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Where Writers Call Home, Tongyeong City

  • onNovember 19, 2014
  • Vol.10 Winter 2010
  • byYu Chi-hwan

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 fingernail of my white hand light crimson / as if in a dream I see my veins standing out.”

After quietly looking at the light crimson of my fingernails I purposely ball my hands into a fist until the veins stand out in my hand before heading to Jungang-dong in front of the Munhwa Post Office. A story of unattainable love similar to that of poet Baik Suk's awaits us here. This love story concerns "Cheongma" Yu Chi-hwan and sijo poet Lee Youngdo. Today we can convey our emotions at the speed of light through the world of the ‘handheld Internet,’ making it hard for me to understand the sentiments of Yu Chi-hwan, who sent about 5,000 letters to people here and there.

The phrase 'authenticity of the moment’ sounds initially pleasing, but it's also a nuanced reproach of those who change their hearts from moment to moment. Yu Chi-hwan's first wife was alive and well and her eyes were open to the fact that her husband was sending love letters to other women. How could Tongyeong, the city of “courtesy and decorum,” cheer such a native son? In his poem, “Happiness,” he opens with the optimistically romantic line, “I can see the broad emerald sky from the front of the post office window as I write this letter to you,” but in his poem, “Fragrance,” the verses are filled with exclamations of anger and feelings of betrayal. “People in my hometown mock my dreams / I despise you and cast you away like a pair of worn-out sandals!” Although the poet claims he discarded his hometown like a pair of old shoes, perhaps it was the fiercely proud city of Tongyeong which discarded the poet. The 18th century British critic Samuel Johnson once said that all novels were originally love stories. Were the conservative people of Tongyeong aware of this quote? The love stories of the adulterous Yu Chi-hwan have become yet another facet of his charm that attracts today’s readers.

1. Seoho Market  / 2. Park Kyongni  / 3. Park Kyongni Memorial Hall

Not so long ago, I received a call from a younger colleague and novelist who had just moved into the Toji Culture Center. While there are a considerable number of studios for writers to pursue their craft, my friend mentioned that he had never seen an environment as perfect for writing as Land. Until she passed away two years ago, it is said that the famous Park Kyongni (1926-2008), author of the novel Land, fed, gave lodging to, and gathered writers under her wing, earning the nickname “mom.” After leaving Seoho market and crossing the Tongyeong Bridge, I arrive at Mireuk (Maitreya) island. Pak’s memorial and burial place are both located here. While she also had deep connections with Wonju City (in Gangwon-do) and Hadong (in Gyeongsangnam-do), Tongyeong was her hometown. Her last wish was to be buried in a sunny spot in her hometown, a wish which was granted after her passing in May 2008. “When I look back at my youth with my failing eyes I can see how brief yet beautiful it was. Why couldn’t I realize this fact back then?” I recite the lines of her poem, “About Living,” which is carved into the memorial stone.

Next, I head to the Jeon Hyuck-lim Museum of Art (JMA) located in Bongpyeong-dong of the same island. Self-taught “cobalt blue” painter Jeon Hyuck-lim (1915-2010) successfully supported his family through painting and is reputed to have said, “Tongyeong-style is global-style.” He never left Tongyeong until the day he died because he became mesmerized by the cobalt color of the sea bordering his home, and spent his life exploring the source of his favorite color till the very end. Regrettably, one week after I visited the JMA, Jeon Hyuck-lim passed away at the age of 95, and I felt guilty that I hadn’t been there at the end to say farewell. Jeon's oldest son and master artist Jeon Young-geun (54-years-old) now runs the JMA, the site of a happy confluence of literature and art.

Mt. Mireuk, with a height of 461 meters, was originally named by the Venerable Wonhyo, the famous monk from the Silla dynasty. He named the mountain as such because he believed that the future coming of the Maitreya Buddha would occur here. Would it be too outlandish to say that the energy from Mt. Mireuk was responsible for the amazing preponderance of literati, painters, and artists born here in the early 20th century? I think the conjecture becomes less biased if we consider the interpretation that culture is the manifestation of Buddha for all mankind. If we look at today’s culture and the shabby circumstances of creative talents, we realize that culture is not a gift for redeeming mankind but rather a means of maintaining the thread of existence. It’s a rather romantic view, isn’t it?

The Jeon Hyuk-lim Museum of Art

I recall a poem I saw on the 2nd floor of the JMA which was dedicated to Jeon Hyuck-lim by the poet Kim Chun-soo. It was written shortly after the poet arrived at the painter’s 80th birthday feast in 1995: “To painter Jeon Hyuck-lim–Hey Jeon, you only have one upper tooth left in your mouth and (the walls of) your wife’s stomach grow(s) thinner by the day, but the most exquisite thing in the world is the abundant cobalt blue sky of summer which is still hovering over the roof.”

Today, the fall sky here in Gwanghwamun (a neighborhood in Seoul close to Gyeongbok-gung (palace) reminds me of the ocean’s color in Tongyeong. I feel the impulse to fly down the highway and see the cobalt blue sea once more.