Lee Mun-yeol, who has just turned fifty, has been a reigning figure in Korean literature for a little over two decades now. He has won both high critical acclaim and huge popular following. But he has not always been so lucky. In fact, he was extremely unhappy throughout his childhood and youth, his family having been on the police surveillance list as the family of a communist defector to North Korea. So, he had to struggle against poverty and social prejudice, and he repeatedly dropped out of school from financial and psychological reasons. However, throughout his boyhood and youth he read omnivorously, and his vast store of reading as well as his early sufferings became his great assets when he became a writer. And his vigor matched his creative fervor as well, so he has produced a dozen novels, numerous collections of short stories and two collections of essays, besides two ten-volume translations of classical Chinese romances and other writings. At the end of last year he completed Borderland, a twelve-volume novel that takes both a close and comprehensive look at Korea's contemporary history through the collective biographies of the fictional surrogates of himself and his siblings. Like most serious Korean writers, Lee criticized the economic inequality and political oppression existing in the Korean society under military dictatorship. But he is more concerned with the national heritage and what it means and does to modern Koreans, and how modern Koreans would deal with it. So, he is a "must" reading for those who want to understand the Korean culture and the burdens contemporary Koreans carry.
"The Old Hatter," the penultimate story of You Can't Go Home Again, Lee's collection of sixteen stories on the theme of the modern Korean's loss of his home town in the physical, spiritual, and psychological senses, reveals Lee's obstinate conservatism but also his genuine and deep regret over the passing not only of a way of life but the frame of mind that created and sustained that way of life. The old hatter is a fine example of a Lee Mun-yeol figure who is pitiful and sublime at the same time.
The Old Hatter
The first encounter between our clan's urchins and the horsehair-hat maker, Top'yo"g, took place one summer on a market day toward the end of my childhood. To be sure, his modest hat shop had stood there for as long as we could remember, but we no more noticed it than the pebbles on the shores of our creek or the grass in the shade of our valley. However, we happened to discover that horsehair, being strong and nearly transparent, was excellent for hanging bait in a squirrel trap or making cicada nets. After this momentous discovery, we would go to his shop almost every market day for horsehair. For children without money like us--it was before Korean parents gave their children regular allowances--the only way to get what we needed was to steal. In the childish parlance of the day, we "snatched" it.
Of course, old man Top'yo"g didn't just put himself at our mercy. But we were tireless, and having neither toys nor recreational facilities, we needed horsehair badly. Old man Top'yo"g was bound to be defeated by our brilliant tactics.
On days when the old man tried to drive us away, believing he had safely hidden his horsehair, we took more of it than was necessary. Our tactic was to start a conversation with him on topics like "the day Venerable Hahoe came back without his topknot." He was sure to get excited and hotly denounce the impious act of the late clan elder, failing to notice what was going on around him. Meanwhile, our commandos circled around to the back of the shop and snatched some horsehair. It took us a decade to understand why the anecdote so excited and infuriated the old man, but we were clever enough to use the circumstance to our advantage.
Even on days when the old man generously handed each of us horsehair not good enough for him but quite usable for us, he would still lose good horsehair, though in somewhat smaller quantity. On such days we would effusively express our gratitude and insist on helping him, blowing on the glue stove until the shop floor was covered with white ash or scrawling with our crayons on his ridiculously small and humble signboard, which said "Horsehair hats and headbands for sale. Repairs also done." He would then scowl at us and click his tongue in disapproval, but always ended up handing out superior grade hair.
Sometimes we distracted him. For example, some of us would throw sand or fiercely knock on the sliding door of his bedroom which adjoined the shop. That was sure to send him rushing to his apartment. Then those of us who lay in wait would dash into the shop and carry off as much horsehair as we could lay our hands on. We only used this tactic when we were desperate, however, because we not only took as much as we wanted, but the remaining horsehair often got so messed up that it was rendered useless, creating a heavy loss for the old man.
But the Goddess of Fortune didn't always favor us. The practical jokes we played on each other even into adulthood derive from her frequent neglect. We called the practice "hatband," and it consisted of drawing a line across someone's forehead with the hard knuckle of a tightly clenched fist. It sometimes hurt so much that it brought tears; but none of us could get angry, because it was the punishment we used to get from the old hat maker if he caught us. Grinning to himself, he would repeatedly draw hatbands on our foreheads. We, his helpless captives, could only smile with tearful eyes in a feigned display of good sportsmanship. Those of our gang who eluded the old man's grasp were sure to observe the punishment from a distance, taunting and provoking the old hatter:
Old man, old man, foolish old man,
Old man, old man, fallen into a piss jar,
Old man, old man, fished up with a tobacco pipe,
Old man, old man, washed with dishwater,
Old man, old man, dried on a stove rack,
Old man, old man, how much does horsehair cost?
Old man, old man, you'll never be rich whatever you
To tell the truth, not one of us escaped getting a hatband from old man Top'yo"g's hands. Hun'i¦¡one of our gang in those days and now a respectable municipal office clerk in the provincial capital¦¡received such a harsh one that he couldn't wash his face for a whole week.
