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Korean Traditional Knife-"Unjangdo"

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FIne Antique Unjangdo
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Park Yong-Ki Collection

Mu-hyung-moon-ah-che: "Intangible Cultural Asset"

The Venerable Park Yong-Ki
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Unjangdo: Korean Traditional Knife

 

Interview with Park Chong-Kun

 

In Korea, there is one undisputed heavyweight champion of traditional Korean knife-smithing, and that is Park Yong-Ki.  And, though 76 years young, he still wakes up at 5:00 am every morning and goes to work making one of Korea’s most beautiful weapons, the “Unjangdo”: knife.  And, on a glorious spring day in May of this year, his son, apprentice and business partner Park Chong-Kun graciously accepted our invitation to interview.

 

He began by explaining that the Jangdo is an encased ornamental knife.  Then he filled us in on some of the ancient history of the Unjangdo knife.  His research is extensive having done his Master’s thesis on Unjangdo knives at Tonguk University in Seoul. 

 

“Jangdo” is a term referring to a variety of ornamental knives made in Korea since the Choson dynasty.  The prefix “un” means silver, a metal often used in the construction of this knife.”

 

“Korean knives have had many names through the ages.  Knives and swords with only one sharp edge are called “do.” Double-edged swords are called “geom” (sometimes spelled “kum” as in “Kumdo”).  A double-edged bronze sword was called “Dangeom.”  They were usually rather short by today’s standards.  Long swords didn’t evolve until the iron age.”

 

“Around the fifth century Koreans began forging iron for knives and swords.  Later, Chinese iron technologies were introduced and blended with Korean methodologies and designs.  The multipurpose knives they produced were most often used for farming and household tasks.”

 

“Since the Three-Kingdoms period, there have been many knives and swords, including, “Paedo” (carrying knife) and “Do-ja” knife, “So-do” (small knife), “Geom” (sword),  “Whando” (soldier’s knife), “Bi-su” (dagger), “Dopil” (short, small knife), “Daedo” (big sword), and “Dando” (throwing knife).”

 

“During Shilla times, if a king heard of a good smith, he would catch and enslave him.  An enslaved smith might run away or cut off one of his hands - in order to get out of his situation. “

 

The name “Jangdo” appeared during the early Choson (1392 -1905) period.  During the Choson dynasty the “sadeabu” or gentry class always carried the Unjangdo.  Before that names such as Paedo, Do-ja, Bi-su and So-do” were used for the encased ornamental knife.  Only the gentry, however, had the silver Jangdo called Unjangdo.

 

In the Code of Laws of the Chosun Dynasty published in 1485 (Kyunggukdaejeon) the “Do-ja-Jang” and “Whan-do-Jang” were mentioned as blacksmith titles in a knife manufacturing factory.  The former refers to the blacksmiths making daggers or encased ornamental knives (Jangdo), while the latter refers to the blacksmiths making weapons for soldiers.

 

Park Chong-Kun went on to way that “The Choseon dynasty was a time of a caste system.  As you know, butchers are low, but sword-makers were even lower than butchers.  Because of the low status, practitioners kept the fact of their practice secret and did not want their sons to follow in their foot-steps. Thus, the cultural arts didn't carry on well.  Only after Japanese colonization, were (some) Korean eyes opened.  But with the Korean war, practitioners were too caught up in the day-to-day problems of survival to focus on trying to continue or revive traditional crafts and culture. In the 1960s, we realized we needed a national treasure system and more awareness.  Traditional hair style and hanbok had been discarded.”

 

In regards to Korean knives he said: “The quality, size, material and shape of the Jangdo denoted caste and general social status.  The Jangdo during this period was also a marvelous gift, sometimes given by government officials to visiting dignitaries and loyal subjects and also aristocrats to outstanding servants.  Visiting Chinese officials often gave to Korean officials Buddhist texts and silk, and in return, Korean officials often gave to them Unjangdo knives and Ginseng.

 

During the Japanese occupation of Korea (post 1905) the Unjangdo became something of a ladies weapon.  Unjangdos were often given to noblewomen as wedding gifts, the reason being that should their modesty be attacked, they could fight back with their knife, and failing that, they could modestly end their own lives rather than submit to molestation.  This is based on the philosophy of “Yul-nya” that is, a woman follows one man.  Filial piety is one the preeminent virtues of Confucian philosophy.

 

As a ladies weapon, the Unjangdo was usually small, not larger than the size of her hand, and highly decorated such that it would appear as a simple ornament.  Thus it could be hidden out in the open.  It was usually worn close to a ladies heart.

 

MAKING A JANGDO

Park Chong-Kun said that he buys his iron from nearby Posco Iron Company in Kwangyang city, in Cheonnam province (about 20 minute drive from the south coast of Korea).  Most but not all of the Jangdo he and his father make are made by hand.  Some of the less expensive ones are machine made.  Park Chong-Kun said his father, during his 62 years of making Jangdo has only made about 200 of them.  Asked how many he himself has made Park Chong-Kun said he only assists his father.  It takes anywhere between three days and a year to make one Unjangdo depending on its quality and size.  Park Yong-Ki makes his own tools.

 

He uses standard charcoal in firing the iron, however Park Chong-Kun said it had high CO2 content.   He also said they use four quenching baths: liquefied: clay, dengjang (a soybean derivative), potassium cyanide and cow-bone powder.  He said that there is some variation in the order and duration of quenchings depending on the desired outcomes.

