THE CALLIGRAPHER’S DAUGHTER (Chapter 1)
The Daughter of the Woman from Nah-jin
SUMMER - AUTUMN 1915
I LEARNED I HAD NO NAME ON THE SAME DAY I LEARNED FEAR. UNTIL that day, I had answered to Baby, Daughter or Child, so for the first five years of my life hadn't known I ought to have a name. Nor did I know that those years had seen more than fifty thousand of my Korean countrymen arrested and hundreds more murdered. My father, frowning as he did when he spoke of the Japanese, said we were merely fodder for a gluttonous assimilation.
The servants called me Ahsee, Miss, and outside of the family I was politely referred to as my mother's daughter. To address an adult by name was considered unspeakably rude. Instead, one was called by one's family relational position, or profession. My father was the literati-scholar-artist, the calligrapher Han, much respected, and my mother was the scholar's wife. And because my mother wasn't native to Gaeseong, she was also properly called "the woman from Nah-jin," a wintry town on the far northeast border near Manchuria. Thus, if a church lady said, "That one, the daughter of the woman from Nah-jin," I knew I was in trouble again.
I wasn't a perfect daughter. Our estate overflowed with places to crawl, creatures to catch and mysteries to explore, and the clean outside air, whether icy, steamy or sublime, made me restive and itching with curiosity. Mother tried to discipline me, to mold my raw traits into behavior befitting yangban, aristocrats. An only child, I was expected to uphold a long tradition of upper-class propriety. There were many rules--all seemingly created to still my feet, busy my hands and quiet my tongue. Only much later did I understand that the sweeping change of those years demanded the stringent practice of our rituals and traditions; to venerate their meaning, yes, but also to preserve their existence simply by practicing them.
I couldn't consistently abide by the rules, though, and often found myself wandering into the forbidden rooms of my father. Too many fascinating things happened on his side of the house to wait for permission to go there! But punishment had been swift the time Myunghee, my nanny, had caught me eavesdropping outside his sitting room. She'd switched the back of my thighs with a stout branch and shut me in my room. I cried until I was exhausted from crying, and my mother came and put cool hands on my messy cheeks and cold towels on my burning legs. I now know that she'd sat in the next room listening to me cry, as she worked a hand spindle, ruining the thread with her tears. Many years later, my mother told me that the cruelty of that whipping had revealed Myunghee's true character, and she wished she had dismissed her then, given all that came to pass later.
I didn't often cry that dramatically. Even at the age of five, I worked especially hard to be stoic when Myunghee pinched my inner arms where the bruises wouldn't be easily discovered. It was as if we were in constant battle over some unnamed thing, and the only ammunition I had was to pretend that the hurts she inflicted didn't matter. Hired when I was born, Myunghee was supposed to be both nanny and companion. Her round face had skin as pale and smooth as rice flour, her eyes were languid with what was mistaken for calm, and her narrow mouth was as sharp as the words it uttered. When we were apart from the other servants or out of sight of my mother, Myunghee shooed me away, telling me to find my own amusement. So I spied on her as she meandered through our house. She studied her moon face reflected in shiny spoons, counted silver chopsticks, fondled porcelain bowls and caressed fine fabrics taken from linen chests. At first I thought she was cleaning, but my mother and I cleaned and dusted with Kira, the water girl. Perhaps she meant to launder the linens, but Kira did the laundry and was also teaching me how to wash clothes. Maybe the bowls needed polishing, but Cook was very clear about her responsibilities and would never have asked for help. As I spied on Myunghee, I wondered about her strangeness and resented that she refused to play with me.
My mother's visit had brought me great relief, but my stinging thighs sparked a long-smoldering defiance and I swore to remain alert for the chance to visit my father's side of the house again.
