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The Calligrapher's Daughter



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About The Author

Eugenia KimEugenia Kim

Eugenia Kim, an MFA graduate of Bennington College, has published short stories and essays in journals and anthologies, including Echoes Upon Echoes: New Korean American Writings. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and son. The Calligrapher's Daughter is her... More

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Historical Note

While The Calligrapher's Daughter is a work of fiction, it takes place in a country whose antiquity, often alluded to in the novel, might be unfamiliar to some readers. Korea is one of the oldest unified nation-states in history, and is also one of the most homogeneous societies in the world. Two of Korea’s dynasties, including the most recent Joseon Dynasty* (1392–1910), are among the longest sustained monarchies in world history. Graced with peace, reformation and enlightenment, these monarchies also suffered strife—royal filicide, internecine coups, attempted rebellions, factionalism, invasions and oppression. It is the extraordinary longevity of Korean political, ethnic and cultural continuity that remains a wellspring of the nation’s proud identity.

Korea’s legendary origin is remarkably pinpointed to a specific day more than 4,300 years ago, October 3, 2333 BCE, and is a mythic saga of a heavenly visitation to a she-bear on a mountain who ultimately gives birth to Korea’s first king, Dangun. In the years leading to the Japanese occupation, the Dangun legend rose to importance as newspapers pitted Korea’s ancient heavenly heritage against the Japanese emperor’s relatively recent divine pedigree in a contest of primacy. But until the modern age, neither country disputed the supremacy and longevity of China.

In all of East Asia, China was regarded as the center of the civilized world. Those who were friends were like little brothers who, in exchange for loyalty, symbolic tributes and trade, benefited from Chinese military protection and advances in culture and civilization. Those who were enemies, like the Mongols and the Manchus, were considered barbarians.

Clearly China had a profound influence on the Korean peninsula, but over the centuries Korea transformed those influences into its own distinct advances in literature, art, ceramics, printing, philosophy, astronomy, medicine, and scholarship. Korea invented movable metal type (c. 1230) more than two hundred years before Gutenberg. The world’s first self-striking water clock was constructed in 1434 at the dawn of the Joseon Dynasty, followed by the invention of new sundials, the precision rain gauge and several other astronomical and horologic devices in Korea’s golden age of science (King Sejong’s reign, 1412–50). The most significant invention under King Sejong was the Korean phonetic alphabet, simple enough to be learned by all classes, yet so comprehensive it is still used today. In terms of philosophy, the establishment of Confucianism in the Joseon Dynasty as state policy, religion and social norm was so transformative it has been distinguished as Neo-Confucianism by historians. Also, Korea is the only nation in the world where Christianity first took root without the presence of priests or missionaries, but exclusively as a result of the written word—Bibles, translated into Chinese by Jesuits, that a Korean scholar-official brought home from a diplomatic trip to Beijing in 1631.

In contrast to Korea’s brotherly friendship with China, Korea and Japan shared a long-standing acrimony, exacerbated over the centuries by repeated Japanese pirate raids and the brutal Hideyoshi Invasions in 1592–98. China came to Korea’s defense and that conflict ended in stalemate, but not before Korean Admiral Yi Sun-sin invented the world’s first ironclad ship, the famous turtle ship, and used inventive explosive shells and mobile rocket launchers to repel the Japanese fleet.

The Hideyoshi Invasions initiated an era of wholesale change in the old East Asian order. Japan’s samurai tradition gave way to the Tokugawa shogunate and the beginning of the Edo or modern period of stability (1603–1867) in that country. China’s great Ming Empire fell to the Manchus, a tribal people from Manchuria, who founded the Qing Dynasty, China’s last empire. These key changes fostered Korea’s isolationist policies, and being geographically outside of major trade routes, it became one of the most insulated countries in the world. When the turbulent political climate ebbed in East Asia in the seventeenth century, friendly relations were reestablished, but the animosity between Korea and Japan, and China and Japan was never forgotten.

The 1800s brought wave after wave of Westerners pounding Asia’s shores—Prussians, French, Russians, the British and Americas, an influx that signaled the fall of the Joseon Dynasty. All but Prussia gained footholds in East Asian territory or trade. In particular, a U.S.–forced trade agreement with Japan yielded a new Meiji government (1868) so eager to adopt Western ways that when Japan made its next annual trade tour to Korea, the Korean ministers were shocked to see the Japanese diplomats’ radical change in dress and attitude.

This international influx led to four wars, China’s Boxer Rebellion, and numerous treaties in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In this climate, King Gojong acceded to the throne in 1864 at age twelve. Power devolved to his father, known as the Daewongun, a staunch isolationist. Two years later, Gojong married a fifteen-year-old from the powerful Min clan, which favored modernization and relations with Japan. Bitter power struggles between Queen Min and the Daewongun resulted in waffling policy extremes of isolationism versus Western enlightenment, plus land reform, hefty taxes, growing ideological foment, a major peasant uprising (the Donghak Rebellion), and, overall, a vulnerable Korea. Using gunboat diplomacy, Japan forced Korea’s doors open in 1875 to exclusive trade, and Japanese advisers and military flooded into the Korean court.

