The Gravitation of the Bapsang

  • onSeptember 1, 2019
  • Vol.45 Autumn 2019
  • byShin Saet-Byeol

Illustrations Copyright ⓒ Eomju

Editor’s Note: Bapsang means a table setting for meals. The word is made up of two smaller words: bap (cooked rice or meal) and sang (table). Traditional Korean dining is communal at heart. Dishes are set out simultaneously and shared. A typical bapsang will have rice, a main protein, a soup or stew, and several side dishes.


We cannot live without food. Like the bounds of gravity, eating is not only a necessity for our survival but an unavoidable limitation of our lives as living, breathing creatures. But rather than bemoan these limitations, Korean literature uses them to pose fundamental philosophical questions about humanity and life. Novels that question the prerequisites and possibilities of life from the perspective of the material operate under the basic premise that people consume food. The more a novel leans towards honesty and detachment, allowing no exaggeration or fantasy in its descriptions of life, the more likely it is to feature snapshots of people unable to part from the dining table. In daily life, the dining table is a place where we nourish our bodies—in literature, it is the home of the causes that constrain humanity.

Kim Ae-ran’s “Knife Marks” is framed as a woman’s reminiscences about her mother who runs a restaurant for a living and sets countless tables over the course of her life. This short story makes a point of using the phrase “mother and offspring” in place of “parent and child,” because it is a biological examination of a family history that unfolds through a parent’s strength and tenacious struggle to provide for her child. The mother must cook on and on for over twenty years to sustain the family. Over two decades’ worth of knife work creates the food—and the many “knife marks”— which her daughter brings to her mouth and swallows. By recording each and every action that leads to the birth of a single dish, “Knife Marks” gives concrete imagery to concepts like “maternal love” and “motherly sacrifice.” As a result, the daughter’s gratitude does not come from a second- hand assumption of her mother’s love and sacrifice, but from the physical pain that is applied to the body in the process of cooking. The story’s driving idea that knifework is at the center of maternal love grants agency to the concept of motherhood, once a symbol of passive femininity. The mother’s death and the daughter’s pregnancy, taking place at nearly the same time at the end of the story, foreshadow the passing on of a new kind of “motherhood” to the next generation.

In Korea, cooking was traditionally the work of women, and the dining table was considered the domain of the mother. Korean literature consequently features notable scenes of people at the dining table thinking of their mothers, as with the narrator in Kim Soom’s “Noodles,” who confesses how she really felt about her stepmother as she thinks back on the noodles the latter used to make. The stepmother never officially married the narrator’s father, but lived as the mother of his four children for over thirty years. Though denied legal and economic status as the children’s mother, the stepmother nevertheless pours out everything for her children, and her life is likened to the difficult and time-consuming process of kneading dough for chewy noodles. Carrying the weight of guilt and regret for having never repaid the one-sided devotion, the narrator decides to make amends by serving noodles to her dying stepmother. By recreating her stepmother’s noodle-making process, the narrator learns what it means to become a family in a reflection of the uniquely Korean love for a community that eats together.

The Korean language has two words that mean “family”: ga-jok and sik-gu. The latter is written with the Chinese characters for “mouth that eats,” and breaks down our rigid idea of a family as a community formed via marriage and blood relations. The familiarity and sense of belonging granted by a community that shares meals together brings even unrelated people into a family, while the absence of such love is what makes a nominal family incomplete. In other words, the presence of a shared dining table is the pillar of a real community.

Park Wansuh’s “Candlelit Table” features a literal generational gap through the division of the dining table. The narrator and his wife boast to their peers about living on the same street as their son, “a street where the soup never goes cold,” and praise their son and daughter-in-law for their consideration in joining them for dinner once or twice a month. When the generations share a table, the couple feels intimacy with their son’s family and can take their minds off the loneliness of old age. But things change as the narrator’s wife begins to visit their son’s house without warning to bring him his favorite food. The son’s family eats out more often and leaves the house more, lashing out against the mother’s unwelcome intrusions into their lives as she attempts to affirm her possession of her son through his appetite. By depicting the generational gap through different table settings, the story brings generational conflict and elder exclusion into the spotlight.

Table settings in South Korea changed rapidly with the country’s compressed modernization process. The eating practices of each era or generation reflect the transformation of the Korean way of life over the course of history, and served as symbols. The rejection of the mother’s food by the son’s family in “Candlelit Table” is essentially a severing of relations from the ways of the past. In the same vein, the scene in Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian where the protagonist Young-hye refuses her father’s attempts to force her to consume meat, even preferring suicide, compels readers to reflect on the ideology of the patriarchal family structure and the central role it played in the modernization process. By the end of the novel, Young-hye is dying painfully from her staunch refusal of meat-oriented meals—a damning disclosure of the violent side of Korean society, where competition was favored over coexistence and monopolization over mutual prosperity.

While the dining table is a symbol of the many bindings that restrain us, that very nature ironically turns the dining table into a place where we can most desperately picture different possibilities for our lives. Young authors like Park Sang Young and Song Ji-hyeon make novel use of the dining table in their stories. Park’s “A Slice of Rockfish, A Taste of the Universe” features a gay couple whose love begins when they take turns eating sashimi from the table. Song’s “An Ordinary Home-cooked Meal” features five women who have either lost their families or live apart from them, sitting around the dining table together. They share their stories, lend their ears to one another, and form a new community. The dining table in Korean literature today is undergoing a metamorphosis, where people experiment with new forms of care and community and the nature of love itself.


Translated by Slin Jung