▲ 한국의 전통 식기인 유기는 구리와 주석을 78:22 비율로 녹여 만든 청동 그릇으로 단단하고 견고한 특징을 가진다.

The traditional tableware yugi comprises firm and solid dishes made of 78% copper and 22% tin. (Kim Sunjoo)

By Kim Hyelin, Yoon Hee Young, Lee Jihae and Joung Haseung

Seoul | March 16, 2021

A classic tableware has always appeared on important dinner tables such as those of the 2018 inter-Korean summit and the 2019 visit to Korea by then U.S. President Donald Trump.

The distinct Korean bronzeware yugi comprises firm and solid dishes made with 78% copper and 22% tin, and its dining utensils are known to be non-toxic, odorless and pollution free.

On top of its excellent thermal and cooling effects, yugi is outstanding in sterilization as well. Thus the tableware is considered precious for its ability to keep food fresh over a prolonged period. Yugi was often given as part of a dowry or used during ancestral rites, frequently being passed down from one generation to the next due to its durability.

In the past, the tableware was also used to help the king detect poison, as a yugi dish would turn dark if a toxic food touched it.

From ancient times, China used ceramic plates, Japan wooden ones and Korea yugi. Other countries use iron tableware, but Korea is the only one that uses one that is combined copper and tin. When making bronze, the percentage of tin used in the process is within 10%. Because as tin is highly fragile, raising its portion increases the difficulty of making bronze. Koreans, however, devised a distinct metal technology that increased the strength of materials through molding even while increasing the portion of tin.

Yugi is made by repeating the process of overlaying alloy plates, or melting copper and tin and beating and hardening the plates by submersion in cold water. The repetition of beating and solidifying makes the alloy structure denser and harder. That is why yugi is nicknamed “a plate borne of a thousand beatings.” The tableware neither bends nor breaks, so its use is not restricted to the dining table but extends to other useful items such as basins, gongs and kkwaenggwari (small flat gong).

▲ 고급 식기로 여겨지는 유기는 국빈 행사의 만찬 테이블에 자주 사용된다. 사진은 2018년 남북정상회담 만찬에 사용된 유기접시. 청와대

Considered luxurious tableware, yugi is often used to serve VIPs like high-level officials and foreign heads of state. Shown here are yugi plates used at a banquet during the September 2018 inter-Korean summit. (Cheong Wa Dae)

Koreans have used yugi since the Bronze Age and expanded its use during the Goryeo  Dynasty to Buddhist crafts and household goods. The tableware was also produced as goryeodong (Goryeo bronzeware) for export to China. When Korea was under Japanese occupation, the yugi industry declined due to Japan’s confiscation of most yugi in each household to secure military supplies. The tableware seemed back in fashion after liberation but its use declined with the adoption of stainless steel and plastic after the 1960s.

Highly antiseptic due to its copper content, yugi is also useful amid an epidemic such as COVID-19. The Gyeonggi-do Institute of Health and Environment in a 2008 study found that the tableware eliminates 99.9% of vibrio bacteria infections through raw fish. When the MERS  epidemic broke out in the first half of 2015, Lotte Department Store saw sales of bronzeware double from the previous year.
Hong Su-kyung, CEO of yugi manufacturer Ugiu, said, “Yugi is antiseptic, which makes its dishes suitable for the COVID-19 era and eco-friendly in sharing history with humankind,” adding, “At the end of a yugi dish’s life, it is melted down again in fire, becomes the minerals copper and tin, and returns as part of nature.”

[email protected]