And so on this day, when six elders and their wives came to visit, I found my chance after the guests had settled in--the women in Mother's sitting room and the men with Father. I crept down Father's hallway, nearing the big folding screen displayed outside his door, and heard murmurings about resisting the Japanese. The folding screen's panels were wide enough for me to slide into a triangle behind an accordion bend. The dark hiding place cooled the guilty disobedience that was making me hot and sweaty, a completely unacceptable state for a proper young lady. I breathed deeply of the dust and dark to calm myself, and cradled my body, trying to squeeze it smaller. Pipe smoke filtered through the door, papers shuffled, and I wondered which voice in the men's dialogue belonged to whom. The papers must have been my father's collection of the Daehan Maeil News I knew he'd saved over the past several months. This sole uncensored newspaper, distributed nationwide for almost a full year, had recently been shut down. The men discussed the forced closure of the newspaper, Japan's alliance with Germany, its successes in China and unceasing new ordinances that promoted and legalized racial discrimination. Naturally I understood none of this, but the men's talk was animated, tense and punctuated repeatedly with unfamiliar words.
I slipped from behind the screen, tiptoed down the hall and, once safely on our side of the house, ran to Mother's room, eager to ask what some of those words meant: Europe, war, torture, conscript, dissident and bleakfuture.
The men's wives sat around the open windows and door of my mother's sitting room, fanning themselves, patting their hair and fussing about the humidity. I spun to retreat, realizing too late that Mother would be in the kitchen supervising refreshments. A woman with painted curved eyebrows and an arrow-sharp chin called "Yah!" and beckoned me closer.
"You see?" Her skinny hand pecked the air like an indignantly squawking hen. The others turned to look, and I bowed, embarrassed by their attention, sure that my cheeks were as pink as my skirt. Garden dirt clung to my hem, but I managed to refrain from brushing it off and folded my hands dutifully, keeping every part of me still.
Another woman said, "She's pretty enough." I felt their eyes studying me. My hair was braided as usual into two thick plaits that hung below my shoulders. Still plump with childhood, I had gentle cheekbones, round rabbit eyes wide apart, a flat bridge above an agreeable nose, and what I hoped was an intelligent brow, topped with short hairs sprouting from a center part. Unnerved by their stares, involuntarily I grasped a braid and twisted it.
"Still, it's unusual for such a prominent scholar," said the arched-eyebrow woman, "don't you think?"
"Well, yes. Granted, she's a girl," and she turned her head theatrically to hold every eye in the room, "but isn't it odd for a man whose lifelong pursuit is art, literature and scholarship--the study of words!--that such a man would neglect naming his own daughter?"
The ladies chimed in with yah and geulsae and similar sounds of agreement, and the woman waved me away.
I left for the kitchen, frowning, and though I don't like to admit it, pouting as well. Cook and Kira were helping my mother prepare platters of fancy rice cakes, decoratively sliced plums and cups of cool water. Before reaching the door I heard my mother say, "Where is that Myunghee?" I stopped to eavesdrop, surprised at her obvious irritation. She regularly cautioned me to never speak crossly to or about the servants. Myunghee was notorious for disappearing when work called, and now had pushed my mother--who hardly ever raised her voice--into impatience. Remembering my tender thighs, I gloated a little.
"Is that you?" Mother said.
"It's me, Umma-nim." I remembered my quest. "They say I don't have--"
"See if you can find your nanny. No, wait. Ask the gardener if he found more plums. Hurry."
Beyond the courtyard, skinny Byungjo peered into a fruit tree with a bamboo pole in hand and a half basket of plums at his feet. He said he'd take the fruit to the kitchen, so my task was done. I roamed around to the front yard, and not seeing Myunghee or anyone else nearby, I crawled into a little natural arbor I'd found beneath the lilac bushes near the front gate.
Though I wasn't sure what not being named meant, it was obviously something bad enough to make those snake-mouthed women find fault with me and, alarmingly, with my father. Since I had heard the year of my birth, 1910, mentioned many times by the men, I wondered if my lack of name was linked to their urgent discussion. I wanted even more to know those words, but my mother was the only one I could ask. I hugged my knees and drew stick figures of the elders' wives in the dirt. I pretended they were nameless too, an easy game since I called them each Respected Aunt and knew none of their given names.
