely believed that, according to
a legendary story, Damyang produced its first bamboo work about four
hundred years ago. People say that an elderly woman came to the
town from Jeonju and made a comb from bamboo strips after
practicing with the strips for three years. Records also say that in
1760 the bamboo baskets and fans produced in Damyang were
included in the gifts sent to the royal court in the capital city. It is
thought there are two reasons why the bamboo industry has thrived
in Damyang for more than 300 years: the subtropical climate of the area,
which created an ideal environment for the growth of bamboo and the creation of a local
bamboo market, which is held every five days.
Chaesangjang Seo Han-gyu was born in Manseong-ri of Damyang-eup, a tiny village surrounded by dense bamboo
forests. Located in a remote area over the hill from Yanggak-ri, where he has his home today, Manseong-ri was a
village of bamboo craftsmen. His parents also were bamboo craftsmen, and he “learned how to handle bamboo strips
before how to speak words.” His father was a skillful bamboo weaver who specialized in fans, hats, mats and baskets.
After graduating from Damyangdong Elementary School, he was admitted to Gwangju High School of Commerce.
However, he had to give up his formal education after his family decided to support the education of his elder brother
who was attending Sunchang High School of Agriculture. When he was 15 years old, his father began instructing him
full-time in the art of bamboo weaving. Finding that his son had an extraordinary talent for the art, his father sent
him to Yi So-hi, who was regarded as one of the greatest bamboo artists in the Damyang area, to further his
education in bamboo crafts.
View the master's works