A way of supporting Traditional Arts and Crafts in Korea

India may be an incredible country but unfortunately the people who slaved away to secure a place on the world map for this country are not shining. Most national award winning craftsmen whose exquisite crafts helped earn India a high world status are unfortunately living without even the basic amenities. These craftsmen are fighting hard for the livelihood, health, education and safety of themselves and their family members.

Indian craftsmen are common people, many of whom are living below the poverty line. Most have to take out loans from local moneylenders at interest rates of 5% or more to be able to afford their monthly bread and butter. Then, due to the minimal earnings gained for their work they often hit problems in repayment. This vicious cycle then results in such craftsmen unwillingly seeking alternative earning sources, resulting in the fossilization of that particular strain of traditional art.

Since India’s independence, various steps have been taken to aid the development of such artisans. In 1963, the annual National Awards for Excellence in crafts was instituted. Still, craftspeople of today find themselves at crossroads beset with poverty and illness.

Muhammad Tughlaq of Moradabad, a national award winning artist and Shilpa Guru, creator of brass wonders, told SME Times, “Our government needs to look into our most basic problems. Global economic recession is entirely different. Our problems are related to the basic needs for livelihood.”

“We want genuine buyers of our art-crafts and this can only be made possible through the proper marketing of our products. The government needs to exhibit these works not only in showrooms but also in national and international museums and trade fairs.”

“I am above 80 and probably the last man alive on earth who knows this art and after me nobody will make these (brassware) because the new generation doesn’t want to learn this fine craft, which takes lots of time and hard work and which, after completion, there are no rewards for,” he added.

Pointing to his masterpiece, which had taken almost 10 years to make, which he was awarded the Shilpa Guru for, Tughlaq said, “I want this masterpiece to be displayed in a museum because this is the last of its kind. It was our time when the kings ruled and we were given rewards from them…but time keeps changing and this is our worst time.”

According to 1995-96 census data, there are around 47.61 Lakh artisans. India is estimated to have around 3,500 clusters of artisans practicing a variety of crafts such as basketry and mat-weaving; producing goods such as canes, earthenware, folk paintings, jewelry, metal ware, musical instruments, pottery, sea shell crafts and woodwork. They are estimated to employ, according to the National Council of Applied Economic Research, around 13 million people.

If we do not listen to the voices of craftsmen, soon there will be no craftsmen left to talk to…,” Rehman added.

Above is an article of [SME times.tradeinida.com, India, updated 18 Sep., 2009]

Similar plights of artisans can be seen in other countries also. In Korea, January 1962, a law was passed to allow the preservation of intangibles such as music, dance, drama, and crafts. Through this law, individuals possessing the skills and talents to carry out the various cultural activities were categorized under ‘Important Intangible Cultural Property’, with the individuals being classed as ‘Human Cultural Properties’.

Any individual or cultural aspect qualifying under the category of ‘Important Intangible Cultural Property’ is protected against financial difficulty and disappearance, with an ‘Instruction Center’ provided to allow the masters to pass on their expertise to the next generation. In addition, exhibitions and shows are part financed and supported annually, with the ‘Human Cultural Properties’ being awarded governmental financial aid.

At current there are 121 registered ‘Important Intangible Cultural Properties’, with property number 1 being the Jong-myo-je-rye-ak. It is an ancestor worship ritual practiced in the royal courts from the Choseon dynasty (1392~1910).

[Important Intangible Cultural Properties No.1 Jong-myo-je-rye-ak, ritual music play]

Of the 121 registered ‘Important Intangible Cultural Properties’, 47 are artisans holding the skills for creating tangible products such as arts and crafts, not including food. Interestingly, although the qualifying and registering of the ‘Important Intangible Cultural Properties’ has been going on for almost 50 years, with its starts in 1962, 21 of the 23 new registrations since 1992 are ‘Human Cultural Properties’ such as those artisans of traditional arts and crafts. With the aggressive importing and adapting of Western living and culture that started in the 1990’s, traditional arts, crafts, and products entered a period of suffering. The carriers of the skills found it difficult to find willing apprentices to pass their skills onto. This was the point where the government, concerned about the risk of losing Korea’s traditional craftwork skills, started supporting its preservation.


