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Korean Onggi

Cho Chung Hyun,

Professor Emeritus,

Department of Ceramic Art

College of Art and Design

Ewah Woman’s University

Seoul, Korea

Over the last 30 years, I have traveled extensively around Korea visiting many traditional old Korean houses. Most astonishingly, my research has proved that Onggi had a role in every sector of the household. They were found everywhere within a living environment, whether it was the kitchen, front yard, back yard, storage room, barn, stable, manure shed, ash shed, kimchi storage shed, storage room for home-brewed wine, well-side, rice-mill, the toilet and even on the shelves of the hallway and in the rooms. A wide variety of Onggi has been used as utilitarian wares in Korean homes at one stage or another. Naturally, it is possible to state that each household embraced their own Onggi museum. Through my research, I would like to discuss the extensiveness of Onggi and the culture created by it.

A Democratic Household – the Characteristic Traits of the Onggi

Even in a highly industrialized society as today, Onggi is still closely linked to the lives of the Korean people. Perhaps no object can be seen as frequently as Onggi is in our daily lives. They can be seen on apartment balconies and terraces for storing food, in the show-windows of expensive clothes shops, the vestibules of large offices and on the pedestrian walks. To some extent because the Onggi has become a truly utilitarian ware, we often forget its importance. Its existence is not acknowledged nor is its aesthetic appeal appreciated. Particularly put in comparison to the renowned celadon and porcelain wares of Korea.

From a different point of view, one is able to state that the Onggi, with its individuality, has penetrated deeply into our lives. No other form of object has created a culture that has become so closely linked to our living environment. In the past, Onggi created a democratic way of living. It broke all boundaries between classes for the Onggi was used by everyone, from the upper-class to the lower class.

In Korea, there still exists a ware that has been made since the Neolithic period. It is a type of unglazed earthenware (GIL-GU-RUT) that was used by the majority of Korean people over thousands of years. The shape and form of this ware varied according to the period, the use, the style and the type. Even today, this particular ware is still being produced. Thus its continuation enables us to perceive that it is the foundation not only for ceramic history but also for Korean history. Subsequently, we can examine the development of Korean ceramics from another aspect, other than simply differentiating the change from unglazed to glazed wares. In doing so, one is able to understand much more. For instance, we can view Onggi as the major participant in the development of Korean ceramics, with the introduction of celadons, buncheongs and white porcelains in between. Thus Onggi has not only sustained its existence, forming its unique characteristics but it has also firmly withstood the course of time.

Even during the period when porcelains were produced, Onggis took over 70 to 80 percent of the household ceramics. Unlike porcelains, where its use had been limited, the diversity of the Onggi shapes and functions allowed extensive use.

On a cultural and historical level, the Onggi is regarded as being important because of its astonishing technical connotations and its high functional standards. Onggis created an abundant and comfortable atmosphere within a living space. I call this Onggi Influenced Culture and it has been with the Korean people since the beginning of time continuing to this day. It exists alongside porcelains that developed over a considerably shorter period. I would like to emphasize the importance of this.