The Calligrapher's Daughter

The Calligrapher's Daughter

by Eugenia Kim


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"A beautiful, deliberate and satisfying story spanning 30 years of Korean history . . . Elegant."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

In early-twentieth-century Korea, Najin Han, the privileged daughter of a calligrapher, longs to choose her own destiny, though her country—newly occupied by Japan—is crumbling, and her family, led by her stern father, is facing difficulties that seem insurmountable. Narrowly escaping an arranged marriage, Najin takes up a new role as a companion to a young princess. But the king is soon assassinated, and the centuries-old dynastic culture comes to its end.

Najin pursues a coveted education and is surprised to find love. After one day of marriage a denied passport separates her from her new husband, who continues alone to America. As a decade passes and the world descends into war, Najin loses touch with her husband. Will the love they share be enough to sustain her through the deprivation her country continues to endure? The Calligrapher's Daughter is a richly drawn novel about a nation torn between ancient customs and modern possibilities, and is a "vivid, heartfelt portrait of faith, love and life for one family during a pivotal time in history" (Bookpage).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805089127
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 08/04/2009
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 6.58(w) x 9.60(h) x 1.27(d)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

Eugenia Kim's debut novel, The Calligrapher's Daughter, won the 2009 Borders Original Voices Award, was shortlisted for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and was Best Historical Novel and Critic's Pick by The Washington Post. Her stories have appeared in Asia Literary Review, Washington City Paper, and elsewhere.

Lorna Raver has received numerous AudioFile Earphones Awards and has been nominated for the coveted Audie Award for her audiobook narrations.

Read an Excerpt

The Calligrapher's Daughter

A Novel
By Kim, Eugenia

Henry Holt and Co.

Copyright © 2009 Kim, Eugenia
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780805089127

Part I


The Daughter of the Woman from Nah-jin


I learned I had no name on the same day I learned fear. Until that day, I had answered to Baby, Daughter or Child, so for the first five years of my life hadn’t known I ought to have a name. Nor did I know that those years had seen more than fifty thousand of my Korean countrymen arrested and hundreds more murdered. My father, frowning as he did when he spoke of the Japanese, said we were merely fodder for a gluttonous assimilation.

The servants called me Ahsee, Miss, and outside of the family I was politely referred to as my mother’s daughter. To address an adult by name was considered unspeakably rude. Instead, one was called by one’s family relational position, or profession. My father was the literati-scholar-artist, the calligrapher Han, much respected, and my mother was the scholar’s wife. And because my mother wasn’t native to Gaeseong, she was also properly called "the woman from Nah-jin," a wintry town on the far northeast border near Manchuria. Thus, if a church lady said, "That one, the daughter of the woman from Nah-jin," I knew I was in trouble again.

I wasn’t a perfect daughter. Our estate overflowed with places to crawl,creatures to catch and mysteries to explore, and the clean outside air, whether icy, steamy or sublime, made me restive and itching with curiosity. Mother tried to discipline me, to mold my raw traits into behavior befitting yangban, aristocrats. An only child, I was expected to uphold a long tradition of upper-class propriety. There were many rules—all seemingly created to still my feet, busy my hands and quiet my tongue. Only much later did I understand that the sweeping change of those years demanded the stringent practice of our rituals and traditions; to venerate their meaning, yes, but also to preserve their existence simply by practicing them.

I couldn’t consistently abide by the rules, though, and often found myself wandering into the forbidden rooms of my father. Too many fascinating things happened on his side of the house to wait for permission to go there! But punishment had been swift the time Myunghee, my nanny, had caught me eavesdropping outside his sitting room. She’d switched the back of my thighs with a stout branch and shut me in my room. I cried until I was exhausted from crying, and my mother came and put cool hands on my messy cheeks and cold towels on my burning legs. I now know that she’d sat in the next room listening to me cry, as she worked a hand spindle, ruining the thread with her tears. Many years later, my mother told me that the cruelty of that whipping had revealed Myunghee’s true character, and she wished she had dismissed her then, given all that came to pass later.

I didn’t often cry that dramatically. Even at the age of five, I worked especially hard to be stoic when Myunghee pinched my inner arms where the bruises wouldn’t be easily discovered. It was as if we were in constant battle over some unnamed thing, and the only ammunition I had was to pretend that the hurts she inflicted didn’t matter. Hired when I was born, Myunghee was supposed to be both nanny and companion. Her round face had skin as pale and smooth as rice flour, her eyes were languid with what was mistaken for calm, and her narrow mouth was as sharp as the words it uttered. When we were apart from the other servants or out of sight of my mother, Myunghee shooed me away, telling me to find my own amusement. So I spied on her as she meandered through our house. She studied her moon face reflected in shiny spoons, counted silver chopsticks, fondled porcelain bowls and caressed fine fabrics taken from linen chests. At first I thought she was cleaning, but my mother and I cleaned and dusted with Kira, the water girl. Perhaps she meant to launder the linens, but Kira did the laundry and was also teaching me how to wash clothes. Maybe the bowls needed polishing, but Cook was very clear about her responsibilities and would never have asked for help. As I spied on Myunghee, I wondered about her strangeness and resented that she refused to play with me.

My mother’s visit had brought me great relief, but my stinging thighs sparked a long-smoldering defiance and I swore to remain alert for the chance to visit my father’s side of the house again.

And so on this day, when six elders and their wives came to visit, I found my chance after the guests had settled in—the women in Mother’s sitting room and the men with Father. I crept down Father’s hallway, nearing the big folding screen displayed outside his door, and heard murmurings about resisting the Japanese. The folding screen’s panels were wide enough for me to slide into a triangle behind an accordion bend. The dark hiding place cooled the guilty disobedience that was making me hot and sweaty, a completely unacceptable state for a proper young lady. I breathed deeply of the dust and dark to calm myself, and cradled my body, trying to squeeze it smaller. Pipe smoke filtered through the door, papers shuffled, and I wondered which voice in the men’s dialogue belonged to whom. The papers must have been my father’s collection of the Daehan Maeil News I knew he’d saved over the past several months. This sole uncensored newspaper, distributed nationwide for almost a full year, had recently been shut down. The men discussed the forced closure of the newspaper, Japan’s alliance with Germany, its successes in China and unceasing new ordinances that promoted and legalized racial discrimination. Naturally I understood none of this, but the men’s talk was animated, tense and punctuated repeatedly with unfamiliar words.

I slipped from behind the screen, tiptoed down the hall and, once safely on our side of the house, ran to Mother’s room, eager to ask what some of those words meant: Europe, war, torture, conscript, dissident and bleak future.

The men’s wives sat around the open windows and door of my mother’s sitting room, fanning themselves, patting their hair and fussing about the humidity. I spun to retreat, realizing too late that Mother would be in the kitchen supervising refreshments. A woman with painted curved eyebrows and an arrow-sharp chin called "Yah!" and beckoned me closer.

