Korean Horn Bow Industry Alert

The Korean horn bow industry is in trouble. About two months ago, I learned that the Korean government has banned the importation of waterbuffalo horn and sinew into the country. It was due to the problems with mad cow disease and hoof and mouth disease. However, as Korea does not have its own waterbuffalo and obtaining domestic backstrap sinew is very difficult and expensive, the prohibition effectively will put Korean horn bowyers out of business, once their supplies are exhausted. Traditional archers from around the world have been contacting the Korean consulates and embassies in their countries. However, the answer has been rather lock-step in that the ban will continue for the forseeable future.

Here is my original message:

Yesterday, my wife and I (along with her eldest sister and mother) traveled to Taejon. The main purpose of the trip was for the elder sister to get ginseng products to take back to Germany with her (she's lived in Germany for the past thirty-five years or so). After that, we traveled to Taejon for me to meet with the bowyer who makes the laminated bows I represent.

We had dinner outside together, along with another archer who dropped by. Towards the end of dinner, the discussion turned to the horn bowyers. As is well-known, there are only a few of them left; what isn't known (and was news to me, too) is they are in danger of becoming extinct as a profession in the forseeable future. The problem? No access to horn and sinew anymore. It isn't that there isn't any--it's that the Korean government has cut off their suppy.

Korean bowyers got their horn from China. I also found out that, at least in recent years, they also got their sinew from China (long story). The Korean government has completely blocked imports of both materials from anywhere outside Korea, with one exception: waterbuffalo horn can be imported from Japan for use in making traditional stamp seals. Koreans are barred from getting horn from anyplace else, for any other purpose.

Needless to say, the news boiled me inside. The Korean bowyers have appealed to all reaches of government, to no avail. The government, in effect, said that horn bow making is not important and is only a niche industry. They implied that if it disappears, nobody will miss it.

I asked the people present if there is anything I or others can do; I was told no, that everything has been looked into. I don't believe that. I think some wheels need to squeak on this one. The horn bowyers are only going to be able to make bows with what horn and sinew supplies they currently have; after that, they are effectively out of business. Korean horn bows will become scarce, exceedingly expensive, and then non-existent. An art will have died, as will the bowyers, eventually.

I will look into the matter further. I'm not sure what recourse there is. Korea is surrounded by a sea of horns and sinew, but the bowyers have no place to swim.


Many great suggestions came after my announcement. Many people tried to think of ways of legally getting horn into the country, and some have merit, but still very difficult. Another suggestion was for Korean bowyers to build their bows in another country and then import them into Korea. I was told that one bowyer is doing just that; he has a shop in China and brings completed bows into Korea. However, probably most bowyers will not want to do that, for reasons both practical and philosophical.

One thing I have learned from all my years living in Korea is the Korean government blows with the wind of public opinion. If enough people make a big enough noise, and Korea's culture and image are shown to be on the line, Korean public opinion could possibly sway the government to make an exception in the case of this important cultural art. Some people are already doing that. Here is the letter Stephen Selby (ATARN) sent to the Korea Consul General, in Hong Kong:

18 May 2005

Preserving the Ancient Korean Craft of Bow Making

Dear Mr Kim,

ATARN is the worldí»s pre-eminent research organization dedicated to maintaining and promoting the archery traditions of Asia. Based in Hong Kong, we maintain an Internet website at http://www.atarn.org .

The archery traditions and equestrian skills of Asia (for example those of Mongolia, China, Korea, Tibet, Bhutan and Japan) have at one time or another enjoyed cross-fertilization and exchange of techniques. Now some of these great traditions have disappeared, while others flourish, but in isolation.

Asian archery and equestrian traditions are rich in folklore, history, artistic expression, philosophy, technique, science and technology. Some, however, are in danger. In some Asian regions, the influence of western materialistic culture threatens to cause a loss of interest among potential new exponents. Sometimes, it is the craft of the bow and arrow makers which is under threat because of the dying-out of skills or the disappearance of sources of traditional materials.

Our members worldwide have long admired the archery skills of the Korean people. These skills are not only reflected in the outstanding results that Korean archers have obtained in the Olympics, but also in the preservation of Korean traditional archery using the horn bow (gaahk goong ╩ă¤ß). Korean traditional archery has thousands of years of history and the craftsmanship of Korean bow-makers was recorded in stories from the time of the Chinese Tang Dynasty.

We have been happy to learn that Korean traditional bow-making has been supported by the Korean Government. For example, the Ministry of Culture bestowed the title of í«intangible cultural assetí» on one Korean bow maker, Master Kim Bak-young.

