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The year was 4214 after Tangun of Korea, and 1881 after Jesus of Judea. It was spring in the capital city of Seoul, a good season for a child to be born, and a fair day. Il-han, surnamed Kim, of the clan of Andong, sat in his library waiting for the birth of his second child to be announced. It was a pleasant room, larger than most rooms, and since the house faced south, the sun climbing over the walls of the compound shone dimly through the rice-papered lattices of the sliding walls. He sat on satin-covered floor cushions beside a low desk, but the floor itself was warmed by smoke ducts from the kitchen stove, after the ancient ondul fashion. He tried diligently to keep his mind on his book, open before him on the low desk. Three hours had passed since his wife had retired to her bedroom, accompanied by her sister, the midwife and women servants. Three times one or the other of them had come to tell him that all went well, that his wife sent him greetings and begged him to take nourishment, for the birth was still far off.
"Far off?" he had demanded. "How far off?"
Each time the answer had been a shake of the head, a vague smile, a retreat, behavior typical of women, he thought somewhat scornfully, at least of Korean women, silken sweet on the surface, but rock stubborn underneath. All except his beautiful and beloved wife, his Sunia! He would have been ashamed to show to anyone, even to her, how much he loved her, and this although he had never seen her before their wedding. For once matchmakers had not lied and fortunetellers had been correct in the forecasting of signs and dates. Sunia had fulfilled every duty as a bride. She had not smiled once throughout the long day of the wedding, in spite of the ruthless teasing of relatives and friends. A bride who could not control her laughter on her wedding day, it was said, would give birth only to girls. Sunia had given birth to a son, now three years old, and if the fortuneteller was right again, today she would have another. Il-han's home, his family, made a center of peace in these troubled times of his country. But when had times not been troubled for Korea? In four thousand years there had been scarcely a century of peace for the small valuable peninsula hanging like a golden fruit before the longing eyes of the surrounding nations, proud China demanding tribute, vast Russia hungry for the seacoast she did not have, and Japan, ambitious for empire.
He sighed, forgetting home and family, and rose to walk impatiently to and fro across the room. It was impossible to keep his mind fixed on books, although he was a scholar, not the scholar his father was, poring over ancient volumes, but a scholar for all of that. His book today was a modern one, a history of western nations. His father would not have been pleased had he known that he, Kim Il-han, the only son of the Kim family of Andong, was engaged in such learning, his father who lived in the classics of Confucius and in dreams of the golden age of the dynasty of Silla! But he, Il-han, like all young men of his generation, was impatient with old philosophies and religions. Confucianism, borrowed from China, had isolated this nation already isolated by sea and mountain, and Buddhism had led the hermit mind of his people into fantasies of heaven and hell, gods and demons, into anything, indeed, except the bitter present.
He paced the tiled floor of his library, a tall slender figure in the white robes of his people, and he listened for the cry of his newborn child while he mused. Then, burning with restlessness at the delay and suddenly feeling himself hot, he slid back the latticed wall. The clear sunshine of the spring morning poured its rays across his low table desk. The desk had been his grandfather's, a solid piece of teak imported from Burma, made after his grandfather's own design, and decorated with fine Korean brass.
"This desk shall be yours," his father had told him upon the grandfather's death. "May the thoughts and writings of a great statesman inspire you, my son!"
His grandfather had indeed been a great man, a premier of the still existing Yi dynasty, and from the Yi rulers he had absorbed the doctrine of isolationism and the emotions of pride and independence.
"Situated as we are, surrounded by three powerful nations, Russia, China and Japan," his grandfather had memorialized the Throne half a century ago, "we can only save ourselves from their greed by withdrawal from the world. We must become a hermit nation."
His father had often quoted these words and Il-han had listened to them with secret scorn. The absurdity of his elders! He had kept his own secrets even from his father, his share in the first revolt against the Regent, Taiwunkun. He, Il-han, had been only a boy but a useful boy, carrying messages between the rebel leaders and the young Queen. The Regent had married his son, King Kojong, to her when he was far too young for marriage, and because he was young the Regent had chosen a daughter of the noble clan of Min, older than the King, a choice he had cause to rue, for who could believe the beautiful graceful girl was strong and of such brilliant mind, and determined that she could plot to set the Regent aside? He, Il-han, had seen her at first only by candlelight, at midnight, in stolen conference with the rebel leaders, he waiting at the door for a packet thrust into his hand which he must take to the young King when he went to play chess with him the next day. Even then he had known that the Queen was the one who must rule, and that the King, his gentle and amiable playmate, could only be the buffer between the arrogant Regent and the Queen.
