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Daemokjang has a binary meaning because the term serves to refer to traditional Korean wooden architecture, as well as to the master carpenters involved in planning and constructing the emblematic buildings of ancient Korea.
Without the use of any heavy machinery, Daemokjangs managed to create some of the most extraordinary buildings in the history of mankind. Daemokjangs were not only architects, and not merely carpenters.
Instead, Daemokjangs were artists, and nonetheless – visionaries, who understood the secrets of working with wood to such a brilliant extent as to be able to construct buildings that lasted for centuries.
It is only fair to look into traditional Korean timber framing as a cultural heritage which was also acknowledged by UNESCO in 2010.
Daemokjang: The Rich Culture Behind Traditional Korean Carpentry and Architecture
Traditionally, Korean craftsmen who work with wood are broadly referred to as Mokjangs. In other words, Mokjang is the most general term for an artisan who is skillful in dealing with wood.
But delving deeper into understanding Korean wooden architecture, the terms Daemokjang and Somokjang bring a higher awareness over the obligations and skills of the craftsmen involved in traditional Korean carpentry.
As a rule of thumb, traditional Korean carpentry is divided into two major categories, namely daemokandsomok.
The main difference that separates these two categories of Korean carpentry is the size of the final construction. More specifically, the term “daemok” refers to large carpentry projects, for instance, the building of palaces, temples, or homes.
Meanwhile, the term “somok” refers to smaller building projects that typically evolve around the construction of furniture, for example, wardrobes, chests, and tables, as well as doors and railings, among others.
In a nutshell, Somokjangs are the master craftsmen who are in charge of small-scale wooden projects.
Respectively, Daemokjangs are in charge of large-scale constructions. They do not only participate in the building process but they also supervise and advise the rest of the craftsmen such as the repairers, the tile makers, the masons, the ornamental painters, and the plasterers.
Daemokjangs are responsible for the framework of the buildings, including columns, rafters, beams, angle rafters, bracket systems, and lintel, to name a few.
In short, Daemokjangs are both the architects, as well as the carpenters involved in large-scale wooden constructions.
Becoming a Daemokjang requires tremendous patience, love for working with wood, and love for working with people.
It takes decades of gaining extensive knowledge combined with field expertise before one can call himself a Daemokjang.
The twofold meaning of Daemokjang is further signifying the profound wisdom of traditional Korean carpentry.
The inscription of Daemokjang as part of UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity identifies both the traditional Korean architecture, as well as the masterminds behind the construction process of the emblematic buildings for bringing value that extends far beyond the country of Korea alone.
Furthermore, Daemokjangs appraised for representing the essence of Korean identity and philosophy of life.
Traditional Korean vs. Japanese vs. Chinese Wooden Architecture
Surprisingly, for the last several decades much more attention has been put on Japanese and Chinese architecture, both of which being better-known across the globe as compared to Korean architecture.
Although there are particular mutual traits between traditional Japanese, Korean, and Chinese architecture, there are also some major differences. However, one must look closely into the three notorious Asian architectural styles in order to feel the subtle but crucial contrasts.
Traditional Korean architecture resembles Japanese and Chinese architecture when it comes to the main construction material – wood.
The typical curved roof edges can be found in Korean, Japanese, and Chinese wooden architecture, too.
But when it comes to the decorations in traditional Chinese wooden architecture, these tend to be extremely elaborate, as highlighted by Ju Brown in the book China, Japan, Korea: Culture and Customs.
On the other hand, the decorations in traditional Japanese wooden architecture are much more delicate, stepping away from the lavish Chinese approach to bring out the subtle, simplistic beauty of the natural materials and the surrounding environment.
Meanwhile, the decorations in traditional Korean architecture are neither too lavish, nor too simplistic – and it is fair to state that they fall into the golden middle as compared to Chinese and Japanese decorations.
Nonetheless, the structure of the traditional Chinese buildings has evolved around being majestic to an extent that leaves the surrounding nature as merely the frame of the picture.
Contrary to that, traditional Korean architecture has evolved around celebrating the beauty of the living nature, turning the landscape into not merely the frame but one of the most important elements in the big picture.
The concept of moderation, balance, and harmony with nature is prevalent in traditional Korean architecture, and these core values were employed by the Daemokjangs.
Both the colors, as well as the architectural décor of traditional Korean architecture are neither displaying the aloofness and grandeur of the Chinese, nor the utterly sophisticated spirit of the Japanese architecture.
Instead, the secret of the beauty of traditional Korean architecture hides in the simplicity and spontaneity of the constructions.
Fortunately, being estimated as architectural treasures and national artworks of Universal merit, traditional Korean architectural masterpieces brought to existence by the immensely gifted Daemokjangs keep becoming more popular globally.
Moreover, traditional Korean wooden architecture is quickly pushing the boundaries of public awareness as more and more people are gladly sharing their respect and astonishment for Korean carpentry after visiting some of the most notorious buildings that represent the core values of Daemokjang.
From Ground Hardening to Timber Framing
The construction of each building begins with a stable foundation, and traditional Korean architecture isn’t an exception.
The ground had to be carefully cleared and prepared in order to become firm before a building was constructed on top of it.
For this purpose, either heavy rocks or pieces of lumber had to be stomped down. As this practice required intensive labor, Koreans traditionally sang energizing songs to make the process more joyful for the artisans involved. Not only did the songs energize the workers but they also helped them to work in unison.
Keeping in mind the non-use of iron nails, the wooden pieces had to fit perfectly together, and even minor mistakes could spell disaster for the durability and stability of the buildings.
