Monday, August 1, 2011

Wisdom of the Korean Potters

The landscape of old Korea was dotted with backyard terraces where crocks for preserving  soy products and kimchi were stored.  With the arrival of plastic utensils and the spread of the refrigerator, the terraces disappeared, but they remained a nostalgic memory for many Koreans. The Peace Weekly visits one of the artisans still working at his craft.

Paul Hwang, 70 years old, is a 3rd generation potter. His grandfather, ostracized by the family after becoming a Catholic, left home to live in a  potter's village where he learned the trade. During the persecution, many Catholics fled to the mountains where they worked making and selling pots. Women with pots on their heads and men with A-frames loaded with pots would move around the country selling their pots, and gathering  news on the whereabouts of Catholic priests, and then making this known among the believers.

The article mentions a 1970 survey showing that most of those working in the pottery trade were Catholics. Paul Hwang mentions that the disdain they received for being potters was difficult to accept--that, along with the poverty and mounting debts were things he wanted to leave behind. But he had no choice, he said. The potter's life was the only one he knew that allowed him to feed the family and educate his children.

In 1983 there were four potter families working together in his village. One evening three of the families, deciding they could no longer deal with the difficult life, left the village. Shocked by their leaving, he cried a lot, he said, wanting also to leave it all behind. However, with sickness in the family, there was nothing else that he could do but continue with the pottery.

He sent his three children to the nearby city to study, not to have them succeed in life but rather to get them away from home and possibly becoming attached to the potter's life.  He didn't want to pass on to them the life of poverty he had inherited.  But his circumstances were soon to change, and he now quotes the Korean proverb: sweetness comes after bitterness.  He had developed  a pot modeled on a refrigerator, which received the prime minister's prize at a festival in Seoul.  And two years later was given a master craftsman's award which changed everything in his life.

Now, well-known as a master potter, he receives all kinds of orders, even orders  from the Korean community in the States. When asked about the change, he believes it is his devotion to the craft.  Without devotion, he said, you can't even make a good meal. He did add that he's always searching for the proper clay. When you have good clay and bake it, he said, the microscopic pores allow the pots to breath. The water does not escape, allowing the air to enter for purification and fermentation; he feels one day we will come to appreciate the wisdom of the ancestors.

His youngest son and wife are now beginning to learn the trade.  Although he at first opposed their decision to follow in his footsteps, feeling they were taking upon themselves a cross, he  is pleased now that there will be a 4th generation of the family in the trade. The history of pottery and the Catholic Church can't be separated, he said. Potters are not just a part of Korean history but  a sign of the suffering and the zeal of our Catholic ancestors, and accepted  as a sign of God's  love.

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