"You see?" Her skinny hand pecked the air like an indignantly squawking hen. The others turned to look, and I bowed, embarrassed by their attention, sure that my cheeks were as pink as my skirt. Garden dirt clung to my hem, but I managed to refrain from brushing it off and folded my hands dutifully, keeping every part of me still.

Another woman said, "She’s pretty enough." I felt their eyes studying me. My hair was braided as usual into two thick plaits that hung below my shoulders. Still plump with childhood, I had gentle cheekbones, round rabbit eyes wide apart, a flat bridge above an agreeable nose, and what I hoped was an intelligent brow, topped with short hairs sprouting from a center part. Unnerved by their stares, involuntarily I grasped a braid and twisted it.

"Still, it’s unusual for such a prominent scholar," said the arched-eyebrow woman, "don’t you think?"


"Well, yes. Granted, she’s a girl," and she turned her head theatrically to hold every eye in the room, "but isn’t it odd for a man whose lifelong pursuit is art, literature and scholarship—the study of words!—that such a man would neglect naming his own daughter?"

The ladies chimed in with yah and geulsae and similar sounds of agreement, and the woman waved me away.

I left for the kitchen, frowning, and though I don’t like to admit it, pouting as well. Cook and Kira were helping my mother prepare platters of fancy rice cakes, decoratively sliced plums and cups of cool water. Before reaching the door I heard my mother say, "Where is that Myunghee?" I stopped to eavesdrop, surprised at her obvious irritation. She regularly cautioned me to never speak crossly to or about the servants. Myunghee was notorious for disappearing when work called, and now had pushed my mother—who hardly ever raised her voice— into impatience. Remembering my tender thighs, I gloated a little.

"Is that you?" Mother said.

"It’s me, Umma-nim." I remembered my quest. "They say I don’t have—"

"See if you can find your nanny. No, wait. Ask the gardener if he found more plums. Hurry."

Beyond the courtyard, skinny Byungjo peered into a fruit tree with a bamboo pole in hand and a half basket of plums at his feet. He said he’d take the fruit to the kitchen, so my task was done. I roamed around to the front yard, and not seeing Myunghee or anyone else nearby, I crawled into a little natural arbor I’d found beneath the lilac bushes near the front gate.

Though I wasn’t sure what not being named meant, it was obviously something bad enough to make those snake-mouthed women find fault with me and, alarmingly, with my father. Since I had heard the year of my birth, 1910, mentioned many times by the men, I wondered if my lack of name was linked to their urgent discussion. I wanted even more to know those words, but my mother was the only one I could ask. I hugged my knees and drew stick figures of the elders’ wives in the dirt. I pretended they were nameless too, an easy game since I called them each Respected Aunt and knew none of their given names.

The lilac’s clotted perfume suffused the enclosed arbor, and my eyes grew heavy. I nodded sleepily and it seemed the vines shivered, scattering purple petals like a shaking wet dog.

The gate slammed open to Japanese shouts, and uniformed men crashed through the yard. Sunlight refracted from their scabbards and danced on the walls, trees, shrubs, the earth. Father’s manservant, Joong, came out the front door with his arms opened as if to gather the six men in a giant embrace. "Master, the police!" he cried. A policeman punched Joong in the neck. He fell, gasping. I heard my father say, "You have no right—" and then rough indecipherable commands. Blows, scuffle, an animalistic cry. Women screamed. Something splintered. My hands unknowingly covered my ears, every muscle in my body clenched with terror.

Two policemen came from the house with sabers bared. They shoved three stumbling elders, who held their hands high and heads bent. The remaining police pushed the other men as they staggered across the yard, my father trying to support a friend who groaned as his arm hung crazily from his gashed shoulder. All the men were forced through the gate, which banged twice against the lintel, and then they were gone. A stark silence filled the yard, then came a high-pitched wail like that of a professional mourner, and then my mother’s cry, "Daughter! My child!"

Through the shroud of vines I saw her run down the side porch followed by another woman, their eyes hunting the corners. They seemed small, like straw-stuffed dolls on a wooden stage. Joong struggled to stand and the woman rushed to help him. He gestured that he hadn’t seen me. My mother opened shutters, kneeled into crawlspaces and called for me.

I wanted to leap into her strong arms but couldn’t move. "Ummanim," escaped from my throat, then I felt my tears and cried aloud. She dashed to the lilacs and tore at the curtain of vines. I fell into my mother’s hard embrace, freed from the honeyed, cloying flowers, scared to be patted and squeezed all over by her searching hands. She held me tight and rocked me in the garden dirt until we both could breathe without sobbing.

During the next four days our minister came and went. I was too afraid to leave the women’s quarters and keenly felt my mother’s absence while she greeted Reverend Ahn in my father’s empty rooms. Watchful for her return, I saw that she gave the minister thickly folded papers each time he left. The fourth afternoon, they stood in the open courtyard with heads bowed, and he prayed. I could only hear when his voice swelled with impassioned pleas for the men who stood tall and the country they stood up for.

My father came home that night, filthy and limping, his face a monster’s mask, swollen purple and yellow, his eyes black slits. A week passed before I glimpsed his face again and saw it recognizable.

I silently noted the absence of Myunghee, whose name was never again mentioned. Her few possessions were burned, and her room adjacent to mine was washed with caustic soap by Kira and cured with sage smoke. It eventually became a closet for broken shutters and torn mats. Byungjo repaired the main gate with dense oak boards and thick iron hardware, fortified with an interior drop bar. I thought we’d be safe then forever, but I was just a child.

Months later on a still, hot evening, the house normalized with Father healed, I sat in the sewing room with my mother to practice stitching. Focusing on straight seams to make an underskirt helped to pacify my restlessness. Insects thudded against the windows and added their chorus to the crickets singing in the courtyard. A welcome breeze cooled the still room, and the lamp sputtered and smoked. My eyes smarted and I looked up, blinking, to the open window. A thin curved moon hung high in the night sky, reminding me of the woman’s painted arched eyebrows and that day, and a sliver of fear as sharp as my needle made me stop sewing. "Umma-nim, will they come back?"

Mother’s face showed surprise, which swiftly changed to reassurance. "No, little one, that business is finished. Don’t worry, they won’t come back."

I pushed my needle in and pulled the thread taut.

"Not too tight. A little smaller. Good, that’s right."

"Was that war, what they did? Is that what it means to say ‘Europe,’ ‘torture’ and ‘bleak future?’" I couldn’t remember the other words.

She frowned into her embroidery and explained the words to me. She added, "These are problems men have made, which other men like your father and the minister are trying to solve, or at least help change. If you behave properly and speak only to those you know, you need not worry about such things. You’re safe with your family, and you know that God watches over children especially."

"Is that why—"

"And child," said Mother. "You must never again eavesdrop on your abbuh-nim, your father, or on anyone for that matter. Not only is it disobedient, it’s disrespectful. And further, it’s not wise for your young ears to hear things you cannot understand."

