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Artist Kim Hae-ik

The Secret of Cheongja: Has Reclusive Artist Kim Hae-ik Rediscovered an Ancient Korean Ceramics Technique?

Tucked away in the tiny village of Ujonggol, less than 20 kilometers outside of metropolitan Gyeongju, is a small piece of property comprising three old cottages. To get there requires driving down a steep road lined with old pottery vases stuck into the ground, a sign of the local art practiced. It is not easy to find this place, situated below the level of the main road out of Gyeongju, but Kim Hae-ik‘s family has lived here for three generations, and when we step out of the car, the artist greets us, dressed in simple, traditional pajama-like garb.

He then leads my friend and I into a small cottage-cum-warehouse that holds 30 years of his work. We remove our footwear and sit on the floor surrounded by marvelous ceramic pieces, some of which have an unusual gray-green color similar to that of celadon; it is here that he works in seclusion in the hope of one day receiving acclaim.

Kim’s magnum opus is what he claims is his rediscovery of how to make a special Korean ceramic called cheongja, the secret of which vanished after the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), when it was replaced by a purportedly inferior kind of white porcelain called baekja. (Kim is staunchly chauvinistic about not only cheongja, but also his country’s entire ceramic history; even though porcelain of all types was a Chinese discovery, Kim maintains that cheongja was and is superior to anything Chinese or Japanese.)

He tells of a Goryeo ship that sunk off the west coast centuries ago carrying a cargo of cheongja; when it was excavated, the archeologists found that the color of the cheongja was unchanged after all that time underwater.

Kim is descended from five generations of ceramics artists, but it was only with his father that the family quest to rediscover the ancient secret of how to make cheongja began. Kim’s own quest has been a quiet one; his wife explains that they’ve even stopped selling his work lately, having taken down their sign down from the entrance to their road to achieve complete seclusion.

In 2009, after four years of effort, the son succeeded where the father failed—the trick, he claims, lies in the heating. Kim’s kilns (ovens made for heating ceramics) are the traditional type used for thousands of years on this peninsula, and he is clearly proud of them. Next to them lie stacks of firewood, of which Kim uses large quantities to fire his cheongja for 15 days instead of the mere three used for modern porcelain. This expends up to 10 times the amount of fuel, and requires careful attention to how to dispose of the ash. Such a long period of firing is risky, with the chance of breakage rising higher and higher with each added moment in the intense heat.

After the 15 days of firing comes an equal amount of time to cool—a longer process than modern ceramics.

It is precisely this lengthy heating, Kim says, that gives the clay its fascinating gray-green hue, which absorbs light rather than reflects it. He says that the designs on his ceramic pieces are slightly asymmetrical because of the long firing, and that today’s connoisseurs do not appreciate this.

He tells of a Goryeo ship that sunk off the west coast centuries ago carrying a cargo on cheongja; when it was excavated, the archeologists found that the color of the cheongja was unchanged after all that time underwater. It is not just lengthy firing that produces the color, he says, but a special deoxidization technique that is his ultimate secret.

Kim disparages modern commercial porcelain as merely glossy and pretty, and says the cheongja he produces is of vastly superior quality. To demonstrate his point, he shows us a fragment of broken modern ceramic and drags its sharp edge along his palm. Broken modern ceramics, he declares, can cut your skin, whereas cheongja has blunt edges when broken.

He then hands around a fragment of duller-colored ceramic with which we could not cut ourselves. Holding the two pieces side by side, I can see that the modern one, besides being sharp-edged, is thinner, lighter in the interior and glossier in finish compared to the cheongja piece.

At the end of our visit, Kim presents my friend and I each with a book containing photos of his work and a small cheongja jar that looks like something in a tourist gift shop costing 5,000 won. He hopes we will see similar work in art galleries soon; he intends to return to the world in triumph upon receiving official intangible cultural heritage status, which is pending. Next year he might hold an exhibition in Seoul, and still later others in the UK, US and Japan. Perhaps most importantly, Kim hopes that official recognition of his work will earn him apprentices to whom he can pass on the secret art of producing cheongja.

As we leave, I am impressed by Kim’s conviction, for there seems no doubt that he believes in himself—yet is his claim about rediscovering a long-lost secret true? I depart hoping it is, but at the same time I cannot wait to get back to my laptop and Google a few things.

So, Was it all as Kim Said?

As soon as I start, the elation begins to wear off. Several Korean arts websites inform me that Goryeo-style cheongja has, in fact, been produced since the 1970s by a number of Korean ceramic artists.

I look up a ceramics expert and arrange for him to visit my apartment, which he kindly does.  From the beginning of our interview, Kim Hae-ik’s claims are demolished one by one. The ceramics expert confirms that many artists have indeed been creating cheongja of Goryeo-level quality since the ‘70s, so that making it is not a mystery known only to a recluse near Gyeongju. These artists have received full recognition and support from the government.

Furthermore, many artists also use traditional kilns and fire their ceramics for 15 days. The expert equally dismisses Kim’s claims about how he achieves his color, which is not unique, and how he disposes of the ash in his kilns in a special way. When I show the expert Kim’s book of photos and the little jar he gave me, he declares that there is nothing remarkable about either. In short, he opines, Kim Hae-ik is just a businessman—total dismissal for an artist, more so because of the publicity Kim’s achieved in Korean media in the past.

I contacted Kim afterward to ask his response, and he maintained that he uses the same firing as his ancestors, the proof of which is in the unique texture of his work. Could it simply be that he has found his own way to make cheongja that is different from other artists’, and that he really does deserve intangible heritage status? How can I ever tell? Perhaps if Kim’s dream of official recognition is some day realized I can find some assurance that he was not trying to fool me.

At least I can keep the jar he gave me as a conversation piece …and, if he is officially granted intangible heritage status, it may be worth something.




About Hal Swindall

A California native, Hal Swindall received his PhD in comparative literature from UC Riverside and has wandered East Asia as a vagabond prof ever since. He teaches English conversation, writing and presentation skills at Woosong University in Daejeon.

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