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. 

While Grandfather was having Hyogye Hall renovated, he expanded his social rounds outside the south of the country to include the main houses of great families across the nation. His reason for looking outside the southern provinces was that, while the ceremonies held by the families in our region showed an ancient solemnity and tremendous respect for proper comportment, they were also marked by a simplicity in the preparation of the food offering tables that was not to Grandfather’s liking. What Grandfather dreamt of for the ceremonies of our family was not an attractive tidiness and simplicity; rather, what he wanted was more like a beautiful, sparkling brilliance and an effusion of color. In his own life, however, Grandfather pursued simplicity to the point of a dry asceticism. But, in as much as the traditions of the great families were supposed to serve as spiritual support for society as a whole, Grandfather believed that great effort should be put into the visual presentation of our ceremonies, all the way down to the smallest details; the dried fish, for example, should be pulled apart strand-by-strand, so that it puffed up delicately like white pampas flowers. 

In realizing his dream of transforming Hyogye Hall into the earthly ideal of a home for a great family, Grandfather put the greatest effort into the selection of a daughter-in-law, finally settling on a woman of the Yu family, from Haeweol Hall. Grandfather’s marriage to his own wife, Kim Yushik from Pohang, had been decided by the elders of the family when our house was at its lowest point. She was from a yangban family, but in her manner she would have been a better match for a farmer than for the scion of a great family. She never once knew any affection from her husband, but, by giving birth to a son and heir for a family that had so few, she had at least done her most basic duty as the jongson’s wife. Grandfather may not have been able to marry a woman with a manner becoming the wife of a jongson, but he was determined to see his son paired with a truly top-notch, irreproachable wife. After a long deliberation, he settled on the daughter of the main house of the Pungsan branch of the Yu family.



She had an impetuous set to her lips and eyebrows which were so clearly defined it was as if they had been drawn on with a brush, but hidden beneath her beauty was a hard, untouchable core whose existence was only tacitly implied in her features. Just the image of her standing imperiously on the covered porch between the rooms of the main building wearing a light purple hanbok starched with fresh taro root juice was enough to amplify the majesty of Hyogye Hall twentyfold.

Mother was the eldest daughter of a distinguished family, and she matched Grandfather’s zeal with the knowledge she had inherited from her own family to create the uniquely beautiful offering table for which our family, the Seo’an Jo family, is now famous. Her dried meats, topped with squid clipped into the shape of phoenixes, yeongji mushrooms, and hosta lilies, were so elegantly prepared that they were more works of art than foods to be eaten. They were even featured several times on documentary shows highlighting the traditions of the great families. Mother passed away, leaving the women’s quarters of Hyogye Hall empty and ownerless, but the ancestral jesa ceremony that Grandfather had yearned for and which Mother had realized was richly continued by the Woman from Darsil and Jeong-shil.

Despite Mother’s skill and beauty, her relationship with my father was cold. People said that my father hadn’t even been able to so much as touch the knot on Mother’s jeogori jacket. I couldn’t remember my father, but in his funeral portrait he looked extremely tired. He had a low forehead, with small eyes and thin lips. A man in his twenties, he was unable to smile even in front of a camera, as though he had been born suffering from a chronic weariness of the world. The picture he took with Mother on their wedding day showed an ugly, dwarfish man, scowling dourly even as he stood before his marriage table with a woman as beautiful as a hibiscus flower by his side. In the photo, he stares out towards the camera with empty eyes. He passed the few months he was married to Mother with that same hollow look in his eyes, and then one day he killed himself. Supposedly, he didn’t even leave a suicide note.

It’s just a guess, but I think the contempt Grandfather felt for my father may have stemmed from my father’s birth—from the disappointment Grandfather felt the moment he saw how base his son looked. Grandfather was an uncommonly handsome man. His forehead seemed to have been carved from stone; the line of his nose straight and high; his deep-set eyes intense and piercing—there was nothing in his appearance that suggested anything but refinement and intelligence. Even after seventy years, the handsome face that had set the hearts of so many girls aflutter hadn’t faded a bit. The only change as he aged was the revelation of a maturity and an impression of loneliness in his features that hadn’t been present before.