But the "hatband" notwithstanding, we raided the old hat maker's shop for three summers and caused constant trouble in our own houses with the horsehair. When a family member had a sudden stomachache or if one of our cows got bloated, it was always attributed to having inadvertently swallowed horsehair. So our mothers wouldn't allow us within ten feet of the kitchen, and the house servants wouldn't let us near the cowshed. In addition, dead cicadas tied to strings dangled from pillars and door handles, and squirrels sprang out of empty jars, frightening the wits out of the women who opened the lids. Such troubles would have gone on for at least a couple more years had it not been for the incident we call "the hat catastrophe."
This disastrous event occurred in the third year of our gang's warfare with the old man. It started when a member of our commando snatched a hat box from the old man's shop instead of a handful of horsehair. At first we were all shocked by his audacity. But when the boy removed from the box a smooth, shiny new horsehair hat, we were overcome by curiosity and the desire to imitate adults. A horsehair hat was an emblem of adulthood and authority. The boy who had dared to steal the hatbox became our hero, and we spent one of the most pleasant afternoons of our childhood trying the hat on under the flattering illusion that we were dauntless adventurers.
But what made the afternoon unforgettable for decades afterwards took place that night. Having reduced the delicate new hat to a rag by wresting it out of each other's hands and trying it on, we hid it between two big rocks on a distant hill and parted, agreeing to meet for another adventure on the next day. But we were to meet again that night, as criminals awaiting justice. When we returned home, our houses were already lit, and a summons awaited us from Venerable Ye'an, who was then the most venerated clansman. Our parents dragged us to this living law of the clan, who thundered at us:
"A gentleman's hat and robes are more important than his body. Tzu-lu gave up his life pausing to straighten his hat while fleeing from his pursuers. You little devils, how dare you steal the august hat that has covered scholars' heads since the time of the Three Han Kingdoms!"
The elder was so furious he could not continue. On his face there was no trace of the benevolent and gratified approval he would bestow on us when we brought him the biggest fish we caught from the pool or the most succulent fruit of the year as a token of our families' respect and solicitude. Sitting behind him was a row of elders who also regarded us with grave disapproval. In the next room a young uncle was arranging a bunch of bush clover switches.
To us it was a totally incomprehensible fury and an unjustly severe punishment. Only his lament as he regarded us wailing and writhing with pain¦¡"Alas, are these the future heirs of our noble ancestors?"¦¡and his sad eyes made some impression on us.
That night, back in our homes, we heard how with his complaints and his search the old hatter had turned the town upside down, and what a colossal recompense he'd demanded for the stolen hat. That washed away any sense of guilt we may have felt and made us regard the old man as the cause of all our unjust sufferings. When he could find neither the hat nor any of us by nightfall, he'd demanded a payment from each of our parents equivalent to five bushels of rice, insisting that the missing hat was his father's masterpiece.
That night, as they spread ointment on our calves, our mothers told us for the first time that from the very beginning, the old man had collected payment each autumn for the horsehair we'd stolen from him. Although land reform and then the war had drastically reduced our clan's wealth, most families still harvested at the time more than two hundred bags of rice each year; our parents therefore paid him liberally for the horsehair because they didn't want to break our spirits. Thus, we discovered that our frequent victories in the war with the old man were not entirely due to superior strategy; nor was the old man's relatively light punishment due to generosity. Not knowing that, we had spent many a summer's day exulting in our victory and lamenting our defeat! "Oh, the impudent old fox! You won't pull such tricks on us again!" we vowed.
Over a period of many months, we carried out our scheme of crude vengeance. If on market days the old man left his shop, even for a few minutes, some calamity was bound to occur. Sand would show up in his boiling black lacquer, the bamboo-splitting knife got chipped, or the smoothing iron was stuck in the stove, handle-first. Someone smashed his signboard, and on the plank door was a crude drawing of a ridiculous figure with horrendously large private parts and the caption, "Old Man Top'yo"g's something something." In addition, his carefully selected and stored best-quality bamboo, which was to be split thin and woven into hat frames, got sprayed with urine. Sometimes even his rice pot and soup bowl stank of the same. After we had satisfied our thirst for revenge in that way, we stopped even going near his shop.
Years have gone by since then and my hometown has changed as much as we have. Just as the scampering urchins in black cotton outfits and straw or rubber shoes grew into pimply adolescents in neat school uniforms, so our village underwent drastic changes. From a rustic village dominated by an old clan, it became a new town trying to catch up with modern times. The cheap rent for newly cleared land and the fertile soil, so favorable for cultivation of tobacco, attracted many immigrants, while the abundant forest and newly discovered deposits of copper lured greedy city folk and their capital.