The lilac's clotted perfume suffused the enclosed arbor, and my eyes grew heavy. I nodded sleepily and it seemed the vines shivered, scattering purple petals like a shaking wet dog.
The gate slammed open to Japanese shouts, and uniformed men crashed through the yard. Sunlight refracted from their scabbards and danced on the walls, trees, shrubs, the earth. Father's manservant, Joong, came out the front door with his arms opened as if to gather the six men in a giant embrace. "Master, the police!" he cried. A policeman punched Joong in the neck. He fell, gasping. I heard my father say, "You have no right--" and then rough indecipherable commands. Blows, scuffle, an animalistic cry. Women screamed. Something splintered. My hands unknowingly covered my ears, every muscle in my body clenched with terror.
Two policemen came from the house with sabers bared. They shoved three stumbling elders, who held their hands high and heads bent. The remaining police pushed the other men as they staggered across the yard, my father trying to support a friend who groaned as his arm hung crazily from his gashed shoulder. All the men were forced through the gate, which banged twice against the lintel, and then they were gone. A stark silence filled the yard, then came a high-pitched wail like that of a professional mourner, and then my mother's cry, "Daughter! My child!"
Through the shroud of vines I saw her run down the side porch followed by another woman, their eyes hunting the corners. They seemed small, like straw-stuffed dolls on a wooden stage. Joong struggled to stand and the woman rushed to help him. He gestured that he hadn't seen me. My mother opened shutters, kneeled into crawlspaces and called for me.
I wanted to leap into her strong arms but couldn't move. "Ummanim," escaped from my throat, then I felt my tears and cried aloud. She dashed to the lilacs and tore at the curtain of vines. I fell into my mother's hard embrace, freed from the honeyed, cloying flowers, scared to be patted and squeezed all over by her searching hands. She held me tight and rocked me in the garden dirt until we both could breathe without sobbing.
DURING THE NEXT four days our minister came and went. I was too afraid to leave the women's quarters and keenly felt my mother's absence while she greeted Reverend Ahn in my father's empty rooms. Watchful for her return, I saw that she gave the minister thickly folded papers each time he left. The fourth afternoon, they stood in the open courtyard with heads bowed, and he prayed. I could only hear when his voice swelled with impassioned pleas for the men who stood tall and the country they stood up for.
My father came home that night, filthy and limping, his face a monster's mask, swollen purple and yellow, his eyes black slits. A week passed before I glimpsed his face again and saw it recognizable.
I silently noted the absence of Myunghee, whose name was never again mentioned. Her few possessions were burned, and her room adjacent to mine was washed with caustic soap by Kira and cured with sage smoke. It eventually became a closet for broken shutters and torn mats. Byungjo repaired the main gate with dense oak boards and thick iron hardware, fortified with an interior drop bar. I thought we'd be safe then forever, but I was just a child.
MONTHS LATER ON a still, hot evening, the house normalized with Father healed, I sat in the sewing room with my mother to practice stitching. Focusing on straight seams to make an underskirt helped to pacify my restlessness. Insects thudded against the windows and added their chorus to the crickets singing in the courtyard. A welcome breeze cooled the still room, and the lamp sputtered and smoked. My eyes smarted and I looked up, blinking, to the open window. A thin curved moon hung high in the night sky, reminding me of the woman's painted arched eyebrows and that day, and a sliver of fear as sharp as my needle made me stop sewing. "Umma-nim, will they come back?"
Mother's face showed surprise, which swiftly changed to reassurance. "No, little one, that business is finished. Don't worry, they won't come back."
I pushed my needle in and pulled the thread taut.
"Not too tight. A little smaller. Good, that's right."
"Was that war, what they did? Is that what it means to say 'Europe,' 'torture' and 'bleakfuture?'" I couldn't remember the other words.
She frowned into her embroidery and explained the words to me. She added, "These are problems men have made, which other men like your father and the minister are trying to solve, or at least help change. If you behave properly and speak only to those you know, you need not worry about such things. You're safe with your family, and you know that God watches over children especially."
