Garuda by Yi Mun-yol

  • onNovember 16, 2014
  • Vol.22 Winter 2013
  • byYi Mun-yol


Gojuk opened his eyes, feeling as if a powerful beam of light had suddenly swept over him. It seemed only a short while since he had heard the nearby church bell ringing for dawn prayers, yet now it was morning. The sun was shining directly onto the white paper covering the eastward-facing lattice door, and the wooden frame looked exceptionally black this morning. He turned his head to look about him and perhaps that little gesture stirred the air in the room, for a faint fragrance of ink crept into his nostrils. Was it Old Plum Orchard? No, it was surely Dragon Flying Phoenix Dancing, an ink from Taiwan that Professor Bak had brought back after a visit to South-East Asia last spring. The professor so valued the privilege of having been allowed into Gojuk’s studio several times a few years back that he had designated himself his special student. Since Gojuk was by then already confined to his sickbed, unable to wield a brush, the gift had inspired feelings of melancholy rather than of gratitude. The rather tactless Professor Bak had remarked: “At least, you can grind a little, place it beside your bed and savor the fragrance…” The words had been spoken quite sincerely yet he had scolded him, “What! For goodness sake! Am I already a ghost, to be offered incense?” but in the end that was what he had done. Taking as a pretext the colleagues or students coming to visit him, and not wishing to change the atmosphere that had surrounded him for nearly sixty years, Jusu ground the ink each morning at his bedside, and he enjoyed the fragrance of the ink as well as the admirable devotion of Jusu.


Judging by the smell of ink, Jusu had undoubtedly already been and gone. So the strong ray of light that had awoken him just before must have been the sunlight shining through the door she had opened on her way out. With those thoughts, Gojuk cautiously tried to raise himself. It was not easy, with one side of his body paralyzed. He was about to call someone, but changed his mind and lay back again. He had no wish to disturb the morning’s peace and quiet, and the solitude that was by now not in the least disagreeable, by formal greetings and unnecessary fuss.

Truly—Gojuk thought, staring absently up at the patterns of the plywood ceiling—how often have I experienced a morning like this in my life? With nobody, really nobody… He recalled countless such days, from far back in his now hazy childhood. One morning when he had been five or six, lying all alone, he had found the sunlight shining fully on the door. Outside there had been a faint sound of muffled keening… then his mother, dressed in white, her hair disheveled, had embraced him before collapsing in an apparent swoon. She came in just at the moment when he was about to burst into a noisy storm of tears, feeling he had been abandoned for far too long. There was another such day. He must have been seven or eight; he had gone to sleep with his mother the previous night, but he found himself greeting the morning all alone. There he grew afraid of the silence reigning in the room and was about to go outside when his grandmother came in and began to cry, embracing him.

“Alas, my little child. What will become of this poor child? That wicked woman! Unwilling to wait even until the three years of mourning are over.”

After that, once he had moved into his uncle’s house he usually awoke alone in the morning. His aunt was constantly ailing, lying in another room. His uncle spent more nights out than at home. Inevitably, then, having fallen asleep alone in the room full of the smell of his uncle’s books, he likewise awoke alone each morning.

Once his thoughts turned toward his childhood, Gojuk could not help remembering the first day he had found himself projected, still a child, into a life like that which he lived now. It must have been fifty years ago, or was it sixty? Anyway, it had been the day his uncle had dragged him off at the age of ten to Master Seokdam’s old mansion.

How strange! Was this unexpected recollection, clear and vivid, of long-gone, completely forgotten times in the distant past another sign of old age? Increasingly in recent years, Gojuk had been able to recall Master Seokdam as he had been that day, clearly and vividly. At the time he would have been in his early forties, but in appearance he already looked like a near-destitute, aging scholar-gentleman.

“What’s to be done? Seokdam, I reckon I’m going to have to entrust him to you. If I were to go on living here, I’d take care of him, sharing the same gruel or rice. But as it is…”

Such were the words his uncle spoke. Under some kind of pressure, he had decided to go into exile abroad.

“I don’t want this child to be another burden on my wife’s family; I’ve asked them to look after my ailing wife as it is. You take charge of him. He’s my elder brother’s only flesh and blood, after all.”

Master Seokdam, however, who had been listening expressionlessly, instead of replying, asked:

“You keep saying Shanghai, Shanghai, but do you have any idea of what’s really going on there? They call it the Provisional Government, but people say they’re at their wits’ end, unable to pay the rent, all the time fighting among themselves over trivial things. In addition, there’s no guarantee that Master Chungang is still there, is there?”

“Is there anything so wonderful about what’s here? Anyway, will you take him? Or will you not?”

At that, Master Seokdam looked at him in silence for a while, then replied with a slight sigh:

“His food and clothing... I’ll take care of that, somehow. But that’s not all there is to raising a child…”

“Thank you, Seokdam, that will be all that’s needed. Don’t worry about teaching him. There’s no knowing where this wretched world is headed, so what kind of teaching can you give him? He’s already mastered the three characters of his name, that’s enough.”

After saying that, his uncle turned to him:

“Pay your respects to this gentleman. He is Master Seokdam. You must behave toward him like a father until I come to collect you again.”

In the end, his uncle never came back to reclaim him. Later, well over twenty years after, he heard a report that his aged uncle was among the members of the Provisional Government returning home but at that moment he was occupied away from Seoul and when he went up to Seoul the following year there was no trace of him.

Master Seokdam, a classmate and long-time friend of his uncle, was descended from a renowned Confucian scholar of the southeastern region who was reputed to have inherited the mantle of Toegye. Seokdam was counted as one of the three great masters of the closing years of the Joseon dynasty on account of his vigorous calligraphy and elegant literati-style painting, but in actual fact he was more of a scholar than an artist, like the calligrapher Chusa, whom his teacher Chungang had admired all his life long.