I nodded, mad that I’d stupidly exposed my secret. I sewed rebellious crooked stitches, outwardly contrite, inwardly vexed. Then, horrified by the thought that the police had come because God knew I’d been bad, I gently ripped out my seam and sewed it straight. When I knotted the end, Mother checked and praised my work with such kindness that it freed me to say, "Did they come because of—because I wasn’t being good?"

She put her sewing down, sighed and touched my cheek. "No, child. God doesn’t punish the innocent. Your disobedience is harmful only to yourself." She held my arms and peered into my eyes. "You are my blood and my bones. It’s as if your body is my body. Whatever is harmful to you is also to me, and also to your family. You must always think first of your family, your father, and put your own thoughts and desires last. We live in hard times that we pray will get better. Hard times. You must be careful and obey your parents in all things. Agreed?"

"Yes, Umma-nim." I started on the opposite seam, feeling without consciously understanding how her words made it as easy to be as joined with her as the two skirt panels I sewed. The room shrank and cooled as the shadows outside the lamp’s glowing circle darkened with the late hour. I considered what my mother had said about the hard times and her explanation of a bleak future under the Japanese emperor. "Umma-nim, is that why Abbuh-nim hasn’t named me?"

"What? Nonsense! Where did you get such an idea?"

I related what the painted-eyebrow woman had said that day.

"Why do they think children can’t hear?" She stabbed her needle into the taut embroidery. "Yah—" She put her sewing down and smiled. "If they only knew how well you hear, even through walls!" She sewed until her needle grew restful, as if calmed by the serene beauty of the blue iris that blossomed from its tail of thread. "Ignore them. Some women gossip because— Never mind. You were born so soon after— Well, what’s most important is that you are your father’s daughter. You are yangban and privileged, a blessed child to have such a noble and talented father. You should respect him always. He thinks of his country and family first, always of others first, and his is the highest example to follow. We’re fortunate that he survi—that he’s modern enough to afford us many freedoms, and you should only be grateful."

I bowed my head obediently. I’d heard similar versions of this speech many times, usually at bedtime when my ears were sleepy and compliant.

"You take it for granted, but it’s your father who allows us to come and go as we please. It wasn’t so long ago that such a thing was considered scandalous for women of our class."

Having always had this freedom, I wasn’t sure why I should be grateful, but I also knew not to ask more questions.

"Besides," she said. "Who knows? One day he might consider sending you to school. At last there are rumors of public schools! We’ll see, very soon I hope. With education, what name you carry won’t matter at all."

I didn’t understand about "public school" but was pleased to know it would counteract the negativity attributed to my namelessness by the beak-tongued woman. I also heard something new in my mother’s voice, and had I known more, I might have recognized it as hunger. My mother had been educated by her mother in both Korean and Chinese writing and reading, and like most yangban women, had studied the classic Instructions for Women and the sixteenth-century Four Books for Women. She was also teaching me to read and write, but the education she spoke of reached far beyond the morality literature, guidelines for female behavior and the classics she had studied.

"You’ve seen Missionary Gordon at church," said Mother. "She’s old enough to have been married years ago, but she has the respect of the congregation and is free to go about unescorted, thinking her own thoughts, because of her education." My mother also told me about a school in Seoul for grown-up women, Ewha College, which the Japanese had allowed to be reopened the previous year. "Things are changing so much that these schools can teach all women, not just yangban daughters, about the higher way of living and our duty not only to our family but to our country."

Not fully comprehending what she said about the scary American missionary lady or the special place for women, I clearly heard my mother’s admiration and yearning, and as I sewed my tidy stitches and knotted the end of the seam, those feelings grew to be mine.

At bedtime Mother sat beside me, the dim lamp making visible only the soft curve of her cheek, one ear and the shoulder of her white blouse. She told me again that I must honor the long legacy of my father’s lineage and respect the ancestors buried on the mountain behind our estate. After prayers, she related the usual bedtime story of how these ancestors had rested peacefully for 550 years, assured that the Confucian canon governed the family with such constancy that only the seasons changed for the generations who had lived and died in this house. When my mother told this old story, her silvery clarity sounded like a brook in summer, its stream singing steadily onward, with pebbles, sand and small bits of nature’s debris splashing rhythmically as it rushed through the ages. From this nightly recitation delivered in beloved cadence came my earliest education about the Way.

My ancestors’ fathers had passed talent and privilege on to their sons, who continued to win acclaim for scholarship and artistry, and achieved high marks in the supreme literary grade of the civil service examinations, which opened the door to royal appointments or provincial officialdom. At times, for a generation or two, unfavorable political winds brought exile to the Han men, and twice, execution along with their wives and children, but time, landowner’s wealth, and wisdom borne of scholarship helped maintain stability until royal approbation was restored. Fathers arranged favorable marriages, eldest sons prayed to be spared the ultimate sin of dying without male progeny, wives prayed for sons to confirm their worthiness, and daughters, like me, learned the threefold laws of a woman’s life: obey one’s father, obey one’s husband, obey one’s sons.

We were Methodists now and didn’t worship our ancestors as gods. But the commandments that decreed the one true God also said to honor thy father and mother. So it was right, Mother said, to follow the old ways and esteem our predecessors who had paved the paths upon which we walked.

According to our family’s history, in the Korean year 3699, a shower of stars marked the propitious location of a burial ground on a southeast foothill of Mount Janam, which then determined the location of the house and the spread of the estate grounds. Over the years, as I lay in bed listening to my mother’s vivid storytelling, I elaborated on that moment in my imagination until I could see the night sky drenched with the fire of a thousand falling stars, one bursting high above our mountain to plunge its mystical power in the heart of our land. And perhaps this was the beginning of my difficulties—that I cherished the holiness of stars before I knew to love the Jesus my mother believed in.

We visited the burial ground on our mountainside several times a year: on equinoxes, solstices and Christian holy days. From a clearing near the cemetery grove, I could see parts of our estate, and to the distant southwest, the ancient South Gate, now surrounded by roads and a few modern buildings. Climbing farther past the cemetery to a ridge that pointed north, in the winter through the naked trees I could see the valley bowl crowded with the old city, and far on the southern slope of Mount Songak, a huge rectangular field geometrically dotted with foundation scars—the enduring footprint of Manwoldae Palace, center of the former Goryeo Dynasty.

Our tile-capped mortar walls had once enclosed several sprawling structures, but now only the main house remained. Composed of three wings laid out as three sides of a square, plus an audience pavilion and utility houses, it numbered thirty rooms altogether. The main gate faced west toward China, representing Korea’s welcoming gateway toward the home of Confucian doctrine. Set back fifty paces from the front gate, the central north-south wing of the house contained a broad entryway and reception area flanked by two small rooms; the one to the south was my bedroom, followed by the storeroom that had been Myunghee’s room. The northern west-east arm of the house comprised the men’s side, beginning with Father’s sitting room in the corner, then his study, a closet, his bedroom, washroom and two other rooms. Beyond his outer courtyard to the north, a separate structure held an audience room for large gatherings. The men servants’ quarters and work and storage sheds stood east of Father’s outer courtyard. Mother’s sitting room took the southwest corner, then to the east, her sewing room, weaving room, bedroom, our washroom, another storeroom, a pantry and the kitchen. A kitchen garden lay a few steps beyond. Our outer courtyard had the women servants’ quarters to the east, and to the south, workrooms and sheds for urns, straw and a crumbling disused palanquin. There were four latrines beyond all these structures, segregated by gender and class.

