Inside the Collection

Traditional Korean gongs – reflection and resonance

Korean dancers performing at Powerhouse Museum 2011
Echo of a millennium Korean dancers performing at Powerhouse Museum 2011. Photography Sotha Bourn

“Ask Koreans … what appeals in Korean music and typical responses will focus on feelings … Korean music tugs at the heartstrings. Korean music – and, by extension, Korean musical instruments… – alone reflect the air, the water, and the soil of the Korean peninsula.” (Howard 1995: 9)

This photograph was taken at a traditional Korean performance at the Powerhouse Museum last year, coinciding with the opening of the Spirit of jang-in: treasures of Korean metal craft exhibition. If you look at the two musicians in the centre of the stage, you can see that they are each playing a gong, one small and one large.

There are two traditional Korean gongs in the Museum’s collection, similar to the ones shown above, which were a gift in 2000 from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Korea.

Kkwaenggwari, small gong, bronze, Korea, 2000
2000/104/11 Kkwaenggwari, small gong, bronze, Korea, 2000. Collection: Powerhouse Museum: Photography Sotha Bourn

The small gong is called a kkwaenggwari (or ggwaenggwari in the Revised Romanisation) and is played by the band leader, who determines the jangdan, that is, the rhythmic cycle or pattern. The ggwaenggwari is played by holding it in the left hand, with the musician’s fingers held against the back to dampen the sound, and struck with a wooden stick in the right hand. The resulting sound is clear, sharp and high pitched. Interestingly, it is thought that the Korean names of both of these gongs are onomatopoeic.

arge gong, bronze, Korea, 2000
2000/104/12 Ching, large gong, bronze, Korea, 2000. Collection Powerhouse Museum. Photography Sotha Bourn

The large gong is called a ching (or jing in the Revised Romanisation) and is used for accents and to keep the band in time, due to its resonant sound. It is played by holding the cord by the left hand and striking with a soft, covered mallet in the right hand.

Percussion instruments like these gongs are vital in traditional Korean music, especially folk music, where the essential feature is rhythm. Reports dating to the Joseon Dynasty describe how gongs were used in rural areas to cheer and encourage the workers in the fields, especially during the weeding season (Howard 1995: 55, 59).

These two gongs are made of yugi and were created by the banjja or hammering technique. Yugi is an alloy created from a unique ratio of 71.43% copper to 28.57% tin. Bangjja yugiware is valued for its strength, golden hue, antibacterial properties and ability to change colour if in contact with poisonous substances – very useful for food bowls and containers! A scientific study into the antibacterial action of yugi, conducted by Lee Eun Jin and Park Jong-Hyun, exposed copper, bronze, stainless steel and tin to the cultures of Salmonella spp., Escherichia coli O157, Enterobacter sakazakii and Bacillus cereus. They found that “…the bronze alloy [yugi] may be more effective to reduce the cross-contamination of S. Typhimurium, E. coli, and E. sakazakii than stainless steel in food processing surface.” (Lee & Park 2008: 309) While the market for traditional bangjja yugi tableware declined during the middle of the twentieth century, due to competition from plastic and stainless steel, bangjja yugi instruments remained in demand, as only they could make the desired sound.

The bangjja process
Photograph Kim Kyung Sang

The bangjja process requires intense labour, highly developed knowledge and the collaboration of many skilled craftsmen, or jang-in. It begins by melting the specific ration of copper to tin, mentioned above, to create the yugi. The molten metal is poured into a stone mould, creating a disc shape called a baduk.

Heating the baduk to be stretched
Photograph by Kim Kyung Sang

The baduk is stretched by first heating it in the forge and then placing it on to the stake to be hammered. This hammering is done in a specific order by a team of three craftsmen, while the captain turns the baduk regularly to ensure it expands evenly.

Four men hammering the baduk
Photography by Kim Kyung Sang

The baduk is hammered, stretched and straightened many times until it reaches its finished design, is heated again and then dropped into water to increase its strength. This work was traditionally done only at night, as the exact colour of the heated metal, which indicates its malleability, needed to be seen. The surface can then be made smooth and the black oxidised layer shaved off, giving the bangjja yugi object its characteristic shiny, golden surface.

This ggwaenggwari and jing connect different subject areas – culture, social history, science, craftsmanship, design – to create a story that is characteristic of the Powerhouse Museum. How many stories can these two gongs tell? There are many more that could be told, but this will have to wait for another time.

Alysha Buss, Curatorial Volunteer

Lee, Eun Jin and Park, Jong-Hyun, 2008, ‘Inactivation Activity of Bronze Alloy Yugi for Reduction of Cross-Contamination of Food-borne Pathogen in Food Processing’, Journal of Food Hygiene Safety: 23 (4), pp. 309-313. See

Howard, Keith, Korean Musical Instruments, Oxford University Press: New York, 1995

2 responses to “Traditional Korean gongs – reflection and resonance

  • Such a fascinating and well-detailed description of these objects! I’m sure they tell a great many stories! Great images as well..

  • Such a fascinating and well-detailed description of these objects! I’m sure they tell a great many stories! Great images as well..

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