Korean Onggi

The Handicraft in Making the Onggi

There is a Korean saying, “the tips of the fingers create the flavor”, this is how the Onggi is often described. To make the Onggi, the bare hands are the most important tools, as the saying goes the hands are what creates the aesthetics of the Onggi wares – “the hands are the main implements that imply style” to Onggi”.

The hands of an Onggi potter differ from those of an ordinary person. The right hand is different from the left hand. Often their hands change shape after a lifetime of using the backs, palms and knuckles to decorate Onggi pots.

To begin with the potter assembles thick clay coils onto a flat base of a pot while the wheel is in motion. Three to two coils are attached together as protruding bands around the pot again as the wheel is spins. The coils are then firmly pressed down with the fingernails, creating a chain-band decoration. This is done before glazing.

Once a mixture that coats the Onggi surface (similar to glaze) has been applied onto  the surface, decorations are added again relying just on the hands. The knuckle of the thumb is used to scrap off parts of the mixture. Orchids and iris leaves are drawn using this method. Furthermore, the knuckles created by the fist of the hand are also incorporated to draw on the surface. The more experienced potters are able to create more fascinating patterns using this hand-decorating technique. The patterns rely on the individual taste of the person making the pot. Therefore, every Onggi pot has its own personality.

The Techniques in Firing Onggi

According to the Onggi potters, firing the Onggi wares economically, which frequently were made into large shaped pots and jars, was equally important as making them well. From the ancient times until today, the potters have been concerned about firing a mass number of Onggi pots effectively in order to gain a profit. The potters thought about the size and shape of the Onggi to fill a kiln tightly with large quantities of the ware.

The Onggi, including large storage jars, was generally fired in a climbing kiln. The pots were usually stacked in three levels. The first layer in an Onggi firing, is usually stacked with small vessels. These act as the base for the larger pots which are placed on top. For this, the pots were placed in a special way to sustain the weight of the larger ones. The rims of these pots were made into a square-like shape this is referred to as “MO-JUN” (JUN in Korean is the rim of the pot). Other types of rims were also made. They were made into triangular shapes, “NO-JUN” (triangular rim), and also into round shapes, “TONG-JUN” (round rim). The large pots stacked on the top level do not have to sustain any weight. However they have to adapt to the temperature and the force of the fire flames, which often alters the shape of the pots. Therefore in order to withstand temperature differences and the strength of the flames, the pots were made with wide rims known in Korean as “NUP-JUN”.

The pots were stacked in three levels and inside the larger ones smaller pots were placed to fire as many as possible in one kiln. This naturally restricted the size and shape of smaller pots because they had to maintain a certain shape in order to be placed inside another pot. Consequently the potter had to think of function, form and profit. Each province had their own way of solving this problem and hence created an interesting difference in the forms of the Onggi.

In the spring of 1987, research work was conducted on the tiled roofed-houses in the villages of Gang-Ryuoong and Dae-Gwal-Ryeong areas. These houses have been marked as national folk assets and they have been handed down for generations. In one of the houses, there lived an old couple, about seventy years old. In their storage chamber, I came across an Onggi pot that had been salt fired.

The old lady of this particular house stated that the salt-fired pot had been in their family for seven generations. So if we look at one generation as being thirty years, it is possible to estimate this pot as being two hundred years old. The color and the texture of the pot suggested that it was probably made during the Goryeo period. It resembles the large unglazed earthenware pots that were made during that particular period. Therefore through this pot, I was able to examine the development of unglazed earthenware pots of the Goryeo period.

Furthermore, in a small village called Woon-Cho-Ru, of the Jiri Mountain in Korea, I discovered a pot that has been handed down for nine generations and it was still being used today. This particular one was a glazed pot and it took me back to the history of glazed pots. It suggested that glazing had been introduced somewhat three hundred years ago.

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