Except for the kitchen, most of the spaces ranged from two to ten paces wide. The house sat on a tall foundation of brick, stone and cement, which contained flues that heated the floors in the winter and held coolness in the summer. Elevated porches surrounded both sides of the house, and an inside hallway lined the inner porch. Made of wood and mortar with paper windows and doors, the main buildings had tile roofs, and some of the sheds had thatch. Byungjo’s expert care kept the grounds neatly cultivated and made the gardens flourish year-round, an aesthetic we enjoyed and systematically exclaimed over each time we visited the graveyard.

The walkway to the cemetery had been carefully planned to unite the heart, mind and body in proper Confucian contemplation. It began in the inner courtyard and curved through an arc of fruit trees. It circled vegetable and flower gardens, a still lotus pond surrounded by willows, and a bamboo forest so dense it had crumbled the walls it straddled. The path inclined sharply through a tall fir wood and met a brittle passageway hewn between granite boulders. Weighty slabs formed steps on the mountainous trail where the way clawed too steeply for men’s feet, then the path leveled beside a trickling crystalline brook. And, at last, a shady circle of pines and lush grass welcomed us—the tired family who had climbed an hour to reach the sacred grove.

My eyes closed to Mother’s lulling refrain of our written history. "The cemetery has seen many feasts and gatherings—sad, solemn and joyous— and the ink that deepens the letters on its stone markers must never be allowed to fade. But more often than not, the tranquil glade is vacant of human life, and it is then that God whispers the ancestors awake from their burial mounds to watch over the lives in the house below." I heard these words fade as I entered the land of dreams and saw the shadow shapes of my ancestors witnessing the change that clamored at our gate. And then I sat beside them, enveloped in the smoky breath of their ancient wisdom, and I saw how the wind blew their sighs of sorrow, the rain scattered their tears, and snow spread their icy dismay as Western thought, Japan and Bleak Future crossed our unwilling, hermit’s threshold.

In September our church used a deacon’s ordination as an excuse to quietly celebrate Jungyang-jeol, the banned autumn festival of art and nature. Japan’s efforts to assimilate Korea included decrees against many cultural traditions, and though these rules were rarely enforced, it was best not to flaunt our celebration. Parishioners nibbled rice cakes and sipped cold barley tea in the church’s backyard. I stayed near the women and played in lively patterns of color and light speckling the shade cast by maples tipped in yellow and red. My hands reached to catch sunshine poking between the leaves, and my feet traced the maze of shadows that I pretended would lead to a cave of glories and awe. The American woman missionary, Miss Gordon, walked among us, greeting one congregant and exchanging polite words with another. And then she was in front of me, bending her long limbs and stooping to meet my eyes. "What pretty and colorful clothes. And what pretty little girl."

I blushed, bowed and looked for signals on how to properly behave with the towering ghost-eyed woman, but my mother was across the lawn talking to the minister’s wife.

"Now then, the name of yours is being what?" Miss Gordon said in her funny accent and mixed-up syntax. Flustered by the presence of such an important foreigner, and reminded about my namelessness, I covered my lips with my fingers to hold nervousness inside.

Mrs. Hwang, the chatty wife of the newly appointed deacon, overheard and quickly intervened. "She’s the yangban calligrapher’s daughter. And her mother is the woman from Nah-jin."

"Forgive me, my Korean is such still an embarrassment," said Miss Gordon. "Did you say Najin?"

We nodded.

"Well, Najin, that’s a very pretty name," and Miss Gordon rose and patted the top of my head. So it was thus, with the missionary’s dry baptism and Mrs. Hwang’s glibness, that my mother’s wintry hometown became my name.

As time passed, I clearly understood that Father’s decisions could never be questioned, especially about a subject that only I seemed to care about. Like so many unspoken questions which, unanswered, eventually submerge into the deepest recesses of memory, the state of not knowing became normal, like a forgotten scar, and over time my curiosity about having no formally given name seemed to die; or at least I forgot the intensity of wanting to know. Like the locust that sleeps for seventeen years then bores out of the earth whirring, leaving behind an empty hole, I would wonder on certain occasions in the years to come why he hadn’t named me something other than Najin, which had no meaning. I came to believe the reason was somehow related to that terrifying day, the thick smell of lilacs, those new words that had introduced me to apprehension.


Excerpted from The Calligrapher's Daughter by Kim, Eugenia Copyright © 2009 by Kim, Eugenia. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Reading Group Guide

Historical Note

While The Calligrapher's Daughter is a work of fiction, it takes place in a country whose antiquity, often alluded to in the novel, might be unfamiliar to some readers. Korea is one of the oldest unified nation-states in history, and is also one of the most homogeneous societies in the world. Two of Korea's dynasties, including the most recent Joseon Dynasty* (1392–1910), are among the longest sustained monarchies in world history. Graced with peace, reformation and enlightenment, these monarchies also suffered strife—royal filicide, internecine coups, attempted rebellions, factionalism, invasions and oppression. It is the extraordinary longevity of Korean political, ethnic and cultural continuity that remains a wellspring of the nation's proud identity.

Korea's legendary origin is remarkably pinpointed to a specific day more than 4,300 years ago, October 3, 2333 BCE, and is a mythic saga of a heavenly visitation to a she-bear on a mountain who ultimately gives birth to Korea's first king, Dangun. In the years leading to the Japanese occupation, the Dangun legend rose to importance as newspapers pitted Korea's ancient heavenly heritage against the Japanese emperor's relatively recent divine pedigree in a contest of primacy. But until the modern age, neither country disputed the supremacy and longevity of China.

In all of East Asia, China was regarded as the center of the civilized world. Those who were friends were like little brothers who, in exchange for loyalty, symbolic tributes and trade, benefited from Chinese military protection and advances in culture and civilization. Those who were enemies, like the Mongols and the Manchus, were considered barbarians.

Clearly China had a profound influence on the Korean peninsula, but over the centuries Korea transformed those influences into its own distinct advances in literature, art, ceramics, printing, philosophy, astronomy, medicine, and scholarship. Korea invented movable metal type (c. 1230) more than two hundred years before Gutenberg. The world's first self-striking water clock was constructed in 1434 at the dawn of the Joseon Dynasty, followed by the invention of new sundials, the precision rain gauge and several other astronomical and horologic devices in Korea's golden age of science (King Sejong's reign, 1412–50). The most significant invention under King Sejong was the Korean phonetic alphabet, simple enough to be learned by all classes, yet so comprehensive it is still used today. In terms of philosophy, the establishment of Confucianism in the Joseon Dynasty as state policy, religion and social norm was so transformative it has been distinguished as Neo-Confucianism by historians. Also, Korea is the only nation in the world where Christianity first took root without the presence of priests or missionaries, but exclusively as a result of the written word—Bibles, translated into Chinese by Jesuits, that a Korean scholar-official brought home from a diplomatic trip to Beijing in 1631.

