Altar of the Moon
- onJanuary 5, 2017
- Vol.34 Winter 2016
- bySim Yunkyung
- Altar of the Moon
Our family fortunes had been at their greatest around the time Wonchan, my twelfth great-grandfather and a man of great learning, finished his service as a department minister and returned to our hometown to build Hyogye Hall. After him, no one in our family served in any office higher than what could be gained by passing the civil service exam until my eighth great-grandfather Junmong. But the wealth Wonchan had amassed was so great that my ancestors were able to keep up appearances as a yangban family even without holding any official positions.
After that, however, my family’s prestige declined over the years, little-by-little, almost imperceptibly. Or perhaps it made sudden, sharp drops each time we had to look outside the main family line for an adoptive heir. By the time of the Japanese occupation, the system by which ancestral names were to be remembered “in perpetuity” was itself extant in name only. Hyogye Hall was finally abandoned when my great-grandfather was the jongson—the eldest son of our family’s main branch, and the titular head of the family. He abandoned Hyogye Hall to live among the common folk in the village and lead a life no different than theirs. Perhaps because he had not actually been born into our family, he became nothing more than an old country bumpkin, exhausted by a life of poverty and possessing neither the mental constitution nor the education to realize his role and responsibilities as the fourteenth jongson in our family line. He could barely put food on the table, never mind carry out the ceremonies required for the remembrance of our ancestors and the reception of guests.
Grandfather was the man most responsible for our family’s current prosperity. From the day he was born, Grandfather had aristocratic tastes and lived a life uplifted by a longing for the past and the knowledge that he was descended from a rarified pedigree. Despite the poverty of his youth, he clung to the notion that, above all else, the scion of an illustrious family must behave in a manner befitting his position, and he was almost beside himself with indignity that my great-grandfather was incapable of serving as a suitable role-model in that regard.
My grandmother Kim Yushik, who passed away twenty-odd years ago, had been witness to the relationship between Grandfather and his father, even if she was only able to observe a part of it. Stories of things that had happened at Hyogye Hall in the past, stories Grandfather would have rather remained buried, came to light now and then through my grandmother’s own special indiscretion—after which they would gain a life of their own, passed along on the lips of our neighbors. Several times Great-grandfather had given Grandfather a beating for refusing to help with the farm work. Grandfather had protested that a yangban man needed to maintain his dignity, but Great-grandfather gave no more than a good blow of his nose in reply. After Grandfather made his fortune, Great-grandfather was no longer in a position to force his will, but the iciness between them continued until Great-grandfather passed away.
“Who could have known that our family would prosper like this? Your grandfather had bought some red and gold carp and released them into the pond in the backyard, but then your great-grandfather went out and killed a couple of them with rocks. He said that having gold things, like those fish, swimming around was causing him to have bad dreams. He said it was a waste to have fish as big as your forearm just sitting out back in the pond. So I pulled them out and cooked them up. Well, when your grandfather found out, he was hopping mad and screaming about what stupid fools we had been to eat those fish. And then the fish gall bladders popped while I was cooking, making the soup all kinds of bitter. Let me tell you—the hell I caught being stuck between your grandfather and his dad. I break out into a cold sweat just thinking about it!”
Grandmother giggled mischievously every time she told methis story, and there wasn’t a single person in Hyogye Hall who hadn’t heard it. Of course, after she passed away and the present atmosphere of gravity and solemnity took hold, stories like that were never again allowed to leave the house.
Driven by his pride as jongson of Hyogye Hall, Grandfather lived out an unbelievable story of self-made success. Grandfather didn’t want to become rich because he hated being poor. Hyogye Hall had been overrun by weeds before he was even born, but he believed that he had a calling to return the family to greatness. He started by finding a job as a day laborer in Pohang. He got some capital together by speculating in rice futures, and then grew his fortune and power with skill and vitality. Grandfather was born with a knack for not letting any money or authority slip through his fingers.
The poverty and chaos after the war brought wads of money into Grandfather’s hands. Grandfather ran a construction business and mutual credit bank for thirty years, and then in his middle age he bought up prime real estate all around the capital with the money he got from selling the construction business. It was impossible to say exactly how much Grandfather was worth, but even low estimates placed it at nearly a hundred billion won.
After amassing a sizeable fortune, Grandfather began reconnecting with relatives scattered all over the country and reasserting his authority as the jongson of the family. He also tidied up the long-neglected graves scattered about our ancestral burial ground. He was indefatigable as he combed through the family registers and pieced together the misty memories of local elders, until, finally, our family graveyard on the slope of Hwangmyeongsan Mountain had been restored into a place worthy of the community’s admiration.
Even when Grandfather was in the midst of growing his business, he would make the rounds each weekend to the houses of the other ancient families scattered around North Gyeongsang province, in places like Andong, Bonghwa, Yecheon, and Yangdong. His reason for visiting those places was to learn the traditions and ceremonies that those families had carefully preserved. Grandfather might have been the jongson of the Seo’an Jo family, but the only remainder of our family’s former glory was stately Hyogye Hall. It had been so long since our house had acted the part of an ancient and honored family that it was difficult for Grandfather to be recognized as an equal by the other illustrious main-line houses. But by a peculiarity of the culture of the southern provinces, where ancient family traditions still survived, Grandfather’s efforts to restore our family were met with a warm welcome and hearty encouragement.