“Have you learned your letters?”

Once his uncle had left, that was Master Seokdam’s first question.

“I have finished the Dongmong-seonseup primer.”

“In that case, read the Sohak. If you don’t read that, you’ll never be any good at anything”

And that was all. After that, for several years he read the Sohak sitting among the master’s small number of pupils, but he never took any notice of him. Finally, in the year he turned thirteen, the master took him without warning to the nearby elementary school.

“The times are changing. You’re not too late; study this new learning.”

As a result, his only formal education came from that primary school. No matter what happened later, looking back, it was obvious that from the outset the Master had never intended to include him among his pupils.

Whenever Gojuk remembered his deceased teacher, his gaze would habitually linger over the specimen of Master Seokdam’s calligraphy that hung in a corner of his sickroom. Written at a time when life was far from easy, it had long been stored unmounted, so that the paper was discolored and the red ink of the seal had faded to a pale orange color, but the power of the master’s brushwork lived on, sinuous as ever.

Gold-Wing cleaves oceans, Fragrant Elephant crosses rivers.

Unfortunately, Seokdam had lost his only son to cholera, and he had never chosen any of his pupils to be his designated successor; as a result, Gojuk, having looked after Seokdam’s house after his death, had inherited relatively many of his possessions. But while he was roaming around freely in the prime of life he had taken no care of them, there had been the upheavals of the war, and now he only had a few pieces of calligraphy left. Recently he had found himself lamenting: Soon I shall meet my master and what excuse am I going to offer for my blunders and unworthiness? Hidden within that there might also have been some repentance for his negligence of the Master’s works. But this framed piece of writing was one major exception. For the Master’s teaching, that all his life long he had disliked yet feared, had wanted to attain yet move beyond, was contained within it. Even now, when he could no longer wield a brush, he could feel Seokdam’s stern glare lurking between the strokes of the characters in the frame.

When he was twenty-seven, having grown impatient for achievement, he left the Master’s home without informing him. Putting it positively, it was in order to affirm himself, or putting it negatively, he was looking for opportunities to show off. And at least to himself the three months that followed were a successful grand tour. He was awarded the top prize in the Jeokpa calligraphy contest, received a warm welcome in the few remaining Confucian schools of the southeastern region, including those of Naeryeong, Cheongha, or Dusan and occasionally lodged in the homes of the rich where he was regaled with every kind of delicacy. As he made his way back home after three months away, loaded down with all the grain he had received in lieu of payment for his works, having left pages of calligraphy or painting behind him at each departure, his self-assurance was soaring sky-high. Master Seokdam’s reaction was completely unexpected.

“Put all that down.”

Blocking the gate, Master Seokdam first made the porter put down all the things he was carrying. Then he addressed him.

“Take off your brush-bag and put it on top.”

It was a voice there could be absolutely no question of disobeying. Without understanding the reason, he took off his brush-bag and laid it on top of the packages of paper and grain. Next, the Master drew from his sleeve a match and set fire to it all.

“Master, what do you think you are doing?”

At that, Master Seokdam replied sternly to his agitated question.

“Since your uncle made the request, I will let you remain as a member of my household. But henceforth you are not to address me by the name of Master. I have never had as disciple a daubster who begins to hold the brush one morning then boasts of his skill the same evening.”

After that, a full two years passed before he received his offended teacher’s pardon. That was a testing time far harsher and harder to endure than when he had first been admitted as the lowest-ranking of his pupils. And the piece of calligraphy he was now gazing up at had been written and handed to him by Master Seokdam on the day he had finally received his moving forgiveness.

In writing, let your spirit be like that of Garuda who cleaves the blue ocean to grab at a dragon and soars with it in his clutch, let your intelligence be as thorough and solid as that of Gandhahastin who splits a stream from below, then crosses it…

When he looked back on it, even after a whole lifetime had passed, in Gojuk’s memory the immensely difficult period of apprenticeship was still enveloped in a light that closely resembled an indelible grief and regret.

Perhaps on account of some kind of premonition, Master Seokdam had treated him with icy precaution from the moment his uncle had entrusted him to him. Despite the distinction of his family line, after several generations of scholars, the Master’s inherited income had not been very great, and at that time he was mainly relying on the sacks of rice that his small number of pupils offered each spring and autumn, but nonetheless accepting this child had not represented such a financial burden that it could tax Master Seokdam’s mind unduly. Moreover, later, even when he was grown up and had taken charge of providing for Master Seokdam, unable to support himself, the Master’s attitude had not changed, suggesting that there was some kind of intrinsic problem.

The way Master Seokdam had obliged him to keep reading year after year the Sohak that other pupils finished in a couple of years and moved beyond, then had put him into the fourth grade of primary school at the age of thirteen firmly removing him to a place far distant from his own kind of learning, was surely linked with that attitude.

Yet equally incomprehensible had been his own feelings toward Master Seokdam. Throughout the Master’s lifetime, he had kept being entangled in contradictory emotions, inexpressible admiration and equally intense hatred toward him. On looking back calmly, such feelings were far removed from any kind of inevitable logicality, but he could locate more or less exactly the moment when they had begun to form clearly. It had been between the age of sixteen, after he had graduated from primary school and remained in Master Seokdam’s home, and the age of eighteen, when he had formally begun studies with him. In that period he had refused a relative’s kind offer to help with school fees, so turning his back on the rapidly changing world and any aspiration for the new learning that corresponded to it, had taken over the management of Master Seokdam’s unpromising household affairs. Since the sacks of rice brought by the pupils no longer provided enough food, he supplemented that by cultivating a few fields previously let out to a tenant, while sometimes walking twenty or thirty li to gather a load of firewood.