In contrast to Korea's brotherly friendship with China, Korea and Japan shared a long-standing acrimony, exacerbated over the centuries by repeated Japanese pirate raids and the brutal Hideyoshi Invasions in 1592–98. China came to Korea's defense and that conflict ended in stalemate, but not before Korean Admiral Yi Sun-sin invented the world's first ironclad ship, the famous turtle ship, and used inventive explosive shells and mobile rocket launchers to repel the Japanese fleet.

The Hideyoshi Invasions initiated an era of wholesale change in the old East Asian order. Japan's samurai tradition gave way to the Tokugawa shogunate and the beginning of the Edo or modern period of stability (1603–1867) in that country. China's great Ming Empire fell to the Manchus, a tribal people from Manchuria, who founded the Qing Dynasty, China's last empire. These key changes fostered Korea's isolationist policies, and being geographically outside of major trade routes, it became one of the most insulated countries in the world. When the turbulent political climate ebbed in East Asia in the seventeenth century, friendly relations were reestablished, but the animosity between Korea and Japan, and China and Japan was never forgotten.

The 1800s brought wave after wave of Westerners pounding Asia's shores—Prussians, French, Russians, the British and Americas, an influx that signaled the fall of the Joseon Dynasty. All but Prussia gained footholds in East Asian territory or trade. In particular, a U.S.–forced trade agreement with Japan yielded a new Meiji government (1868) so eager to adopt Western ways that when Japan made its next annual trade tour to Korea, the Korean ministers were shocked to see the Japanese diplomats' radical change in dress and attitude.

This international influx led to four wars, China's Boxer Rebellion, and numerous treaties in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In this climate, King Gojong acceded to the throne in 1864 at age twelve. Power devolved to his father, known as the Daewongun, a staunch isolationist. Two years later, Gojong married a fifteen-year-old from the powerful Min clan, which favored modernization and relations with Japan. Bitter power struggles between Queen Min and the Daewongun resulted in waffling policy extremes of isolationism versus Western enlightenment, plus land reform, hefty taxes, growing ideological foment, a major peasant uprising (the Donghak Rebellion), and, overall, a vulnerable Korea. Using gunboat diplomacy, Japan forced Korea's doors open in 1875 to exclusive trade, and Japanese advisers and military flooded into the Korean court.

Four nations decided the fate of Korea in 1905 without once giving the Yi monarchy or the Korean people an opportunity to voice a single plea for independence. Russia had invaded Manchuria in 1900 and mustered for China, spurring the Russo-Japan War. To protect its interests in China, Great Britain allied with Japan, and in turn acknowledged Japan's interests in Korea. Both England and America believed Japanese control over Korea was an effective preventative against Russian expansion. President Theodore Roosevelt also saw Japan's domination of Korea as quid pro quo for U.S. control of the Philippines. And finally, in the American-engineered 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth that ended the Russo-Japan War, Russia pledged not to intercede with Japan's interests in Korea.

Japan moved quickly. In November 1905 a Japanese statesman, backed by troops, commanded the Korean prime minister to sign the Protectorate Treaty (also called the Treaty of 1905), giving Japan "protective" control over all government offices excluding the new Korean Emperorship. The prime minister refused and was dragged from the palace. Someone was dispatched to find the official seal, which was then affixed to the treaty by Japanese hands and considered accepted.

As Japan's interests began to spread beyond Korea's borders, dealing with Emperor Gojong's diplomatic attempts to regain Korea's independence and quelching the frequent student protests and popular insurgencies grew burdensome. In 1907 Japan coerced Gojong to abdicate to his son, Sunjong. Then on August 22, 1910, Sunjong was forced to sign the Treaty of Annexation, which made Korea a colony of Japan and ended the long autonomy of the Korean nation. Less than a month later, at the dawn of the thirty-five-year era of Japanese occupation of Korea, Najin was born.

* Yi Dynasty of the Joseon (or Choson) Kingdom, the latter meaning "Land of the Morning Calm."

Questions For Discussion

Najin's father, the calligrapher Han, is very traditional. Did he fear change or was he simply stubborn? What did change represent to him? What does he gain by maintaining old customs? What does he lose? Did your perceptions of him change as the novel progressed? While Najin is the primary narrator of The Calligrapher's Daughter, many chapters are written from the points-of-view of her father and her mother. How did seeing Najin's world from their perspective alter your understanding of it? Najin experiences faith and belief in varying degrees. When does her faith feel strongest to her, and when does it ebb? Why do you think she is unable to sustain a consistent belief? Given her conflicted feelings about religion, did you think she made the right decision to marry a seminarian? Most of the married couples in The Calligrapher's Daughter face severe stresses during at least one point of their relationship. Discuss the different challenges thrust upon them, as well as how they deal with them. What does this novel say about love? What does it say about fidelity? Ilsun, Najin's brother (whom she calls Dongsaeng), often seems to bring trouble upon himself and his family. What special pressures does he face as the firstborn son? Could you empathize at all with his behaviors? Despite the Korean Confucian standard of male supremacy during that era, many of the women in The Calligrapher's Daughter managed to find meaning and fulfillment in their lives. How did Najin's mother, her mother-in-law and her two sisters-in-law (Unsook and Meeja) find strength to make personal choices within the confines of their roles? What opportunities did the servant women have to marshal inner resources and the ability to make choices? Najin and her mother seem to share a deep understanding of all the best qualities in a mother-daughter relationship, yet the word "love" is never spoken. What are some of those qualities and how were they conveyed? As an adult, Najin tries to keep her personal trials to herself, such as her silence about the torture she witnessed in prison. Where did her ability to suppress feelings stem from? Could she have been more expressive? When might it have served her better if she were more forthcoming with her feelings and difficulties? The estate in Gaeseong has deep significance to the family, especially to Han who has rarely left it, and Najin who has often left and returned, enabling her to recognize its significance. How is the family estate a metaphor for Korea during the Japanese occupation? Five years after this novel ends, the Korean War began. It ended three bloody years later with an armistice agreement that partitioned the nation into North and South. Considering Korea's history of isolationism and the oppressive period depicted in The Calligrapher's Daughter, do you think there are parallels between the Japanese occupation and the military dictatorships of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in what is now the most insular and isolated nation in the world? Eugenia Kim has said that her novel was inspired by the life of her mother, and that the "writing experience radically changed my regard for my mother and my father, as well as my own Korean-American identity, in the most enriching, positive way." Are there stories in your own family's history that might contain the seeds of a novel?

