Korean calligraphy

Korean calligraphy Hangul

By Samuraijohnny (originally posted to Flickr as Korean Calligraphy)  
[CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Korean calligraphy is an art of writing Hangul and Hanja. Unlike Western calligraphy, which is written with a rigid instrument, traditional Korean calligraphy is created with a soft and flexible brush. With the characteristic strokes which change in broadness and speed, on a usually white sheet of paper, its general appearance reminds of other East Asian writings. However, it does have its distinctions.

For one, while Hanja characters have exactly the same radicals, or the graphical components, as do Chinese characters in China, Hangul on the other hand has its own distinct shapes that calligraphers never had to produce before.

And Hangul was where my interest in calligraphy started.

Ever since I’ve learned to scribble Hangul, I’ve been interested in learning more than just the appropriate shape of letters and the stroke order. Typing Hangul is fine, but my handwriting is nothing to brag about even when I write using my own native alphabet, and was absolutely dreadful when I tried my hand at this completely foreign Hangul.

My interest was further sparked on when I got a so called 붓펜, or brush pen, from Kimchi Man as a present. Brush pens are a modern take on traditional Korean brushes – made of plastic with an ink reservoir and usually with a felt tip, although those with synthetic hair exist too.

Korean calligraphy Kuretake bimoji Monami felt tip hairs 붓 붓펜 쿠레타케 모나미

Calligraphy brush pens

Since then I bought more, with different tip sizes which you can see in the photo above, hoping I would get to learn how to use them properly some day. Unfortunately, there is precious little information about Korean calligraphy available in English and my Korean is nowhere near good enough to understand such instructions.

But, I got tired of waiting, and armed with stubbornness and a dictionary I set out to find out how to do this.

For the most part I succeeded, and even went on to compile a glossary of Korean terms I commonly found related to calligraphy, which you can find at the bottom of this post, and which I hopefully managed to add to my own Korean vocabulary. But take into account that there was quite a bit of guesswork involved, so if you know something more or spot an error, let me know in the comments below.

Korean calligraphy tools

Inkstone and ink brush calligraphyCalled ‘Four treasures of the study’ (문방사우), these four items are basic tools used in Korean calligraphy – a brush, paper, ink stick and inkstone.

At first sight, paper and brushes seemed pretty straightforward to me.

But what intrigued me were the ink sticks and inkstones since I’ve never seen in person something like them before. I’m used to traditional ink being in liquid form in bottles where the tip of the writing instrument is dipped in. Yet Korean calligraphers are seen stoically grinding black rectangular sticks over wetted stones and ink magically emerging from this process.

As it turns out, Korean ink sticks are made from soot of pine trees. To create soot the wood needs to slowly burn for ten days. The ink sticks can only be made during cold winters, because the glue that the soot is mixed with is all natural, and would rot quickly in warmer weather. It takes two months to make an ink-stick and up to astonishing five years to dry it properly until it’s ready to be used.

Inkstones are stone mortars carved out from hardest rocks by master craftsmen. A good inkstone needs to allow fine grinding of ink sticks and shouldn’t dry out too quickly. Sometimes inkstones can be made out of clay, porcelain or bronze.

A few drops of water are added to the inkstone, and then an ink stick is ground on it, turning water into sufficiently dark and thick ink.

As I learned more I realized neither the brushes nor the paper used were as ordinary as I expected.

Korean-calligraphy-brushes-soft-medium-hard-bristleThe best calligraphy brushes are made by hand, from animal hairs attached to a bamboo handle, and it takes about hundred and fifty steps to make a good brush. Wide variety of hairs are used, even human baby hair, but the most common is the white goat hair from their underbelly. Before animal hair, brushes were made from boiled bamboo or rice straw, handle and bristle all from one piece, and those ancient techniques are once again renewed by artisans of today.

Even though calligraphy brushes are all quite soft, they can vary in their rigidness. Since they are quite difficult to handle, harder, more rigid hairs are sometimes inserted through the middle of the brush tip to make it easier for beginner calligraphers. In general, Chinese brushes are harder than Korean ones, while the Japanese are softer.

