Almost all the tales in this collection have been orally transmitted to me by my grandfather, a compulsive raconteur, who derived keen pleasure in enthralling his preteen audience. He had apparently internalized them, because I never saw him consult any text. They seemed to well out of him effortlessly, inexhaustibly. His favorites were Seon-dal Kim and other trickster stories, amply represented in the collection, but of course I was most titillated by stories of the risqué variety, which he told in graphic detail, apparently unhampered by any notion of protecting innocence.
Daybay Pak was his name, my father’s father. He lived with us at our big house in Seoul right around 1945 when Korea was liberated from Japan and South Korea was placed under US military government. We were well off. Head of probably the only viable all-purpose construction company (formerly Shimizugumi) after the withdrawal of the Japanese, my father worked closely with the US Army Corps of Engineers and built the US Embassy Residences, Yongsan Compound, Inchun naval piers, among others. Though it couldn’t have been more than half a dozen years that Gramps lived with us, it seems like many times longer, as those were my most impressionable years and he was a powerful influence. In contrast, Grandma, who must have been with him, is just a blur in the background.
Unless engaged in mesmerizing me with his stories, he was aloof, usually preoccupied in his incessant writing. He had a supply of fine weasel-hair writing brushes, rolls of writing paper, and sticks of India ink and a prized ink stone with a moistening bottle, enshrined on a high shelf. The paper would be rolled out, flattened, and filled with Chinese characters in his flowing cursive. The written sheets were carefully folded and put away in the same sanctum. They were obviously prose, as the lines continued top to bottom, then right to left, without punctuation. I doubt they would have been a translation of the stories he told. In spite of his love and mastery of them I doubt he thought them worthy of elevation to written literature. More likely they were some kind of narrative, maybe a history of our family or of the nation, or even a philosophic discourse on moral or social issues meaningful to him.
He also wrote lines of fixed lengths, obviously stylized verse, which he sang in the recitative style, adding the Korean auxiliaries which, unfortunately, didn’t illumine the overall meaning much as the substantives in Classical Chinese remained unexplained. But I couldn’t help listening, often hiding behind the door so he wouldn’t notice, like an opera sung in a foreign language one enjoys, though not understanding a word of the libretto, because of the singer’s wonderful voice. Grandfather had an uncannily sweet tenor that thrilled and captivated the listener, a trait inherited by some of his progeny, notably my father, often heard singing arias, and my younger brother Su-yong, an internist/radiologist in Southern California, who gets asked regularly to sing at weddings.
Though respected for his erudition in the Four Books and Five Classics, my grandfather represented “old learning,” which was passé, impractical, out of favor with the new generation in a hurry to learn English and catch up with Western science and culture that America had brought. Even in this environment, however, some of his talents stood out and served him in good stead: calligraphy and ceremonial writing. Every household had to post on the frame of the entry gate a name plate, generally three Chinese characters written vertically, one (rarely two) for the surname and two (rarely one) for the first name. Nobody was modern enough yet to shuck all Chinese vestiges of their cultural heritage and write their names in Korean entirely. Since the nameplate was the face of the house it had to be in the best available calligraphy and my grandfather was a hot ticket. After grinding the ink stick on the stone, moistened by a drop or two of water from the bottle, he would wet the brush in ink and write the name out on an inch thick plate of ash or juniper, generally 4″ x 12″. When the writing dried, the wooden plate would be stained light or dark russet and lacquered over to enhance and preserve the work against the weather. If the customer was willing to pay more, he would burn his writing into the wood with a hot iron. Early on he had mastered the art, not trusting the engravers to trace his calligraphy to perfection. Then he went on to stain and lacquer the sculpture as before. Like the Renaissance masters he never hesitated to “dirty” his hands in craftsmanship, though he grew up in a culture that relegated it to the artisan class.
His other area of expertise was ceremonial writing for weddings and funerals. Apart from the individual biographic data that must be incorporated they had to be rendered in ritualistic Classical Chinese, somewhat like legalese expected of court filings today. Grandfather was particularly sought after for this role because he was a one-stop shop where the final copy could be obtained without resort to a scrivener/calligrapher. None of his work has survived, mercenary or otherwise.
Early in 1950, a few months before the outbreak of the Korean War, he went back to the family farm in Haynam, South Julla Province, at the southwestern tip of the peninsula. As MacArthur landed at Inchun and recaptured Seoul my father died, never recovering from the blows to the head he had received at the hands of his Communist captors. Gramps came to Seoul in December to take us to Haynam, not a moment too soon because Seoul was to be overrun in a couple of weeks, this time by the Red Chinese hordes that had entered the war on the side of North Korea, shattered by MacArthur. After the war ended in 1953, he went back and forth between Haynam and Seoul where I lived and went to school, taking scant notice of him. Repulsed by whatever was Korean, the epitome of ignorance and cruelty, and determined to escape to America at the first opportunity, I scorned his bardic gift and penchant for storytelling as nothing but doddering senility. He knew better than to cast pearls before swine, in this case a self-absorbed know-it-all post-adolescent grandson. Nor before his other younger grandchildren, my siblings, who grew up, unjustly deprived of access to the treasure trove of legend and lore their grandfather could unlock. I had stung him to silence for good.
He died of a stroke but more probably of a broken heart in 1961 when, overcome with contrition, I had the first edition of this collection published in Seoul as a tribute to his memory, without acknowledgment, under my Korean name Tae-yong Pak. Nearly half a century after his passing I am still wrenched by regret and guilt. I can still see him and hear him as he clears his throat and tells his story, eyes asparkle with mischievous glee. Gladly would I exchange the rest of my life with one moment of reunion with him to tell him how I love him, love and cherish everything he was, he did, he told, the jewels of tales he had sown in my mind during my more receptive years.