People found him laudable for doing so much, but in reality from that time onward an intense flame of love-hate had burned within him. Like the shade of a cloud passing over a spring hillside, like fields freshly washed by a summer day’s shower, like a stream in an autumn valley, like a winter sky clearing after a snowfall, Master Seokdam’s life had been calm, fresh, pure and quiet yet also tedious, forlorn and desolate, and had always inspired in him simultaneously an inexplicable admiration and an ominous premonition. When the Master was seated at his desk smiling vaguely and seemingly half-asleep, and his soul seemed to wander through some fluid world illumined solely by the twilight of past glories, or when, eyes flashing with surreal vitality, he wielded the large brush like a typhoon, or when in the shade of a musk-rose bush in the backyard with an unworldly dignity, far from any uproar, he fingered the geomungo, or painted orchids, he seemed to be the very model of a dedicated life; but when he reflected on the housekeeping, on how, unless he looked after him, within six months they would have a starved corpse on their hands, or on the dilapidated house that nowadays nobody visited in the course of a year except for a few old men and the pupils who were now less numerous than his ten fingers, or on seeing the helpless expression with which Master Seokdam greeted him on his return from hard work in the fields, he had the impression that it was all a kind of cursed fate he had to escape from at all costs.

Yet what had finally dominated Gojuk’s life had been the admiration and the veneration. As if it had already been predetermined when he had suppressed the powerful temptations of the new world and renounced the new learning, he had finally set about imitating Master Seokdam with a fervor that he himself could not account for. Calligraphy models written by the Master and left behind by departing pupils, spoiled pages of writing or paintings the Master had thrown aside, literati drawings scrawled for exchange with fellow calligraphers then left behind, such were his main models, although sometimes he made bold to take things directly from the Master’s collection.

The paper and brushes he had used at first were such that they stirred a chill wind in his breast when he recalled them even many years later. Smaller characters he practiced in a sand box or on a plank coated with oiled dust, using stubby brushes the Master’s pupils had discarded after use, large characters he used to write with a broom made of hair from a dog’s tail on the large stone tables for offerings lying in front of tombs, that he would then wash clean with water. The first time he obtained paper and brushes of his own was after he had given a bundle of pine-needle branches to the brush merchant and the paper seller, unknown to his master…

Later, Master Seokdam is said to have censured that as Gojuk’s cockiness, yet, in the light of their relationship, it is hard to believe that in the course of that difficult apprenticeship he not only never requested Master Seokdam to accept him as a pupil, but did not so much as give any indication of his ardent desire. But perhaps that was his artistic pride, the instinctive arrogance found in certain kinds of great souls.

Then a day came when Master Seokdam left home early in the morning and he was left alone in charge; after tidying up the Master’s study, he suddenly experienced a strange urge. It was the urge to see clearly in a single glance how far he had developed. The place where Master Seokdam had gone was a Confucian poetry gathering more than a hundred li away, he would surely be unable to return within the day.

He prepared the writing table, started to grind ink in the Master’s Duanxi ink stone. Following the Master’s instructions, he did not splash so much as a drop of ink; then once the hollowed space in the stone was full of ink he took up some brushes his master had left aside when preparing his bag, and some precious Chinese paper.

First he copied the Twin Cranes Inscription in the Yan style in square characters. Whereas the great calligrapher Chusa had considered Oh-Yang Sheun’s Inscription on the Sweet Spring at Chiu-ch'eng Palace to be the best model for learning the square characters, that was the model Master Seokdam encouraged his pupils to master. As he grew accustomed to the brush and paper, his brush strokes came closer to the original. Next he turned to writing, also in Yan style, the Monument to Good Etiquette... it was an ever more arduous task, yet slowly he fell into a state of high rapture.

He was finally brought down to earth by the sound of an unexpected shout just as he had finished writing, the opening lines of Wáng Xīzhī’s “Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion” which he had been practicing on his own.

“You scoundrel! Stop that!”

Lifting astonished eyes, he saw Master Seokdam standing there, looking down at him, in the room that had grown dark without his noticing. The shout had been loud, but his face expressed inexplicable apprehension and resignation rather than wrath. At his side was Master Choi, known by the pen name Ungok but also by the nickname ‘Sevenfold Gentleman’ because of his all-round skills in poetry, calligraphy, painting, baduk, divination, medicine and music; he was looking mystified.

Covered in confusion, he scurried around gathering up the pages he had written, that lay scattered all over the room. Contrary to what he had expected, Master Seokdam merely watched him absently. Ungok spoke.

“Leave what you’ve written.”

His words were addressed to Gojuk as he was about to go out carrying the pages he had written, after rushing madly about tidying up the room. Gojuk obeyed almost automatically. Driven by curiosity and excitement, he came back close to the men’s quarters and listened to the voices filtering from the room.

For a while the only sound to be heard in the room, where lights had been lit, was the rustling of paper, then Ungok spoke.

“So, Seokdam, did you really not teach him anything?”

“Maybe he studied by looking over my shoulder, I have never taught him anything.”

For some reason Seokdam’s reply sounded dejected and subdued.

“If that’s the case, it’s truly amazing. He must have the gift of heaven.

Seokdam said nothing.

“Why have you not accepted him as a pupil?”

“Transmission should not be made to one who is not yet a person—have you forgotten what Wang Youjun said?”

“Do you mean to say you reckon this young man so far from being a person that you are unable to teach him?”

“First of all, that youth has too much talent. He knows nothing of points and stokes, yet he can form characters; he has never learned the twelve principles of calligraphy, yet he knows harmonization and spacing and turning. He’s a born penman whose talent blocks the root of the Way.”

“Such words are unexpected from so mild a person. Surely you can open up the root of the Way for him?”

“You think that’s an easy task? Besides, the boy is hardly likely to appreciate the fragrance of characters and the vigor of writings. Yet I must say, this orchid is certainly composed with quite charming elegance.”

“Don’t you think he’ll develop those qualities after he becomes your pupil? Go on, accept him!”

