|In 1953, Seo Han-gyu became an employee of a local bamboo products manufacturer called
Munhwa Crafts, where he taught others to make bamboo baskets. Later, as the diplomatic
relationship between Korea and Japan revived in the mid 1960s, Damyang’s bamboo
wares became an important export item for the Japanese market. By this time, he
had begun to work for a company named Yuchang Crafts, a manufacturer and
exporter of custom-made bamboo wares for Japanese customers. He became
skilled at creating perfect reproductions of designs given to him by Japanese
traders no matter how complex a new design was. As a result, he was
promoted to the position of factory supervisor, and under his management
the company was able to export over 150 new bamboo products to Japan.
Meanwhile, the bamboo industry of Damyang began to be seriously affected by the arrival of plastic household
products. As the demand for bamboo products began to decline, he left the company and stopped making bamboo
wares. However, he could not leave the art of bamboo weaving altogether. A breakthrough came when he found a
dust-covered chaesang box (coloful bamboo box) on a rack in his house. It was one of the wedding gifts his grandmother
brought when she married, now belonging to his wife. The colors had faded with time but he found that the beauty and
elegance of the box was too difficult to ignore. It had complex patterns that he had never tried before, and he didn’t
know how to dye the bamboo strips. Despite those challenges, he instantly knew that it was what he wanted to do.
From then on, he put all his energy into the research of color combinations and patterns of chaesang ware, and
developed his own color patterns and designs. Today, a total of 37 designs are known to have been developed by
Seo Han-gyu. The aesthetic value of his art became publicly acknowledged when he awarded the Presidential Prize
in the 7th National Craft Contest in 1982 with a work titled Pijukseok (“Bamboo Skin Mat”). Three years later his art
attracted international attention when he was invited to the USA to give a demonstration of chaesang weaving in
Lincoln Memorial Hall, Washington DC. However, in January 1987 he received his highest honor: he was designated
by the Korean government as a Master Craftsperson of Chaesang Weaving, an expression of acknowledgement
and respect for the remarkable achievement he had made throughout his life.
The sight of the aged artist sitting in a workshop gazing intently at the colored bamboo strips before him reminds
us of an old bamboo branch that may bend but may never be broken by the harsh winds of life. Not only does he
weave the elegant chaesang wares from bamboo strips, he also weaves his life experiences into each basket and
The paper-thin but iron-strong bamboo strips used to make
a chaesang box are cut from three-year-old bamboo
trees in winter. The size of the strips is normally 2-3mm
wide and 0.1mm thick, although highly-skilled craftspeople
like Seo Han-gyu prefer thinner strips. Preparing strips
of this size requires a high level of skill and experience.
The chaesang wares made by Seo Han-gyu are not just
reproductions of old art forms. They display a wonderful
variety of patterns, colors and forms, most of which
were developed by Seo himself. Many of his works
exhibit classical beauty and grace mixed with surprisingly
modern sensibility. The design of the Buddhist swastika
(卍), for instance, has now evolved to more than 40 varieties,
although there was just one type when he first took up the art.
While the forms, sizes, color combinations and patterns are
now delightfully diverse, he prefers traditional materials and working methods.
Seo’s chaesang wares display such fine workmanship and artistry that viewers often forget that what they are
seeing is actually made of bamboo. The order and harmony of colors and textures within the dynamic movements of
several hundred bamboo strips are so perfect that viewers sometimes wonder if supernatural hands made them.
According to Korean folk belief, a superior craftsperson is not made in this world but is sent by the Creator. The
wonderful art of chaesang developed by Seo Han-gyu seems to prove that this belief is true.
* Photo of Seo Han-gyu by Seo Heun-kang
View the master's works