 

Park Chong-Kun said that the grinding process has three steps, but didn’t elaborate.  This is something of an industry standard.

 

Blades are attached to the hilt using pine pitch.

 

The blade decoration is done by using a punch held at an angle and lightly tapped.  He uses borax on silver.  A blow-torch is used on silver, then it is beaten and then file-abraded.

 

On the blades of his knives, Park Yong-Ki cold punches an abstract “maehwah” (Japanese apricot) flower for clean body, only one mind) and an unspecified abstract bird to represent virtue/chastity.  He dreamt of a dragon in his youth.  The flower is closer to the handle.  The dragon is always only on one face, the one facing away from the body of a right-handed wielder.  The pulum [cf. quenching liquid as well as dragon!] is one of the four gracious plants.  The Four Gracious Plants, alternately called the Four Gentlemanly Plants, or the Four Seasons (paintings), consist of plum blossoms, orchids or wild orchids, chrysanthemums, and bamboo. Though they originally represented characteristics, they are now commonly associated with the four seasons. The Four Gracious Plants originally were Confucian symbols for the four qualities of a learned man. The plum blossoms represented courage, the orchid stood for refinement, the chrysanthemum was a sign of a productive and fruitful life, and bamboo represented integrity. In modern times, the four have come to be associated with the seasons as well; plums blossoms bravely bloom in the cold of an early spring, orchids disseminate a dim fragrance far into the heat of summer, chrysanthemums overcome the first cold of a late fall and bloom, and bamboo bares its green leaves even in the winter. (see: http://www.korean-arts.com/about_korean_paintings.htm.) 

 

“To make Jangdo” he said, “the first and most important thing is to have a clean mind.”  He also said that “Jungshin” (spirit/soul/will power/mind/attitude/passion) is critical.  A literal meaning of “Jangdo” is “noble art.”  “Then,” he said “it is critical to keep in mind the qualities of metallurgical beauty.”  He also emphatically stated that Korean knives and swords are made for protection, not attack.

 

On January 24, 2006 he and his son opened the the very modern Unjangdo Museum, located in their hometown of Kwangyang City.  Costing about 3 million dollars it is a very impressive place with a beautiful central outdoor courtyard area.  Swords from all over the world are displayed there in addition to a variety of ancient and modern Korean knives and swords.

 

Located there also is their new workshop, a gift shop, living quarters and a dormitory for visitors.  Interestingly, a Korean Feng Shui said that the “gi” (intrinsic energy – vital force) there was very strong.

 

The Venerable PARK YONG-KI

Park Yong-Ki is a “Jangdo Jang” - a craftsman who makes encased ornamental knives, or Jangdo.  He was awarded the title of “Intangible Cultural Asset” by the Korean government several years ago and is known by practically all Koreans as a national treasure.

 

Asked where his father (Park Yong-Ki) first learned the art of making Jangdo, Park Chong-Kun said his father was taught by Jang Ik-Seon also of Kwangyang city.  His father, born on March 16, 1931 started swordsmithing at the age of 14, soon after the end of World War II.  Park Yong-Ki first met Jang Ik Seon when he was introduced by his only sibling, an older sister.  At first Park Yong-Ki’s father objected to his learning to make knives, but relented after he saw what good work he did. 

 

His Son, Park Chong-Kun

Asked about his father’s hobbies, Park Chong-Kun said that his father rather enjoyed gardening and tree trimming.

 

In regards to making Unjangdo, Park Yong-Ki said: “I put my soul into the knives I make.” And “I will freeze the knives of our ancestors for our youth.”

 

Born in September 1962 Park Chong-Kun is now 44 years old.  For 22 years he has worked as his father’s assistant.  Asked about his own hobbies, Chong-Kun said he doesn’t really have any other than making Jangdo, however, he does like listening to country pop.  (The broad category of Korean pop is called “Minyo.” Styles within Minyo include “Arirang,” “Setariong,” and “Doraji”.)

 

Now he gives lectures at Seongju University

 

Because his father is a living legend in Korea, it seems possible that the son may feel to be in his shadow.  When asked about this, he said: “The first generation always needs support; the second generation's role and duty is to support, honor and sacrifice. My father and I support each other.  It is destiny and I am proud just to be the son of a honorable man.”

 

Asked if he had children Park Chong-Kun said he had two sons, ages 9 and 15.  He said the older son had a very direct and incisive mind and may go into the sciences.  Materials engineering with an emphasis on metallurgy seemed to be a possibility.  Park Chong-Kun suggested that his younger son may follow him in creating a dynasty of Jangdo knife-smiths.  It seems most likely that both sons will contribute to the flowering of a new age in creating Unjangdo knives of unparalleled beauty.

 

Master Unjangdo Knife-smiths Park Yong-Ki and Park Chong-Kun can be contacted at:

 

The Unjangdo Museum

(Kwangyang Jangdo Pak-mul-gwan)

Kwangyang City, Cheonam Province

 

Tel:      (061) 762-4853

            (061) 763-0510

Fax:     (061) 762-0551

e-mail _ jangdojang60@naver.com

 

Story by Greg Brundage & Kim Dammers

 

Interview date: May 14, 2006 Translators were: Lee Joung Hee and Kim Mi-Young.

 

Knife made by Park Yong-ki named: Pal-kakdo
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An interview with another Unjangdo smith will follow here.

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