“At the outset the only things I agreed to provide were his food and clothing. I’d hoped that he would acquire the new learning and find a way to support himself on his own...”

“Seokdam, why on earth are you being like this? Even someone with whom you have no relationship, if he comes asking for instruction, you can’t just send him away, you know. So what makes you treat so coolly this youth who has eaten at your table these last seven or eight years? I have heard that for several years past he has taken charge of supporting you. Don’t you feel touched by pity at such devotion?”

At that point, Ungok’s voice filled with indignation. It seemed that he had already heard talk of his strange relationship with Seokdam.

“Don’t blame me too harshly. To tell the truth, I myself do not know why that child troubles me. Every time I see him, my only feeling is that some evil fate has brought us together.

Master Seokdam’s voice trembled slightly.

“Then what about this? If he’s a burden to you, send him to me at least once every three days. It looks as though it would be wrong for him to abandon this path now.”

“There’s no need for that. I’ll train him.”

What could Master Seokdam have meant by evil fate? And what made him suddenly decide to accept him despite saying such a thing?

The next day, Gojuk’s name was formally included among the pupils of Master Seokdam. That is not to say that there was some kind of solemn admission ceremony. That day Gojuk was going out of the front gate with an A-frame on his back as usual when Master Seokdam called out to him.

“From today you are not to go working in the fields.”

He spoke as if making some kind of passing remark. Then, casting a sidelong glance at Gojuk who was bewildered by the sudden command, he insisted in a louder voice:

“I’m telling you to take off that frame and go into my study.”


Such had been the ceremony marking the start of their destined relationship as master and pupil.

At the sudden sound of the door opening, Gojuk’s thoughts returned to present realities from the hazy past in which they had been roaming. Looking in the direction of the door with unfocussed eyes, he saw Maehyang coming in. He felt his back grow strangely cold as his sight cleared. How much resentment she must have felt, to come all this way... Gojuk, filled with a feeling similar to remorse, gazed at Maehyang as she approached. No, it was not her.

“Father, are you awake?”

It was Jusu. She approached silently to examine his complexion and her face, devoid of makeup, betrayed intense concern. Summoning all his strength he tried to raise himself. Perhaps prepared for such a move, Jusu calmly helped him lean back. He could feel that raising himself was becoming more difficult with each passing day.

“Shall I bring you some fruit juice?”

She addressed him again but, instead of replying, he dumbly scrutinized her face then abruptly asked in a weak, hoarse voice:

“Do you remember your mother?”

Hearing his question, Jusu looked at him with a look of surprise. It might have been because, although she had been caring for him for more than seven years now, ever since the previous old woman had died, she had never once heard him ask such a question. In fact it had been longer still since his lips had last spoken Maehyang’s name.

“Only from photos...”

Of course, poor child, entrusting the newly born baby to her family and going back to the gisaeng house, then, less than two years later, committing that foolish deed...

“But father, why do you ask?”

“Just now I thought you were your mother coming in.”

Jusu said nothing.

“She was not the kind to make old bones, yet, there was no need for her to hasten things like that...”

Seeing her father’s face fill with grief as he spoke, Jusu’s face, that had unusually tightened for a moment, softened again to its normal state.

“Shall I bring you some fruit juice?”

She repeated her question as if she wanted to change the mood. He replied, shaking off the thought of Maehyang:

“If you have some green tea ready, give me a sip of that.”

Jusu opened a window briefly to change the air in the room, then went out quietly.

What was that passion that spurred me on so violently... as he drank the cool tea Jusu had brought, Gojuk recalled the first time he had met Maehyang. At thirty-five he had left Master Seokdam for the second time and spent the next ten years wandering from place to place.

It was during the years just preceding the beginning of the war between Japan and China in 1931, a time when there were still Confucian scholars, traditional schools were still a living reality, and regular poetry gatherings, literary contests and competitions were regularly held. Perhaps because he had been formed by Master Seokdam, who was even known as the Triple Master, being equally outstanding in poetry, calligraphy and painting, or on account of the fact that he had, despite the Master’s scoldings, had works accepted at several National Art Exhibitions, his travels had been relatively luxurious for such a depressed and impoverished period. Once a month or so, somewhere around the country he would find himself invited to take the seat of honor at a gathering, and in every county there remained at least one worthy prepared to pay him enough for a single work to cover a whole month’s journeying.

It was during the same period that he had paid a visit to Jinju. After ten days of partying during some competition, he was cleaning his brushes and preparing to pack his bag when a rickshaw unexpectedly arrived before the house that had served as the venue for the contest to take him somewhere. It was not the first time such a thing had happened, so he quickly got in and was taken to what was then Jinju’s finest restaurant. Waiting for him in a large room before a table groaning with food, he found half a dozen Japanese men and two Koreans. They were high public officials who appreciated calligraphy and enlightened local supporters of the Japanese.

Maehyang had been one of the gisaeng summoned to serve the group. When the party was at its height, the Korean manager of the government trading company who seemed to have organized it smilingly asked the gisaeng:

“So who is going to accommodate this gentleman tonight?”

At that, a burst of coquettish laughter arose from the gisaeng for a while, and then one of them came gliding forward; standing before Gojuk, she raised her long red skirt, revealing a silk petticoat that was white like fine paper. She might have been about twenty-two, her face was not particularly beautiful, nor did she display any very sensuous coquetry, yet something about her was strangely enticing. As he undid his brush bag, that he had brought with him, he felt the liquor he had drunk go rushing to his head.

“What’s your name?”

“I am called Maehyang.”

She replied pertly, seemingly oblivious of those around. It was he, rather, who was embarrassed.

“Plum-blossom fragrance? Then I shall have to paint a spray of plum blossom.”

