“The Golden Phoenix” by Yi Mun-yol

When Kojuk thought of his childhood, he could not help recalling the day he was thrown into the life that became his. How many decades ago was it? Anyway, he was about ten when he was led by his uncle to Sŏkdam’s old house.

     . . . .

     The teacher was only just forty when they first met, but he already looked old and worn out by poverty.

     “What can I do? I have only you to thrust this burden on. If I weren’t leaving this country, I’d take the boy with me wherever I drift to and feed him when I can, but . . . ” His uncle, who had decided to go to Shanghai, began. “I can’t ask my wife’s family to take in another burden on top of my sick wife. Please let me leave him with you. He is my older brother’s only child.” (p. 13)

    . . . .

     Sŏkdam, who was an old friend of Kojuk’s uncle from childhood and studied under the same teacher, was a descendant of a great Confucian scholar of the Yŏngnam (the present Kyŏngsang Province) area. He was often listed as one of the three great calligrapher-painters of the late Yi Dynasty for his bold and soul-stirring calligraphy and sublime brush painting. But, like the great Ch’usa, whom Sŏkdam’s teacher Ch’un’gang revered all his life, he was more a scholar than an artist. (p. 14) 


     Perhaps from some premonition, Sŏkdam always treated Kojuk coldly and guardedly. . . . There must have been some deep-seated problem other than the financial one, for the teacher’s attitude did not change in the least even after Kojuk grew up and was as good as supporting the teacher’s family by working on the teacher’s farm. It must have been for a very special reason that Sŏkdam made Kojuk read The Minor Learning over and over for many years, and made him attend a primary school when he was thirteen and study ‘new’ subjects instead of calligraphy and painting. (pp. 15 - 16)

     . . . .

     Translator   Kojuk reveres his teacher for his lofty, austere character but is repelled by his penurious life. Sŏkdam suspects Kojuk of worldly tendencies and weakness before temptation, which in Sŏkdam’s eyes disqualifies Kojuk as a seeker who follows the Way in calligraphy, so he is extremely reluctant to admit Kojuk as his disciple. While Kojuk admires what his teacher has attained, he strives towards his own artistic goals; hence, the teacher-disciple conflict.


     Was it really an evil fate that brought Sŏkdam and him together? Even after Kojuk was allowed to study calligraphy under him, their relationship continued to be a strained one. Sŏkdam was chary of giving instruction, so chary that it remained a bitterness in Kojuk’s heart well into his middle age. . . .

     But the day of their unhappy final parting was drawing hear. As time passed, the thing that made the teacher uneasy, the thing that separated the teacher and disciple, became more and more evident. What separated them essentially was the difference in their artistic principles and premises. Sŏkdam valued vigor, integrity and nobility in calligraphic writing. But Kojuk valued beauty and tried to express his emotion and will in calligraphy. Their views differed, too, with regard to brush painting; Sŏkdam focused on expressing the soul of the objects, while Kojuk tried to give a faithful rending. The debate between the master and the disciple on plums and bamboos well illustrates that conflict.

     Bamboos and plums were Sŏkdam’s specialty as a painter. In his youth his bamboos and plums were healthy and exuberant. But, after the colonization of the country by Japan, his bamboos and plums had begun to grow withered, lean and gnarled. So that in later years there were no more than three leaves to one stalk of bamboo and fewer than five blossoms to a bough of plum. It made Kojuk extremely unhappy.

     “Why are your bamboos and plums so withered and poverty-stricken?” Kojuk protested.

     “How can a bamboo tree in a fallen country be exuberant, and what scholar of a colonized country would have the heart to make the plums blossom?” Sŏkdam responded.

     “Cheng Sou-nan expressed his grief for the fall of Sung by exposing the roots of his orchids, while Chao Meng-fu served in the court of his country’s conqueror Yuan. But I never heard anyone argue that only Cheng Sou-nan’s orchids are fragrant and Chao Meng-fu’s calligraphy is base,” Kojuk objected.

     “Calligraphy and paintings are reflections of the soul. You borrow the shapes of things to give form to your spirit and soul. There’s no need to be governed by the outward forms of things,” was the teacher’s reply.

     “If calligraphy and paintings are simply means of expressing a scholar’s grief and pain, they’re futile and worthless as arts! Isn’t it a shame, in that case, for a man to rub ink and foul up paper all his life? If one’s country is of such great value, wouldn’t it behoove a man to become a guerrilla warrior and die in fighting the enemy? Isn’t it deceiving yourself and the world, to sit in your study and draw lean and twisted bamboos and plums in lament for your lost country?” Kojuk pursued obstinately.

     “That’s not so. In literal representation, you can’t top the side-walk painters. But because their souls are shallow and spirits base, their pictures are cheap and end up as floor papers. You try to deny the spirit of calligraphy and drawings, but, without their lofty spirit, all drawings are simply ink smeared on paper,” Sŏkdam countered.

     Another instance of their conflict was their debate on artistic principles. It was also provoked by Kojuk in his mid-thirties, when Sŏkdam was growing weak with old age.

     “Are calligraphy and painting arts, laws, or ways? Kojuk asked, to open the debate.

     “They are ways,” Sŏkdam returned.

     “Then, why are there words like ‘the art of calligraphy’ and ‘the laws of calligraphy’?” Kojuk challenged.

     “Art is the fragrance of the Way, and laws are the garments of the Way. Without the Way, there can be no art, no law,” Sŏkdam enunciated.

     “Isn’t it said that refinement of art will ultimately bring one to the Way? Isn’t art the gateway to the Way, not just its fragrance?” Kojuk objected.

     “That’s what artisans say. Everything must reside in the Way at all times,” Sŏkdam insisted.

     “Then the first step in learning calligraphy and painting must be purification of the soul?” Kojuk pursued.

     “Yes. That’s why Wang Hsi-chih said, ‘One must not teach anyone who has not the right character.’ Can you see the meaning now?” The teacher’s withered face brightened up with those words and he studied his disciple’s face with hope. But Kojuk refused to understand him to the end.

     “If noble mind and soul are prerequisites, how is it that you teach calligraphy to little children? If noble mind and soul are prerequisites, how many could there be who are worthy to take up the brush before death?” Kojuk protested.

     “It is to teach the technique while waiting for the Way to take root. If one merely acquires the skill, one is an artisan; if one can advance to the next stage, one is an artist; if the technique and the Way can both be perfected, one becomes a master,” Sŏkdam explained.

     “Then it means that artistry is more basic than the Way. So, to suppress the refinement of the technique for the re...

Yi Mun-yol was born in 1948. He made his debut as a writer in 1977. Yi’s works were enriched by the classics of East Asia that he had naturally become familiar with during his childhood and the Western literature that he had voraciously devoured in his young adulthood. In The Son of Man, Yi questioned the relationship between man and god; in A Portrait of Youthful Days, he portrayed the struggle and anguish of his youth. The Golden Phoenix was an exploration of the ontological meaning of art using calligraphy, a traditional art form in Korea. Yi also has consistently published works that are critical to the nature of political power. Our Twisted Hero is an allegorical depiction of the mechanism of how political power operates. Homo Executants portrays the process through which political ideology suffocates humanity. Aside from these, his works include Hail to the Emperor, The Age of Heroes, Choice and Immortality. The recipient of Korea’s highest literary prizes, Yi has been published in over 20 countries including the U.S., France, Great Britain and Germany; over 60 titles of his translated works are available.