It is therefore with great concern that our Members have learned that the Korean Government has recently banned the importation into Korea of dried water buffalo sinew and horn. Such materials cannot be found in Korea, and they always been imported from China. These two materials are indispensable materials for manufacture of the Korean traditional horn bow, and without access to such materials, the craft of bow-making ? that was so rightly recognized by the Ministry of Culture ? will die out.

Please accept this letter expressing our concern for the present situation and transmit it to His Excellency the Minister of Culture of the Republic of Korea. We should be grateful for a reply explaining the purpose of this import ban on horn and sinew by the Korean Government, and informing us of anything that our Organization can do to be of assistance.

Yours truly,

(Stephen Selby)

Karl Zeilinger, from Germany, wrote up some ideas:

Draft for a possible argument strategy.

1. The responsible Korean government authorities should be contacted from our side and asked for the reason of that import prohibition for horn and sinew.

2. In parallel we should contact the Korean Embassies in our homelands and ask the same questions (I am in contact with the Korean Embassy in Berlin).

3. In these contacts and inquiries our fear regarding the future of the traditional Korean hornbow makers should not refer to "the possible end of a - nice to have - but unfortunately just minor important niche industry", we have to refer instead to the significance of Korean hornbow making as a traditional craftsmanship and a unique Korean handicraft with a more than 1000 years tradition and history. We have to remind the government authorities on their special responsibilities and that they have undertaken an obligation when the Korean Government enacted the CULTURAL PROPERTIES PROTECTION LAW in 1962, FOR THE BETTER PRESERVATION; INHERITANCE AND PROMOTION OF INVALUABLE HANDICRAFT CRAFTSMANSHIP. This law protects and promotes the Korean traditional hornbow makers and their craft explicitly as Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 47.

4. Following this line I quote from the book "Traditional Handicrafts" published 2001 by Cultural Properties Administration, The Republic of Korea:

"Korea's cultural heritage, accumulated throughout its long history, is a mirror which reflects the nation's identity and serves to heighten its status in the world today. Arts and crafts, containing the spirit of artists, not only endow us with substantial present benefits, but give us insight with which to advance to tomorrow. To hand down traditional handicrafts to future generation as Korea's national heritage, we should preserve and improve the authentic skills. Traditional arts and crafts are certainly one of the prime movers of modern development. We of this generation therefore have good reason for passing them on to our children".

After all we should finally remind the Korean government authorities of their own wordings in their Cultural Heritage Charter, and that these authorities have committed themselves in this charter to protect and support the national intangible cultural assets of Korea:

Cultural Heritage Charter

A nations cultural heritage embodies its intellectual and spiritual contributions to the civilization of mankind. Cultural properties, whether tangible or intangible, represent both the essence and the basis of national culture. Our Korean cultural properties are even more dear to us because they have survived various unfortunate chapters of our long history.

Our ongoing efforts to understand, explore, and nurture this cultural heritage deepen our love to our country and of our fellow countrymen. All of us must work together to protect our historic relics and their surrounding from being damaged or destroyed, since cultural properties can never revert to their original condition. We thus proclaim this Cultural Heritage Charter, committing ourselves to the supreme task of handing on to future generations our spiritual and physical assets as they were handed down to us by our ancestors. Cultural properties must be preserved in their original condition.

Cultural properties, as well as their surroundings, must be protected from unplanned development. Cultural properties must never be destroyed, stolen, or illegally traded under any circumstances, because they are beyond material value. The value of our cultural heritage must be taught and widely propagated through education at home, in school, and in society. All of us must contribute to preserving, developing, and transmitting our glorious national culture.

Karl received a message from the Korean embassy in Berlin:

I just received the email from the Korean embassy in Berlin and the message is very discouraging at the first view:

Import of cattle and/or cattle products (including water buffalo) into Korea is strictly prohibited now for an unlimited duration.

The reason is serious: Domestic cattle population and cattle farming industry must be protected against introduction of BSE, mad cow disease, and foot- and mouth-disease from infested areas in Asia (China).

A few years ago we have had the same problem in Europe, when mad cow disease occured in Great Britain and soon spread over most countries on the continent. The British had to kill and burne almost their total cattle population to overcome that disease. All European borders were closed for cattle and cattle products for several years.

From my momentary point of view we only can hope that the Korean borders will open again maybe in two or three years, when Chinese and other relevant Asian officials can prove that their territory is clean again.

When I attended the semi-annual meeting of the Korea Archery Culture Research Association last month, I asked members about their thoughts. Many were unaware of what was going on. Others who did know are discouraged by what's going on, but heartened by the international push to help out. So, I would like to ask for everyone's help. Please, contact your Korean consulate or embassy. Write letters and articles. Do whatever you can to pressure the Korean government to save a valuable cultural asset.

Thank you very much.

Thomas Duvernay