He made an effort to speak calmly, but he could not prevent the hand holding the brush from trembling. But what he could never understand was the picture of plum blossom that he painted. Perhaps from a feeling of shame toward the Master he had left behind, what was spreading across the girl’s petticoat was not his own style of plum, but Master Seokdam’s. The trunk dry and bent, with two plum blossoms on a gaunt branch that were still scarcely flowering buds. The accompanying text was Seokdam’s, too:

“Though its whole life is spent in the cold, the plum never sells its fragrance.”

At a cursory glance, the phrase might seem to derive from Maehyang’s name, but the statement that plum blossom refuses to sell its fragrance even though it spends its whole existence in bitter cold hardly suited the petticoat of an officially registered gisaeng toward the end of the Japanese colonial period. But it was what followed that had engendered a shame that, unbeknown to anyone, endured until the present day.

“Why is this plum tree so cold and lonely?”

When Maehyang asked that as he was setting his seal to the painting, he replied in a low, grave voice that only she could hear:

“Have you not noticed how Cheng Ssu-hsiao’s orchids all have their roots exposed?”

Then to the curious onlookers he explained that it was because such plum trees blossom while it is still winter, but it seemed clear that Maehyang had understood him correctly: the exposed roots of Cheng Ssu-hsiao’s orchids expressed his resentment and sorrow at the humiliation of his country under foreign occupation.

That night, Maehyang gave herself to him readily.

“You’ve made my petticoat wet like this on a cold evening, you’ll have to look after me tonight.”

After that, he spent four months with Maehyang. Those were months of which he only retained impressions of pleasure and sweetness, such as a memory of crossing a mountain pass bright with spring flowers, intoxicated with delight. Then abruptly their days together came to an end. Just as he was not a wandering scholar who consoled his humiliated country by art like Cheng Ssu-hsiao, so she was not a heroic gisaeng who leaped into a river embracing an enemy general as Nongae had done during an earlier Japanese invasion. If he was nothing but a mere dilettante traveling about under the impulse of a passion he himself did not understand, she was just a gisaeng with a family of eight to support, her parents and six siblings.

They separated without hatred or rancor, as if they were putting into practice something they had agreed at the start. Maehyang went back to the gisaeng house. Gojuk set off for a friend’s exhibition that was due to open in Jeonju. It was their last parting.

The next year in the autumn he heard a report that Maehyang, after they had separated, had given birth to a daughter she said was his. At that time he was roaming from one temple to another on the western slopes of Mount Seorak, so without further thought he sent a note telling her to give the child the name Jusu [Autumn water]. Maybe the water in the mountain streams, limpid to the point of sadness, had inspired in him a premonition concerning the child’s future.

It was only some years later that he heard Maehyang was dead. It seemed that she had become a wealthy man’s concubine but, unable to endure his wife’s harassment, she had drunk four ounces of fresh opium juice mixed with water, putting an end to her youthful life. Perhaps he was heartless, but the fact was that on hearing the news of Maehyang’s wretched death, he felt no particular sorrow. His only thought was that a daughter of his had been born from that woman’s body, and he briefly wondered where she was, how she was faring.

However, he only saw Jusu’s face for the first time when she came to study in a girls’ school in the town where he was living. Her uncle, provided with a fair income by reason of his sister’s unfortunate demise, expressed his thanks by looking after the child, his only niece. As a result, Jusu experienced no particular hardships as she grew up. From time to time Gojuk would call in at the girls’ school to meet his daughter. That was his way of consoling himself, as with the approaching of old age he was experiencing a growing need for affectionate relationships with his own flesh and blood.

After that, it was relatively late before father and daughter lived together in one house.

After the death of the old woman who had been living with him as his companion ever since he had settled in the town, opening a studio and moving into a small house, he found himself alone again and Jusu was also alone, having lost her husband in the Vietnam war, so she moved in with him. That had been seven years before, when poor Jusu was a mere twenty-six years old.


Gojuk swallowed down a bowl of gruel as if it were some kind of medicinal concoction, then struggled to his feet. Jusu, who was on her way out with the empty bowl took his hand as he stood tottering and asked:

“Will you be going out today?”

“I must.”

“You went out for nothing yesterday. Today you should send Mr. Kim to make the rounds instead.”

“I have to go myself.”

Since leaving the hospital the previous summer, over the past four months he had made the rounds of the galleries in the town center without missing a single day. He was intent on buying back any of his own works that became available. When he first began buying, he had no clearly formulated plan but now he was nearing a conclusion.

That was linked to a clear premonition of impending death. Doctor Jeong, the doctor treating him, had calmly declared that he was completely cured but judging by various signs, his discharge from hospital had been a kind of death sentence. There was something about the endless succession of visitors, and the somber expression of Jusu as she cared for him, close as his shadow. His stomach, too, unable to deal with food properly, was a long way from Dr. Jeong’s ‘complete recovery.’ There was none of the intense pain he had felt at the time when he was hospitalized. Yet he could not shake himself free of a feeling that his cells were collapsing one by one, starting from the tips of his toes.

“Is there still no news of Choheon?

Choheon was the pen-name of the pupil Jusu had called Mr. Kim. The last pupil to receive a pen name from him, he was a young man who had been lodging at the studio for several years past.

“He said he would be here in half an hour’s time. But stay home today...”

“No, I’m going out. Get my things ready.”

He threw a rather stern glance at Jusu, who kept trying to dissuade him imploringly, then slowly walked back and forth in his room. He had only gone a few steps before everything grew blurred and he began to lurch about. Jusu watched him with anxious eyes until he was back sitting on the floor, leaning against his rolled-up bedding, then went out quietly. His eyes were filled once again with his master’s calligraphy.

Was their meeting truly doomed by evil fate, as Master Seokdam had said? Even after accepting him as a pupil. their strange relationship had continued unchanged. Seokdam had been so parsimonious in his teaching, that Gojuk could not be free from the resentment lodged in his breast until he was middle aged. He started by learning the standard, regular style all over again and before he took up the brush, Seokdam made him memorize Chusa’s Seogyeol (theory of calligraphy).