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The Calligrapher's Daughter 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 43 reviews.
Samantha-Issac More than 1 year ago
I love novels where history is woven through, but not obvious, and this one did that beautifully. North Korea is seen in its beauty and cruelty through the eyes of one family, and especially the daughter. I didn't want the story to end. The author was able to make the family, their friends and neighbors, their home, church, school - everything come alive to where you felt as if you were right there. Though I have never had interest in visiting Asia, the book gave me such a curiosity for that culture, as well as a compassion for what each citizen had to endure as North Korea became more and more closed to Western thought and more and more open to communism, despite the people's desires.
Blodeuedd More than 1 year ago
Another win. This was a great book, and I would recommend it to fans of Wild Swans by Jung Chang, Leaving Mother Lake by Yang Erche Namu & Christine Mathie, and even Memoirs of a geisha by Arthur Golden. I got the same feeling as I got from those books, and not just because those took place in China and Japan, and this one in Korea. No, it was because two of those were about real events, and in this one the author was inspired by her mother's story. There was reality and everyday life. And life in a time of turmoil. This was the story about Najin, a girl who is not named and gets her name by mistake, a name that doesn't even mean anything. She lives in Korea, a country occupied by Japan, and life gets harder and harder as the Japanese tries to oppress the people. She is headstrong, much to her fathers regret. And thanks to her mother she gets to attend missionary school, and she has a real yearning for education. But her father wants to hold on to the old ways, and tradition. While she wants more. I admired her a lot, because she was so strong and wanted so much. And then there is the way they spoke then, I was fascinated. She meets the emperor and thanks him for remembering a a screen her dad had painted. "Thank you for your Imperial Highness's kindness to this persons worthless family." And that is not the only time she says something like that, but it is used in other places. So yes rather fascinated by the way they spoke back then. It is a story about a girl growing up, going to school, and everyday life. And watching the political unrest around her. Her dad getting beaten and put in jail, people dying after a failed protest march, a woman taking her own life after being raped by soldiers. Land being given away to Japanese families, and Korean families starving. At the same time she also spends time at court, and watches the fall of the royal family, as the emperor is murdered. Her dad who was a famous calligrapher, and who had a lot of money slowly poorer and poorer. But she never says that this is wrong, and this is right. The book tells it as she sees it, and also sometimes from her father's and mother's POV. There is also a mention about a certain rebel leader up north, but her dad is not so big on communists, even if they fight the Japanese. This was such an enjoyable story. 30 years of Korean history in a country that truly changed during that time. There is friendship, hardship, and even romance promised as the grows up as the Armstrong woman she was. A truthful look at a time gone by.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Its so rare to find a bovel about Korea that is in English and Lm very glad I found this one'- I loved the integration of language too it made me feel like I was back visiting my family
-Garciaaaaa- More than 1 year ago
I began reading this book with very high expectations, and it did not disappoint me. The Korean culture that was highly expressed throughout the book was very emotional and strong. Korean lifestyle and living is portrayed accurately throughout the whole entire book. The author also clearly depicted to me what traditional Korean life was like under the harsh colonial rule of the Japanese Empire . The way that that love is reunited at the end of the book gave me the feeling that this book was probably one of the best I've have read in a while. For me living in Korea for about 10 months now, this gives me a new perspective of the people here and what their ancestors had to go through to make Korea what it is today.
retromom More than 1 year ago
This was a beautiful coming of age story about a girl in Korea during the Japanese occupation. It is a period and place that I knew very little about. I was pulled into the story right from the beginning when we meet a young girl of five who does not yet have a name. Her father refuses to name her. He is a calligrapher and a political activist. Najin is finally given a name and as she grows into a young woman her life takes many unexpected turns due to the political unrest at the time and her father's determination to stick with the old ways. She is a strong character who earned my admiration. It is not a quick read but a book to be slowly read and savored.
GailCooke More than 1 year ago
Countless words have been written about families torn asunder by war and the oppression endured by those living in occupied countries. However, I daresay few have been as artfully phrased as this story based on the author's mother's life. Eugenia Kim's prose is melodious, flowing as freely as the beautiful streams she describes. Nonetheless, she is also dealing with horrific events, reminders of devastation, the pain man is capable of creating. Born in early 20th century Korea Najin Han was five-years-old before she realized that she had no name or even that she should have one. After all, she was a girl and of little interest to her father, a noted calligrapher. While this would always be true it was especially so when her father's mind was otherwise occupied - the weight of Japan was coming to bear upon not his beloved country and the centuries old traditions he revered. Najin learned early on "the threefold laws of a woman's life: obey one's father, obey one's husband, obey's one's sons." However, she was a spirited child who would later yearn for freedom. She was close to her mother who said it was best to follow the old ways, and this Najin did at least outwardly until at the age of 14 unbeknownst to her and her mother she was betrothed by her father to a boy she did not know. For the first time her mother deceived her husband and arranged for Najin to receive a court appointment in Seoul. There she remained, able to continue her education until the royal family was overthrown. Najin returned to her family, and soon found work so that she was able to contribute to the dwindling household account. She bridled several years later when her mother introduced her to a young man, yet she found herself drawn to him. She experienced feelings previously unknown. He was a student bound to study in America, a place of which she had dreamed. When he proposed, saying that she would be able to accompany him to America she accepted. Yet they have only one night together as husband and wife before they are separated not only by an ocean but by war, a world at war. She and her family suffered greatly during the Japanese occupation of Korea, and as the years passed Najin doubted that she would ever see her husband again. Few will read her story without shedding a tear; all will greatly admire her courage in the face of unspeakable deprivation and physical punishment. As noted in the Acknowledgments illustrations on the title and part title pages were done by the author's mother who "deferred pursuing her love of art until widowhood in her eighties." A remarkable woman; an unforgettable story. - Gail Cooke
Christine_Emming More than 1 year ago
Soft, gentle prose shapes an unnamed girl's story as she endures a diminished pedigree, loss of hopes and her home together with a failed marriage during the Japanese occupation of Korea. A traditional Korean, the girl's father shows his disappointment at the birth of a daughter, by declining to name her, an event that Najin, as she comes to be nicknamed at age eight, struggles to understand. Her future clouded by her father's opposition and sweeping government reforms, Najin cobbles together a delicate balance of her father's ideals and the reality of Korea under Japanese rule. Kim's sweeping tale offers a woman's perspective on Korea's strict patriarchal society. Heavy with sentiment, Kim tells her mother's winding story in an uncomplicated way. It may be historically accurate that protestant religions flourished in Korea long before missionaries arrived, but the Christian motif runs a bit rampant here, overly pedantic and at times even pushy. Thorough as a sermon, the underlying religious aspect of the novel is inseparable from its characters and, in fact, largely motivates them. At the root of the book is the bond of family, which Kim beautifully displays. Holding true to the emotional restraint of the characters, Kim heightens a reader's ability to infer meaning from tone, posture and word selection. No one expected anything of her, an unnamed Korean girl. But her honest struggles with identity, education, marriage and faith will resonate deeply, striking a bright and surprisingly modern chord with readers.
