Korean Fascination


Brother Anthony (An Sonjae)


In the autumn of 1993, I went to the Korean Justice Ministry building in Kwachon and explained that, after spending over 12 years in Korea, and having no thought of leaving, I felt that I ought to take Korean nationality if that was possible. The official I was talking to asked a few questions about my motives, explained what was needed, and commented that though he had heard various reasons why people wished to become Korean, this was the first time he had ever met someone who wanted to be naturalized because they loved the country! I was rather taken aback but it is certainly true that a lot of Koreans, taxi-drivers in particular, react with incredulous amazement when I say that I like living here. They tend to be very proud of uri nara in the abstract and not at all happy with life here in the concrete, which I can understand. Life in Korea is not much fun for an awful lot of Koreans. Not that my reasons for seeking naturalization had much to do with fun, I suppose. All I know is that I was the first person to score full points in the challenging naturalization exam (¡°Write the name of the present president¡±), the first British person to become Korean without being married to a Korean, and the first Cornish Korean. All those firsts made me feel a bit like Isabella Bird, whom I admire immensely.


When Isabella Bird, aka as Mrs Bishop or Bird-Bishop although she was already a widow, first arrived from Nagasaki in the port she called ¡°Fusan¡± in January 1894, she was about a year older than I am now. Her visit to Korea was destined to be interrupted by the Sino-Japanese war, which led to a rapid departure for Manchuria where she nearly drowned in a flood, followed by a visit to Vladivostok and Siberia before returning to Korea for further visits lasting until 1897. She had begun traveling to various parts of the world when she was 44 and this was to be almost her last journey, apart for an outing to the Atlas Mountains in North Africa when she was 70.


British visitors to or residents of Korea ought always to venerate her. Of course, her experience of Korea was quite unique, for wherever she went, at least away from the main cities, she could be confident that she was the first, not just British but European, woman ever to have been there. In many cases, she must have been the first westerner of any kind. The book she wrote is an amazing document, so impressive that it makes me feel that I am quite unable to say anything at all interesting about the country I have lived in for the past 23 years.


At the start of her book she writes, rather disconcertingly, ¡°My first journey (in Korea) produced the impression that Korea is the most uninteresting country I ever traveled in, but during and since the (Sino-Japanese) war its political perturbations, rapid changes, and possible destinies have given me an intense interest in it ¡¦ Korea takes a similarly strong grip on all who reside in it sufficiently long to overcome the feeling of distaste which at first it undoubtedly inspires.¡±  ¡°Feeling of distaste¡±? I arrived in Seoul on May 7, 1980 at an exciting moment when the city was astir with demands for the election of a new president and calls for a return to full democracy. Less than 2 weeks later we were tuning in to Radio Australia and the BBC in search of news about what was happening in Kwangju, a lot of the best people had been taken away in the night and were not going to be free again until 1982 at least, and tanks were stationed at Kwanghwamun. When I began to study Korean at Yonsei University in July 1980, I had to walk past a large military machine and several heavily armed soldiers stationed to protect the campus from attacks by dangerous, bare-handed students. The silence from the governments of the outside world was deafening and on the whole remained so. In the autumn I was invited to teach at Sogang University and began to grow accustomed to the taste of tear gas and to love the students¡¯ songs of resistance as they stood there waiting to be beaten up by the police (those were days without Molotov cocktails, stones, or steel pipes). It is a source of pride that the original singer of some of the most powerful songs, Yang Hui-Un, is a graduate of Sogang University.


One year later, in May 1981, I was taken to visit some of the families of those citizens of Kwangju who had been sentenced to death after the crushing of the uprising. It was a very special encounter with the suffering that is such an integral part of so many Koreans¡¯ experience of history. One of the most essential questions in many parts of today¡¯s world is ¡°How can we bring healing to the wounds of our history?¡± That question can only be answered by those who bear the wounds and in Korea the range of unhealed (though long hidden) wounds is remarkably large. Cardinal Kim had asked for brothers from Taizé to be sent because perhaps we might be able to help the young Christians of Korea deepen their faith through prayer. We assured him that we would see what we could do. The only things we had to offer were our shared life centered on community prayer with its combination of songs and silence.