"Is that why--"
"And child," said Mother. "You must never again eavesdrop on your abbuh-nim, your father, or on anyone for that matter. Not only is it disobedient, it's disrespectful. And further, it's not wise for your young ears to hear things you cannot understand."
I nodded, mad that I'd stupidly exposed my secret. I sewed rebellious crooked stitches, outwardly contrite, inwardly vexed. Then, horrified by the thought that the police had come because God knew I'd been bad, I gently ripped out my seam and sewed it straight. When I knotted the end, Mother checked and praised my work with such kindness that it freed me to say, "Did they come because of--because I wasn't being good?"
She put her sewing down, sighed and touched my cheek. "No, child. God doesn't punish the innocent. Your disobedience is harmful only to yourself." She held my arms and peered into my eyes. "You are my blood and my bones. It's as if your body is my body. Whatever is harmful to you is also to me, and also to your family. You must always think first of your family, your father, and put your own thoughts and desires last. We live in hard times that we pray will get better. Hard times. You must be careful and obey your parents in all things. Agreed?"
"Yes, Umma-nim." I started on the opposite seam, feeling without consciously understanding how her words made it as easy to be as joined with her as the two skirt panels I sewed. The room shrank and cooled as the shadows outside the lamp's glowing circle darkened with the late hour. I considered what my mother had said about the hard times and her explanation of a bleak future under the Japanese emperor. "Umma-nim, is that why Abbuh-nim hasn't named me?"
"What? Nonsense! Where did you get such an idea?"
I related what the painted-eyebrow woman had said that day.
"Why do they think children can't hear?" She stabbed her needle into the taut embroidery. "Yah--" She put her sewing down and smiled. "If they only knew how well you hear, even through walls!" She sewed until her needle grew restful, as if calmed by the serene beauty of the blue iris that blossomed from its tail of thread. "Ignore them. Some women gossip because-- Never mind. You were born so soon after-- Well, what's most important is that you are your father's daughter. You are yangban and privileged, a blessed child to have such a noble and talented father. You should respect him always. He thinks of his country and family first, always of others first, and his is the highest example to follow. We're fortunate that he survi--that he's modern enough to afford us many freedoms, and you should only be grateful."
I bowed my head obediently. I'd heard similar versions of this speech many times, usually at bedtime when my ears were sleepy and compliant.
"You take it for granted, but it's your father who allows us to come and go as we please. It wasn't so long ago that such a thing was considered scandalous for women of our class."
Having always had this freedom, I wasn't sure why I should be grateful, but I also knew not to ask more questions.
"Besides," she said. "Who knows? One day he might consider sending you to school. At last there are rumors of public schools! We'll see, very soon I hope. With education, what name you carry won't matter at all."
I didn't understand about "public school" but was pleased to know it would counteract the negativity attributed to my namelessness by the beak-tongued woman. I also heard something new in my mother's voice, and had I known more, I might have recognized it as hunger. My mother had been educated by her mother in both Korean and Chinese writing and reading, and like most yangban women, had studied the classic Instructions for Women and the sixteenth-century Four Books for Women. She was also teaching me to read and write, but the education she spoke of reached far beyond the morality literature, guidelines for female behavior and the classics she had studied.
"You've seen Missionary Gordon at church," said Mother. "She's old enough to have been married years ago, but she has the respect of the congregation and is free to go about unescorted, thinking her own thoughts, because of her education." My mother also told me about a school in Seoul for grown-up women, Ewha College, which the Japanese had allowed to be reopened the previous year. "Things are changing so much that these schools can teach all women, not just yangban daughters, about the higher way of living and our duty not only to our family but to our country."
Not fully comprehending what she said about the scary American missionary lady or the special place for women, I clearly heard my mother's admiration and yearning, and as I sewed my tidy stitches and knotted the end of the seam, those feelings grew to be mine.
