By Korea.net Honorary Reporter Nourhan M. Aldemrdash
Photos = Nourhan M. Aldemrdash
The word “paper” comes from the word “papyrus,” the first type of paper in human history, which was made by the ancient Egyptian pharaohs. According to Egyptian history, papyrus plants only grew on the banks of the Nile River and they were considered to be a holy plant for two reasons. First, the stem looks like a triangle, the shape of the pyramids, which were a symbol of eternity in ancient Egypt. Second, the flower itself was a symbol of the sun god Amon Ra. The pharaohs made papyrus paper to record important documents of the royal families and high priests. Then it became available to the common people. Step-by-step, ancient Egyptians learned how to write on it with different types of scripts. Nowadays, papyrus has become a beautiful souvenir from Egypt that features scenes from ancient history and hieroglyphic writing.
On the other side, we have traditional Korean handmade paper made from the mulberry tree, Hanji, which is solely made in Korea. Hanji is made out of the inner bark of the mulberry trees, which is a native Korean plant that grows well on Korea’s rocky mountainsides. It was also used to record history, but the Koreans developed Hanji to be more useful, not just as paper but to be flexible so that they could use it to make kites, clothing and home decorations.
The paper industries in traditional Egypt and traditional Korea were quite different. The papyrus industry was much easier than the Hanji industry, and that’s what the following steps show.
Papyrus is made from the inner bark of the papyrus plant, so we need to cut off the plant’s stem. Then we remove the green outer part of the stem and cut the inner white part into slices. Then we press it using a hammer or a rolling pin to break up the fibers. We put the slices in water for one week to get white paper or for two weeks to get brown paper.
According to the paper color we want, we take out the slices after one or two weeks and arrange them between two pieces of carpet, one vertical and one horizontal. We fill the sheet as if we’re weaving and then put the carpet under a press for one week. Because of the sugar inside the slices, it will stick together. This way, we get a sheet of papyrus paper.
Hanji depends on the proper mulberry tree, as each type of tree affects the paper’s quality. Removing the bark and simmering it plays a key role. The quality of the fibers depends on the simmering solution that can be ash water, slaked lime water or lye water. Hanji-making is based on instinct rather than rules, and at each stage you adapt to the changing conditions of the process.
The Korean Cultural Center in Egypt recently arranged a class for handmade crafts, and one of the workshops was for Hanji. The Hanji workshop lasted for a week. During this time, Professor Seo Jin Yong taught the student how to design a table lamp with traditional mulberry Hanji paper. The students started by choosing different designs and shapes for the lamp, such as a pyramid, a crown, a doll wearing Hanbok, a traditional Hanok Korean home or a butterfly.
Then they started shaping the Hanji paper using strong wire and some other materials. Once they finished the shapes, they covered it all with Hanji paper and started to draw on it and to color it. It was the best moment ever when they finished their designs and started lighting up the lamps. What a wonderful scene.
Between the first day of the workshop and the last, I saw only creativity and how beautiful it was to mix Egyptian designs and Korean materials. I also saw how my friends and I could deal with mulberry Hanji paper for the first time and what it was like to use that kind of paper. Professor Seo Jin Yong did a great job at representing traditional Korean handicrafts that were made out of Hanji. On the last day, the students celebrated the end of the workshop by showing their creations to the Korean Cultural Center team. Park Jae Yang, director of the Korean Cultural Center in Egypt, encouraged the students and finally they all came together to take a photo with their beautiful works of art.
I have been working in a papyrus shop as a local guide for three years now. My work depends on the paper industry. When I first started to explain papyrus to tourists, they were all amazed. Many tourists buy papyrus as a traditional souvenir from Egypt . We also sell it as pictures and paintings that include some of the most famous stories from ancient Egypt. They also feature maps of the Nile that contain all the landscape features and historical sites in Egypt. Sometimes, there’s a variety of other paintings, too, all drawn on papyrus. I kept asking myself, “Are there any traditional papers in Korea, too?” I immediately started searching on YouTube to learn about Hanji and how it was made. I was surprised to learn how creative the Hanji-making process is. When a Hanji workshop was arranged in Cairo, I rushed to sign up and register for the workshop. It was really amazing.
When I watched videos about how to make Hanji, it looked a lot like how to make papyrus, in both writing and drawing. Once I attended the workshop, however, I can’t forget my reaction when I touched traditional mulberry Hanji paper for the first time. It was like a dream come true. I saw it in videos, but I never thought I would ever touch real Hanji. It’s not a rough paper, like papyrus. It’s very smooth and flexible, like a piece of cloth. I didn’t know that we would design a lamp using Hanji sheets. It was such a beautiful and well-spent workshop, and an amazing experience. My wish now is to visit a Hanji-making workshop in Korea and to make some Hanji paper myself, just as I make papyrus every day here in Cairo.