But Il-han had told his father nothing. What could his father do, the handsome aging poet, dreaming his life away in his country house and his garden? For his father, unwilling to wound his grandfather, who had served the Regent, by taking the part of the young Queen who loved China, had early withdrawn from the royal conflict. Queen Min, it was said, though how truly none knew, was herself partly Chinese and her most powerful friend was Tzu-hsi, the Empress Dowager now ruling in Peking. From that capital the Queen still insisted upon buying the heavy silks and satin brocades she enjoyed wearing, and though some censured her for extravagance, he, Il-han, had not the heart to blame her for anything she did. Now in the joy of awaiting the birth of his second child, he thought of the Queen's only son, heir to the throne, who had been born of feeble mind. In the center of her being, proud and beautiful and brilliant as she was, there was emptiness, and he knew it.
His absent mind, always pondering affairs of state, was presently controlled by his attention focused at this moment to hear the cry of his child fighting to be born. He paused, listening for footsteps. Hearing none, he returned to his desk, took up a camel's-hair pen and continued to write a memorial he had begun some days before. Were this document to be presented to the King, he would have been compelled to use the formal Chinese characters. It was written not for the Court, however, but for the secret perusal of the Queen, and he used the symbols of the phonetic Korean alphabet.
"Furthermore, Majesty," he wrote, "I am troubled that the British have moved ships to the island of Komudo, so near to our coasts. I understand that they wish the Chinese armed forces to leave Seoul, with which I cannot agree, for Japan is demanding that she be allowed to send troops to Korea in case of emergency. What emergency can arise in our country which would need Japanese soldiers? Is this not the ancient and undying desire of Japan for westward empire? Shall we allow our country to be a stepping-stone to China and beyond China to Asia itself?"
He was interrupted by the opening of a door and lifting his head, he heard his son's voice, a subdued wail.
"I will not go to my father!"
He rose and flung open the door. His son's tutor stood there, and his son was clinging to the young man's neck.
"Forgive me, sir," the tutor said. He turned to the child. "Tell your father what you have done."
He tried to set the boy on his feet but the boy clung to him as stubbornly as a small monkey. Il-han pulled the child away by force and set him on his feet.
"Stand," he commanded. "Lift your head!"
The child obeyed, his dark eyes filled with tears. Yet he did not look his father full in the face, which would have been to show lack of respect.
"Now speak," Il-han commanded.
The child made the effort, opened his mouth and strangled a sob. He could only look at his father in piteous silence.
"It is I, sir, who should speak first," the tutor said. "You have entrusted your son to me. When he commits a fault, it is my failing. This morning he would not come to the schoolroom. He has been rebellious of late. He does not wish to memorize the Confucian ode I have set for him to learn—a very simple ode, suitable for his age. When I saw he was not in the schoolroom, I went in search of him. He was in the bamboo grove. Alas, he had destroyed several of the young shoots!"
The child looked up at his father, still speechless, his face twisted in a mask of weeping.
"Did you do so?" Il-han demanded.
The child nodded.
Il-han refused to allow himself pity, although his heart went soft at the sight of this small woeful face.
"Why did you destroy the young bamboos?" His voice was gentle in spite of himself.
The child shook his head.
Il-han turned to the tutor. "You did well to bring him to me. Now leave us. I will deal with my son."
The young man hesitated, a look of concern on his mild face. Il-han smiled.
"No, I will not beat him."
"Thank you, sir."
The young man bowed and left the room. Without further talk Il-han took his son's hand and led him into the garden, and then to the bamboo grove by its southern wall. It was plain to see what had happened. The young shoots, ivory white and sheathed in their casings of pale green, were well above ground. Of several hundreds, some tens were broken off and lying on the mossy earth. Il-han stopped, his hand still clasping the small hot hand of his son.
"This is what you did?" he inquired.
The child nodded.
"Do you still not know why?"
The child shook his head and his large dark eyes filled with fresh tears. Il-han led him to a Chinese porcelain garden seat, and lifted him to his knee. He smoothed the child's hair from his forehead, and pride swelled into his heart. The boy was straight and slim and tall for his years. He had the clear white skin, the leaf-brown eyes, the brown hair of his people, different from the darker Japanese, a living reminder that those invaders must not be tolerated in Korea.
"I know why you did it, my son," he said gently. "You were angry about something. You forgot what I have taught you—a superior person does not allow himself to show anger. But you were angry and you did not dare tell your tutor that you were angry and so you came here, alone, where no one could see you, and you destroyed the young bamboos, which are helpless. Is that what you did?"
Tears flowed from the boy's eyes. He sobbed.
"Yet you knew," the father continued with relentless gentleness, "you knew that bamboo shoots are valuable. Why are they valuable?"
"We—we—like to eat them," the child whispered.
"Yes," the father said gravely, "we like to eat them, and it is in the spring that they can be eaten. But more than that, they grow only once from the root. The plants these shoots might have been, waving their delicate leaves in the winds of summer, will never live. The shoots crack the earth in spring, they grow quickly and in a year they have finished their growth. You have destroyed food, you have destroyed life. Though it is only a hollow reed, it is a living reed. Now the roots must send up other shoots to take the place of those you have destroyed. Do you understand me?"
