Travel to Korea with the Calligrapher’s Daughter

Unforgettable Sight of Korea - Autumn in The PalaceDestination: Korea

Book: The Calligrapher’s Daughter by Eugenia Kim

The title of this review, “Travel to Korea,” seems a little misleading.  In fact, this book time travels to a Korea that existed when our grandparents and great-grandparents were around. Calligrapher’s Daughter tells the moving story of a Korean family that lived in isolated country in the first half of the twentieth century.

While individuals in the family reflect various splinters of the society the author does not make them cardboard cutouts, created merely to illustrate her history lesson.

The father of the family, stubbornly intent on preserving traditional Korean culture, shows personal courage in standing up to the Japanese occupiers as a member of the resistance. The mother bends her compliant personality, shaped by Confucianism and Christianity to quietly challenge her husband when it comes to her daughter.

2005.08.14 - Blue Hanbok (Korean traditional dress) at the Korean Folk Village
Traditional Korean Hanbok (dress)

The main character, a daughter who has no official name, cannot be traditional enough to please her father, but still dresses in old-fashioned style and is shocked by people who have adopted Western habits.  Public displays of affection, allowing a man to walk beside her instead of in front of her, or the failure to use the proper and sometimes complex form of address embarrass her in a way quite foreign to the brash American reader.

When she needs a name, Najin, the birthplace of her mother suffices. She was born shortly after the beginning of Japanese occupation of Korea, and the novel traces her life through increasing oppressive rule, through depression and the “big war,” to the liberation of Korea by American and Russia. The family Najin is born in to is wealthy and lineage-proud, having lived on their estate for many generations. The reader sees how world events affect this family and their friends, but only hear hints of what will happen to Korea after World War II.

In the only part of the book that seems contrived, Najin goes to live in the palace, serving as companion to a princess and lives there at the time of the death of the last Emperor of Korea.

I have never traveled to Korea. Before I read this book, I knew nothing about Korean history before the Korean War in the 1950’s, and American involvement with the divided Korea, and even less about the intricacies of their religious and social culture.  The Christian religion, overlaying ancient Confucianism, motivates the characters in this book.  The internal struggle Najin faces in trying to accept her mother and financé’s belief in Christianity joins her struggle to balance self-expression with proper traditional behavior.

The book lures the modern reader into the life of a more formal past.  In fact, the author echoes the careful, quiet, progress of a proper Korean woman in her choice of emphasis and pace. Sometimes this particular reader was tempted to skip over a few pages and get things moving at a faster pace.  Here is an example from late in the book:

I sipped [the tea], thanking the particles of tea leaves for absorbing the sun’s heat on dewy terraced mountains, growing fat and lustrous, then drying in the same heat, preserving God’s grace in a fragile, fragrant medium for me to drink at this table.

However, if you like your prose lush and complex, you may have more patience than I. And the book is not always written like an ancient Confucian poem, as this passage is. Despite my occasional impatience, my curiosity and the author’s skillful plotting drove me forward. The author handles dialogue beautifully, bringing each character to life.

I like this book for re-creating for me a time and a place that was totally new. If you are planning to travel to Korea, or just curious about its culture, I highly recommend The Calligrapher’s Daughter. (And I thank Henry Holt publishing for supplying the book for this discussion.).

The photos are from Flickr. Top photo by Devid Andriano and traditional dress photo by Tonio Vega.

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

13 thoughts on “Travel to Korea with the Calligrapher’s Daughter

  1. I wish that I had read this book before embarking on my Asian cruise. Although it specifically focuses on Korea, the cultures of Japan and China are similar n their thinking.

    I wonder if vestiges of this way of thinking still exist in Korean rural areas? I spent a day in Seoul, which you could have mistaken for any large Westernized city. Although a walk through the market at Inchon, where fish stalls sit in front of beauty shops, did seem more like what I had expected to see in Korea.

    Thanks, Vera. I’ll be taking a look at The Calligrapher’s Daughter.
    .-= Donna Hull´s last blog ..What’s a Travel Blogger To Do? =-.

    1. Thanks to everyone who has commented on Calligrapher’s Daughter. Despite my misgivings, I must say that since I closed the book, its characters have stayed with me.

  2. This book reminds me of a movie about Korea, set at the same period. I found that world fascinating, but doubt I could wade through this book as I’m like you when it comes to lush prose.

  3. Very helpful book review. I loved the passage you quoted. It just felt so serene in the present NOW and it pulled in history of place and practice. Loved it. But would I like to read an entire book like that, I’m thinking not. Like you, I would probably be somewhat impatient for some action. But it is a lovely change of pace. Thanks so much for the glimpse into this book.

    1. I’m sorry that I seem to be discouraging people from reading the book. That was not my intention–particularly for you Jessie, with your deep interest in different cultures. Please look at some other reviews before you dismiss the novel.

  4. This book sounds really interesting. I used to teach English to Koreans in Atlanta, Georgia, and always had the sense that it would be a wonderful and complicated place to visit. I will put this on my to read list…

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