[Building of Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea, located in Daijeon]

Although each region also has its own regional cultural property laws aiding the preservation of ‘Important Intangible Cultural Properties’; among the masters in each field, being registered and respected as an ‘Important Intangible Cultural Property’ under the government is considered the greatest honor. Thus, masters strive to be awarded a number on the list of ‘Human Cultural Properties’. Qualifying masters first unofficially, then officially, are given a number before their name resulting in a grand title of “Human Cultural Property Number xx” before their name.

[Human Properties No.26 Heejin Kim for Knotting]

[Knotting Craft, Heejin Kim’s work]

Of the current traditional Korean arts and crafts, one that appears significantly more frequently in overseas exhibits and shows is Mother-of-Pearl inlay crafts. Although Mother-of-Pearl crafts originated in China, there was a distinct period where the craft settled in Korea and Japan. In Korea, Mother-of-Pearl crafts developed most rapidly during the Goryeo dynasty(918~1392) period. China moved further towards making carvings in furniture or everyday products rather than Mother-of-Pearl crafts while Japan developed its painting techniques further resulting in the 3 countries developing distinct cultural personalities. 

Looking at the arts and crafts of the 3 far eastern countries; Korea, China, and Japan; experts define Chinese Ceramics, Korean Mother-of-Pearl inlay crafts, and Japanese lacquering as the best in each field.

Mother-of-Pearl inlay craftwork was registered as ‘Important Intangible Cultural Property’ number 10 in 1966; the first craft to be registered ever. There are currently two Mother-of-Pearl inlay Masters holding the title of ‘Human Cultural Property’, Master Song Bang Woong (1940~) and Master Lee Hyung Man. Master Song Bang Woong’s father was also awarded the status of ‘Human Cultural Propery’ although unfortunately being 80 at the time, he was only able to enjoy this status for 2 years before passing away.

[Bang-Woong, Song at work,  Human Properties No.10 for Mother of Pearl Inlay ]

[Song’s work]


Reality dictates that it is unfortunately impossible for the government to fully support all 121 registered ‘Important Intangible Cultural Properties’ in Korea. The financial support provided in the 5 years between 2005 and 2009 comes to a sum of U$80 million, U$30 million of which was provided to support the provision of instruction by the ‘Human Cultural Properties’; both figures hopelessly meager compared to the U$1 billion that went towards the support and preservation of the tangible cultural properties of Korea. It would be unrealistically wishful, even with the inherent and incomparable beauty of traditional Korean arts and crafts, to expect expansion of into global markets, to spread and develop into international territories, with such limited support. The support being provided, insufficient to push development forward, is just about keeping the wounded soldier, who has lost all lines of support, barely alive with an IV drip and an Oxygen mask.

[Hahway Mask Dancing, Important Intangible Cultural Properties No.69]

Any skill can be developed most significantly in an environment where those with the skill as well as those wanting to learn the skill are plentiful. A certain degree of competition is vital in bringing out unchartered development and change adaptation. Conversely, two senior Masters holding titles of ‘Human Cultural Property’ training a couple apprentices may successfully prevent the art from dying but is hardly sufficient in leading the craft’s entrance and development into the global market

[Hyungman Lee, Human Properties No.10 for Mother of Pearl Inlay]

[Lee’s MOP Case for Scottish Whisky Macallan 1926(sold at U$70,000 in Korea)]

That’s not to say it is unimportant to preserve tangible cultural assets. However, while preserving tangible assets may be compared to the act of carefully preserving an old photograph containing an image of the past, preserving an ‘Important Intangible Cultural Property’ offers unlimited opportunities for the asset’s development and change. Risking disagreement, I would go on to say that the potential to create financial growth from investment into the preservation and development of intangible cultural properties far surpasses the potential from investment into

the preservation of tangible assets.

[Jeong-Ok, Kim, Human Properties for Porcelain Crafts]

[Exhibition Room of Kim’s Instruction Center]

Unfortunately public and private aid in the preservation and development of these valuable ‘Important Intangible Cultural Properties’ such as Mother-of-Pearl inlay crafts is unable to provide the necessary scale of support. As is the case in any country, the government must get involved to provide any promising amount of aid.



About koreanartscrafts

I'm a Korean who has traveled, lived, and worked in many places of the Eastern and Western hemisphere. Having deep interest in the Arts and Crafts, I like to write about Korean Arts Crafts and share the knowledge with the people who may be interested in the Asian Arts and Crafts.
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