Isabella Bird reports her first visit to the Korean town of ¡°Fusan,¡± some way away from the entirely Japanese settlement at which she arrived. She says that her guide was ¡°a charming English ¡°Una,¡± who, speaking Korean almost like a native, moved serenely through the market-day crowds, welcomed by all.¡± I wonder who she was. ¡°Its narrow dirty streets consist of low hovels built of mud-smeared wattle without windows, straw roofs, and deep eaves, a black smoke hole in every wall 2 feet from the ground, and outside most are irregular ditches containing solid and liquid refuse. Mangy dogs and blear-eyed children, half or wholly naked, and scaly with dirt, roll in the deep dust or slime, or pant and blink in the sun, apparently unaffected by the stenches which abound.¡± Her goal was an ordinary Korean house in which ¡°three Australian ladies,¡± missionaries, were living despite the disapproval of the other foreigners of the town. Who were they? ¡°On my first visit I found them well and happy. Small children were clinging to their skirts, and a certain number of women had been induced to become cleanly in their persons and habits. All the neighbors were friendly, and rude remarks in the streets had altogether ceased. Many of the women resorted to them for medical help, and the simple aid they gave brought them much good-will¡¦¡± and she comments: ¡°In the East, at least, every religious teacher who has led the people has lived among them, knowing if not sharing their daily lives, and has been easily accessible at all times. It is not easy to imagine a Buddha or One greater than Buddha only reached by favor of, and possibly by feeing (bribing), a gate-keeper or servant.¡±


That she understood the value of such a simple presence among the ordinary people is touching to me. I came to Korea after spending 3 years living in some of Davao City¡¯s largest slums and have now lived for 23 years in the same house on the edge of Hwagok Market, getting about by public transport and eating what people eat. I cannot claim results because I do not live like that for results but could hardly imagine living in any other way. One of the other brothers in our house spends most of his time visiting people shut up in the prisons of Korea (both Korean and foreigners) and what remains of his time working (with others) to help and comfort people with full-blown AIDS and nowhere to go, I can only rejoice.


It is well-known that Isabella Bird spent a lot of time analysing what was wrong with Korean society and deciding that the main problem lay with the corrupt, idle, ignorant officials and the Yangban class as a whole. She is very critical of many things and I do not intend to bore you with launching into any discussion of what I reckon is wrong with Korea to parallel hers. Rather my topic finds its reflection in her response to the beauty of Korea that finds its finest expression in her evocation of the Diamond Mountain: ¡°Surely the beauty of that 11 miles is not much exceeded anywhere on earth. Colossal cliffs, uprearing mountains, forests, and gray gleaming peaks, rifted to give roothold to pines and maples, oftimes contracting till the blue heaven is narrowed to a strip, boulders of pink granite 40 and 50 feet high, pines on their crests and ferns and lilies in their crevices, round which the clear waters swirl, before sliding down over smooth surfaces of pink granite to rest awhile in deep pink pools where they take a more brilliant than an emerald green with the flashing lustre of a diamond—rocks and ledges over which the crystal stream dashes in drifts of foam¡¦¡±


It is here that I find lines of special interest to me in my present state: ¡°This route cannot be traversed in European shoes. In Korean string foot-gear, however, I never slipped once. There was much jumping from boulder to boulder, much winding round rocky projections, clinging to their irregularities with scarcely foothold, and one¡¯s back to the torrent far below, and much leaping over deep crevices and walking tight-rope fashion over rails. Wherever the traveler has to leave the difficulties of the torrent bed he encounters those of slippery sloping rocks, which he has to traverse by hanging on to tree trunks.¡± At 65 years of age!


Arriving at the temple she calls Yu-chom-sa, in the early hours she is invited by a ¡°friendly young priest¡± who had been traveling with them, ¡°to see him perform the devotions¡± and I wonder if the form of bell-ceremony she describes still exists, never having seen it: ¡°The great bronze bell, and elaborate piece of casting of the 14th century, stands in a rude, wooden, clay-floored tower by itself. A dim paper lantern on a dusty rafter barely lighted up the white-robed figure of the devotee, as he circles the bell, chanting in a most musical voice a Sanskrit litany, of whose meaning he was ignorant, striking the bosses of the bell with a knot of wood as he did so. Half and hour passed thus. Then taking a heavy mallet, and passing to another chant, he circled the bell with a greater and ever-increasing passion of devotion, beating its bosses heavily and rhythmically, faster and faster, louder and louder, ending by producing a burst of frenzied sound, which left him for a moment exhausted. Then seizing the swinging beam, the three full tones which end the worship, and which are produced by striking the bell on the rim, which is 8 inches thick, and on the middle, which is very thin, made the tower and the ground vibrate, and boomed up and down the valley with their unforgettable music. Of that young monk¡¯s sincerity, I have not one doubt.¡±


Her comment is admirable: ¡°The general culture produced by Buddhism at these monasteries, and the hospitality, consideration, and gentleness of deportment, contrast very favorably with the arrogance, superciliousness, insolence, and conceit which I have seen elsewhere in Korea among the so-called followers of Confucius.¡±


For me too, the experience of nights spent in Korea¡¯s temples has been memorable. There is something quite unique in the sound which awakes you soon after 3am; one monk walks slowly through the temple beating a wooden fish-head block and singing a sutra summoning all beings to enlightenment. The sound increases as he approaches your part of the buildings, then dies away, leaving you wondering whether or not to get up for the morning chanting that will follow the ringing of the great bell. You rise, and at this time of year go out to a balmy night full of acacia and other perfumes while from hill to hill the strange calls of night birds echo, including the Asian nightingale whose name and call are so hard to translate poetically: ±Íôµµ.