Four nations decided the fate of Korea in 1905 without once giving the Yi monarchy or the Korean people an opportunity to voice a single plea for independence. Russia had invaded Manchuria in 1900 and mustered for China, spurring the Russo-Japan War. To protect its interests in China, Great Britain allied with Japan, and in turn acknowledged Japan’s interests in Korea. Both England and America believed Japanese control over Korea was an effective preventative against Russian expansion. President Theodore Roosevelt also saw Japan’s domination of Korea as quid pro quo for U.S. control of the Philippines. And finally, in the American-engineered 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth that ended the Russo-Japan War, Russia pledged not to intercede with Japan’s interests in Korea.

Japan moved quickly. In November 1905 a Japanese statesman, backed by troops, commanded the Korean prime minister to sign the Protectorate Treaty (also called the Treaty of 1905), giving Japan “protective” control over all government offices excluding the new Korean Emperorship. The prime minister refused and was dragged from the palace. Someone was dispatched to find the official seal, which was then affixed to the treaty by Japanese hands and considered accepted.

As Japan’s interests began to spread beyond Korea’s borders, dealing with Emperor Gojong’s diplomatic attempts to regain Korea’s independence and quelching the frequent student protests and popular insurgencies grew burdensome. In 1907 Japan coerced Gojong to abdicate to his son, Sunjong. Then on August 22, 1910, Sunjong was forced to sign the Treaty of Annexation, which made Korea a colony of Japan and ended the long autonomy of the Korean nation. Less than a month later, at the dawn of the thirty-five-year era of Japanese occupation of Korea, Najin was born.

* Yi Dynasty of the Joseon (or Choson) Kingdom, the latter meaning “Land of the Morning Calm.”



An Interview With Eugenia Kim

The Calligrapher’s Daughter is your first novel. Why this story and this subject?
Like many immigrant parents, mine often talked about their lives in the old country—for them, Korea. They had only intended to stay in America for a year, but the outbreak of the Korean War changed all that. Three of my siblings were born in Korea; three of us were born here, including me, the youngest. My parents’ stories seemed to carry an urgency meant to instill a Korean identity that was seeping from us with each new American word learned, each Korean word lost. Tales about fending off starvation by eating mudworms for protein, about symbolic dreams and learning the high language of the king’s court, or the secret story my mother never told my father about the horrors of living with his parents while he studied theology in America, spanned the gaping generational and cultural distances between us. I didn’t always appreciate my parents, but their stories always captured me.

About a dozen years ago I started writing a true ghost story about my maternal grandfather. The story kept growing and wouldn’t let me go. Though that writing is still unfinished, it was a touchstone for the wealth of family lore I’d heard throughout my life. I also quickly discovered there were very few books in English about Korean life during the Japanese occupation and even fewer from a woman’s point of view. With Asia’s long tradition of suppressing the female voice, this vacuum felt more like a silence than an oversight, intriguing me further. The writings grew and I soon realized I couldn’t do justice to the vividness of my family’s stories unless I could make them come more alive—through fiction.

Your mother passed away in 2003, before you finished writing The Calligrapher’s Daughter. Did she know you were working on this book? Did writing about Najin—who, while fictional, is based on the life of your mother—change the way you thought about your mother’s life and experiences?
My mother was a writer herself and immensely creative—from the delicate dumplings she shaped to the Easter dresses she sewed for five daughters. She always encouraged us in arts and education and knew I had gone back to school to study writing and literature. I remember her vague reaction when I asked her permission to write her story. She was amused that I was interested in yaenal-dae, the olden days, and shrugged as if she didn’t care or as if it were inappropriate to show she might have been pleased, or perhaps she didn’t believe it would come to anything. I was fortunate to have had opportunities to interview my mother about several events and details before she passed. Sometimes she’d be too impatient to answer the simplest things I’d ask, such as what days were market days and how did they bathe? Her English was better than my Korean, but only slightly, so our conversations were often half-grasped and just as often frustrating. Was she proud of my work and my writing? We rarely spoke of such things in my family, an aspect of her character and upbringing I came to accept with broader understanding when I worked on this novel. So yes, and yes. It’s like the ultimate case of putting oneself in another’s shoes. This writing radically changed my regard of my mother and my father (who died in 1987), as well as my own Korean American identity, in the most enriching, positive way.