The child shook his head. Il-han sighed. "It is not enough to learn your letters or even enough to learn the odes of Confucius. You must learn the inner meanings. Come with me to the library."
He lifted the child from his knee and led him in silence to the library again. There he took from the shelves a long narrow box covered with yellow brocaded satin. He unhinged the silver hasp and lifted from the box a scroll which he unrolled upon the table.
"This," he said, "is a map of our country. Observe how it lies between three other countries. Here to the north is Russia, this nation to the west is China, and this to the east is Japan. Are we larger or smaller than they?"
The child stared at the map soberly. "We are very small," he said after a moment.
"Korea is small," his father agreed. "And we are always in danger. Therefore we must be brave, therefore we must be proud. We must keep ourselves free, we must not allow these other nations to eat us up as they wish always to do. They have attacked us again and again, but we have repulsed them. How do you think we have done this?"
The child shook his head.
"I will tell you," Il-han said. "Time and again brave men offer themselves as our leaders. They come up from the high-born yangban as we do, or they come from the landfolk. It does not matter where they come from. When the need arises they are here, ready to lead us. They are like the bamboo shoots that must replace those you have now destroyed. They will spring from the roots that are hidden in the earth."
The child looked up with lively eyes, he listened, stretching his mind to understand what his father was saying. Whether he did understand Il-han never knew, for at this moment he heard the cry of the newborn child. The door opened and the old midwife appeared, her face wrinkled in smiles.
"Sir," she said. "You have a second son."
Joy rushed into his heart.
"Take this child to his tutor," he said.
He pushed the boy into the midwife's arms, and heedless of his son's calling after him he hastened away.
... In his wife's bedchamber they were waiting for him, the maidservants, the women who had come to assist, and above all Sunia, his wife. She lay on the mattress spread on the warm floor and the women had arranged her for his arrival. They had brushed her hair and wiped the sweat of childbirth from her face and hands and had spread a rose-pink silken cover upon her bed. She smiled up at him as he stood above her and his love for her rushed up and all but choked him. Her oval face was classic in beauty, not a soft face, and perhaps more proud than gentle, but he knew well her deep inner tenderness. Her skin was cream white, and at this moment without the high color natural to her. Her eyes, leaf-brown, were drowsy with weariness and content, and her long dark hair, soft and straight, was brushed and spread over the flat pillow.
"I am come to thank you," he said.
"I have only done my duty," she replied.
The words were a ritual, but through her eyes she had her own way of making them intimate.
"But," she added with a touch of her daily willfulness, "I enjoy having your sons. How can it be only a duty?"
He laughed. "Pleasure or duty, please continue," he said.
Had they been alone, he would have knelt at her side and taken her hand between his hands to cherish and fondle. As it was, he could only bow and turn away. Yet he paused at the door to leave a command with the women.
"See that you do not keep her awake with your chatter and make sure that she has chicken broth brewed with ginseng root."
They bowed in silence, and he returned to the library where in a few minutes, as he knew, his second son would be presented to him. He knelt beside the great desk and then rose again, still too restless to read or write. Once more he walked to and fro across the tiled floor, across the squares of sunlight from the open doors. He turned his face to the sun. It fell upon him warmly and he welcomed the warmth. His white garments shone whiter, and he enjoyed the sense of light and cleanliness in which they wrapped him. He was fastidiously clean and Sunia saw to it that every morning he put on fresh white garments, the loose trousers bound at his ankles, the long white robe crossed from left to right on his breast. His ancestors were sun worshipers, and he had inherited from them his love of light. White was the sacred color, a symbol of brightness and of life. True, it was also the color of mourning. Yet so closely were death and life intertwined here in his troubled country that he could not think of one without realizing the other. This too was his inheritance, now given to his sons.
Excerpted from The Living Reed by Pearl S. Buck. Copyright © 1948 Janice C. Walsh, Richard S. Walsh, John S. Walsh, Mrs. Henrietta C. Walsh, Mrs. Chico C. Singer, Edgar S. Walsh, Mrs. Jean C. Lippincott, and Carol Buck. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted August 20, 2005
I discovered PS Buck's novels in my 20's, and ever since have tried to read as many as possible. So far I haven't been disappointed! All her books have such well narrated story lines about the common person and their tie to history. Like John Steinbeck, she knows how to write with or without the intention to make you feel emotion for each character. This book is one of her best. Not only is it a beautiful narrative of Korea, but it gives me great hope that even the most unknown of people make an important impact on their community, country, or even the world. The importance she put on family is one of the most beautiful legacies she left behind.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 22, 2002
Posted January 27, 2009
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