Throughout East Asia, large sheets of white rice paper were used for calligraphy. (Note: Rice paper was erroneously believed by Europeans to be made out of rice, and is actually made out of pith or inner bark of different shrubs and young trees depending on the type, but for some reason the name remained). However, Koreans have their own high quality paper made from mulberry trees, called Hanji 한지.

The inner bark of Mulberry trees which are native to Korea is boiled for eight hours and stirred by paper maker without pausing. In the next step the hard outer bark is carefully separated from useful fibers, which are then hit with clubs to further soften them.

Due to the way it’s made, Hanji is very difficult to tear. If you take a sheet of regular paper, you will find that it has the direction of the grain, that is, the direction that the fibers run in it. You can test this by trying to tear paper by width and by length and see which way it tears easiest. Hanji, however, doesn’t have dominant grain direction. The fibers are twisted and interwoven so there is no direction in which it would tear easily.

This gives it great resilience and enables it to be used for much more than just calligraphy.

You can find it in old Korean houses used as wallpapers, or window and door screens. The sunlight it lets through is quite pleasant to the eye, very soft and natural. Today Hanji is seen used for wider and wider applications: as furniture covering, as machine washable material in fashion, as vibrating panels for speakers, and, once again, it’s starting to get used as wall covering in modern homes for people who suffer from allergies to chemicals used in paints and glues.

Since Hibiscus root mucus is used as a binding agent in Hanji, it doesn’t discolor over time, and can last much longer than Western paper. This is especially important for preserving old information because Korean ancient books that are much older can still be found in readable condition today, some up to a thousand years old.

Due to difficult and lengthy process of making Hanji it was quite expensive in the past so only the richest aristocrats could use it as a writing tool.

Aside from these four, there are other tools used in Korean calligraphy, such as water-droppers and paper weights.

How to do Korean calligraphy

Korean calligraphy detail Chusa style Kim Jeong-hui

Speed of strokes also influences artistic expression

In Korean calligraphy posture is really important because writing is not done with the wrist resting on paper and just the hand moving, but actually with forearm in the air, parallel to the ground and using the shoulder and elbow as well.

If you think this sounds difficult… you’re right.

Thumb rests on one side of the brush while the other four fingers are on the other.

I struggled with this a lot, still do actually, because my hand kept shaking and I felt like I have no control over the brush. I wanted to cheat, but I soon found out that there was no way around it because for proper strokes you need to be able to rotate the brush with your fingers, and you can’t do that if you are holding it like a pencil.

As with everything, so too in Korean calligraphy control and steadiness are practiced and gained over time.

Usually, beginners start by drawing straight lines, first horizontal then vertical, and trying to keep the thickness of the line as well as the speed steady.

Unlike in Western calligraphy, speed is also the part of the final look of the artwork. If you linger, the ink will soak into the paper and spread. This is usually done at the beginning of the stroke, or at the “joints” of the character. If you pull the brush quickly, the black line will not be full, but rather have a scratchy appearance and this technique is known as “drybrush” and is also part of artistic expression, particularly in cursive styles.

After gaining acceptable control over the brush, the practice of basic strokes can begin.

Hanja calligraphy

Hanja are Chinese characters adapted to and incorporated into Korean language.

Chinese characters started being used in Korea as early as 2nd or 3rd century. While today there are some differences between Hanja and Chinese characters used in China, I honestly can’t tell them apart and I believe no one really can without carefully learning their shape and meaning first. Because of these similarities Korean calligraphy is closely related to Chinese one. In fact, for the longest time, the quality of Korean calligraphers was judged by how well they could imitate Chinese masters.

At least until immensely talented and dedicated Kim Jeong-hui came on scene, and even went as far as inventing his very own style.

I found a very interesting 50-minute long Arirang documentary on YouTube focusing on Kim Jeong-hui‘s (김정희) life and work.

His life was quite fascinating.

He was a well-off aristocrat in Joseon who showed amazing aptitude at calligraphy from early age. He was related to the king and lived a comfortable, if unusual, life, until he got framed as a traitor and exiled.