The rule governing writing requires one to become quite empty before moving. That is like the heavens, which have the north and south poles as their axis, then once the heavens are fixed round that unmoving point they move constantly. The rule governing writing is just the same. For that reason writing is affected by the brush, while the brush is moved by the fingers, and the fingers are moved by the wrist. So shoulder, forearm, wrist, all are moved by what we term the right side of the body…


Such was the start of the text, some four hundred characters in length, that Gojuk was forced to memorize without omitting so much as a single character. Next he handed him a copy of a manual of Yan Zhenqing’s style that he had in fact, unknown to the Master, already copied out.

“If you copy this one hundred times, you will acquire the basics; if you copy it one thousand times, you will hear people say you can write well; if you copy it ten thousand times, people may call you a great calligrapher.”

That was all his teaching. If anything at all had changed from before, it was probably only the fact that he could now practice openly and went once every two days to learn Chinese classics from Master Ungok. Then, three years later, he had added only one remark:

“Hold your breath.”

That had been when he was lamenting that even after copying them out three thousand times, he still could not write the square style of characters properly.

It was much the same when it came to painting the Four Gracious Plants (plum, orchid, chrysanthemum, and bamboo). For example, when it came to painting orchids, he had simply handed him a copy of Seokpa’s volume of orchids he himself had made, saying:

“You cannot hope to become a Buddha overnight, nor can you catch a dragon bare-handed. It is only possible after much practice.”

Once again, that was all. Although he would occasionally inspect over his shoulder the orchids he was painting, he never once said a word teaching him in detail what to do.

It was not until his orchid paintings were nearly satisfactory that he added:

“Start on the left. You have to use the brush turned in the opposite direction for the rock.”

Besides, Master Seokdam took no particular pleasure at his pupil’s accomplishments. Nearly ten years after he had become his pupil, his skill gave rise to a quiet admiration even among his master’s friends. Yet whenever the Master heard such remarks, he would always reply briefly and sternly:

“He’s barely learned how to imitate.”

It is possible that his decision to leave the Master’s house when he was twenty-seven was also a rebellious reaction to such a cold-hearted attitude. Yet, strange to say, the more he heard the applause of the outside world, the more he longed to receive his Master’s praise. It may well have been that which brought him back to Master Seokdam’s side, and was the reason that made him endure nearly two years of contempt and abuse before receiving the Master’s forgiveness.

After he had returned to the housekeeping tasks of earlier times, laboring in the fields and bringing in wood, for two years the Master refused so much as to look at him him. Once, driven by an irresistible impulse, he took up the brush unbeknown to the Master. It was done in great secrecy, but he detected it and spoke with the most cold-hearted severity:

“Go outside and wash. The smell of ink coming from your body is more intolerable than the smell of a whore’s make-up.”

Later, even after he had been forgiven and was once again practicing in the Master’s study, there had been no great change in Master Seokdam’s attitude. Indeed, as he grew older and his calligraphy matured, a kind of unreasonable anxiety seemed increasingly to be manifest in the Master’s frosty expression. It was rather Gojuk who grew ever more relaxed. He had been subject to the Master’s hostility and cruelty for nearly half his lifetime; it was not just that he had grown impervious or accustomed to them; he had reached a point where he deliberately did things that distressed and upset the Master, taking pleasure in his anger and complaints. His occasional participation in exhibitions and competitions was one example of that.

However, the day was approaching when their fraught relationship would finally break down completely, as the inexplicable causes of Seokdam’s anxieties about Gojuk, as well as Gojuk’s uneasiness toward his teacher, gradually revealed their true nature with time.

Fundamentally, no unity was possible between them because of what might be termed their approach to art, their concepts of calligraphy and painting. Master Seokdam’s writing gave weight to strength, revered the inner spirit, the essential nature and principle. Whereas he esteemed beauty and strove to give expression to feeling and sense. In painting, too, Master Seokdam considered art to be an expression of the artist’s heart while he claimed it was a depiction of things, and aimed at faithfulness to the subject, rather than to his own inwardness. A good example of that can be found in their famous quarrel over the plum and bamboo.

Among the Four Gracious Plants, Master Seokdam had always prided himself especially on his paintings of bamboo and plum. But with the annexation of Korea by Japan, a strange change occurred. Originally, in the paintings of plum and bamboo by Master Seokdam, which has been admired by the Regent Daewongun himself as works of genius, leaves and flowers were thickly clustered, emerging energetically, but after the annexation they had gradually begun to wilt, grow parched and twisted. That became worse with age, until in the works of his last years there remained no more than three leaves on a stalk of bamboo, or five blossoms on a plum branch. To Gojuk, that was unsatisfying.

“Master, why have you plucked the leaves from the bamboo, stripped away the plum flowers?”

By the time he asked that, Gojuk was in the prime of manhood and Master Seokdam was no longer capable of his previous fastidiousness.

“What joy could the bamboos of a subjugated land have to produce thick foliage, what strength remains in the brush of a subject of a deposed regime to make plums blossom?”

“Cheng Ssu-hsiao painted orchids with their roots revealed to express the shame of occupied Sung China, Zhao Mengfu sacrificed his integrity and agreed to serve the Yuan dynasty, but I have never heard anyone say that Cheng Ssu-hsiao’s orchids alone were fragrant or that the works of Zhao Mengfu were base.”

“Writing and painting are expressions of the heart. Since we make use of outward objects in order to depict the heart, there is no need to be shackled by the actual appearance of things.”