Thus, many time-honored traditions disappeared and were supplanted by new things. On the empty grounds where ash battles and tug-of-war games took place stand a colossal tobacco warehouse and mushroom culture house; and around the clear pond where my ancestors held poetry competitions sits a lumber factory powered by a huge electric motor. The copper mine office appropriated the site of the hyo"dong So"wo"n, the Wise Hermits' Academy, and on the site of the old horse station, long-distance buses daily disgorge hundreds of passengers.
Changes were especially rapid in and around the marketplace, where the inhabitants were mostly descendants of our clan's bond servants and hired hands and therefore had little reason to cherish the old and every reason to welcome the new. The roads and alleys, which on rainy days ended up as so many puddles, were solidly paved, and the vendors who used to sell their wares displayed on low food tables have built neat shops with gleaming showcase windows. On the fair grounds where unlicensed peddlers used to spread out their goods for sale on pieces of cloth now stands a row of booths run by tradesmen belonging to a cooperative. In one corner of the square, where roving clowns and itinerant actors used to set up their portable stage, a modern cinema house now attracts movie-goers. Other unheard-of amenities have materialized: a coffeehouse, a billiard room, a shoe store, a dry cleaner's, an audio shop, and a clock and watch store.
The proprietors are no longer commoners, as they used to be, but petty bourgeoisie, sure to be the future lords of the town and far more powerful and prosperous than their erstwhile masters, the descendants of the former nobility.
Not only have the vendors changed, but the merchandise and the buyers are different, too. In the old days the women of my clan would cross the marketplace rapidly, their faces hidden behind headcloths. As recently as in my childhood, the customers of fairs were almost all women and servants, and the merchandise used to consist mostly of farm produce, fabric, and artisans' wares. But now, in this age of equality, the market teems with people of both sexes from all walks of life who loudly haggle over the price of a wide variety of mass-produced goods.
Once you passed the marketplace, however, the rest of the town is totally different, especially the section inhabited by my clan, which is sinking deeper and deeper into the abyss of history and whose disintegration is almost palpable.
Oh, the glory of a past whose sun has sunk without even a magnificent final glow!
The power and wealth our clan enjoyed for many centuries came to an end in my father's generation. We had failed to adapt ourselves to the new system, and in the whirlwind of social change could not even preserve our inherited wealth. With the single exception of a cabinet minister in the caretaker government after the fall of Syngman Rhee, our clan produced not a single high-ranking official, and the vast territory once owned by its various families passed bit by bit into other hands.
The clan itself, which at one time comprised more than three hundred families, also dispersed. The many grandfathers, once so numerous they filled the spacious head house study to overflowing; the many uncles and aunts who spread about the hill on picnic days; the many cousins who constituted half the elementary school--most of them have disappeared into senior citizens' halls, or dark cramped offices, or shabby, low-eaved houses in back alleys of the city. Only those major families that had an obligation to remain with the clan and those clansmen who returned to their hometown after failing to obtain footholds in the cities were permanent residents. But those who adhered to the old scholarly tradition, rejecting both the costly modern education and physical labor, were sinking into destitution. And the old mansions on the hills were decaying and crumbling, their gates warped by the storms of many decades, their plaster walls soot-stained, their roofs overgrown with grass, and their servants' quarters caved in from long disuse and disrepair. Sometimes unfamiliar faces replaced those of the old occupants of these houses and made our homecomings even more gloomy.
The mountains and rivers, which over the centuries were the clan's unofficial domain, became depleted and disfigured once they fell into the hands of new inhabitants. The forest that used to be a quiet retreat for my ancestors and supplied us with many necessities of life; the fertile land that enabled my ancestors to live the life of true scholars, unconcerned about making money and spending their days in philosophical speculation; the clear, deep pond which taught them the wisdom of the sages and provided a haven for many varieties of fish; these have all been depleted, and we are left with a mountain denuded by reckless logging, fields acidized by chemical fertilizers and ravaged by flood, and a polluted pond. But saddest of all is the complete disappearance of the spiritual heritage that for generations inspired and sustained my ancestors.
What declined first was the old learning that for centuries upon centuries had nurtured my ancestors' minds. It had given my ancestors everything but can give us nothing now. The books, which every house is said to have had at least five cartloads of, were scattered and discarded by their owners' descendants, and the fragrance of Chinese ink has long departed from the men's quarters. The village so+dang which used to resound with the voice of children reciting passages from the elementary classics is now piled high with dust. Its last teacher, a renowned master of both Confucian and Buddhist teachings and one who shone at scholarly gatherings with his superb wit and erudition, moved to the city with his son's family without so much as composing an ode of parting.
Our old morality went the way of the old learning. The pious man who cooked his son to feed his old father, the filial daughter-in-law who cut off her finger to bring her mother-in-law back to life by feeding her drops of blood; the faithful wife who took her own life after her husband's death--we have totally forgotten these virtuous people, whose memory once shone brighter than any monument of gold. The world now belongs to those sons whose filial piety amounts to not striking their aged fathers, daughters-in-law who could earn praise by not throwing out their old fathers-in-law, and wives whose faithfulness simply extends to not having children from other men.