One beautiful example of such song is the Ground-hardening Song passed down in Paju-gun County which was located in Gyeonggi Province. It was sung by Chu Gyo-jeon.
After the foundations were laid, Daemokjangs got down to shaving lumber in order to make it smooth. The process of cutting, shaving, and shaping wood for construction materials is called Mareumjil.
Once the bark is shaved off, the Daemokjang would draw lines on the smooth surface according to his pre-determined plans. It is based on these lines that the carpenters proceed with cutting and/or planning the lumber.
Master carpenters studied carefully the characteristics of each type of wood. Subsequently, they knew the right type of wood needed to suit not only a building’s purpose but also the natural surroundings.
Daemokjangs would draw life-size architectural drawings related to the rich decorations of the pieces of lumber. Based on their drawings, the crew of craftsmen would then carve the lumber precisely.
Pillars were designed in several distinct styles, two of which being the Minheullim style and the Baeheulliim style.
Minheullim style pillars were wider at the base while narrower at the top.
Baeheulliim style pillars were shaped at 1/3 point from the bottom is the thickest. Both of these styles allowed for the pillars to be smooth and curvy in order to enhance the beauty of the architecture.
Once shaped, pillars had to be erected. The day of erecting the pillars was associated with special ceremonies.
Daemokjangs, together with the homeowners in the case of constructing traditional Korean houses or the royal families and officials in the case of constructing a temple or palace, together with the crew of carpenters, hold a ritual ceremony to ask for the divine blessings and protection of Seongju – the guardian spirit that dwells the buildings.
This special ceremony is also a sacred moment for the Daemokjang, as the ritual serves as a unique non-written signature – an honest and soulful promise, indicating that the Daemokjang would engage in building construction that “can withstand millennia.”
The process of verifying whether the pillars would stand upright is traditionally called Darimbogi.
The Daemokjang can only make sure that the pillars would be able to stand upright if both the major, as well as the minor access of the pillars are in parallel with the straight lines drawn on the pillars in advance.
Once the pillars are estimated to be able to stand upright and straight, it is time to fit them onto the foundation stones.
For this purpose, the Daemokjang removes the gap between the foundation stones and the bottom of the pillars, making sure they properly adhere to the stones, and this process is known as Geurengi-tteugi.
The pillars that pass the Geurengi-tteugi are verified to be well-adhered to the stones, and thus, laid down on the ground for chiseling. After carving the bottom of the pillars, they are once again fit onto the foundation stones.
When pillars are arranged into rows where the outer pillars on the side are slightly longer than the middle ones, this arrangement is known as Gwisoseum.
By arranging pillars into the Gwisoseum style, Daemokjangsprevent both edges from looking as if they are dropping. This style requires an extremely sophisticated technique for calculating the precise size of the beams on top of the pillars.
Once the pillars are erected, Daemokjangs focus on interlocking the header beam known as Changbang with ornamental brackets known as Heocheomocha. Each pillar is connected with the header beams and since header beams need to support the roof, there must be strong and large.
Brackets fall into three major categories, namely Jusimpo, Dapo, andIkgong
Jusimpo refers to brackets with a decorative cluster placed on top of each pillar.
Dapo refers to much more complicated and decorative magnificent brackets of decorative clusters placed on top of each pillar, as well as in between the pillars.
Ikgong refers specifically to wing-shaped bracket arms.
“You should precisely calculate the size of the joints. Above all, preparing quality wood is an important first step in preventing timber from warping. Low-cost, poor-quality timber would cause a lot of trouble in the process of assembling the materials and after the construction,” explains Shin Eung-su (also referred to as Shin EungSoo), who is one of the gifted skill holders of Daemokjang, along with Jeon Heung-Su and Choi Gi-yeong.
One spectacular example of traditional Korean architecture is the Changdeokgung Palace which was built in 1405. Changdeokgung Palace served as a center of Korean administration and royal residence for more years than any other palace across the country.
“Chang” translates into “prosperity” while “Deok” translated into “virtue.”
An inscription in the royal Changdeokgung Palace sheds more lights on the deep meaning of this historically and culturally significant building. According to the inscription “Only through the cultivation of virtue, should prosperity be attained.“
Sharing a similar destiny with many other Korean palaces, Chandgeokgung was burnt down during the Japanese invasions.
Specifically, it was burnt down in 1592 but it was fully reconstructed within a very short period of fewer than two decades after the invasion in 1610.
Labeled as one of the most distinctive features of the Changdeokgung Palace, the layout fully embraces the natural topography of the region, located in a narrow space at the foot of a mountain.
Traditional Korean Timber Framing as Cultural Heritage: The Bottom Line
Daemokjangs used to be among the most highly respected personas in the history of Korea. To be more precise, the carpenters in charge of the design and construction of palaces and/or fortresses were considered the most prestigious, highest class of carpenters.
In fact, court carpenters would often get government positions, and little by little, the glory of traditional Korean architecture blossomed.
However, during the 18th century the title Daemokjang was replaced with the lower position known as dopyeonsu.
Experts believe that the rise of Confucianism which placed academic studies as being of higher importance than gaining practical skills was one of the major reasons why Daemokjangs’ status was lowered for some time.
But just about a century or so later, the Korean government was about to re-establish the well-deserved fame and high status of Daemokjangs since the master carpenters still play a key role in traditional Korean architecture. Their valuable skills and practical knowledge are extremely important for the restoration and maintenance of historically significant buildings across the country.
The traditional timber framing of Korea is a cultural heritage that is not only a piece of living history but also an invisible bridge which transfers the always-relevant values of the old generations to the young descendants of the ancient art and crafts.