Najin’s father, the calligrapher Han, is extremely traditional in his ways. Do you think he is afraid of change, or simply stubborn? What does he gain by maintaining old customs?
I think Han is less fearful than prideful and righteous. Perhaps, like anyone in a maelstrom, he clings to what he knows best because that’s all he sees is available to him. Unlike Najin, whose life began at the dawn of the Japanese occupation, Han as a child had witnessed the serenity of aristocratic life that was governed by laws fully detailed in the classics he studied and lived—not unlike any orthodox religious life. I think that Han does find peace, and a surprise discovery of a modern ability to love and respect beyond the constraints of tradition.

You explore faith in The Calligrapher’s Daughter with great interest and sensitivity—Najin’s family is Christian, though they also hold some Confucian beliefs, and others in her neighborhood are Buddhist. Why do you think Christianity took root in Korea? How does Najin’s father justify his conversion?
It’s a little known fact that Korea is the only nation where Christianity began without the benefit of a missionary presence. Sometime in the late 1600s, Korean emissaries making their regular trek to China for exchange of ideas and goods brought back Christian books and tracts. Many Korean scholars and statesmen scoffed at the Western religion, but others were stirred by the writings and converted, baptizing themselves.

Until the modern age, Korea remained an isolated agrarian nation with rampant corruption in the landowning elite. It’s likely that the promise of a heavenly reward excited the imaginations of peasants and slaves who shouldered extreme poverty and hardship. Once the missionaries were ensconced, their humanitarian programs generously met the people’s pressing needs. Many Christian lessons parallel the orthodoxy of Neo-Confucianism, which is uniquely Korean in its strict interpretation of Zhu Xi’s Confucian doctrine. Christianity’s tenets, and Catholic and Protestant morality, weren’t that different from existing practices of right living, which made it easier for Koreans—and the calligrapher Han in particular—to believe.

How has your reading life informed your writing life? Which writers have most influenced your work?
Reading fuels the writing in the same way as seeing a great movie, listening to music, walking the beach or seeing an art exhibition, just more so. I became a writer later in life so it’s hard to say which writers were most influential, but authors whose books left lasting impressions include James Baldwin, Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Flannery O’Connor, Robert Heinlein and Alexander Dumas. Some of the Korean and Korean American writers whose work has been meaningful to me are Younghill Kang, Induk Pahk, Moo-Sook Hahn, Chang-Rae Lee and Susan Choi.



Questions For Discussion

  1. Najin’s father, the calligrapher Han, is very traditional. Did he fear change or was he simply stubborn? What did change represent to him? What does he gain by maintaining old customs? What does he lose? Did your perceptions of him change as the novel progressed?
  2. While Najin is the primary narrator of The Calligrapher’s Daughter, many chapters are written from the points-of-view of her father and her mother. How did seeing Najin’s world from their perspective alter your understanding of it?
  3. Najin experiences faith and belief in varying degrees. When does her faith feel strongest to her, and when does it ebb? Why do you think she is unable to sustain a consistent belief? Given her conflicted feelings about religion, did you think she made the right decision to marry a seminarian?
  4. Most of the married couples in The Calligrapher’s Daughter face severe stresses during at least one point of their relationship. Discuss the different challenges thrust upon them, as well as how they deal with them. What does this novel say about love? What does it say about fidelity?
  5. Ilsun, Najin’s brother (whom she calls Dongsaeng), often seems to bring trouble upon himself and his family. What special pressures does he face as the firstborn son? Could you empathize at all with his behaviors?
  6. Despite the Korean Confucian standard of male supremacy during that era, many of the women in The Calligrapher’s Daughter managed to find meaning and fulfillment in their lives. How did Najin’s mother, her mother-in-law and her two sisters-in-law (Unsook and Meeja) find strength to make personal choices within the confines of their roles? What opportunities did the servant women have to marshal inner resources and the ability to make choices?
  7. Najin and her mother seem to share a deep understanding of all the best qualities in a mother-daughter relationship, yet the word “love” is never spoken. What are some of those qualities and how were they conveyed?
  8. As an adult, Najin tries to keep her personal trials to herself, such as her silence about the torture she witnessed in prison. Where did her ability to suppress feelings stem from? Could she have been more expressive? When might it have served her better if she were more forthcoming with her feelings and difficulties?
  9. The estate in Gaeseong has deep significance to the family, especially to Han who has rarely left it, and Najin who has often left and returned, enabling her to recognize its significance. How is the family estate a metaphor for Korea during the Japanese occupation?
  10. Five years after this novel ends, the Korean War began. It ended three bloody years later with an armistice agreement that partitioned the nation into North and South. Considering Korea’s history of isolationism and the oppressive period depicted in The Calligrapher’s Daughter, do you think there are parallels between the Japanese occupation and the military dictatorships of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in what is now the most insular and isolated nation in the world?
  11. Eugenia Kim has said that her novel was inspired by the life of her mother, and that the “writing experience radically changed my regard for my mother and my father, as well as my own Korean-American identity, in the most enriching, positive way.” Are there stories in your own family’s history that might contain the seeds of a novel?

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