Concepts like loyalty to one's country or friend are trampled down by colossal selfishness; and decorum between the sexes is nonexistent. Lovers carry on openly, not hesitating to hold hands in public or walk entwined in each other's arms. Girls don't try to flatten their chests any more but wear tight-fitting clothes and expose their legs without any sense of shame. And none of them hesitates to laugh and giggle in public places.
Codes governing the relationship between clansmen are also forgotten. They are now divided into common-interest groups; loyalty to the clan and solidarity between its members, which used to be so precious to us, have crumbled before trifling self-interest. Reverence for ancestors has also disappeared, so that permanent tablets are now discarded and even the neglect of commemorative ceremonies goes unreproved. What gods would protect and take care of us with so much tender concern and loving care as the spirits of our ancestors?
The legends and tales of our people, the creations of childlike imaginations and naive explanations of natural wonders, are now smothered by scientific theory. The ancient kings who were born from eggs; the hero who married the female dragon; the embittered ghost who punished her children's evil stepmother; the monk who could make icicles form on his beard in the summer; and the Chinese general who drove ceramic stakes into every auspicious spot of the country to prevent the land from producing great warriors; the goblin residing in the old pond; the dragon which is the foremost of the four auspicious animals; the phoenix that only nests in paulownia trees, eats only bamboo fruits, and drinks only from the divine fountain; the holy giraffe that neither treads on living grass nor consumes living creatures; the thousand-year-old snake; the cunning fox with nine tails and various other legendary animals; the spirits of the fields, the mountain, the kitchen, the pond . . . . All these myths and legends
made us cling to our grandmothers' knees and cherish in our memory our grandmothers' scent long into adulthood. At one time they prompted tingling fear, but now they are the stuff of delicious memory. And our grandmothers were the last transmitters of those wondrous tales.
The old religion has also disappeared. How profound and firm was our ancestors' religion! None of them thought that the will and the acts of Heaven could be explained in a few volumes of scripture. None of them sought to ascribe a name or a personality to the divine creator, and it never occurred to any of them that God could be partial or selective in his love and protective care. Instead, our ancestors saw wind as the breath of the mother goddess, and the net of heaven as vast and loose but tight enough to catch all human guilt. They believed Heaven was silent but responsive to the prayers of honest men. To them not a meteor fell, nor a mountain heaved, without the distinct will of Heaven, or without presaging some major cataclysmic event. Our ancestors, therefore, strove to obey the will of Heaven and to live in accordance with the laws of Nature. But this religion of our male ancestors has disappeared, together with the many guardian deities worshipped by our female ancestors.
The guardians of the land, of the pillars, the beams, the kitchen, the gate and the toilet, together with the guardians of crops and property and the various figures represented on talismen, have vanished. The blind fortuneteller, whose shop is just outside the town, has few customers, and the mortuary plank of the neighborhood geomancer is coated with dust. Without fear people step on the charcoal dropped on the kitchen floor, and let rice grains fall into water jars. Children paint each other's sleeping faces for fun. The imposing church built in the center of my hometown rings its bells every Sunday, sounding a death knell to that profound and subtle heritage which has passed away.
One thing in the marketplace remained unchanged despite the rapid transformations going on all around. It was old man Top'yo"g's hat shop. Already quite advanced in age, the old hatter opened his shop every market day for an ever-dwindling number of customers, his appearance as unchanging as his shop.
His constancy at first struck us as ridiculous, accustomed as we were to change. His shop was the only remaining thatched-roof store, and the only store without a signboard and a showcase window. And there was something comic about an old man who clung to his old trade despite constant losses. But, as we approached adulthood, we began to have different thoughts about such stubbornness. In the course of our painful encounter with the new ways and mores, we had learned to see the old and the new from a different perspective. And in the shabby old hatter and his shabby hat shop we began to see the fate of our clan as it was sinking into the bottomless abyss of history.
The history of the old man himself, which we learned at about the time we came of age, also made a strong impression on us. His grandfather had been a master hatter who had made no less than four hats for the kings; his father had also managed the most famous hat shop in Top'yo"g, the foremost city for traditional headwear. But the 1895 ordinance prohibiting topknots deprived his family of half their customers, and the subsequent loss of sovereignty to Japan and abolition of the hat makers' association hastened the hat makers' ruin by creating a reckless competition among them. Old man Top'yo"g's father moved to our hometown as a final haven. Once every three years my clan used to invite a master hatter to our town and have him make new hats and mend old hats for all its members. Old man Top'yo"g's father, who had been to our town once before on such an invitation, remembered our clan's munificence and moved here as a last resort.
The route the hatter's family traversed--a hundred and forty miles--was a bitterly painful one. When at last they arrived in our hometown two months after leaving T'ongyo+ng, the nine-member family had been reduced to just three. At the outset the old man's grandmother died of heartbreak; his mother died of travel fatigue; and his two older brothers left the group with their wives. When they arrived in our hometown the family consisted of only old man Top'yo"g, who was then a child, his father, and his grandfather.
