Written by Daniel Latto in Latest News

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  • TED: Dong Woo Jang: The art of bow-making – Dong Woo Jang (2013)
January 3, 2014

It is said that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, and I believe this is true, especially when I hear President Obama often talk about the Korean education system as a benchmark of success. Well, I can tell you that, in the rigid structure and highly competitive nature of the Korean school system, also known as pressure cooker, not everyone can do well in that environment. While many people responded in different ways about our education system, my response to the high-pressure environment was making bows with pieces of wood found near my apartment building.

Why bows? I’m not quite sure. Perhaps, in the face of constant pressure, my caveman instinct of survival has connected with the bows. If you think about it, the bow has really helped drive human survival since prehistoric times. The area within three kilometers of my home used to be a mulberry forest during the Joseon dynasty, where silkworms were fed with mulberry leaves. In order to raise the historical awareness of this fact, the government has planted mulberry trees. The seeds from these trees also have spread by birds here and there nearby the soundproof walls of the city expressway that has been built around the 1988 Olympics. The area near these walls, which nobody bothers to pay attention to, had been left free from major intervention, and this is where I first found my treasures.

As I fell deeper into bow making, I began to search far and beyond my neighborhood. When I went on school field trips, family vacations, or simply on my way home from extracurricular classes, I wandered around wooded areas and gathered tree branches with the tools that I sneaked inside my school bag. And they would be somethings like saws, knives, sickles and axes that I covered up with a piece of towel. I would bring the branches home, riding buses and subways, barely holding them in my hands.

And I did not bring the tools here to Long Beach. Airport security.

(Laughter) In the privacy of my room, covered in sawdust, I would saw, trim and polish wood all night long until a bow took shape.

One day, I was changing the shape of a bamboo piece and ended up setting the place on fire. Where? The rooftop of my apartment building, a place where 96 families call home. A customer from a department store across from my building called 911, and I ran downstairs to tell my mom with half of my hair burned. I want to take this opportunity to tell my mom, in the audience today: Mom, I was really sorry, and I will be more careful with open fire from now on.

My mother had to do a lot of explaining, telling people that her son did not commit a premeditated arson.

I also researched extensively on bows around the world. In that process, I tried to combine the different bows from across time and places to create the most effective bow. I also worked with many different types of wood, such as maple, yew and mulberry, and did many shooting experiments in the wooded area near the urban expressway that I mentioned before.

The most effective bow for me would be like this.

One: Curved tips can maximize the springiness when you draw and shoot the arrow.

Two: Belly is drawn inward for higher draw weight, which means more power.

Three: Sinew used in the outer layer of the limb for maximum tension storage.

And four: Horn used to store energy in compression.

After fixing, breaking, redesigning, mending, bending and amending, my ideal bow began to take shape, and when it was finally done, it looked like this. I was so proud of myself for inventing a perfect bow on my own. This is a picture of Korean traditional bows taken from a museum, and see how my bow resembles them. Thanks to my ancestors for robbing me of my invention. (Laughter)

Through bowmaking, I came in contact with part of my heritage. Learning the information that has accumulated over time and reading the message left by my ancestors were better than any consolation therapy or piece of advice any living adults could give me. You see, I searched far and wide, but never bothered to look close and near. From this realization, I began to take interest in Korean history, which had never inspired me before. In the end, the grass is often greener on my side of the fence, although we don’t realize it.

Now, I am going to show you how my bow works. And let’s see how this one works. This is a bamboo bow, with 45-pound draw weights. (Noise of shooting arrow) (Applause)

A bow may function in a simple mechanism, but in order to make a good bow, a great amount of sensitivity is required. You need to console and communicate with the wood material. Each fiber in the wood has its own reason and function for being, and only through cooperation and harmony among them comes a great bow. I may be an [odd] student with unconventional interests, but I hope I am making a contribution by sharing my story with all of you.

My ideal world is a place where no one is left behind, where everyone is needed exactly where they are, like the fibers and the tendons in a bow, a place where the strong is flexible and the vulnerable is resilient. The bow resembles me, and I resemble the bow. Now, I am shooting a part of myself to you. No, better yet, a part of my mind has just been shot over to your mind. Did it strike you?

Thank you.


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