Master delves into historical mysteries of ancient bronzework

By Chung Ah-young

YONGIN, Gyeonggi Province mdash Lee Wan-kyu was such a gifted, confident casting artisan that he could make any kind of bronze work by the time he was in his 20s, even without having received any formal training. But in 1982, his confidence was completely shattered when he first saw “Danyusemungyeong” (National Treasure No. 141) mdash a bronze mirror with a fine linear design and a pair of handles, housed at the Korean Christian Museum at Soongsil University.

“When I saw the mirror, my confidence disappeared because I thought I could never recreate it. Since then, I haven’t been able to sleep and I went there almost every day to look at it closely,” Lee said in an interview with The Korea Times.

The mirror, considered one of the seven wonders of Korean relics because of the mystery behind its design and technical aspects, continued to haunt him as a lifelong challenge until 2007.

One side is a smooth reflecting mirror, while the other is decorated with delicate geometrical patterns of vertical triangles inscribed in fine lines, with a pair of concentric circles in four spots. The mirror, which is 21. 2 centimeters in diameter and composed of 13,000 fine lines at 03 millimeter intervals, is representative of the Korean Bronze Age.

Its design had remained a mystery, as the patterns were believed to be difficult to produce through casting. Many scholars have also said even a skilled technician or a high-tech device would not be able to create 24 concentric circles with a diameter of less than two centimeters. The mirror is also made of superior bronze alloy, which reflects the aanced bronze casting and metallurgical technology at that time.

“The artifact was a historic wonder, considered very high-tech back then,” he said.

The artifact’s tin-to-copper alloy ratio of 28-to-72 is perfect for dispersing light, much like a mirror, he said.

“This is a rare alloy ratio because it makes something brittle and hard to mold into a shape. I carved more than 30 talc molds over the last seven to eight years to cast the bronze mirror We can see an ancient technology hidden in this relic,” he said.

After decades of trying, Lee finally achieved his lifelong aim of re-creating the artifact. A slew of casting masters have attempted to reproduce the mirror, but most have failed. However, Lee succeeded by using a talc mold and a one-centimeter, 24-tooth saw blade to create concentric circles.

Lee said many scholars and artisans dismissed the possibility of re-creating the artifact because it is hard to produce an elaborate design through casting.

“I simply thought, lsquoWhat if I were an artisan in the Bronze Age?’ I just used a talc mold and made a 24-tooth saw blade,” he said.

Although archeological scholars are divided in his re-creation’s contribution to the field, he said it was a crucial step to catch up with Japan, which has already studied the mirror for many years to recreate it using modern technology.

“Artisans should not be limited by established theories because they are just theories. Nobody knows the historical truth. We artisans should continuously reproduce historical artifacts to get closer to the truth,” he said.

Bronze: an innovative alloy

Lee began bronze casting in 1970. He learned and mastered the craft on his own.

“I had no teacher I learned it all on my own. My only teachers were historical relics,” he said.

He also said bronze is a symbol of innovative alloys not only in Korea but in all civilizations.

“Bronze relics are very important in discovering our ancient history. They are a key element that hold numerous meanings. I am re-creating what our ancestors have created,” he said.

Lee emphasized that Korea has aanced bronze work technology compared to neighboring countries such as China, which excels in porcelain, and Japan, which excels in lacquerware. Korea played a crucial role in providing iron and bronze in ancient period.

The artisan said he feels like an outsider in archeological and craft circles owing to his outspokenness and boldness. He sometimes argues with established scholars over what he discovered from the process of re-creating bronze work.

He said bronze work holds the key for studying ancient history, which cannot be done with rare relics and other artifacts alone.

“I think my job, which focuses on re-creating historical artifacts, has helped us get closer to the historical truth. That’s my goal,” he said.

Lee said his discoveries during his career do not merely reiterate what scholars already know. He tries to discover new things based on historical artifacts. For instance, he claims that many bronze objects that were regarded as shamanistic ritual items were also used as weapons.

“I have restored numerous historical artifacts that were discovered from tombs. Many historical books describe them as shamanistic ritual items, but after making and using them, I found they were more than ritual items,” he said.

He showed a shield-shaped bronze artifact with bells attached, which he believes was an armband worn in the battlefield to intimidate the enemy.

“Many think bronze artifacts with bells attached or anything that makes a sound were used for shamanic rituals. But after re-creating those items, as an artisan, you discover the hidden meaning of the designs,” he said.

Who is Lee Wan-kyu?

Born in Cheongyang, South Chungcheong Province in 1955, Lee began making bronze work in 1970. He became widely known to the public in 2007 after re-creating “Danyusemungyeong” (National Treasure No. 141), a bronze mirror with a fine linear design and a pair of handles, housed at the Korean Christian Museum at Soongsil University. He won the Prime Minister Award in the Korea Traditional Craft Art Competition for the mirror

He was named Intangible Cultural Property No. 47 for Gyeonggi Province in 2008. He has reproduced numerous historical artifacts, such as a “Bipahyeongdonggeom,” or a Liaoning bronze dagger, and a “Ganduryeong,” or a pole-top bell.

He currently runs Jangin Art, a traditional bronze casting workshop, in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province.

What is bronze casting?

Bronze is an important material and is representative of innovative alloys in all civilizations.

In bronze casting, molten bronze was poured into a mold to produce objects, such as farming tools, as well as weapons and movable objects during the Joseon Kingdom Temple bells, incense burners and Buddhist sculptures were also created using this craft.

The art, along with Buddhism, flourished until the Goryeo Kingdom and declined in the 19th century.

The Korean indigenous bronze culture is believed to have flourished in the southwest part of the nation, as many Korean-style slender daggers, spearheads, halberds, mirrors with fine geometric designs, sword sheaths, belt hooks, bells and pommel rattles were found there. These artifacts possess the distinctive features of Korean bronze culture in terms of technique.

SOURCE: The Korea Times