A visit to Sancheong’s finest potter

In 1592, Japan invaded Korea. Their ultimate destination was China, but they never got further than Korea, and they wrought havoc there. During their occupation, which lasted on and off until their second invasion in 1598 was repelled by Admiral Yi Sun-shin’s famous turtle ships, they sent back to Japan in their ships a human cargo which speaks volumes about the schizophrenic nature of the Japanese psyche at the time.

Tea bowl by Min Young Ki
Tea bowl by Min Young Ki

First, reflecting the barbaric ruthlessness of the samurai spirit, were piles of Korean noses. To validate the number of enemy killed, it was conventional to decapitate the vanquished corpse and send the head back home. But the Koreans were slaughtered in such numbers that their heads took up too much room in the ships, so as a concession the soldiers were permitted to send back only the noses. A grassy burial mound of Korean noses, erroneously called Mimzuka, the ‘Mound of Ears’, can been found in Kyoto1.

Min Young Ki's house in Sancheong-gun
Min Young Ki's house in Sancheong-gun

Second, reflecting the artistic sensibilities of the Japanese elite, were Korean potters, kidnapped and sent to Japan to practice their skills there. Japan had nothing to match the sophisticated simplicity of Korean ceramic art, and desperately wanted it2. So Korean potters were forced to live and work in Japan. Their skills were perpetuated by their descendents over the centuries.

With Min Young Ki's son at his studio
With Min Young Ki's son at his studio, under a photo of Min with Hosokawa Morihiro

It seems their descendants settled comfortably in their new country. In the 1970s, Park Chung-hee tried to persuade some of them back to Korea, to bring some of the ancient arts back to the mother country. But the best deal that he could secure was that one of the surviving descendants of the kidnapped potters, Yoon Do-gwan, agreed to accept three Korean potters as students to re-teach them the ancient arts. One of those students was Min Young Ki, who lives in Sancheong. Min studied with Yoon for five years, and his skill and artfulness flourished.

Coming full circle, a retired Japanese prime minister, Hosokawa Morihiro3, happened to have a love of the simple lines of Korean pottery, and wanted to learn the art of Korean ceramics from a Korean, in Korea. The potter he came to was that same potter, Min Young Ki, and he visited Min’s studio in Sancheong on a regular basis.

Min Young Ki with Hosokawa Morihiro
Min Young Ki with Hosokawa Morihiro

Min’s studio proudly shows a photograph of him with his illustrious pupil, together with many of the outstanding works produced by him and his son, who has also continued the family pottery tradition. Outside the studio, mounds of local clay stand waiting to be used – it’s a white clay which can take firing at a higher temperature than most.

Min hopes to have an exhibition in London soon, maybe in Gallery Bresson, where Korean ceramic artist Roh Kyung-jo exhibited a couple of years ago. We look forward to it.

Links:

  1. See Stephen Turnbull, Samurai Invasion, Japan’s Korean War 1592-1598, page 195 []
  2. It is said that the finest pots were so prized that Hideyoshi, the Japanese regent who ordered the invasion of Korea in 1592, rewarded successful generals with ceramics. []
  3. Hosokawa was prime minister for eight months, 1993-94. []

4 thoughts on “A visit to Sancheong’s finest potter

  1. Nice article. I think the term for the mound of human remains was changed because people somehow thought ears were less disgusting than noses…mostly from peasants unlucky to have been captured by the Japanese back then. I think it was 6,000 potters were kidnapped? I’m not sure. There were also 100,000 people sold as slaves to Portugese traders, I think. My history is a bit hazy. They may have integrated into Europe or killed off.

    I did not know that President Park tried to get the descendants of kidnapped potters to emigrate to Korea. Nice information.

  2. Hadn’t heard about the sale of Korean slaves to Portugal.

    Re President Park and his wish to restart Korean pottery traditions, well that’s what I was told, and I have no reason to doubt it. It kind of makes sense in the context of other cultural preservation initiatives started under Park.

    I went back to visit Min Young-ki in subsequent years. I wish I could speak Korean…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.