Saturday, January 31, 2009

Bok Jori

Sancheong-gun in South Gyeongsang Province is better known for its straw ladles, which symbolize good fortune

During the Lunar New Year holidays, Koreans from across the nation make the long journey to their home towns. And they exchange greetings and well-wishing. "I hope your New Year will be filled with good fortune!" But where can this good fortune be found? And how can you capture this good fortune when you see it? For many Koreans, the "Bok Jori", translated as "ladle of good fortune," probably comes to mind first when asked these questions.

The practical function of Bok Jori is closer to a strainer than a ladle, but the concept is to capture good fortune, while sifting away bad fortune. Traditionally, Koreans used to hang Bok Jori in their rooms or in kitchens hoping to capture good fortune. Koreans used to hang Bok Jori on their walls on New Year's Eve or on New Year's Day and pray for good fortune and ward off bad fortune.

Origins of Bok Jori: “Hopes of Capturing Good Fortune”

It remains unclear just when Bok Jori started being associated with hoping for good fortune. But according to a text written by a famous scholar and artist in the late Joseon Dynasty and published in the 1920s, the custom of hanging Bok Jori on the walls of homes dates back centuries, if not longer.

In the early morning hours of the New Year, merchants selling Bok Jori used to roam around residential areas shouting to get people to notice them and buy the products. This is when households purchased enough of the straw utensils to last them throughout the year. Some merchants were known to toss the Bok Jori into the yards of unsuspecting homes, only to return later to claim payment. Nevertheless, residents were known to pay those merchants without complaining, while people rarely tried to haggle over prices. That's because they were aware of the meaning of the Bok Jori.

People would hang Bok Jori on pillars supporting their homes or above the entrance to kitchens. Also, some were even hung in corners of rooms or kitchens and used later on. Bok Jori were also decorated with colorful strings. And inside them, people would put coins or sweets. This was to ensure that good fortune would stick with them throughout the year, while warding off bad luck.

A Village That Makes Bok Jori

Dongdang Village began producing Bok Jori around 200 years ago. Some claim the village began making them at an even earlier period in time, but this has not been confirmed. Even the villagers there estimate the tradition dates back around 200 years. At one time, Dongdang Village was renowned throughout the country for producing the best Bok Jori, along with Hwasoon and Damyang in South Jeolla Province. The reason Bok Jori produced in Dongdang became famous is because of the high quality of wild bamboo found in the region.

The most important ingredient in making Bok Jori is wild bamboo. They are the smallest of the known species of bamboo found in Korea and are also known as "joritdae." After the fall harvest is over, villagers of Dongdang climb neighboring mountains and collect the wild bamboo. They follow a simple rule: they cut only one-year-old wild bamboo, which are best for making Bok Jori, and they never harvest more than a year's worth. In other words, they don't get greedy.

One wild bamboo trunk measuring 0.2 cm in diameter, is cut into four pieces. Then they are peeled and dried for between 12 to 24 hours and soaked in water for another seven to eight hours. This is how the wild bamboo becomes soft and tensile. Bok Jori is made starting around November until January of the following year.

Bok Jori is the main export of Dongdang Village during the post-harvest season. The villagers make tens of millions of won in profit during the winter months by selling Bok Jori. Around 10 years ago, when there was a lot of demand from Japan, the villagers used to ship out hundreds of boxes full of Bok Jori during winter. Not only the villagers, but their children who live in big cities, had to come and lend a helping hand.

But the "Bok Jori" village today has lost much of its former glory. Just around four to five years ago, half of the 40 or so households in the village made Bok Jori. But now, only five households are involved in the craft.

And they only make them when they receive an order. Around four or five other villages nearby made Bok Jori, but not any more. That's because Bok Jori produced in China and Vietnam are selling well.

But various social organizations in Korea are placing steady orders for Bok Jori produced in Dongdang Village, so its residents are continuing the craft, albeit at a much slower pace. But the day may be approaching when Dongdang Village stops producing Bok Jori. While they used to be essential household utensils, nowadays, their only purpose is to serve as a symbol of good fortune. On top of that, it's difficult to find people who want to learn the craft of making Bok Jori.

Will we soon see the day when there are no more Bok Jori? Like the symbolism of Bok Jori, it is the wish of all Koreans to succeed in capturing good fortune in the year of the rat.

Photo Source: Seo Soon-yong / The Kook-Je Daily News