harstan More than 1 year ago
When his daughter is born, aristocratic traditionalist Han refuses to name her because Japan occupies the Korean Peninsular. Instead the newborn becomes known as "baby", etc. Fives years after her birth she is lovingly nicknamed Najin, the name of her mom's hometown. When Najin turns fourteen years old, her strict father decides she needs a spouse of his choice. Her usually obedient mother objects and instead sends her daughter to the royal court. Najin graduates from college and becomes a teacher. She goes home to marry, but soon afterward, her loving husband obtains a visa to study in America while she is denied one due to her humanitarian activities. The Japanese occupation turns brutal as they assault Korean tradition and destroy affluent families like that of calligrapher Han. Najin is arrested and incarcerated as a spy while the war expands into WWII. This is a super look at Korean history from WWI through WWII as seen by the heroine, but also provides some insight into the rich heritage of the country. For instance the ruling Joseon Dynasty lasted over five centuries before the Japanese finally destroyed it in 1910 though the seeds of interring the Yi monarchy occurred in the 1905 Russo-Japanese Treaty that ironically is highly regarded in American history books as top rate Teddy Roosevelt diplomacy. The story line is super as the audience follows Najin's life, but is owned by the profound look at the brutal Japanese occupation, which turns THE CALLIGRAPHER'S DAUGHTER into an excellent biographical historical fiction novel based on the life of author Eugenia Kim's mom. Harriet Klausner
ZaraAlexis on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The narrative is delicate and sensitive as the mannerisms and language of traditional Korean propriety. And though the daughter of the calligrapher is born unnamed, her strength of character and unwavering discipline and grace evolves as naturally, artistically, and raw as the process of calligraphy itself. It goes without saying that the art of Korean calligraphy is one engraved with history, tradition, years of training, depth of feeling, artistic pride, and fluidity.Yes, the novel is about the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early twentieth century, but it is more so about the resilience of Korean propriety, patriotism, duty, cultural tradition and history, faith, and the strong love and bond between family, specifically, mother and daughter as shown in the characters of Najin and her Umma-nim.There are competing values in the book: tradition vs. modernism; Korea vs. Japan; propriety of women vs. men; aristocracy vs. the underprivileged; Christianity vs. Confucianism; domestication vs. pursuit of higher education; and the list goes on.What I enjoyed most about the book was the window it provided in disclosing traditional Korean propriety and the secret world of the Korean aristocracy as shown by the Emperor and its Korean royalty. Where westernized values often demean subservience, conservative cultural practices, and even domestication, as well as self-discipline (viewed as a form of rigidity)¿I, myself, from an Asian background, understand their significance and appeal.The traditional propriety found in Korean practices come from an intent of honour and decorum, which I, from reading this novel, have come to truly appreciate. Others may scoff and march in bands of protest, the cries of ¿independence¿ and ¿liberation¿ and ¿modernism,¿ but I find as a native born into western culture, but raised by an ethnic (namely Asian) cultural paradigm, I feel the pull of sentimental tradition and its quiet, subdued, and subservient qualities, its actual richness¿ something that the west actually lacks. What could be naturally condemned in the novel by western beliefs is actually what I became nostalgic for in reading it.It¿s an elegant, lyrical novel with characters who are well-versed and practiced at concealing what is a deeply rooted passion for country, culture, history, tradition, and family. A beautiful read.
TooBusyReading on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
¿I learned I had no name on the same day I learned fear.¿ The haunting first line promises good things to come and does not disappoint. This Korean daughter was called Najin, the town of her mother, in lieu of a name because her father would not grant her a naming ceremony or a name.Najin's family is very traditional and privileged at the beginning of the 20th century, when Japan starts dominating Korea. As a girl child, Najin is taught traditions and restraints incomprehensible to most of us today, yet managed to achieve much. Her father is very rigid in maintaining the old ways and her mother is compliant, like water. Her brother is spoiled and petulant, caught between two worlds. As Japanese dominance gains strength, the family knows poverty, as so much of the country, and their traditions as a Korean family and faith as a Christian family, are considered subversive.Covering almost half a century, the story does not always move quickly but I never found myself bored with it. I love the look at Korean life during this period, and cannot imagine developing the restraint and submissiveness required of proper Korean women. The author writes beautifully and I hope she publishes another book soon.I read a library copy of this book for my F2F book club.
knittingmomof3 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
From My Blog...The Calligrapher¿s Daughter by Eugenia Kim is a beautiful tale told primarily by Najin Han, however several sections are told through her father Han, the calligrapher as well as through her mother. The story begins in 1915 when at age of five, Najin learns she was not given a name. Her mother was referred to as ¿the woman from Nah-jin¿ and a missionary thought Najin would be a beautiful name and thus she became known as Najin Han. The story takes the reader through the tumultuous times of Korea fighting for its own identity while under Japanese influence as well a lot of missionaries, both of which are prominent in the novel and Najin¿s life. Kim weaves together a beautiful tale broken down into smaller sections of time, a certain year or several years that prove important to the story. Each section is a self-contained short story but smoothly transforms into a fascinating story of a young Korean girl coming of age, of family, traditions both old and new, and the struggle of identity and faith. Kim is quite descriptive in her writing allowing the reader a glimpse into the first half of the 20th century in Korea. Beautiful prose accompanies well-developed characters and the reader would be hard pressed to not find Najin a charming character. The Calligrapher¿s Daughter was Kim¿s debut novel and proves to be a brilliant debut; I am looking forward to reading more of her works. I highly recommend The Calligrapher¿s Daughter to all readers and think this would make a wonderful discussion group choice.
wagner.sarah35 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Not knowing much about Korean history previously, I found this novel very illuminating on the subject. The Calligrapher's Daughter tells the tale of Najin Han, who grows up a privileged life in early twentieth-century Korea, a country experiencing great changes. As Najin grows up, the Japanese occupation grows more limiting for Koreans, and many of Najin's family and friends fall afoul of the Japanese. Despite her father's determination for his daughter to follow tradition, Najin manages to avoid a childhood marriage and pursue an education. She even finds a man to love and the promise of continuing her education in America. But Najin is denied permission to leave Korea, and more than a decade passes filled with struggles and war before she sees her husband again. An interesting read filled with Korean history and believable characters.
Niecierpek on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An elegantly written family saga spanning 30 years of Japanese occupation of Korea from 1915 to 1945.
RobinDawson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Through telling her mother's story Kim is able to tell the much wider story of Korea's history in the early decades of the 20th century. I knew very little about the occupation of Korea by Japan so it was certainly interesting to learn how this occurred and to consider the harsh impact on the Korean people. The writing however leaves something to be desired ¿ the characters seem cut outs, one dimensional, wooden.
