Two frequently used proverbs in Korea are “like a rat caught in a jar” and “the sauce rather than the pot.” The first is used to describe someone caught in a difficult situation, like a rat that has fallen into a large onggi jar while the second means that the taste of the sauce contained within the pot is more important than what the pot looks like and is used to emphasize that content is more important than form.
The fact that onggi earthenware features so heavily in Korean speech shows the important role it plays in the daily lives of ordinary Koreans. Onggi is used in a wide variety of applications, giving rise to the saying, “half of everything we own is made of onggi.” Onggi earthenware makes the best container for traditional Korean sauces that require fermenting, such as soy bean paste, hot pepper paste and soy sauce. Onggi, which is made from clay baked at a temperature of 1,200°C, is unlike porcelain in that it allows air to flow in and out, allowing for better fermentation. This is why we call onggi “breathing pottery.” Onggi jars prevent water from going bad and rice weevils from forming in rice. Other daily items made from onggi include candlesticks, ashtrays, tobacco boxes, chamber pots, medicine pots, ink stones, dining utensils, ritual tools, drain pipes, stovepipes, and countless other items. Onggi products are made by professional craftsmen using a unique technique unlike any other kind used in creating earthenware. Onggi is so widely recognized as a unique cultural element of Korea that the word itself has been adopted in a number of foreign languages in much the same way that kimchi and bulgogi have been adopted.
The raw materials that go into making onggi include mud, medicinal clay (mud derived from compost leaves and grass found in pine forests), white sand dust, firewood, and lye. The clay used to be taken from the hills and fields near the place where onggi products originated. However, as quality clay became increasingly difficult to come by, people began to gather clay from other places and purify it in a large pond of water in the 1950s. These days, the clay is bought from specialized factories.
An onggi shop, where the earthenware is made, consists of a work area, a drying area, a clay refinery, a storage facility for lye, and an oven. Onggi shops of the past typically had two craftsmen and two to three apprentices working in each shop. These days, most of shops are managed by a single craftsman working alone, with the exception of a few large-scale modernized factory style shops.
To make onggi, the spinning wheel is first dusted with white sand dust, and the clay base is placed on top of it. The white sand dust prevents the finished onggi from sticking to the spinning wheel. After the base is formed, clay is coiled in layers on top of it to form the shape of the pot. Large onggi pots require two people to carry them off the wheel and into a shaded drying area. When the onggi dries, it is coated with glaze and dried again before it is put into the oven. The fire has to keep burning for three days and the craftsmen take turns to watch the fire through the night. When the baking is done, the oven is cooled for two days before the finished products are taken out. Even the most experienced craftsmen only manage to get only about three to four finished products out of every ten items placed in the oven.
Many onggi makers in Korea are Catholic. This is especially so in the Gyeonggi , Chungcheong, and Gangwon provinces as many Catholics became onggi makers to avoid religious persecution in the eighteenth century. As onggi craftsmen, they could live deep in the woods to get firewood for their ovens and travel to various regions to sell their goods while spreading their religion and sharing news among fellow believers. In 2006, onggi was selected by the Korean government as one of the hundred cultural symbols of the nation, and designated bearers of the traditional craft have been placed under the safeguarding program. Although onggi products have become rarer in ordinary households, replaced by plastic goods, onggi still remains a familiar and welcoming presence in our lives like a mother’s warm embrace.