The Golden Phoenix

  • onApril 20, 2015
  • Vol.27 Spring 2015
  • byYi Mun-yol
The Golden Phoenix
Tr. Suh Ji-Moon

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.

“That’s not so. In literal representation, you can’t top the side-walk painters. But because their souls are shallow and spirits base, their pictures are cheap and end up as floor papers. You try to deny the spirit of calligraphy and drawings, but, without their lofty spirit, all drawings are simply ink smeared on paper,” Sŏkdam countered.

Another instance of their conflict was their debate on artistic principles. It was also provoked by Kojuk in his mid-thirties, when Sŏkdam was growing weak with old age.

“Are calligraphy and painting arts, laws, or ways? Kojuk asked, to open the debate.

“They are ways,” Sŏkdam returned.

“Then, why are there words like ‘the art of calligraphy’ and ‘the laws of calligraphy’?” Kojuk challenged.

“Art is the fragrance of the Way, and laws are the garments of the Way. Without the Way, there can be no art, no law,” Sŏkdam enunciated.

“Isn’t it said that refinement of art will ultimately bring one to the Way? Isn’t art the gateway to the Way, not just its fragrance?” Kojuk objected.

“That’s what artisans say. Everything must reside in the Way at all times,” Sŏkdam insisted.

“Then the first step in learning calligraphy and painting must be purification of the soul?” Kojuk pursued.

“Yes. That’s why Wang Hsi-chih said, ‘One must not teach anyone who has not the right character.’ Can you see the meaning now?” The teacher’s withered face brightened up with those words and he studied his disciple’s face with hope. But Kojuk refused to understand him to the end.

“If noble mind and soul are prerequisites, how is it that you teach calligraphy to little children? If noble mind and soul are prerequisites, how many could there be who are worthy to take up the brush before death?” Kojuk protested.

“It is to teach the technique while waiting for the Way to take root. If one merely acquires the skill, one is an artisan; if one can advance to the next stage, one is an artist; if the technique and the Way can both be perfected, one becomes a master,” Sŏkdam explained.

“Then it means that artistry is more basic than the Way. So, to suppress the refinement of the technique for the refinement of the soul is like putting the cart before the horse, isn’t it?”

That was Kojuk’s objection to the whole of his teacher’s principles and instruction. Seeing his lifelong dread become evident in the disciple’s own words, the teacher’s response was fierce.

“You low-down! How dare you try to cover up your deficiency in discipline and scholarship with your sophistry? Scholarship is the road to the Way. But you are neither interested in the classical canons nor take delight in poetic composition. You only try to refine your wrist and fingers to imitate the ultimate attainments of past masters. How can this be different from base artisanship? And you aren’t ashamed of yourself in the least, but rather presume to pass judgment on the great masters!”

Then there came the day of their fatal separation. This happened when Kojuk was thirty-five years old.

At that time Kojuk was exhausted for many reasons. His training over the eight years since his readmission to discipleship was a period of long penance. Because he sat in the same position all day long, day after day, practicing writing and painting, boils erupted on his buttocks in the summer, and in the winter his joints became so stiff that he had difficulty standing up. He didn’t so much as glance at or bother to listen to anything unrelated to calligraphy and brush painting. Afterwards, Kojuk always thought of those eight years as the most valuable years of his training. If his first ten years under Sŏkdam could be called the years of struggle to reach Sŏkdam’s stage, the later eight years embodied his struggle to transcend Sŏkdam’s methods and principles.

His artistry grew more sophisticated, and his name began to be known. Some critics still rate his works of that period as the best of all his life’s works, for their wit and imaginativeness. Still, Kojuk was oppressed by a sense of loneliness and emptiness.

There were two factors at the base of his loneliness and emptiness. The first was the feeling that his youth had gone by while he was wrestling with paper and brush. He had a wife and two children from his marriage arranged by Ungok. But, from the first, they were articles of necessity, like the stationery chest or the writing table, not objects of desire. All his youth, hope, love and yearning were dedicated to calligraphy and painting. But he found that though his youth was almost gone, he was still not much nearer the rainbow peak of his desire. (pp. 25 - 28)

Translator Kojuk is expelled by his teacher after he dared to accuse him of excessive and futile asceticism.

