Read Tales of a Korean Grandmother Online

Authors: Frances Carpenter

Tales of a Korean Grandmother (9 page)


needle in Halmoni's fingers flew back and forth through the pale green silk of the screen panel she was embroidering. As she stitched in the golden beak of a rose-colored stork, her dark head moved in time to the singsong voice of Yong Tu.

The boy was sitting crosslegged on the floor. Half speaking, half chanting, he was repeating aloud a wise saying of the ancient Chinese teacher, Confucius. "Obedience to one's parents is the mother of one hundred virtues," he said again and again, trying to learn the proverb by heart.

Thousand Character Book
Yong Tu held in his lap had three different columns, running up and down its soft paper pages. There was first the column of characters, or word pictures, of Chinese writing. Then there was a middle column that told the boy how to pronounce them. The third column gave their meaning in
which means words formed by the letters of the Korean alphabet.

"The Wise Confucius wrote that book in one single night," Halmoni told her grandson. "So great was the task that when morning came, his hair and his beard were turned white as the snow."

"The Chinese word pictures are hard to remember, there are so many, Halmoni." the boy complained. And he yawned a great yawn. "Now it this book were only written in
I could read it Straight through. Alphabet writing is
much easier than writing with word pictures."

"The young schoolman has wisdom," his grandmother replied smiling.
is indeed easier, but
does not bring true learning. The scholar whom the Dragon carries to the Highest Heaven must be the master of the learning of the ancient sages of China. Only such a one becomes the Great Man who faces a king without trembling. Only he dresses in fine silk, and only he wears the court seal at his belt. No young scholar should be frightened away from such rewards by a few difficult tasks.

"Everyone knows, Yong Tu, that our Korean 'low writing' is easy to learn. Ok Cha already has by heart the twenty-five letters of its alphabet, and she is but a girl who does not truly need to learn anything save the ways of the Inner Court." The Korean grandmother paused to pat the shoulder of her granddaughter and to retie the red bow on her long braid of black hair. Ok Cha was also learning a lesson that morning, a lesson in embroidery. She was stitching a bright red flower on a scrap of the green silk left from Halmoni's screen.

"Not even the King who invented our alphabet ever compared it with the jade writings from China," the Korean grandmother began again. "Not even when he told the people its letters came directly from Heaven."

"How could letters come from Heaven, Halmoni?" Yong Tu asked. The boy hoped to prolong this pleasant pause in his morning study.

blessed boy, who can say how messages come down to us from Heaven? Sometimes it is in a dream while one is asleep. Sometimes it is in a thought when one is awake. And sometimes it comes in the form of a sign or a miracle. For most people a miracle is always the best, and a miracle is what the good, wise King desired when he called on the earthworms to help him."

Ok Cha, too, put down her work when she heard these strange words spoken by her grandmother.

"It was thus it happened, they say, though it was so long ago that it is recorded only in this ancient story. A good King gave the precious gift of reading to our people through this
alphabet. He knew well that learning is the greatest treasure of man. He knew also that few of his subjects could master the thousands upon thousands of word pictures in the books that came to us from China.

"The King searched and searched for a simpler way of writing and reading. And because of a dream, or perhaps because he was so wise, that King reasoned thus: 'Words are made up of sounds, and sounds could be given symbols, or letters, that would stand for them. To learn, say, twenty-five letters would not be too difficult for any man, or even for any woman. By putting these letters together, all the words we need could be made.' And with his brush and his inkstone he carefully set down on paper the form of each one of the twenty-five letters of our alphabet.

"In those times, my children, as now, our people honored the customs of their ancestors. It would have been hard indeed for that good man, for all he was the King, to persuade them to adopt this new way of writing. They must have a sign from Heaven,' he decided. And doubtless here again it was a message from the Jade Emperor, up in the sky, that showed him the way.

"The King dipped his writing brush into a pot of honey. With its sticky sweetness he brushed each letter on the face of a tender green leaf. These leaves he spread out on the damp garden path where the earthworms could find them.

"His clever plan worked. The worms followed the sweet honey trails, eating their way along the face of the leaves. In this way they traced clearly the outlines of the twenty-five letters upon them.

"'Here is a miracle,' the King called to his courtiers in the garden next day. 'Here clearly are messages sent us from Heaven, written on leaves.'

"Pretending he knew nothing of their hidden secret, he offered a reward to that scholar who should uncover their meaning. He took a young
into his confidence, and he gave him the task of explaining to the people the use that could be made of these 'letters from Heaven.'

"In this way our
alphabet was invented and spread over the land. In this way all people could learn to read if they would. Some tell other tales of its invention, but this is the one my grandmother believed."

"It was really just a trick, Halmoni, saying those letters came to us from Heaven," Ok Cha said knowingly.

"Who can say, precious Jade Child? But if it was a trick, it was a good trick. It gave books to people who never could have hoped to read otherwise. And it brought shining light into the darkness of women and girls who dwelt in the inner courts."

In Korea, in these days when Yong Tu and Ok Cha were children, learning was indeed prized above everything else.
which means "schoolman" was the polite common title. It was used just as
is in Western lands. Old Pak might be only a dark, unlearned gatekeeper, but he was pleased when a familiar peddler, entering the bamboo gate with his spices or silks, bowed to him, saying, "Peace, Sobang Pak, have you eaten your honorable meal?"


shall I ever become a
Halmoni?" Yong Tu asked when his grandmother had finished her tale about the Korean alphabet. "How shall I ever learn enough to pass the Emperor's examinations?"

