All his life he plows fields under a heavy yoke for men, carries burdens
on his back until it bleeds, becomes exhausted from his toil for the world,
and then when his time comes he is sacrificed to feed those whom he
loves with his flesh and blood. When a butcher’s knife is stuck into his
throat, he lets out his last cry, “Aaaahh!” My fellow people! Do you know
what that means? It means, “Ho! I made it!”

A great Korean writer once gave this eulogy for an ox by comparing the
great beast’s life with that of a saint. In Korea, the ox traditionally has
been a symbol of faithfulness, righteousness and sincerity, and was
often considered the most valuable asset in a farmer’s family. In fact, his
meat was proclaimed as the best of all victuals that Koreans ate. Praised
by Koreans as the most virtuous of all animals, the ox offers his loyal
service until he dies, yet continues to serve his masters’ lives even after
death by offering his flesh, bone and skin. His devotion to human beings
does not end there as a Korean ox leaves behind a very important
resource to manifest the beauty of everyday life: his horns.

Hwagak, literally ‘brilliant horn,’ is the traditional art of inlaying ox-horn pieces, which have been flattened paper-thin
and painted, onto the surfaces of furniture and household objects to create vivid intricate designs. Unlike many other
Korean arts, for which subdued colors are preferred, the remaining Hwagak artworks today display brilliant colors.
They also exhibit a great variety of motifs, including sipjangsaeng (‘10 creatures of longevity’), dragons, phoenixes,
magpies and tigers, as well as sagunja (‘four noble beings’) and hwajo (‘flowers and birds’). The items decorated
with Hwagak patterns range from large furniture such as wardrobes, cabinets and chests of drawers to small objects,
including jewelry boxes, vanity chests, workbaskets, combs, rulers, and spools. Traditionally used to decorate
mainly women’s personal belongings, the Hwagak art developed solely in Korea.

Art historians believe that Hwagak began to evolve in the early Goryeo
Dynasty (918-1392), although the root of its many techniques
can be traced further back to more than 1000 years ago. The
turtle-shell craft, in which colors are applied to the back of
pre-treated turtle-shell pieces so that they are discernible
through to the foreground, was introduced to Korea from
the Tang Dynasty of China during the Unified Silla Period
(668-935). However, the art is known to have originated
from ancient Egypt, where people painted the surface of
a mummy’s casket then placed transparent or semi-transparent
materials such as turtle shells, crystals and embers over top so
that the paintings were visible through them. Once the turtle-shell art
arrived in Korea, it began to develop in a different way during the Goryeo
Period, and was often intermixed with the art of mother-of-pearl inlaying
that had already been in the stages of perfection by Goryeo artisans. The turtle-shell craft migrated to other Asian
countries, too, but it failed to develop in most of these nations because of the lack of local raw materials as well as
the creativity of their respective artists. Fortunately, however, the art survived and thrived in the Goryeo Dynasty
because the Korean artisans found a new material, ox horn, which could replace turtle shell, a material that was
extremely difficult to acquire.

The ox-horn craft evolved further during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), eventually being produced exclusively
for the Joseon’s ruling class including its royal households, as mother-of-pearl inlaying had done in the Goryeo
Dynasty. This was because the use of dangchae (‘colors of Tang’), a pigment utilized to color ox-horn pieces, had
been prohibited since the Silla Period except for use by royalty. The common people were also banned from using
another key material for the art―turtle shell―because the shell had to be imported from overseas and naturally was
very rare and expensive. Even its substitution, ox horn, could not be obtained easily by the masses because of its
great demand for making ‘horn bow,’ an important weapon of the Joseon Period.

Hwagakham, or Chest Inlaid with Ox-horn Designs
Joseon Period, 19th Century
46cm in width, 28cm in depth and 32cm in height

This chest is lavishly decorated with colorful ox-horn designs
containing animals and birds, symbolizing good fortune and
long life, surrounded by flowers, trees and clouds. The
dominant colors are red, black, green and white against a
yellow background. Despite the use of many bright colors and
intricate forms, it upholds an air of elegance and intimacy,
thanks to the wonderful harmony between the auspicious
creatures and color tones. Each of the rectangular panels on
the outside contains a picture comparable with a great land
scape painting.

Ox-horn art continued to survive for a handful of families in the Joseon Dynasty’s ruling class until the mid-17th
century when two great wars brought about by foreign invaders, Imjin Waeran (‘The Japanese Invasion in the Imjin
Year,’ 1592-98) and Byeongja Horan (‘The Invasion of the Northern Enemy in the Byeongja Year,’ 1636-37), devastated
the dynasty and, subsequently, relaxed the control over the use of ox horns. Private craft workshops began to
produce Hwagak works for people who hadn’t been able to afford them before, and gradually the industry began to
thrive, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries. The ox-horn craft, however, faced a major setback in the early 20th
century when Seoul’s Yanghwajin area near the Han River, where many Hwagak workshops were clustered, was
devastated by a flood. Another disaster ensued when cheap imitations made from chemically treated celluloid began to
inundate the market and replaced traditional ‘ox-horn paper,’ the major Hwagak material produced after a complicated
and time-consuming process. As a result, traditional Hwagak art today has nearly vanished.

However, because of an ox-horn artisan, Eum Il-cheon, ox-horn craft slowly revived later in the century. Unable to
forget the beauty of Hwagak works he saw at Yanghwajin in his childhood, he began extensive research of the traditional
craft in the 1920s and eventually became a Hwagak artisan himself, dedicating the rest of his life to the art until
his death in 1974. His life as a devoted artist was emulated by one of his best pupils, Yi Jae-man, who in 1996 was
designated as the Master Craftsman of Ox-horn Inlaying, which is listed as an Important Intangible Cultural Property.
Through the incredible skill and faithful attentiveness to bring this wonderful craft back to life, the brilliance of this
magnificent traditional art shines on for all to see.

View the master's works