Napcheong, Yi’s hometown, was once a prosperous center of the Korean bronzeware and bronze gifts industry,
and where nearly every other family was engaged in the bronzeware business. Born as a son of a poor farmer,
he had to leave middle school before graduation to find a job to help support his family.
After a desperate search for a proper job he came to Seoul and, in 1948, met a person
from his hometown who was running a bronzeware factory in the capital. Through
him, Yi began to learn bangjja skills. Living during those times was difficult,
especially when people were prepared to work for food and shelter even
without a salary; he discovered that the daily wage of a head bronzeware
artisan in the factory was two bags (approximately 100 US gallons) of rice. He
decided to become a head artisan himself by working harder, and he stayed in the
factory until late at night to learn more about the art, never indulging in life’s little pleasure
such as drinking or smoking. Fortune followed. The factory owner, who was not satisfied with the
troublesome behaviors of the head artisan, which contrasted with Yi’s sincere attitudes, gave Yi his full
support for his early mastery of the skills. Expertise evolved rapidly, and customers appeared. At last, he mastered all
the techniques required to become a top bangjja artisan, and opened his own workshop, 10 years after he entered the
industry as a means to flee from poverty.

Unfortunately, Korea was immersed in an age when traditional bronzeware utensils used for religious services,
wedding gifts and kitchen items of daily use were being quickly replaced by cheap, mass-produced articles of stainless
steel and plastic. He strived to keep his workshop, but by the 1970s it was clear to him that no customers would
visit his workshop, or anyone's bronzeware shop. However, he experienced a breakthrough when he found that
traditional musical instruments such as the gong could only make the proper sound when it is made through traditional
bangjja methods. Traditional bronze percussion requires the proper thickness and size, which only can be
achieved by hammering, in order to create finely tuned sounds. Yi Bong-ju proved his worth in this new area, too, and
satisfied his customers, most of whom were musicians, with a fine instrument that makes deep, long reverberations,
which are the unique traits of Korean brass percussion instruments, appealing to the entire spectrum of
human emotions.

His achievement in preserving and developing the traditional bangjja art despite extreme poverty and difficult
ordeals was officially recognized in 1983 when the Korean government designated him as a Yugijang ('Master
Craftsman of Bronzeware'), and bestowed upon him the honorary title of 'Important Intangible Cultural Property.'
Afterwards Yi began to focus on incorporating traditional bangjja art into modern lives, believing that even the best
bangjja ware is nothing but a stale museum piece unless it is used by people every day. He created an elegant
golden hue with reduced tones for his ware to replace the traditional glossy gold, as well as introduced new sizes
suitable for modern usage and new designs, including one inspired by a floral Goryeo celadon dish. His efforts
helped change people’s attitudes towards bangjja and increased demands for bronzeware. Currently, his bangjja
utensils are regarded as some of the best tablewares, and are regularly used for the Korean president's dining table
as well as official state dinners for international dignitaries.

Yugijang Yi Bong-ju is currently carrying out a huge lifetime project. He has recently purchased a piece of land of 40,000
pyeong (approximately 7,200 square meters) in the town of Mungyeong, Gyeongsangbuk province, to establish a new
home for Korean bronze art now that Napcheong, his hometown in North Korea, is no longer
accessible. Bronzeware workshops and a bronze art gallery are already open on the site, and he
plans to create a museum focused on the history of bangjja yugi and production methods, a
participation workshop where visitors are given an opportunity to make bangjja yugi, and a
restaurant serving food in traditional bronzeware. His aim is to establish a bangjja yugi village
on the site, in which young people can establish themselves as bronzeware artisans.

The attractive color and form of a fine piece of bangjja yugi, as well as its superiority as
kitchen ware, are the result of the long working process involving arduous labor in a stuffy,
overheated workshop filled with black metal dust. The procedure normally begins with melting
copper and tin, mixed to the correct ratio, in a melting pot. The secret behind the remarkable
characteristic that helps keep food fresh, react against harmful substances, and even kill germs
is in the repeated hammering as well as the ratio of copper (78%) and tin (22%), which modern
engineering insists is inappropriate, even impossible, for making table ware. Modern knowledge
of smelting emphasizes that to make a quality alloy of copper and tin the ratio of tin should be less
than 10%. But traditional bangjja yugi defies this principle and raises the figure to 22%. The following
production method shows how the ratio becomes possible.

View the master's works