Living for nine years in solitude and harsh conditions on Jeju, with his wife and many friends dying during that time, he dedicated himself even more to the art of calligraphy, ink painting, and poetry, which are art forms that in East Asia usually go hand-in-hand. Used to comfortable and luxurious life he suddenly found himself in poverty, and yet continued to ask only for the things most important to him – paper, brushes, ink and ink-stones.

During his Jeju exile he created one of the most famous Korean calligraphy works called ‘Wandang Sehando’.

Wandang Sehando Korean National Treasure No. 180 Korean scholar Kim Jeong-hui the bitter cold around the lunar new year Lee Sang-jeok calligraphy poetry

Wandang Sehando

‘Wandang’ was another one of Kim Jeong-hui’s pen-names, while ‘Sehan’ means ‘bitter cold around the lunar New Year’ and ‘do’ means painting.

The work was a gift for his loyal disciple, who not only didn’t abandon him during the time of his exile when almost everyone else did, but even sent him rare Chinese books which he came across while he worked as interpreter in China. The exiled calligrapher expressed his gratitude in form of a poem, written on the left part of the artwork, in a style that shows both his incredibly skill and artistry. Particularly one line of the poem, “You only notice how the pine trees do not wilt when the winter cold arrives,” recognizes his disciple’s devotion.

During his exile he had to experiment with different styles and techniques because proper tools were difficult to come by. He studied older, almost forgotten calligraphic styles as well. This experimentation, together with his solitude and complete devotion to calligraphy brought him to invent his own style called Chusa-che (추사체), named after one of his pen-names, Chusa.

He had a great impact, not only on Korean calligraphy, but throughout East Asia. It is said he practiced calligraphy up to the last day of his life.

To see names for different styles of Hanja calligraphy, scroll down to the bottom of this article.

Hangul calligraphy

Since Hangul is a unique Korean script, which, rather than every character having meaning like Hanja, is simply an alphabet where each letter represents a sound, this is where Korean calligraphy took its own path, away from Chinese and Japanese ones.

Of course it was still influenced by how Hanja was written, but new, uniquely Korean techniques had to be developed. For example, new circle stroke had to be invented for the the [ng] sound ㅇ, because circle doesn’t exist among radicals for Chinese characters.

(Speaking of the uniqueness of circle used in Hangul, I ran into an old primary school friend a while ago, and as we started talking about my new-found interest in Korea, she told me I have taught her how to tell apart Chinese text from Korean one in primary school, on the back of the notebooks we bought. I couldn’t remember any of this, and I was skeptical of her story because at that time, at the age of 7 or 8, I was barely aware of where China and Korea were, let alone which script they used. But, as she continued describing how I stared intensely at the back of my notebook, where the Korean manufacturer information was written, and then at her notebook that read “Made in China”, and at last exclaimed: “Koreans have circles!”, I guess the story does sound much more plausible).

the great King Sejong Korean drama Hangul calligraphy

Cover for Korean drama King Sejong the Great  
Property of KBS and arirang, used for illustrative purposes only. Calligraphy by Kang Byung-in

Hangul calligraphy only flourished relatively recently. Where Hanja calligraphy has been practiced in Korea for more than a thousand years, and was knowledge that the wealthy and educated prided with, Hangul, which was due to its simplicity considered a script for the uneducated lower class and women, wasn’t held in much high regard.

However, during the Japanese occupation, Koreans started promoting their native alphabet, and appreciating its beauty and simplicity.

While Hangul also has its traditionalists, recently new and modern Hangul penmanship has emerged, whether as a pure art form, used in design or more commercial in nature, for example used for Korean movies and K-drama titles. You have probably already seen it many times, but just as I did, never really realized how much was conveyed in a title of your ordinary Korean film or drama.

On the right you can see the 2008 Korean drama “King Sejong the Great” (대왕세종), which follows the life of the designer of Hangul. The title was written to reflect calligrapher’s view of King Sejong as a firm king when it came to injustice but gentle at other times, and is a work by Korean calligrapher Kang Byung-in.

