Cheon Han-bong Master Potter - UNESCO Intangible Cultural Treasure
Text & Photography ©Nayan Sthankiya
On assignment for Morning Calm, Korean Airs inflight magazine
Cheon Han-bong is the master of Boon-chung porcelain, creating traditional tea bowls of the 'one movement' variety there is no second thought in the production just precise execution. The unique quality of of his bowls relies on technique, years of experience and luck. While celadon porcelain or white porcelain requires a calm firing process, his method requires 7 to 8 kilns attached to one another and loaded and fired individually allowing for air circulation from top to bottom to reach the proper temperature which creates the oxidization effect on the finished work. Once the bowls are formed on the wheel the final outcome is left entirely to the fire and his skill to visually know the temperature of each kiln and regulate it by continuously adding wood over a 24 hour period. A laborious and difficult process for a young man, but Mr. Cheon tackles it with the same vigor as someone half his age.
I can actually imagine the outcome of the piece just by looking at the color of the fire". At first, the fire might simply seem red but then it becomes a white flame around 1250 to 1300 degrees Celsius depending on the amount of devotion the potter puts in. And that’s when the magical harmony of innumerable changes happens inside the kiln.
Mr. Cheon lives in Mungyeong, a rural community outside of Daegu. Mr Cheon partially credits the wonderful soil in the area, rich in iron for its ability to blend smoothly and takes the heat of the firing process well. He also only uses natural ingredients in his glazes, oak is used to add a bluish tint and ashes from the elm tree are used for whites.
When you pour tea into my bowls, the pour blooms like a flower inside the bowl. That’s why the Japanese refer to my bowls as a maple leaf or rain drop. Also, each bowl is unique do to the slight differences in firing temperature in each kiln and the glazing process leaving the bottoms of the bowls slightly bumpy.
The masters of ceremony, the Japanese revere his work so much, they visit the day of the unloading to purchase his treasures as they come from the kilns and treasures they are. His output is low, being a perfectionist, any one that doesn't meet his high standards are immediately destroyed, almost 80% of his production. All the bowls that don't pass muster are taken around back of the kilns where a porcelain grave yard can be found, shards of blue, white carpet the ground. Mr. Cheon squats with a hammer and nonchalantly begins to break into pieces what like to the untrained eye like master pieces.