At bedtime Mother sat beside me, the dim lamp making visible only the soft curve of her cheek, one ear and the shoulder of her white blouse. She told me again that I must honor the long legacy of my father's lineage and respect the ancestors buried on the mountain behind our estate. After prayers, she related the usual bedtime story of how these ancestors had rested peacefully for 550 years, assured that the Confucian canon governed the family with such constancy that only the seasons changed for the generations who had lived and died in this house. When my mother told this old story, her silvery clarity sounded like a brook in summer, its stream singing steadily onward, with pebbles, sand and small bits of nature's debris splashing rhythmically as it rushed through the ages. From this nightly recitation delivered in beloved cadence came my earliest education about the Way.
My ancestors' fathers had passed talent and privilege on to their sons, who continued to win acclaim for scholarship and artistry, and achieved high marks in the supreme literary grade of the civil service examinations, which opened the door to royal appointments or provincial officialdom. At times, for a generation or two, unfavorable political winds brought exile to the Han men, and twice, execution along with their wives and children, but time, landowner's wealth, and wisdom borne of scholarship helped maintain stability until royal approbation was restored. Fathers arranged favorable marriages, eldest sons prayed to be spared the ultimate sin of dying without male progeny, wives prayed for sons to confirm their worthiness, and daughters, like me, learned the threefold laws of a woman's life: obey one's father, obey one's husband, obey one's sons.
We were Methodists now and didn't worship our ancestors as gods. But the commandments that decreed the one true God also said to honor thy father and mother. So it was right, Mother said, to follow the old ways and esteem our predecessors who had paved the paths upon which we walked.
According to our family's history, in the Korean year 3699, a shower of stars marked the propitious location of a burial ground on a southeast foothill of Mount Janam, which then determined the location of the house and the spread of the estate grounds. Over the years, as I lay in bed listening to my mother's vivid storytelling, I elaborated on that moment in my imagination until I could see the night sky drenched with the fire of a thousand falling stars, one bursting high above our mountain to plunge its mystical power in the heart of our land. And perhaps this was the beginning of my difficulties--that I cherished the holiness of stars before I knew to love the Jesus my mother believed in.
We visited the burial ground on our mountainside several times a year: on equinoxes, solstices and Christian holy days. From a clearing near the cemetery grove, I could see parts of our estate, and to the distant southwest, the ancient South Gate, now surrounded by roads and a few modern buildings. Climbing farther past the cemetery to a ridge that pointed north, in the winter through the naked trees I could see the valley bowl crowded with the old city, and far on the southern slope of Mount Songak, a huge rectangular field geometrically dotted with foundation scars--the enduring footprint of Manwoldae Palace, center of the former Goryeo Dynasty.
Our tile-capped mortar walls had once enclosed several sprawling structures, but now only the main house remained. Composed of three wings laid out as three sides of a square, plus an audience pavilion and utility houses, it numbered thirty rooms altogether. The main gate faced west toward China, representing Korea's welcoming gateway toward the home of Confucian doctrine. Set back fifty paces from the front gate, the central north-south wing of the house contained a broad entryway and reception area flanked by two small rooms; the one to the south was my bedroom, followed by the storeroom that had been Myunghee's room. The northern west-east arm of the house comprised the men's side, beginning with Father's sitting room in the corner, then his study, a closet, his bedroom, washroom and two other rooms. Beyond his outer courtyard to the north, a separate structure held an audience room for large gatherings. The men servants' quarters and work and storage sheds stood east of Father's outer courtyard. Mother's sitting room took the southwest corner, then to the east, her sewing room, weaving room, bedroom, our washroom, another storeroom, a pantry and the kitchen. A kitchen garden lay a few steps beyond. Our outer courtyard had the women servants' quarters to the east, and to the south, workrooms and sheds for urns, straw and a crumbling disused palanquin. There were four latrines beyond all these structures, segregated by gender and class.
Except for the kitchen, most of the spaces ranged from two to ten paces wide. The house sat on a tall foundation of brick, stone and cement, which contained flues that heated the floors in the winter and held coolness in the summer. Elevated porches surrounded both sides of the house, and an inside hallway lined the inner porch. Made of wood and mortar with paper windows and doors, the main buildings had tile roofs, and some of the sheds had thatch. Byungjo's expert care kept the grounds neatly cultivated and made the gardens flourish year-round, an aesthetic we enjoyed and systematically exclaimed over each time we visited the graveyard.
