The Golden Phoenix
- onApril 20, 2015
- Vol.27 Spring 2015
- byYi Mun-yol
- The Golden Phoenix
Tr. Suh Ji-Moon 1998297pp.
When Kojuk thought of his childhood, he could not help recalling the day he was thrown into the life that became his. How many decades ago was it? Anyway, he was about ten when he was led by his uncle to Sŏkdam’s old house.
. . . .
The teacher was only just forty when they first met, but he already looked old and worn out by poverty.
“What can I do? I have only you to thrust this burden on. If I weren’t leaving this country, I’d take the boy with me wherever I drift to and feed him when I can, but . . . ” His uncle, who had decided to go to Shanghai, began. “I can’t ask my wife’s family to take in another burden on top of my sick wife. Please let me leave him with you. He is my older brother’s only child.” (p. 13)
. . . .
Sŏkdam, who was an old friend of Kojuk’s uncle from childhood and studied under the same teacher, was a descendant of a great Confucian scholar of the Yŏngnam (the present Kyŏngsang Province) area. He was often listed as one of the three great calligrapher-painters of the late Yi Dynasty for his bold and soul-stirring calligraphy and sublime brush painting. But, like the great Ch’usa, whom Sŏkdam’s teacher Ch’un’gang revered all his life, he was more a scholar than an artist. (p. 14)
Perhaps from some premonition, Sŏkdam always treated Kojuk coldly and guardedly. . . . There must have been some deep-seated problem other than the financial one, for the teacher’s attitude did not change in the least even after Kojuk grew up and was as good as supporting the teacher’s family by working on the teacher’s farm. It must have been for a very special reason that Sŏkdam made Kojuk read The Minor Learning over and over for many years, and made him attend a primary school when he was thirteen and study ‘new’ subjects instead of calligraphy and painting. (pp. 15 - 16)
. . . .
Translator Kojuk reveres his teacher for his lofty, austere character but is repelled by his penurious life. Sŏkdam suspects Kojuk of worldly tendencies and weakness before temptation, which in Sŏkdam’s eyes disqualifies Kojuk as a seeker who follows the Way in calligraphy, so he is extremely reluctant to admit Kojuk as his disciple. While Kojuk admires what his teacher has attained, he strives towards his own artistic goals; hence, the teacher-disciple conflict.
Was it really an evil fate that brought Sŏkdam and him together? Even after Kojuk was allowed to study calligraphy under him, their relationship continued to be a strained one. Sŏkdam was chary of giving instruction, so chary that it remained a bitterness in Kojuk’s heart well into his middle age. . . .
But the day of their unhappy final parting was drawing hear. As time passed, the thing that made the teacher uneasy, the thing that separated the teacher and disciple, became more and more evident. What separated them essentially was the difference in their artistic principles and premises. Sŏkdam valued vigor, integrity and nobility in calligraphic writing. But Kojuk valued beauty and tried to express his emotion and will in calligraphy. Their views differed, too, with regard to brush painting; Sŏkdam focused on expressing the soul of the objects, while Kojuk tried to give a faithful rending. The debate between the master and the disciple on plums and bamboos well illustrates that conflict.
Bamboos and plums were Sŏkdam’s specialty as a painter. In his youth his bamboos and plums were healthy and exuberant. But, after the colonization of the country by Japan, his bamboos and plums had begun to grow withered, lean and gnarled. So that in later years there were no more than three leaves to one stalk of bamboo and fewer than five blossoms to a bough of plum. It made Kojuk extremely unhappy.
“Why are your bamboos and plums so withered and poverty-stricken?” Kojuk protested.
“How can a bamboo tree in a fallen country be exuberant, and what scholar of a colonized country would have the heart to make the plums blossom?” Sŏkdam responded.
“Cheng Sou-nan expressed his grief for the fall of Sung by exposing the roots of his orchids, while Chao Meng-fu served in the court of his country’s conqueror Yuan. But I never heard anyone argue that only Cheng Sou-nan’s orchids are fragrant and Chao Meng-fu’s calligraphy is base,” Kojuk objected.
“Calligraphy and paintings are reflections of the soul. You borrow the shapes of things to give form to your spirit and soul. There’s no need to be governed by the outward forms of things,” was the teacher’s reply.
“If calligraphy and paintings are simply means of expressing a scholar’s grief and pain, they’re futile and worthless as arts! Isn’t it a shame, in that case, for a man to rub ink and foul up paper all his life? If one’s country is of such great value, wouldn’t it behoove a man to become a guerrilla warrior and die in fighting the enemy? Isn’t it deceiving yourself and the world, to sit in your study and draw lean and twisted bamboos and plums in lament for your lost country?” Kojuk pursued obstinately.
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