Our clan, an island of conservatism in the sea of rapid change, gave them a warm welcome. They also received an empty hut and the farmland normally given to grave keepers, as well as a year's sustenance. Thus began the nine-year-old Top'yo"g's bond with our clan. Though he moved later on to the market, in his heart he surely must have considered himself an inhabitant of our clan's hill.
So, at about the time we came of age, the bitterness occasioned by the "hat catastrophe" was forgotten, and a reconciliation was effected between us and our old adversary.
It became a custom with us to pay the old man a visit when we came home on vacations. Most of the time we brought him liquor and snacks, drank with him, and reminisced about the incidents of our younger days. On such occasions, the old man became for us a living monument to all that has disappeared. His utterances were like an epitaph in a dead language remaining on the ruins of a dead city.
It was during one such visit that we learned the real meaning of the episode we had, as children, made use of to excite and distract the old man, the episode about "when Venerable Hahoe came back without his topknot." The incident took place the year after the old man's family came to live in our town. A young man of the clan who had gone to Seoul on some errand came back "enlightened"--i.e., without his topknot and in a Western suit. This was Venerable Hahoe, who later became the first in our clan to acquire a college education. In any event, the entire clan was beside itself with horror and fury. At the time our clan stuck so adamantly to the old ways that it hadn't even complied with the royal ordinance to free the bond servants; to cut off one's topknot, therefore, was an unthinkable sacrilege. Venerable Hahoe's tribulations began at the entrance of our town. Before he could proceed very far, he was splashed with excrement. Then the clan installed a thorn bush fence around the house of this irreverent rogue who had defied the teachings of all the holy sages, this renegade who had profaned the sacred hair inherited from his parents. Even after the thorn bush was removed, clan members continued to avert their faces when they saw him on the street. To obtain his parents' forgiveness he had to undergo a week's penance, kneeling on a rush mat in the yard, and his wife wore robes of mourning and stopped grooming her hair or wearing make-up until pardon was granted.
Each time this story was retold, Venerable Hahoe became more and more degraded and his tribulations more and more severe, but none of us blamed the old man for that. It was his justifiable fury toward a traitor. Supposing Venerable Hahoe were a pioneer, what could the Western civilization he and men like him had imported offer our old friend but insult and indignity?
About a dozen years ago the shocking rumor that old Top'yo"g was a changed man created a stir in the marketplace. One autumn morning people stared in disbelief at the old man's shop where remodeling had begun on a grand scale. The beholders looked as if they were witnessing a terrible outrage. An unknown carpenter was remodeling the old man's shop, and a familiar cabinet maker from a nearby town and his assistant were making a modern display case. In a matter of days the shop took on a refreshingly modern look.
Everybody assumed that with the refurbishing of the shop the merchandise would change also. In truth, people had long harbored many questions about the old man. For whom did he open his shop every market day, when no one wore horsehair hats any longer, and whose orders was he filling by working so hard constantly? What did he live on? It had been a long time since he'd sold his last hat, and even the repair work he was given occasionally had stopped altogether some time ago. People made guesses. But the best they could come up with was the supposition of a well-known gossip. Citing her nine-year-old grandson as an eyewitness, the woman said that the old man only pretended to make hats but never completed any, that he wove a crown or a brim on market days and unwove them in the intervals. As to what he lived on, she repeated, without conviction, that the old man was seen bringing rice husks from the grain mill and carrying away a piglet that had died from eating poison. Sometimes, getting excited, she said that he ate frogs and mice, but if anyone asked for further details, she would immediately back out, saying that it was just what she had heard from other people.
When her words reached his ears, the old man became furious. He rushed to her at once and gave her a violent tongue-lashing. Together with the famous incident of a hen-pecked husband beating his wife in a moment of reckless fury and a kisaeng biting a philandering town mayor's nose, their battle has become one of the "three major confrontations" of the marketplace. Since the shop's renovation was undertaken shortly after the momentous incident with the town gossip, people expected a drastic change in the old man's way of life. The most prevalent assumption was that he would switch to some other trade.
But that soon proved to be in error. What the old hatter placed in his new display cabinet were several horsehair hats and various headgear accessories. And on the varnished floor were laid out the same old iron stove and hat-making instruments. A few days later a large new signboard went up; on it was written the shop's name, "Shinhng Ipchabang (New Sensation Hat Shop)," and in flourishing strokes such fashionable phrases as "most elegant" and "time-tested skill."
At first people were simply astonished. By and by there were other reactions. Some people laughed themselves hoarse at the incongruity. However, a few gazed at the shop and the old man with mixed emotions and turned away with downcast eyes. But most felt, in an undefinable way, snubbed and betrayed and were angry with the old man. They began to laugh at his impracticality and scoffed at his perverse stubbornness.
The old gossip he had bawled out was the most elated. Till then, she'd been intimidated by his fury and her own lack of hard evidence, but this time she thought he'd supplied visible proof of his madness. She rushed about, asserting that the old man was both senile and demented.