The walkway to the cemetery had been carefully planned to unite the heart, mind and body in proper Confucian contemplation. It began in the inner courtyard and curved through an arc of fruit trees. It circled vegetable and flower gardens, a still lotus pond surrounded by willows, and a bamboo forest so dense it had crumbled the walls it straddled. The path inclined sharply through a tall fir wood and met a brittle passageway hewn between granite boulders. Weighty slabs formed steps on the mountainous trail where the way clawed too steeply for men's feet, then the path leveled beside a trickling crystalline brook. And, at last, a shady circle of pines and lush grass welcomed us--the tired family who had climbed an hour to reach the sacred grove.
My eyes closed to Mother's lulling refrain of our written history. "The cemetery has seen many feasts and gatherings--sad, solemn and joyous--and the ink that deepens the letters on its stone markers must never be allowed to fade. But more often than not, the tranquil glade is vacant of human life, and it is then that God whispers the ancestors awake from their burial mounds to watch over the lives in the house below." I heard these words fade as I entered the land of dreams and saw the shadow shapes of my ancestors witnessing the change that clamored at our gate. And then I sat beside them, enveloped in the smoky breath of their ancient wisdom, and I saw how the wind blew their sighs of sorrow, the rain scattered their tears, and snow spread their icy dismay as Western thought, Japan and Bleak Future crossed our unwilling, hermit's threshold.
IN SEPTEMBER OUR church used a deacon's ordination as an excuse to quietly celebrate Jungyang-jeol, the banned autumn festival of art and nature. Japan's efforts to assimilate Korea included decrees against many cultural traditions, and though these rules were rarely enforced, it was best not to flaunt our celebration. Parishioners nibbled rice cakes and sipped cold barley tea in the church's backyard. I stayed near the women and played in lively patterns of color and light speckling the shade cast by maples tipped in yellow and red. My hands reached to catch sunshine poking between the leaves, and my feet traced the maze of shadows that I pretended would lead to a cave of glories and awe. The American woman missionary, Miss Gordon, walked among us, greeting one congregant and exchanging polite words with another. And then she was in front of me, bending her long limbs and stooping to meet my eyes. "What pretty and colorful clothes. And what pretty little girl."
I blushed, bowed and looked for signals on how to properly behave with the towering ghost-eyed woman, but my mother was across the lawn talking to the minister's wife.
"Now then, the name of yours is being what?" Miss Gordon said in her funny accent and mixed-up syntax. Flustered by the presence of such an important foreigner, and reminded about my namelessness, I covered my lips with my fingers to hold nervousness inside.
Mrs. Hwang, the chatty wife of the newly appointed deacon, overheard and quickly intervened. "She's the yangban calligrapher's daughter. And her mother is the woman from Nah-jin."
"Forgive me, my Korean is such still an embarrassment," said Miss Gordon. "Did you say Najin?"
"Well, Najin, that's a very pretty name," and Miss Gordon rose and patted the top of my head. So it was thus, with the missionary's dry baptism and Mrs. Hwang's glibness, that my mother's wintry hometown became my name.
As time passed, I clearly understood that Father's decisions could never be questioned, especially about a subject that only I seemed to care about. Like so many unspoken questions which, unanswered, eventually submerge into the deepest recesses of memory, the state of not knowing became normal, like a forgotten scar, and over time my curiosity about having no formally given name seemed to die; or at least I forgot the intensity of wanting to know. Like the locust that sleeps for seventeen years then bores out of the earth whirring, leaving behind an empty hole, I would wonder on certain occasions in the years to come why he hadn't named me something other than Najin, which had no meaning. I came to believe the reason was somehow related to that terrifying day, the thick smell of lilacs, those new words that had introduced me to apprehension.
THE CALLIGRAPHER’S DAUGHTER Copyright © 2009 by Eugenia Kim