Korea has over 1,300 years of papermaking history. There are various opinions among scholars as to how papermaking was introduced to Korean peninsula from China between 2-7th century. However, the prevailing belief that Korea started making and using paper before the 4th century is based on a piece of paper found in an ancient tomb, Che Hyup Chong (108 B.C.E.-313 C.E.). Papermaking skills were then introduced to Japan in 610 C.E. by a Korean Buddhist monk Dam Jing along with ink sticks, a millstone, and colorants. This fact suggests that by the late 6th century, papermaking in Korea must have been well developed.

Once the Korean papermakers took this invaluable skill, they refined it with an original vision. A unique formation technique that created Yin Yang Ji was established and handmade paper became an indispensible material of daily life in Korea. Koreans used paper not only for calligraphy, painting, and books, but also for doors, walls, windows, furnitures, umbrellas, lanterns, boxes, baskets, fans, shoes, and clothes. In fact, Koreans seem to be the only people who used paper as flooring.

The world's oldest surviving wood block print, Mu Gu Jung Kwang Dae Da Ra Ni Kyung (circa 751 C.E.) and the world's oldest book printed by movable metallic type, Jik Ji Sim Che Yo Jeol (1377 C.E.) are excellent examples of Korea's highly accomplished papermaking and printing skills. Click on images below for more information on these historic prints on Hanji.


Mu Gu Jung Kwang Dae Da Ra Ni Kyung (circa 751 C.E.)

Jik Ji Sim Che Yo Jeol (1377 C.E.)

By the 11-12th century, Korea's papermaking had truly flourished. The Royal Court of Go Ryeo(918-1392) dynasty encouraged rapid development of papermaking and printing skills. It published numerous Buddhist scripts, medical, and history books. The quality of Go Ryeo Ji (Hanji was commonly referred to as Go Ryeo Ji during Go Ryeo and Cho Sun (1392-1910) dynasty) was renowned throughout Asia, especially in China. Many Chinese books from that time praise the beauty of Korean paper and state that Chinese scholars regarded Korean paper as one of the best. Go Ryeo Ji, Go Ryeo ginseng, and Go Ryeo celadon became most sought after export items and Chinese aristocrats and scholars enjoyed exchanging them as valuable gifts. Go Ryeo Ji in particular became one of the main tribute products levied by China.

Cho Sun (1392-1910) dynasty inherited the excellence of Go Ryeo Ji and papermaking technique and its application matured during the first half of the kingdom (1392-1591). Hanji started to penetrate every day lives of ordinary people. Colored Hanji became popular and a variety of plants, such as pine tree bark, rice straw, and bamboo were incorporated into Hanji.

After this period until the 19th century, Cho Sun dynasty suffered several major aggressions from neighboring countries. Japanese invasion of 1592, which lasted six years, devastated Korean papermaking industry as many craftsmen were taken away to Japan. Also, a heavy tribute of paper was demanded by China during Yuan, Ming, and Ching dynasties and the Cho Sun government pressured Buddhist monasteries to supply paper as monks had the skills and were already producing paper for printing of religious texts. All of these factors contributed to the exhaustion of Korean papermaking tradition. In spite of the depressed economy and unfavorable circumstances, however, Korea's papermaking tradition remained alive.

In the early 20th century, foreign influence and the idea of modernization started to challenge or replace old tradition. On top of this currency, Cho Sun suffered colonization (1910-1945) by Japan and many changes started to occur. Western paper mills were constructed and cheaper machinemade papers started to undermine handmade traditional paper.

Since 1945, Korean lifestyle underwent a dramatic overhaul. Traditional thatch top houses, which used a lot of handmade paper for walls, doors, windows, and flooring, were replaced by western architecture. Hanji was no longer an integral part of daily life and its main consumers were reduced to artists who practiced traditional ink painting or calligraphy.

However, in recent years, a renewed awareness and appreciation is growing and the excellence of papermaking tradition is being rediscovered. More people are accepting the responsibility to carry on this invaluable legacy for next generations, opening a new era of Hanji.