The old man repaid the hostility of others with his own. He had changed as drastically as his shop. Once talkative and gregarious, he became taciturn and belligerent. He drank without restraint, and when drunk he quarrelled with anyone who offended him in the least. Within a few months he had quarrelled with just about everyone in and around the marketplace.
Once, more than half my childhood buddies and I happened to be visiting our hometown at the same time, after having completed our military duty. It was shortly after the old man had created a stir with his harsh treatment of the barber and his younger brother. The barbershop stood facing the old man's shop. It seems that the barber's kid brother had stolen some horsehair from the old man's shop, just as we had years before. However, instead of letting him off with a "hatband" as he'd done with us, the old man gave him a heavy beating. When the boy's older brother, the barber, came to protest such excessive severity, the old man repulsed him with a bamboo-splitting knife.
We did not blame the old man. Rather, we felt profound pity for what resembled the last defiant fury of a cornered beast. This sentiment led us to renew our acquaintance with the old man, which had been interrupted by our military service. We called on him several times while waiting to return to our jobs or for the new school term to begin. Even though our motive for visiting him had changed, we took the usual present of liquor and snacks. But his blind hostility extended to us, too. Sometimes he would petulantly stare at us, as if mocking our goodwill; at other times, he embarrassed us with a determined silence. Sometimes he would become infuriated at our trifling jokes, taking them personally. If it hadn't been for the deep impression his words made on us the last time we visited him, we could have left him with an unpleasant memory.
That visit took place the night before most of us were to depart. We went to say goodbye but also to broach an important subject. One of our clansmen, who had long had his eye on the prime location of the hat shop, had asked us to persuade the old man to sell or rent it to him. This kinsman, like most people in my hometown, knew our special friendship with the old man, so he called on us to be his emissary. But our mission was a failure. The old man not only refused the offer but became enraged when we gently recommended that he combine his hat trade with some other business.
After gazing at our dismayed faces for a long time, he said quietly, "Don't you understand? I'm not doing this for my livelihood any more. That's why I¡¯m so hard on little boys who steal horsehair. I'm waging a war now, and horsehair is my weapon. The people who once splashed a young man with feces for abandoning his hat laugh at me now for sticking to this trade. To wage war against such thoughtless people and against these barbarous times I need more and more horsehair to make more and more hats. And this shabby shop is my fortress. If I give it up, from where can I fire my guns? And how can I face my father and my ancestors when a short while from now I encounter them in the next world?¡±
His gleaming, tearful eyes exuded maniacal fury. His hands shook with drunken infirmity. He went on.
"I know I'm at the end of a blind alley. In the old days we were able to move from T'ongyo"g to here, but there's no further retreat. Even if there were, I couldn't undertake such a journey a second time. Even now I dream of that long and bitter journey and wake to find my pillow soaked with tears. I will keep up my battle here as long as I can, and when I can't endure any more I'll just die. That's why I sold off all but one last piece of land to improve the shop. My father had seen hard times, so he scrimped and bought land for security. I sold it off bit by bit, almost to the last. But I don't regret it. I sold my last major piece of land to keep this shop, and most of the money is still here, transformed into these hats. Hats enabled my father to buy the land. So how can I not sell the land when the hats need it? As long as there is one man in this country who still wears horsehair hats, I'll continue to make them."
"Wouldn't it be better to go back home and marry old man Top'yo"g's daughter?" That was the joke that circulated among us shortly after, a roundabout way of acknowledging we were depressed and our prospects dim. Then others would catch our meaning, recall our unfortunate old friend, and gloomily tilt their glasses.
Old man Top'yo"g had a daughter, left behind by his late wife after an otherwise long, childless marriage. The girl grew up to be a sultry beauty. To tell the truth, there was a time when she made our hearts beat wildly. But the joke was not just sexual, with its allusion to her seductive good looks. The girl embodied the old man's sad wish. Determined not only to preserve his craft until the end of his own life but to prolong its life for one more generation, he had long been looking for a successor. But it was hard to find an apprentice, and harder to keep one. All traditional Korean crafts are intricate and require a long, hard apprenticeship; making horsehair hats is perhaps the most intricate and complicated craft of all. Moreover, the old man was a master of not just one kind of traditional hat, as with most hat makers, but of several, from the royal hat to hats worn by ministers and officials of various ranks down to ordinary scholars. He had also taught himself the skills for making numerous hat accessories, when their supply became scarce. Each required several years of devoted study. Realizing he didn't have long to live, the old man was in a hurry to pass on his various skills. He consequently exhausted one apprentice after another. Moreover, traditional hat making had no future. So the apprentices ran away after just a few weeks. Nor were their parents especially eager to have them master such a difficult and moribund craft.
Under these circumstances, the old man hit upon the notion of acquiring an apprentice son-in-law. After his fourth apprentice had run away, he dropped hints that horsehair hat making had a bright future as a protected traditional craft and let it be known that if he saw promise in his next apprentice he would make him his son-in-law.
