From Nature to Culture: Hanji Making from the Bark of the Local Dak Namu

Dak Namu before and after the bark was peeled © Passachol Khawdee

Around the world, the viability of living heritage relies on humans’ relationships with nature. Oftentimes, nature is deemed something to be conquered to accelerate the economic and tourism development. This action consequently contributes to the loss of local wisdom among the marginalized communities who harmoniously and sustainably live with and make use of nature. According to UENSCO,1. knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe emphasizes the expressions and representations created by the communities through their interactions with their natural environment. Thus, the creation of some delicate craft needs to be contemplated beyond its final product but to look back on its relationship to naturally rooted material.

The culture of hanji, the paper made from the bark of the paper mulberry tree (locally known as dak namu), presents a connection between the communities of Jeonju in the Republic of Korea and nature. With the use of dak, the paper is known for a uniquely applied technique and durability. Great efforts are required to produce hanji, ranging from annually harvesting the bark from November to February, boiling it, drying it, burnishing it to pounding it. The paper is touched a hundred times before completion. Moreover, this living heritage is believed to last over a thousand years because of the webal technique used in forming the paper in a crisscross pattern, which is a groundbreaking approach for paper conservation.2.

The method of making hanji is recognized as environmentally sustainable since there is respect for nature and no interlacing of chemicals throughout the process. A hanji practitioner at the Hanji Industry Support Center (HISC), Ms. Oh Meunju, comments, “When harvesting dak namu, farmers are conscious about cutting only one-year-old trees.” Not only do young trees produce softer touch on the paper, but this approach ensures that grown paper mulberry trees will continue providing benefits to the ecosystem. Furthermore, to separate dark particles from the bark until it becomes clear, the bark will be bleached by mixing it with lye of burned rice straw, buckwheat stalks, or beanstalks. Then, before the webal process, hanji will be mixed with dakpul, the slimy substance obtained from the boiling of the root of hibicus manihot,3. to prevent fibers from sinking in the water during the sheet formation process. Unlike other papermaking methods, especially modern ones that use chemicals during this process, traditional hanji making still maintains a nature-based practice.

Due to its durability, hanji was popular for use in writing scriptures and other documents in the past centuries. It was also considered a suitable material for houses, such as the traditional Korean house—hanok—by attaching it to the walls, door frames, and floors to insulate against sound and heat.4.

Notes   [ + ]

1. UNESCO. n.d. “Knowledge and Practices Concerning Nature and the Universe.”
2. Kim, Bohyung. 2009. “Lasting Beauty and Uniqueness of Hanji.” Horimi Paper. Accessed July 27, 2023.
3. Lee, J., Kim, C., Lee, Y., Baek, G., Lee, H., Gwak, H., Kim, S., and Gang., H. (2009). 2009 Historical Consideration of Hanji Used as Art Materials. KFS Journal, 20(3), 191-197.
4. Antique Alive. n.d. “Hanji (Korean paper) – a traditional art form with a multitude of modern uses.” Accessed July 20, 2023.