“If writing calligraphy and painting pictures were merely the means by which a scholar expresses his righteous indignation, surely they would be pointless? In that case, it would surely be shameful to be born a man then to spend a whole lifetime grinding ink and soiling paper. I may be wrong, but if the nation is as precious as you suggest, it would be more honorable to join the ranks of the independence fighters and die killing at least one enemy. In any case, sitting quietly in one’s study plucking off bamboo leaves, stripping away plum blossoms, is to deceive oneself and deceive the thing itself.”

“Not so. When it comes to being faithful to things, the roadside artist surely does far better. But their pictures are sold for a farthing and are later used to cover a hole in the floor, because they are shallow and vulgar. You are trying to give some kind of value to painting and writing as such, but unless they incorporate some lofty state of mind, all you have is black ink and white paper.”

A similar contention arose concerning the nature of art. Once again, since Gojuk was now mature, it began with a question from him.

“Master, is calligraphy an art, a principle, or a Way?”

“It is a Way.”

“Why then do people talk of the art of writing and the principle of writing?”

“Art is the Way’s fragrance, principle is the Way’s clothing. If there is no Way, there can be no art, no principle.”

“It is said that when art reaches its height, it becomes the Way. So is not art the door opening on to the Way, rather than its fragrance?”

“Those are an artisan’s words. Everything has always to be within the Way.”

“Then you mean that before learning to write and paint, there first has to be a purification of body and mind?”

“Yes indeed. That is why Wang Youjun said that transmission should not be made to one who is not yet a person. Do you see what that means now?”

Already in his sixties and visibly aging, Master Seokdam’s expression suddenly brightened and he gazed intently at the face of this pupil who had ever been such a worry to him. But to the very end Gojuk failed to fulfill his master’s expectations.

“If forming the person has to come first, why are children of six or seven given a brush and made to draw strokes? If the Way comes before writing, how many people are going to be ready to take up the brush before they die?”

“It’s a matter of practicing artistic technique while waiting to enter the Way. If someone remains a whole lifetime at the level of technique, that is craftsmanship; if someone is able to take one step along the Way, that is art; if someone achieves perfect union of art and Way, that is a supreme state of being in the Way of art.

“That means that art is first and the Way comes later. But surely putting the Way first and repressing artistic spirit is to put the cart before the ox?”

Such had been Gojuk’s complaint for over half a lifetime, ever since he had first become Master Seokdam’s pupil. The Master’s response was equally sharp, perhaps on account of a feeling that the anxiety he had harbored ever since accepting him into his house had finally been confirmed.

“You wretch. Are you trying to prevaricate with frivolous words when you ought to be striving to make up for your lack of the vigor of writings and the fragrance of characters? Study is the path leading to the Way. But you have never had any interest in the classics, have never enjoyed reading works of literature. You have merely been training the tip of your brush and your wrist, imitating in a spirited fashion the venerable achievement of the ancients, so how are you any different from a mere artisan? Now here you are, without the least sign of shame, daring to criticize your forebears’ lofty spirit of achievement, you shameless wretch.”

So, finally, the day came when the ill-fated master and pupil turned their backs on one another. It was the year when Gojuk turned thirty-six.

By that time, Gojuk had a variety of reasons for being fed up. He was in a wretched state after the eight years of extremely arduous training he had undergone since being readmitted as Seokdam’s pupil. He was so completely absorbed in writing and painting that he almost never left his seat; as a result, in the summer his buttocks would fester unbearably, while in the winter his joints were so stiff that it was hard for him to stand up to bring in the little table with his meals. Disregarding Master Seokdam’s silent rebukes, he saw nothing, heard nothing that was unrelated to calligraphy and painting. He had previously spent almost ten years in constant training but until late in his life Gojuk used to recall those eight years as the most precious years of his life. If those earlier ten years can be seen as ten years spent striving to reach Master Seokdam’s level, those eight years were eight years of struggle to get free of Master Seokdam.

Meanwhile, his technique matured and his public reputation slowly grew in due proportion. Critical opinions vary but even now there are those who reckon that the writing and paintings done in that period, scintillating with talent and inspiration, are the finest among his life’s accomplishments. But Gojuk gradually fell into an unfathomable state where everything seemed false and vain, rather like the solitude and emptiness that reign after a fire has gone out.

That sense of futility seemed to have a double origin. One was the way his prime of life had all flowed away to no avail amidst the dust of ink and paper. He had a wife, whom Ungok had introduced him to, and two children, but from the beginning he had seen them as necessities like a chest or a writing table, and not as objects of passion. His youth, his hopes, his love, his aspirations, all had been entirely devoted to writing and yet more writing. But now his youth, fluttering pathetically at the tip of the branch like a single leaf left in late autumn, all that he had been pursuing, devoting everything he had, still seemed remote and perhaps for ever unattainable like a rainbow over a mountaintop...

The other stimulus for his sense of futility was the problem he increasingly encountered as he matured as a calligrapher, the question as to whether he deserved an objective self-approval or not. As he gradually awoke from his feverish state of absorption, there was a question he found himself asking himself mockingly: What have I been doing, what am I doing? The meaning of his repeated question was different now from in the days when he had been contending with his teacher. Is it acceptable for a man once born on this earth to spend his entire lifetime grinding ink and playing with brushes? There are those who, in the struggle for independence from Japan, have gone overseas, who have fought and died or been imprisoned; others have concentrated on finance, accumulated a fortune, then relieved their needy neighbors. Others have enlightened their ignorant compatriots by cultural activities, yet others have devoted themselves to the new learning and served society by their knowledge. But what had he done with half his lifetime? His gaze had been entirely focused on himself, and even that laborious training of his earlier days, which he had previously considered sincere and significant, now seemed merely a flight from a dreary life, a subjective self-indulgence. An entirely self-centered life, alas, an entirely self-centered life...