My father, the only person to have inherited Grandfather’s blood, was short, and there was nothing of either Grandfather’s good looks or Grandmother’s kindliness in his appearance. The way that my father’s thick hair started right above his bushy eyebrows made him look rather like a monkey. People say that he had been gloomy and timid since he was young, but I think that was because he had been crushed beneath the force ofGrandfather’s uncompromising, severe personality. Whatever the reason might have been, there was nothing in either my father’s appearance or personality that would have satisfied Grandfather.

Even though my father was lacking in many ways, he never opposed his parents while he was at home. After he went to Seoul for college, however, he quickly found his backbone. Grandfather had ordered Father to return and carry on the family line after graduating, but, in a deliberate affront to Grandfather, he found a job in Seoul instead. Grandfather correctly guessed that there was a woman behind his change. That woman was Seo Yeonghui, my birthmother.

Because my parents split when I was still a baby, I have almost no memories of my birthmother. Even the things I thought I remembered could have quite possibly been nothing more than videos pieced together from snatches of rumors I had overheard. My birthmother was said to have been a school art teacher, a beautiful woman, with a slender, oval face and red lips. When I was young, everyone constantly praised me for looking just like Grandfather, but I think that I might have actually inherited most of my looks from my birthmother. But no one ever spoke a word about that possibility.

Mother, my father’s wife, was responsible for my upbringing. While she would occasionally tell me about my father, she never spoke directly about my birthmother. Everything I knew about my birthmother I had learned secondhand from Jeong-shil. When Grandfather ordered my father to immediately break off the relationship with my birthmother and come back home, my father openly defied him and took the drastic step of making his marriage to my mother official. No one could have ever imagined that a boy as weak spirited and cowering as my father would commit such a terrible betrayal.

“People say your real mom’s a whore. Soon as your grandfather said he’d give her a chunk of his fortune, she ditched your dad without another word. Your father cried and he begged, but your momma wouldn’t even give him the time of day when she left. Your poor father, it was that soul-sucking slut that killed him.”

According to Jeong-shil, that was what the world thought about my birthmother. Just as Grandfather hadn’t recognized my birthmother as his daughter-in-law, he didn’t want to recognize me as the jongson of the family. But that all changed when my father killed himself. It didn’t seem suitable to adopt a relative, so apparently Grandfather made a second deal with my birthmother. One day when I was almost two years old, I was brought to Hyogye Hall and placed in Mother’s care.

It was said that at the time, Mother had strongly insisted on adopting. My father and birthmother had been legally married, but in the eyes of Mother and Grandfather, I was illegitimate. Bringing in an illegitimate son and putting him in charge of the family’s jesa ceremonies would be an embarrassment even in a lowborn family, much less in a family like our own, and Mother had wanted to avoid bringing that sort of shame into our home.

That also happened to be a time when our family’s numbers were small. There was, however, an especially clever young boy named Sangpil who stood out as an obvious candidate for being adopted as jongson. He was a rather distant relative, but that wasn’t too much of a problem, since heirs had been adopted in from distant branches of the family several times in the past. Why Grandfather chose me as jongson over Sangpil, and what he might have intended in doing so, is something no one has been able to figure out. There wasn’t anyone in our house who didn’t know the story of my birth, but there also wasn’t anyone who would discuss it with me openly. The stories about me were only told in hushed voices while Grandfather was away. Many people said that I looked so much like Grandfather he had just been unable to resist the pull of blood. Some others said that he took me in during a bout of regret over the strained relationship he had with my father. Personally, my own opinion was closer to the latter. 


pp. 27-36

Translated by Eugene Larsen-Hallock

Author's Profile

Sim Yunkyung earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Molecular Biology at Seoul National University. She has received the Hankyoreh Literature Award and the Muyeong Literary Award. She has published five novels and a few children’s books.