"You must study and study until you become as wise as your father, my Dragon Head. Kim Hong Chip passed the examinations at the very first try, for his learning was great and his verses were written with a dragon's brush. Your father deserved to win that contest of learning. When he set it to paper, his brush moved along with the speed of galloping horses. Some men there are who are given the
hat for another reason than that of pure learning. Perhaps it is because they are good, or because they have our Jade Emperor's interest, like the young man who loved his father so much in the old tale, 'The Mourner Who Sang and the Nun Who Danced.'"

The children looked doubtful. They could not believe that such things could happen. The mourners they knew went about crying,
"Ai-go! Ai-go!"
In their coarse gray mourners' gowns and their mushroom-shaped mourners' hats, and with their little cotton face shields, they did not look as though they would ever wish to sing again.

And a nun who danced! Yong Tu and Ok Cha had seen these Buddhist nuns. They could tell them by their long yellow robes, but more easily by their closely shaven heads and their downcast eyes. How could it be that such a nun would dance?

my doves, the mourner sang and the shaven-headed girl danced," Halmoni insisted. "You are no more surprised than was the King who looked in through the window and saw them. That one was a good king, too. Perhaps he was the very same king who gave us our alphabet. For his greatest care also was to make life better for his people.

"It was the custom of this King to dress himself as a farmer and trudge over the countryside to find out how his subjects were faring. One night he came to a poor hut from which came the sound of merry singing. Curious, the King entered the gate. Softly he crept near enough to look in through a peephole in the paper window-pane.

"To his amazement, the King saw an old man sadly weeping, while a mourner sang and a nun danced before him. It was the young man in the mourner's garb who answered the King's knock.

"'Good sir,' said the King, 'my lantern has gone out. May I rekindle its flame by your honorable fire?'

"'I pray the venerable gentleman to enter my humble house,' the mourner replied, and he hastened to perform the service the stranger requested.

The mourners they knew went about crying, "Ai-go! Ai-go!" . . . they did not look as though they would ever wish to sing again.

"'If I do not seem too curious,' the visitor said, 'could you explain these three mysteries to me? Why is it that an old man weeps, while a mourner sings and a nun dances before him?'

"'Perhaps the gentleman will tell me first why he pries into the affair of another man's courts,' the young mourner said, annoyed at the questions of his strange guest.

"'Forgive me. It is not just rude curiosity,' the King replied politely. 'I ask for a purpose, young sir. If you will enlighten my ignorance, good may come of it.'

"The King's words and kind manner impressed the young man. 'Hunger has long lived under our roof,' he explained. Our kitchen is empty. No ant is tempted to crawl upon its floor looking for crumbs. It is long since there was enough rice even to fill our own empty stomachs. Worst of all, we have not been able to find proper food for our aged father. Each day my sister has sold a strand of her hair to get a few cash with which to buy him a little bean soup. This very night her last lock was cut off. That is why her head now is close-shaven, and why she looks like a nun.

"'My father, whose mind is not so clear as once it was, thinks she has become a nun to save him from starving. For that reason he weeps. And it is to stop his weeping that I sing and she dances. I wear my mourner's robe still though my mother has been dead far longer than the appointed three years.
there is no money in our cash chests with which to buy other garments.'

"The King's heart was touched. He looked around the poor hut, seeking a way in which to help this good son, and his eyes fell on a fine poem hanging upon the wall.

"'Those words are golden,' he said, pointing to the wall writing. 'From whose brush do they come?'

"'They are my own poor verses, honorable gentleman,' the young man said modestly. 'I have some learning, but I lack money for brushes, for ink, and for paper.'

"'Your goodness to your father deserves a handsome reward, and such reward you shall have,' the King said to the young man in the gray mourner's dress. I can see you are well schooled. Present yourself at the Royal Examination Halls two days from now. There will be a place reserved for you.' And when he departed, he left behind money for food and for buying the rabbit-hair brush, the ink paste, and some paper.

"Now it was not the time of year for a King's Examination. Nor had one been planned. The scholars of the Capital shook their heads in amazement when the word was given out that such a contest of learning would take place in two days.

"They were even more puzzled at the subject that was announced. 'Whoever heard of writing an essay with such a title?' they complained to one another. 'An Old Man Weeps! A Mourner Sings! A Nun Dances!'

"The poor young man, still in his mourner's dress, was the only one who could give meaning to such a theme. In excellent verse he quickly set down the story he had told his curious visitor. And he was the first to throw his scroll over the fence of lances that surrounded the judges' court.

"The King declared him the winner of the contest of learning and called him to his palace. On his knees before the King, the young man bowed his head to the floor, after the custom of the Court.

"'Do you not know me, excellent
the King asked him kindly.

"'You are the King,' the trembling youth managed to say.

"'I am also your curious visitor who came in the night,' the King replied. And with his own jade fingers he placed the
hat on the young man's head. He called for fine clothes to replace the gray mourner's robe, and he hung the seal of Court office on the young man's belt. He ordered a court musician to lead his triumphal march through the city. A courtier ran ahead of him bearing the beribboned scrolls that told of his great honor.

"Clad in his silken coat and seated upon a white horse, the good son rode home in state to tell the news of his good fortune to his old father. Never again did the Spirit of Hunger fly inside their gate. Good fortune followed him and his sister. Go-betweens, offering her rich, handsome husbands, flocked to their gate. Thus was their goodness to their old father rewarded, as almost always happens, my son."

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