Yet Isabella had her blind spots. Listing the main features of Korea at the start of her book, she includes ¡°Arts: nil¡± which is startling until you realize that she had a very European notion of art. There were no theatres or art galleries... She several times reports that all day every day the air was alive with the sound of the drums and gongs of Shamanistic rituals. She did not consider that vast repertoire, largely lost, to be part of humanity¡¯s artistic heritage. Yet for me, the thrilling percussion performances of friends expert in Samul-nori, the folk songs and pansori performances of An Suk-song, the lovely Shamanistic Salpuri-chum and other art dances transmitted by Lee Mae-bang and Kim Suk-ja, the tight-rope exploits of Kim Dae-kyun sitting cross-legged on his rope using only the fan inherited from his master to keep balance, have been Great Moments in my experience of Korea.


Another feature of the traditional culture of Korea that I regret she did not encounter was green tea. She never went south to Chiri Mountain... the monks of the Diamond Mountains only offered her cups of honeyed water, that she got rather tired of. She never realized that, a few decades before her arrival, the scholar-monk Cho-Ui had helped his Confucianist friends among the governing elite to discover the delights of tea-drinking at the same time as he taught them Buddhism. He had probably learned how to dry and prepare green tea during a visit lasting several months that he made to the very great scholar Dasan, Chong Yak-yong (1762-1836) when he was in exile at his mother¡¯s home in Kangjin early in the 19th century. That revival may not have lasted long, I suppose. Then came the Japanese with their own ways of tea and it was not until the 1960s that the Venerable Hyo Dang, Ch'oi Pom-sul, began seriously and systematically to teach a tradition of Korean tea to replace the Japanese forms. He died in 1979 but his young widow continues to make tea and perform the tea ceremony as he taught her.


Nothing can be more beautiful than to spend a night in mid-May in a small house in Chiri Mountain, with the roar of a mountain torrent to lull you, then rise in the early morning and go up to the head of the valley, to a temple that Cho-Ui is known to have visited, and be present as that tea is prepared and offered ceremonially to the Buddha, then shared among those present. The tea, known as Panyaro (Dew of Wisdom) has a deep, rich taste that I cannot begin to express in words. To drink that tea in those surroundings is a sublime, yet a very simple experience.


Still, I must now part company with Isabella B in order to speak of poetry and literature. She felt the poetry of Korea¡¯s natural beauty sometimes, but knew nothing at all of its written poetry. In any case, modern poetry only began a decade or more after her visit. I will not trouble you with its history...


In about 1988 I remarked to a colleague that I was teaching Korean students about British poetry but I felt that I should also be bringing Korean poetry to people in Britain, She introduced me to the senior poet Ku Sang and so I began to translate Korean poetry. Ku Sang was born in 1919 and is still alive, by a miracle, despite having lost one lung to TB. He was born in Seoul but when he was a small child his family moved to near Wonsan, in north-east Korea. They were Catholics and his older brother became a priest. After studying the philosophy of religion in Japan, Ku Sang returned to northern Korea where he became a journalist and began to write poetry. After Independence he came into conflict with the Communists and finally had to flee south, leaving his mother and family in the north. He would never see them again; his brother was surely martyred in 1950.


Komo Station, Mother's Station


Whenever I pass Komo Station,

my mother is waiting.

Out in front of the garden gate, she is waiting,

looking scarcely older than my wife looks now,

looking just as when she saw me off

the day I crossed the 38th Parallel,

out in the lane, she is waiting.


Living helter-skelter, day by day,

rattling the empty lunch-box in my satchel,

coming home from school by train, as in that childhood,

so now when my hair is as grey

as my father's was when he died,

out by the station she is waiting.


My mother, who stayed behind

alone in our North Korean home,

alive still, or dead, I do not know,

has come here now and is waiting.


(Note: Komo is on the outskirts of Taegu, South Korea, and its name means "Mother-caring, Mother-recollecting". Trans.)


