Learning from a Dying Art

My friend, Irene, led me and my other friend, Brandon, away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Daegu to a quiet street with traditional Korean coffee houses and art galleries.

“Are we there yet?” I asked.

“Almost,” she said. Sure enough, abruptly we came to a simple gate, taller than my head and made of a chestnut-colored wood. Flowers and vines spilled over from the inside yard.

It was closed.

Suddenly, a middle-aged man in a modern hanbok approached us. It was the owner.

“Wow, our timing is so great!” Irene said. She spoke to the man in Korean as he opened the gate and gruffly invited us inside (typical Gyeongsang older generation style. They sound angry but they’re actually saying something very friendly).

Inside, the plants that spilled over the top of the gate lined the grassy walkway toward the traditional Korean house (hanok 한옥). The gate closed behind us, and suddenly we weren’t in Daegu anymore. There was no evidence that we were, anyway. The far wall was a giant rock sloping sharply upward 12 or more feet into trees hanging over the house. The high gate walls blocked the sight of the surrounding buildings.

As we took off our shoes to enter the home, it began to rain.

Inside, the house smelled like smoke and paint and paper. No wonder. Different types of papers were on the floor and strewn across a table, and finished paintings hung from strings and on the walls.

The weren’t just paintings. They were examples of Korean calligraphy made into art and sansuhua (산수화 – otherwise known as  shan shui, a traditional Chinese art that also spread to and developed in Korea and Japan). Gorgeous and so meaningful.

The man was Lee Hong Jae (리홍재), a famous artist and calligrapher in niche circles. He sat us down across from him on his long couch with his pens and paper in front of him. He handed us 두유 (soy milk) he had just bought and, while the rain gently tapped at the windows and we sipped at the milk, we talked.

We stayed for two hours with this artist discussing life and art. I needed some help to understand, but Irene, who is Korean, and Brandon, who has lived here for five years or more and knows Korean very well, translated for me.

Here are a few things I learned.


Calligraphy is dying in Korea

First, some history, according to my understanding.

Korean calligraphy, while it has its roots in China, developed its own unique Korean flavor. While the characters are Chinese, they’re the Chinese-Korean writing that developed in Korea in the Joseon dynasty and the surrounding timeline.

In Japan and China, calligraphy is cherished as a beautiful tradition indicative of culture and valuable for that reason. Children learn it in school, and the art still regularly interacts with the culture.

In Korea, the art is dying.

It’s still a cultural treasure, but it’s not mandatory in school. There are people who practice the art, but they are few and not young.

However, few art forms can express the uniquely Korean flavor of emotions and ideals like Korean calligraphy, ideals which are shared in origin with other Eastern Asian countries but which look and feel completely different  in the context of the specific Asian culture.

The reason for the art form’s diminishing could have to do with Korea’s rapid modernization and progression as a first world country in a short period of time. Or it could be something else. I haven’t done enough study to know exactly, and I suspect others would only have theories as well anyway.

The country is in the process of a lot of change, finding where it wants to be between modernity and tradition. I don’t think it’s quite found it’s sweet spot yet.

Regardless, the customs and traditions are beautiful, and that’s why people like Lee are trying to keep this art form alive.

With calligraphy, there are no mistakes

Calligraphy is like life in this sense. If you make a mistake, you don’t always have to fix it. Sometimes, you can say “I meant to do that” and incorporate it into the piece. Same with life. Own the mistake and use it to your advantage.

Often, you can fix it later. So, either way, don’t worry so much. The writing comes from your heart through the brush to the paper, he said. So let it flow.


Learn the basics, then forget them

Because calligraphy writing is from your heart, it’s important to find your own style. That’s the best way to express yourself and what you’re feeling and thinking and allow that flow from heart to hand to paper.

So, while learning the basics is important for foundation, it’s best to use that foundation as a stepping stone to freedom from rules to expression.

The form of the word is just as important as the meaning

Words are powerful in themselves. One word can have so many different meanings and can apply to so many different situations. They can hurt or heal. They can make great change for good or bad.

When you write words, they are concrete. But when you add to that an aesthetic element, you are adding even more meaning. You can change the meaning of a simple word by adding a visible twist to the artistry, which may enhance the impact. Or you can show your personality.

An example:

During our visit, Lee graciously made a piece of art for myself and my friend, Brandon (an American), in front of our eyes.

Brandon’s said 행복 (haengboek), which means “happiness.”


The word has an ㅐ symbol (right above the heart), which Lee stylized to look like two people holding hands. He also draws the ㅇ (or “ng” sound) as a heart in most of his works. This hints toward love and relationship being the root of happiness.

In my case:


The word 사랑 (salang) means “love.” In Lee’s work, the “S” (written as the English letter instead of ㅅ) is meant to look like a person bowing or kneeling to another person (the ㅏ character).

The trip was a special one. Lee was funny and inspiring. His words encouraged me to be bold in my writing and my art and not worry about the mistakes because art is personality , communication, heart and emotion. The mistakes are secondary. Maybe even necessary.

Here’s an video example of Lee’s work. It’s a bit sad, commemorating someone’s death, but it’s a great view of how culture and calligraphy can combine.

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