For a while after leaving his teacher’s house for the second time, Kojuk believed that he was thrown out by his teacher. Even though he sold his calligraphy and paintings indiscriminately and lived the life of a prodigal, he told himself he was taking a just revenge on the cruel teacher. But, when he got accustomed to the money and acclaim offered by the worldly crowd, and the pleasures he could buy with money, it occurred to him from time to time that it was he who was betraying his teacher. It also dawned on him that the praises and pleasures he was enjoying had nothing to do with what he strove to attain in his life, and that they were poor recompenses indeed for the unremitting penance of his entire youth and young manhood. (p. 31)

Translator After years of rather excessive self-indulgence amidst worldly fame and prosperity Kojuk goes to stay at a temple for a while to purify his mind and heart, and there chances to see a great golden phoenix depicted in a Buddhist painting. The bird was Kumshijo, or the golden phoenix that his teacher had said he wanted to see rise from his calligraphy. On beholding the vivid image of the bird, Kojuk is seized by a yearning to see the golden phoenix soar from his own calligraphy and paintings. And he comes down from the mountain to head for his teacher’s house.

The teacher was already dead . . . . The house, which was always quiet and lonely, bustled with the teacher’s friends and disciples. But no one greeted Kojuk warmly. Only Ungok told him coldly: “You write the banner on the coffin. That is the teacher’s wish. Don’t write his titles and honors but simply write, ‘Scholar Kim Sŏkdam’s hearse.’ Then he added, with tears streaming down his face: “Do you know what that means, you wretch? He means to carry your calligraphy to the other world. He loved your calligraphy that much, you idiot!”

In that instant, Kojuk’s hatred and bitterness of many years towards his teacher melted away without a trace. Kojuk felt an irresistible longing to see his teacher once more, but the coffin had already been nailed. (p. 34)

. . . .

From the Western viewpoint, Kojuk was a born artist. But, to Sŏkdam, he was not much better than a base entertainer. The conflict between the teacher and the disciple might not have been so persistent nor so intense, had Kojuk’s character been weaker or had he been born a little earlier. But Kojuk could not stand for his art to be governed by anything that was not art in essence, and the changing times were on his side as well. Fortunately for the two, Kojuk had a deep reverence for the integrity of his teacher, and the teacher had an irrepressible love for his disciple’s talent, so that there could be a reconciliation between them, albeit a posthumous one. (p. 40)

Translator Now in his seventies and sensing his end drawing near, day after day Kojuk makes the rounds to traditional art dealers to buy up his works, paying huge sums as his works command high prices. Reviewing them one by one, he is greatly disappointed, as none of them meet his own standard of artistic perfection. He decides to destroy them all, and bids his disciple to burn them.

What was it that Kojuk wanted to see in his works? It was to see a golden phoenix rise from them, such a phoenix as he saw in his dream of that dawn. The phoenix that flew to him from his teacher Sŏkdam was an emblem of such Oriental virtues as integrity and sublimity of character. But the bird was transformed in Kojuk’s mind. It had become a bird symbolizing aesthetic fulfillment or artistic perfection. (p. 43)

. . . .

A commotion rose in the room. Some tried to dissuade him, and some rushed out to grab Ch’ohon’s arms. But all to no avail. Kojuk thundered imperiously: “I said set them on fire!”

Ch’ohon’s reaction amazed everyone. For a minute he glared at his teacher furiously, but then, shaking off those people grabbing his arms, he set fire to the pile. Judging from the fact that Ch’ohon later accused his teacher of being a fake, it must be that his scholarly and ascetic temperament rebelled against Kojuk’s excessive self-abnegation and self-negation. The pile of paper soon burst into flames. Sighs and groans and sobs broke out from everyone.

To some, Kojuk’s entire life was burning. To others, Kojuk’s truth was in flames. To still others, it was like sheaves of high-denomination currency burning. The works of a celebrated old master, whose works no less than two presidents sought to own and who had refused to serve on the prestigious screening committee of the National Art Exhibition, were being destroyed all at once by the flames.

But Kojuk saw in the flames a golden-winged phoenix soaring. He saw its astonishing beauty and its vigorous flight.

Kojuk breathed his last around eight o’clock that evening. He was aged seventy-two. (p. 45) 

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.