Where Writers Call Home, Tongyeong City

Tongyeong, a city in Gyeongsangnam-do (province), is renowned as a center of arts and culture. Its most famous scion is “Cheongma” Yu Chi-hwan, followed by Kim Chun-soo, Park Kyongni, Jeon Hyuck-lim, and other greats who have embroidered 20th century Korea’s world of literature and art. Living within the natural environment of Tongyeong must have been conducive to the poetic imagination.

Paradoxically, I planned to begin a memorial ceremony for Tongyeong because of poets’ laxness in ignoring the city. Early 20th century poet Jeong Ji-yong (1902-1950) was quoted as saying, “I do not possess the ability to describe how the natural scenic beauty of Tongyeong and Hansan island gives birth to literary art.” This was the verse I saw in February 2010 when visiting Tongyeong’s Mt. Mireuk for the unveiling of a poetry-inscribed plaque in honor of Jeong Ji-yong. What an absurd statement—Imagine, a poet unable to express something in words! Once you come here and experience the subtle fragrance and beauty first-hand, however, you will understand why Jeong made this seemingly inane statement. From the top of Mt. Mireuk, the view of the Tongyeong coast spreading out below is breathtaking, perhaps accounting for the praise of Tongyeong by Jeong Ji-yong. My recent visit to Tongyeong is still fresh. Motes of light mix with the azure sky, floating lazily along while particles of cobalt blue swimming in the indigo sea of the Hallyeo waterway (which connects Tongyeong with Yeosu).

While the scenery alone is enough to take one’s breath away, the actual focus of this article is on the artists of Tongyeong, a miracle in Korea’s artistic and literary history from the early 20th century. Playwright “Dong-rang” Yoo Chijin, the poets Yu Chi-hwan and Kim Chun-soo, painter Jeon Hyuck-lim, sijo (Korean verse) poet Kim Sang-ok, and author Park Kyongni are all natives of Tongyeong! How was it possible for so many outstanding artists to emerge at the same time from a small port city on the southern sea? Daring to slightly alter poet Jeong Ji-yong's quote above, I could say, “I do not possess the ability to describe in writing why Tongyeong and Hansan island have produced so many artists.” As a travel reporter, I have visited many foreign cities, yet it is quite rare to encounter one place where so many artists of the highest caliber were born within the same generation. Just counting the number of famous artists born in Tongyeong around the same time yields a surprisingly high number.

Depending on one's interests there are several ways to discover Tongyeong, but I recommend that visitors first stop by the martyrs’ shrine, not to pay respect to Admiral Yi Sun-shin, hero during the Japanese Imjin invasion of Korea and a main character in Kim Hoon’s historical novel Song of the Sword, but to visit the roundabout located in front of the martyrs’ shrine in the Myeong-jong neighborhood which houses a poetry-inscribed stone slab erected in memory of Japanese colonial period poetry wunderkind Baik Suk (1912-1995). The title of the poem inscribed there is Tongyeong 2, an excerpt of which appears below:

 “Nan lives in Myeong-jeong (bright well) Valley / home of Myeong-jeong village where the deep-green, sweet nectar-like water bubbles up from Myeong-jeong spring / among the newly-married women drawing water from the noisy spring, the one I fancy seems likely to appear / but come the season when the camellia's green branches bloom red flowers, my love will likely go to another village to get married...I sit down heavily on the old stone steps of the shrine for old generals and feel like I will cry this night, become a ferryman on the sea of Hansan Island / I think only of the low-roofed and low-fenced house with the elevated yard where my love spent 14 months threshing grain with a foot mortar.”

1. Chungnyeolsa   / 2. Birthplace of Cheongma Yu Chi-hwan

While touching the verses carved into the smooth headstone, I think of the poet's distress over a love that could not be. Perhaps the low social status of Baik Suk's mother, a gisaeng (female courtesan performing Korean classical music and dance), made the union impossible. The two wells referred to in the poem stand next to the inscribed stone slab. One well denotes the day (日), while the other denotes the month (月). When these two Chinese characters are combined, they form the character myeong (日+月 = 明, brightness), which is how the wells got their name.

Now let’s head south from the shrine (of Admiral Yi Sun-shin) to the Seoho market. Tongyeong is famous for its seafood market offering delicious fare, but today we are calling here for a different reason. The one kilometer radius around the seafood market is the area in which most of Tongyeong’s poets and writers once lived. First, the house where "Chojeong" Kim Sang-ok was born is right in front of the market. His excellent and visually-evocative piece, “Garden Balsam,” appears on the poetry-inscribed monument, conveying how much he missed his older sister:

 “As the rain falls, only one side of the garden balsam stretches its branches over the big jars of (fermenting) soy sauce / will the yearly blossoms leave me bereft / I send a detailed letter of my circumstances to Sister / already I wonder if she will laugh or cry when reading / you miss the childhood home which is still so vivid to me / remember you stained my fingernails with dye from balsam petals / we sat facing each other in the sunlight while you wound string round and round / my finger, making each fingernai...