That brought in applicants. Although she was thought to have a roving eye, his daughter was a buxom beauty, and the hat shop was located in a very advantageous part of the market. But this time, too, in spite of the alluring prospect of marriage and heirship, successive apprentices still ran away. The intricacy of the craft and the discipline it required were simply too demanding.
At last the old man came by a patient and devoted apprentice, but was not able to make good on his promise. A widower brassware artisan, whose trade had been swallowed up by mass-produced stainless steel and plastic wares, became his next apprentice and devoted himself to acquiring the complicated skill. But one night the enticing lass eloped with the assistant manager of an insolvent cinema company. Despondent, the widower then departed also.
The old hatter returned to his lonely battle. We, most of whom were at the time living the life of college dropouts or were low-salaried clerks in industry or government offices, would jokingly mutter when we got together, "Oh, wouldn't it be better to marry old man Top'yo"g's daughter and be his heir?" Which was a way of saying that we were tired of the race for survival in the city and weary of being tiny cogs in the gigantic wheel of our industrialized society.
We next heard that the old man had sold off his last remaining bit of land and left on some kind of quest. People now assumed that the old man had left in search of some place new to settle, but a friend of mine, who was staying in our hometown at the time, told us that in fact the old man had left in search of the "blue bamboo." Like the legendary bamboo that supposedly grew on the shores of Lake Xiaoxiang, the "blue bamboo" was a divine plant whose roots were said to penetrate boulders and whose new shoots could sprout through marble. It was a tree so rare that only one of its kind could be found in the country in one decade.
"I¡¯ve been living like a fool all this time. My grandfather told me that the king, the monk, and the butcher each has his own perfection. But instead of devoting myself to perfecting my skill and creating great masterpieces, I've let myself be distracted by anger and have waged a stupid war against the times. Now I'm returning to my true way. I don't care any more about what other people might think or do. I'll only concentrate on producing a work worthy of the great master I hope to become, if only once, in the last days of my life."
He aimed to produce a hat woven with five hundred bamboo strands that the "blue bamboo" was intended to supply. As he left on his journey early one drizzly winter day, the old hatter reportedly muttered that, like Ju Zhizi of old, who boiled his wife to get the perfect liquid to smelt a pair of divine swords, his own devotion was sure to move Heaven, which would direct him to a blue bamboo growing somewhere. My friend said that he didn't dare try to dissuade the old man, who seemed to be setting out on the journey of his life's destiny.
It took a long time. During a blizzard toward the end of that winter, the old man returned. His clothes were ragged and he limped, but as he pulled a few stalks of bamboo from his backpack his eyes shone with a strange gleam. He told my friend, "I realize that there's no such thing as the blue bamboo. But I also realize that what makes a bamboo divine is not the plant itself but the artisan who uses it. Look at this. This is just an ordinary bamboo, but in my hands it's going to become a blue bamboo."
Our old friend's last battle began about a fortnight after his return home. It took him about that long to work the bamboo until it became pliable. But even during that fortnight he was not idle. He washed and cleaned all his tools and whetted all the steel implements. And each morning at dawn he washed himself clean. My friend said that the process resembled an ancient priest's preparations for a solemn tribal ritual, and the people of the marketplace no longer denigrated or ridiculed him.
At last the real work began. After making a simple but solemn ritual offering to the guardian spirits, he commenced his work by skinning the bamboo. The thin skin was split into strands as fine as hair. Throughout the process beads of perspiration appeared on the old man's aged forehead. But as he examined the gossamer-like strands one by one, his eyes seemed to burn with a thousand flames.
He made another small offering to the spirits on the morning he wove the hat's crown. Once he began the delicate work, he kept at it without eating or sleeping. Once¦¡probably on the day he was to complete the hat's ribbon hook¦¡a neighbor, taking pity, made a fire in the stove to heat the cold floor on which the old man worked and slept.
But the old man rebuffed him with, "Don't do me any unwanted favors. Warmth is no good for an artisan. Warmth just makes a man dull and lazy."
The old man was strict with himself. In the extremely intricate process of weaving the fine bamboo strands with the most delicate silk threads, he undid his work many times on account of a tiny mistake undiscernible to ordinary eyes.
The work showed steady progress. While weaving the hat's outer silk lining, the old man told my friend, "Today, I've decided to make this hat a gift to any man who still wears horsehair hats. You can't set a price on it in money. Even if you could, no one could afford it. Now, after the ribbon hooks are wrapped with red silk thread and if I can give the brim the right curve, it will be worthy to grace the head of a king. If only these were my grandfather's times.... But I won't begrudge it. Any man who has to this day loyally adhered to the ways of his forefathers has ample right to this priceless creation."
My friend said that, as he spoke, the old man sounded utterly forlorn.