A little later, I was invited to collaborate in translating Yi Mun-yol¡¯s novel ¡°The Poet¡± which is based on the true life-story of the 19th-century wandering poet known as Kim Sakkat. Born into a high-class Yangban family, while he was still a boy, his grandfather was executed for supporting rebels in the region he was administering and the family lost its social rights. The boy, an innocent victim of his grandfather¡¯s act, became a poet whose works were full of satire and mockery of the corruptions of the privileged classes. The poor people of the villages he visited loved his poems and memorized them. The novel turns this into a meditation on the nature of the relationship of art and society but it derives part of its power from an awareness that the author¡¯s father chose to support the Communist side and freely went North where he became quite a prominent official, abandoning wife and children in the South where they had to suffer black-listing and fierce discrimination in the as ¡°the family of a pro-Communist traitor¡± in the decades after the war.


The writer whose work I have mainly translated, though only 2 volumes have so far been published, is Ko Un, undoubtedly a controversial figure in Korea but by far the best known Korean writer in the world at large with a long list of readings given in almost every continent and translations in many languages; he just got back from a seminar devoted to his work in Sweden. Yet his biography includes the following evocation of his life as a teenager during the war: ¡°He witnessed family members being killed. He witnessed them killing each other. He witnessed friends, neighbors, and his first love being killed. He was forced to transport dead bodies, carrying them on his back for many nights.  These experiences brought him to the edge of mental breakdown, to attempted suicide. He lost the hearing in one ear, after pouring poison into it.¡± He became a Buddhist monk for about ten years then returned to the world. The following years were full of torment and black despair, culminating in a nearly successful suicide attempt in 1970. Reading by chance a couple of years later about a young laborer who had killed himself as a protest against the exploitation of his fellow workers, Ko Un realized the falsehood of his own suicide-attempts and he was reborn as an activist in the struggle against Park Chung-hee¡¯s dictatorship. Arrested on the fateful night of May 18 1980, he was sentenced to life imprisonment by a court-martial and only released in 1982. He then rewrote all the poems he had previously published in a spirit of purification and repentance, married and moved away from Seoul to write most of the 120 or more volumes he has so far published, including the 15 volumes of Maninbo.


Headmaster Abe


Headmaster Abe Sudomu, from Japan:

a fearsome man, with his round glasses,

fiery-hot like hottest pimentos.

When he came walking clip-clop down the hallway

with the clacking sound of his slippers

cut out of a pair of old boots,

he cast a deathly hush over every class.

In my second year during ethics class

he asked us what we hoped to become in the future.

Kids replied:

I want to be a general in the Imperial Army!

I want to become an admiral!

I want to become another Yamamoto Isoroko!

I want to become a nursing orderly!

I want to become a mechanic in a plane factory

and make planes

to defeat the American and British devils!

Then Headmaster Abe asked me to reply.

I leaped to my feet:

I want to become the Emperor!

Those words were no sooner spoken

than a thunderbolt fell from the blue above:

You have formally blasphemed the venerable name

of his Imperial Majesty: you are expelled this instant!

On hearing that, I collapsed into my seat.

But the form-master pleaded,

my father put on clean clothes and came and pleaded,

and by the skin of my teeth, instead of expulsion,

I was punished by being sent to spend a few months

sorting through a stack of rotten barley

that stood in the school grounds,

separating out the still useable grains.

I was imprisoned every day in a stench of decay

and there, under scorching sun and in beating rain,

I realized I was all alone in the world.

Soon after those three months of punishment were over,

during ethics class Headmaster Abe said:

We're winning, we're winning, we're winning!

Once the great Japanese army has won the war, in the future

you peninsula people will go to Manchuria, go to China,

and take important positions in government offices!

That's what he said.

Then a B-29 appeared,

and as the silver 4-engined plane passed overhead

our Headmaster cried out in a big voice:

They're devils! That's the enemy! he cried fearlessly.

But his shoulders drooped.

His shout died away into a solitary mutter.

August 15 came. Liberation.

He left for Japan in tears.



But above all Chon Sang Pyong, who died in 1993 before I could ever meet him, has become my close companion and I am well-known for my constant frequentation of the Kwichon tea house in Insadong run since 1985 by his widow, Mok Sun-ok. To have written this, his best-known poem, in 1970 – only 3 years after being arrested and horribly tortured for no reason and at a time when he was very seriously ill both physically and psychically – to say that this world is beautiful, reveals a very special degree of human vision. That is Korea for me.


I'll go back to heaven again.

Hand in hand with the dew

that melts at a touch of the dawning day,


I'll go back to heaven again.

With the dusk, together, just we two,

at a sign from a cloud after playing on the slopes


I'll go back to heaven again.

At the end of my outing to this beautiful world

I'll go back and say: It was beautiful. . . .