Then came that autumn day, the same year. Master Seokdam was already so old and frail that he sometimes remained confined to his bed; on that day, as soon as he had risen from his sickbed he brought out paper and brush. The brush and paper were both of the large size, which by that time he scarcely ever used. Gojuk, who had not put brush to paper for several months past, felt an irrational fury at the sight of the Master’s tenacity and left the room as soon as he had finished grinding the ink. The true reason was that, somehow, the Master’s very tenacity seemed to imply scorn at the pupil’s irresoluteness. Still, after walking up and down in the courtyard for a while he was suddenly seized with curiosity as to how well the master was coping with his writing.

Entering the room, he found Master Seokdam panting, eyes closed, the brush laid down on the water holder. On the floor, apparently abandoned in the course of writing, was a page containing the first three characters of the saying [you should give equal strength to each and every hair of a brush].

“They say that at the age of seventy-eight Su Zhai, Weng Fang-gang wrote the four characters [perfect peace under heaven] on a sesame seed. I am not even seventy, yet I didn’t have enough strength to write those four characters in a single stroke...”

As he lamented, Master Seokdam’s face was filled with an intense sorrow. But on hearing those words, Gojuk’s repressed fury came surging up again. To his eyes, the Master’s expression reflected not sorrow but rather self-confidence.

“Supposing that you had written that in a single gesture, and Garuda had arisen from it, Fragrant Elephant come sauntering, what advantage would that have been to you?”

Gojuk did not realize that, as he posed the question, his face harbored a sadistic smile. On first hearing those words Master Seokdam, who had been sitting exhausted, his brow pearling with perspiration, looked stunned. Then as soon as he had grasped the true sense of his words, he glared at him fiercely.

“What are you saying? That is a truly sublime state that any calligrapher aspires to experience even if it is just once in a whole lifetime.”

“But even supposing one attained that, what could it give us?”

Gojuk was relentless.

“You haven’t even begun to climb Tai-shan, and already you’re worried that once you reach the top there might not be yet higher mountains beyond it. Are you suggesting that the great sages who are revered by all the generations for their lofty attainments were all wasting their time?”

“They were deceiving themselves and they deceived others. If there is a Way in the act of daubing ink on paper, what on earth is it? If it’s some kind of recondite mystery, how wonderful is it? If you are speaking of a Way, a butcher or a thief has a Way; if you are referring to complexity of meanings, there are recondite mysteries in the work of a craftsman or a blacksmith. Supposing one’s name is handed down from age to age, while the ‘I’ no longer exists, and one’s shell transformed into writing goes wandering amidst an unknown posterity, what use is that? Works may be preserved, but even the hardest inscribed stone is worn away by winds and rain, how much more then mere paper and ink? After all, when they were alive, such things could give their bodies no comfort, could offer no help to their naked, starving neighbors. In order to conceal that futility, that distress, they established a state which no one could attain or demonstrate, so consoling themselves and bewitching their neighbors and descendants...”

At that moment, Gojuk, wracked by a sudden pain, fell prostrate, holding his head in his hands. Furious, Master Seokdam had seized the cover of his ink slab that was lying before him and thrown it at him. The maddened shouts of his old master rang in Gojuk’s ears as he mopped up the blood that was spurting like a fountain.

“Wretch, I recognized the vulgarity in you early on. Get out. You should have been sitting at the streetside from the very beginning. You cleverly disguised your vulgarity but today it is manifest; if you go out on to the streets now, you can earn a generous measure of rice for every character you write . . . .”

In the end, that was their last encounter. Having left Master Seokdam’s house that day, Gojuk next entered it only after the Master’s body was already in its coffin.

That had happened more than ten years before, yet it was still with a vague feeling of pain that Gojuk touched the left side of his forehead where the scar, now covered with wrinkles, was barely visible. Yet the memory of the Master’s face that arose with that gesture evoked, not hatred or fear, but yearning.


“Father, Mr. Kim is here.”

Once again, Jusu’s voice awoke him from interminable reminiscing. With that, the door opened and Choheon’s round face appeared. Whenever he saw him, this pupil awoke a particular feeling of affection, as if he were a late-born son. It might be because for the past year or so he had generously been managing the studio in his absence without asking for anything in return, but it was above all on account of his writing. Unlike other modern youths who, before they have learned to wield the brush correctly, scrawl in semi-cursive style, and write in cursive and seal styles although they do not know how to make points and lines correctly, Choheon deliberately spent three years practicing only the square style. Besides, he started calligraphy only seven years ago, but since he had spent every day of those seven years in the studio, it was no short period of time, yet at that spring’s collective exhibition by Gojuk’s pupils he had modestly submitted just two pieces written in square characters. His writing looked awkward yet it was full of a strange power, so that Gojuk was secretly moved by it. That was because it sometimes reminded him of Master Seokdam’s brushwork, which he found increasingly profound as he grew older, although in his own youth he had so stubbornly rejected it.

“Do you really intend to go out today, sir? I heard from your daughter that you seemed to be walking with some difficulty...”

Quite forgetting the customary morning greetings, Choheon groped hesitantly for words. If Gojuk had still been as he was in younger days, he would surely not have endured his way of speaking, inarticulate to the point that it made him seem devious, but now Gojuk took no notice and replied gently.

“I have to bring everything back, even if there’s only one left out there. The city library refuses to give up the piece they have, you said?”

“Because it was included in the list of works received from the previous administrator, they said it was quite impossible.”

“Even though I said I would give them a work by Maegye?”

“The director of the library said that it did not matter who it was by, they could not alter their list.”

“These people are quite impossible. I shall be obliged to go and meet him today in person.”

“Are you really going out?”

“Stop chattering; go and call a cab.”

As soon as Gojuk made his request, Choheon silently went out of the room. His expression indicated the usual curiosity, but today too he refrained from asking the Master why he was so intent on getting his works back.


* Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé

Author's Profile

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 EmperorThe Age of HeroesChoice 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.