There were four in my hometown who still wore horsehair hats until the early 1970s. There were even more if you included those who wore them without topknots, but the old man heartily despised such boors. So in his view, there were only four who wore them properly. But the previous year one of these had moved away to Kangwo"n Province with his children, and another, a clan elder and a revered patriot, had died the year before. And that very night, old man Kim Ch'ilbok, a commoner who had been wearing horsehair hats ever since commoners were allowed to wear them, passed away. He had been a most faithful customer and friend of the old hatter. That left only one candidate for the gift of the priceless hat¦¡Venerable Kyoch'o"n, an elder of my clan.
Hearing of his friend's death, the old hatter sank into thought, but before long he took up his work again with an expressionless face. Only, his hands seemed to shake a little. He sped up his work. When people asked him why he hurried, he explained that he had to finish the hat and give it to its rightful owner as soon as possible. But it was obvious that he was spurred on by some ominous presentiment.
The hat was completed without further mishap or delay. The brim traced a beautiful curve, and the hat looked so light and elegant, you thought it might float up and dance in the air any minute. Its smooth silken surface gleamed with high-quality lacquer paint, and the amber buttons on its headband gave it indescribable dignity. Even to an ignorant layman it looked like a work of art, the creation of a great master craftsman. Our worthy old friend had at last made the incomparable, true silk hat, woven with five hundred bamboo strands. It was a glorious day.
When the old man hurried with his priceless hat to Venerable Kyoch'o"n's house, the elder was not home. He had gone to Seoul to attend his grandson's wedding, and his return was delayed by bad weather. The old hatter became restive. For days on end he hovered around Venerable Kyoch'o"n's house and kept asking his family when they expected him back.
Then, one day, the clan was surprised by a noisy quarrel from the direction of the village entrance. Venerable Kyoch'o"n was walking toward the hill, supported by his grandchildren. The old hatter followed, shaking his fist at the clan elder from whose head the accustomed horsehair hat was conspicuously missing.
"How could you do this? How could you cut off your topknot and expose your bare head to the sun? Aren't you ashamed before the spirits of your ancestors who protested to the king that they'd rather have their heads cut off than get rid of their topknots? Tell me, how could you do this? Tell me, if you're not utterly dumb!"
The elder tried hard to appease the infuriated hatter. He explained that a horsehair hat was too inconvenient in the busy metropolis and that he'd had his hair cut because he couldn't go around with a bare topknot. He kept repeating to the hatter, "Please understand."
But the old hatter's fury was unabated. He kept repeating the phrase "as a yangban," and "your hat that's more precious than your head," and went on to accuse Venerable Kyoch'o"n of deceiving and betraying him.
Venerable Kyoch'o"n was at last driven to anger. "Are you crazy? When did I deceive you and how did I betray you? If you made this hat for me, why don't you just give it to me? Did you make the hat to insult and harass me?"
The hat maker followed Venerable Kyoch'o"n to the gate of his house. "Pay me for all the hats I gave you for free over the last seven years. You accepted my gifts without any qualm and now you give up your hat because of a small inconvenience. Isn't that deception? Isn't that betrayal?"
The clan elder disappeared into his house in embarrassment and anger. His entire family came out and tried to appease the hatter, but it was no use. The other townspeople looked on with heavy hearts. Tears ran down the old hatter's cheeks. Nobody could think of anything to say. Then somebody said quietly, "Let's go back. The hat doesn't belong to Venerable Kyoch'o"n."
What that person probably meant was that the old hatter should wear the hat himself. But, wildly sobbing, the old man said, "You're right. This hat belongs to Ch'ilbok. Yes. Ch'ilbok's the rightful owner. Let's go to Ch'ilbok, quickly." Then he led the way, keening loudly, and muttering, "This town's come to an end. It's a town without shame."
He walked the mile to Kim Ch'ilbok's grave weeping, and wept even more bitterly when he stood facing the grave. He addressed the grave, "Are you having a good rest, Ch'ilbok? Why did you leave in such a hurry? I'm sure you're resting peacefully in Heaven. You never did anyone any harm and were always kind to everyone. You were the only true man in these evil times."
Then he gathered into a heap the fallen leaves and dry straw scattered about the grave and, putting the hat on it, lit the pile before anyone could stop him. The hat burned up with a loud crackling noise.
"Ch'ilbok, I send you this precious hat. It's yours. You won't be ashamed to wear it where you are. It's the last great work of my life. Do you hear me, Ch'ilbok? Please accept it and wear it in your eternal home!"
Long after the hat turned completely to ashes and the ashes grew cold, the old man continued weeping. Only after nightfall did he come down the hill, his steps uncertain.
After that, he didn't open his shop on market days and never came out of his house. Even when his signboard dangled precariously over the shop's entrance from a broken wire he did nothing about it. Out of pity, his neighbors brought him food, but he just turned to the wall, lying on the floor under his quilt. He died one April day, before it was fully spring. Somehow the news must have reached his daughter, for one day she appeared in town, colorfully attired and accompanied by a new husband. She sold the shop to the first bidder, then went away, never to appear again.