Here is Arirang documentary about his work in promoting the Hangul calligraphy as a part of contemporary Korean art and design:

Even though at the time when he started, in the late ’90s, Hangul calligraphy was not in fashion, Kang Byung-in patiently worked for free during the nights, when he was off from his daytime job, believing that the time will come when that form of calligraphy will become respected and sough after too.

After years of hard work he has gained wide recognition – he held his own exhibition in New York in 2010, his work has been used in many advertisements and is now displayed in National Hangul Museum.

Well, that’s all fascinating information, but what if you just want to sit down and start writing Korean calligraphy?

Even though calligraphy was in no way part of my initial plan of learning Korean language I’ve been interested in writing Hangul calligraphy for a while, and less so Hanja. I have nothing against Hanja but it seems silly spending time carefully writing something I won’t be able to read.

I haven’t managed to find any instructional videos in English and not that many in Korean either, actually. However, of all the webpages I found this one proved to be the most useful in learning basic Hangul strokes and then whole characters:

Hangul calligraphy beginner lesson (한글서예 기초강좌).

– These lessons show step-by-step how to write each letter of Hangul alphabet. You will be able to use these lessons even if you don’t speak Korean because every letter has a graphic depicting how to write it with a brush, as well as a silent video. Unfortunately, this site does not show how to properly hold a brush, how to twist it while writing, etc.


Glossary of calligraphy terms in Korean language:

Since there is precious little information about Korean calligraphy in English, I had to resort to searching in Korean, which means I was using a Korean dictionary every two seconds. I compiled a list of the terms I came across which I needed help with while searching either for information about Hangul calligraphy or tutorial videos.

서예 Calligraphy
캘리그라피 Calligraphy (from English)
붓글씨 Calligraphy, lit. brush penmanship

붓 A writing brush
글씨 A handwriting, penmanship
멋글씨 Stylish penmanship
손글씨 Hand penmanship
손먹글씨Stylish hand penmanship
서체 Handwriting, penmanship, font, writing style
글꼴 Shape of characters, font

한글 Hangul
궁체 Court style of Hangul calligraphy
흘림 Cursive writing
정자 Printed writing
판본체 A wood-block printing style of Hangul calligraphy

한자 Hanja (Chinese characters used in Korean)
고문체 An antiquated, archaic style of Hanja calligraphy
예서체 Clerical script style of Hanja calligraphy
초서체 Cursive style of Hanja calligraphy
행서체 Semi-cursive style of Hanja calligraphy
해서 Square style of Chinese handwriting, the printed style of writing
전서 Seal style (?)

교본 Textbook, course book
동영상 Video
강좌 Lesson
기초 Basic
기초 강좌 Basic lecture
기법 Technique
필법 The technique of calligraphy, rules for wielding the brush

익히다 To master, become proficient, familiarize oneself with

Note: It seems to me the two words for calligraphy, 서예 and 붓글씨 are Sino-Korean and Native Korean in origin, respectively. But I couldn’t find anything to confirm this.

Other interesting videos about Korean calligraphy and tools

Traditional Korean Brush Artisan, Moon Sang-Ho

– See the patience and care that traditional Korean brushes require to be properly made and harsh life that artisans have to endure to pursue their passion of making the perfect brush

Hanji – Brilliant Imagination

– Hanji, the eco-friendly paper and its surprising uses in fashion, hi-fi products, medicine etc.


On top of the brush pens I already had, I’ve ordered calligraphy items from Korea, a 2015 desk calendar by the calligrapher Kang Byung-In mentioned above, and a set for practicing Korean calligraphy which doesn’t require ink and paper, but only uses water and calligraphy brush. It’s absolute magic and an amazingly useful thing if you’re not sure where to start. I also got a bunch of wonderful Korean Hanji in different colors and designs. I will show you all this in next post, as well as tell you where you can order it from, so make sure to come back and check it out.


25 thoughts on “Korean calligraphy

Comment (you DON'T need to fill in e-mail address)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

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