SeriousGrace on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is the story of Najin Han from childhood to womanhood in early 20th century Korea. Najin Han begins her life on Korea's cusp of Japanese occupation as a curious child who often tests the boundaries of her small world by spying on the adult conversations of her parents. As a child she sees and experiences the beginnings of the Japanese occupation but does not completely understand it. As she matures her world changes colors and she watches the political boundaries and tests the cultural ones. From a young age she has wanted to determine her own destiny and as a result Najin grows up to be a headstrong woman, having been pulled in different directions by everyone around her. Into Korean adulthood (by age 12) her mother continues to encourage Najin to foster personal growth and even helps her pursue an education. To avoid a prearranged marriage Najin's mother sends her to a king's count to be a companion for the princess; a very unconventional idea for a woman in early 20th century Korea. Meanwhile, her father is a staunch believer in Old World traditions and customs. He fiercely tries to hold onto Korea while the country slowly loses independence.
the_awesome_opossum on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Calligrapher's Daughter is about the resourcefulness of an upper-class Korean young woman named Najin, as Korea struggles with Japanese occupation and pernicious Western influence fracturing their country and culture. To survive and support her family, Najin works and gains advantages any way she can: she is taken to the palace when she is young; later she teaches, sews, keeps house for her in-laws. She is strong and capable, hardly the standard for young Korean women at the beginning of the 20th century, especially in her very conservative father's eyes.The book is not without some flaws. Both the prose and the plot could have been tightened up and made more dynamic, especially in the early parts of the book. That may be the nonfiction influence though - the novel began as Eugenia Kim's nonfiction retelling of her mother's life, and grew into a larger fiction project. So it's even more impressive to see everything that Najin went through for her family, and know that the author's mother actually accomplished them. An interesting read, and because I wasn't familiar with Korean history, it ended up being really educational too.
rhshelver on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book was an enjoyable read and I was glad to learn more about Korean history and culture. However, I found that I expected more of the main character -- things just seem to happen to her. A woman who represents a new cultural direction for Korea -- particularly one who accomplishes what she does and lives through what she does -- should not be quite so passive, especially when the author has described her otherwise. I had also expected her to express more conflicting emotions about being caught between her traditional family and her desire to be more independent.
cemming on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Soft, gentle prose shapes an unnamed girl¿s story as she endures a diminished pedigree, loss of hopes and home together with a failed marriage during the Japanese occupation of Korea. A traditional, upperclass Korean man, the girl¿s father shows his disappointment at the birth of a daughter, by declining to name her, an event that Najin, as she comes to be nicknamed at age eight, struggles to understand. Her future clouded by her father¿s opposition and sweeping government reforms, Najin cobbles together a delicate balance of her father¿s ideals and the reality of Korea under Japanese rule. Kim¿s sweeping tale offers a woman¿s perspective on Korea¿s strict patriarchal society. Heavy with sentiment, Kim tells her mother¿s winding story in an uncomplicated way. It may be historically accurate that protestant religions flourished in Korea long before missionaries arrived, but the Christian motif runs a bit rampant here, overly pedantic and at times even pushy. Thorough as a sermon, the underlying religious aspect of the novel is inseparable from its characters and, in fact, largely motivates them. At the root of the book is the bond of family, which Kim beautifully displays. Holding true to the emotional restraint of the characters, Kim heightens a reader¿s ability to infer meaning from tone, posture and word selection. No one expected anything of her, an unnamed Korean girl. But her honest struggles with identity, education, marriage and faith will resonate deeply, striking a bright and surprisingly modern chord with readers.
book58lover on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The fictionalized account of the life of the author's mother in Korea during the Japanese occupation. This book is greatly helped by the author's preface, the glossary of Korean terms in the back and the explanation for the reader of the period of the first half of the 20th century. Written in prose that is gentle and at a measured pace, this story describes Nijia Han's birth through her marriage to Calvin Cho. Being the first born daughter has many challenges in this Asian culture because her father is so traditional, but she is able to overcome much of it with the help of her mother who doesn't want to see her bethrothed at a young age. Nijia instead moves to the palace and serves with her aunt until the emperor is murdered. It is not a quiet peasant life for Nijia who then marries and lives apart from her American-bound husband for eleven years.I had difficulty believing the times spent in the palace with the princess as a 'playmate' but I had to remember that Najia came from the elite class. Her father was a well-known and respected calligrapher who owned quite a large estate and had servants. It wasn't until the war years when Japan was ramping up production for the war effort that the Han family was evicted from their home which was taken for military purposes. The description of her time in prison was disheartning and her father's reaction to it was very sad given his revolutionary actions.I have not read any other books about this occupational period and plan to share this book with a friend who teaches world history. I would certainly recommend it to anyone interested in Asian history and culture.
MarthaL on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A interesting book for group discussion especially for those wanting to know about life for women or Christians in Korea during the pre-world war II era.
mama_kanga on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
"The Calligrapher's Daughter" tells the story of a girl growing up and becoming a woman in Korea during Japan's occupation and through WWII. The history of this time was unfamiliar to me, but Eugenia Kim made it interesting and told it through the eyes of characters that you begin to care about. It delves into questions of family loyalty, faith, and tradition. Najin's questions of faith are familiar even though they are told through a different time and place. Her need for independence is admirable, but so is her devotion to her family. Overall, "The Calligrapher's Daughter" is a good read. It's detailed and slow at some points, but it all builds to create the world in which Najin lived.
bookaholicmom on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was a beautiful coming of age story about a girl in Korea during the Japanese occupation. It is a period and place that I knew very little about. I was pulled into the story right from the beginning when we meet a young girl of five who does not yet have a name. Her father refuses to name her. He is a calligrapher and a political activist. Najin is finally given a name and as she grows into a young woman her life takes many unexpected turns due to the political unrest at the time and her father's determination to stick with the old ways. She is a strong character who earned my admiration. It is not a quick read but a book to be slowly read and savored.
OpheliaAwakens on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is really good. I knew about the Japanese occupation of Korea, and knew it was a source of resentment, but this book makes national issues much more personal. The main character is very compelling and you want to hear her story. I was hooked from the first page.
Soniamarie on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is truly a heartwarming and lovely tale, one of those novels that touches you in such a way, you hate for it to end. It is story of a Korean girl and her mother, a story of a proud nation battling the aggressiveness of another, a story of a man coming to understand and accept that old ways and lifestyle must change, and a story of love that survives many hardships. All these stories in one magnificent novel. The Korean girl, Najin, is growing up in a very Confucian household. Her mother, however, strives for Najin to get an education and to make something of herself. Throughout the many years, wars, and tribulations, Najin's mother is there for her, supporting her and fighting for her, even standing up to her strict husband to save Najin's future. Najin, does indeed, make something of herself despite her nation's constant battles with Japan and being separated from her husband and even imprisoned. Readers also see things from Najin's father's point of view, as he comes of age in a society that is straying from his traditional beliefs and he comes to slowly accept that his daughter is not so "worthless" after all. Tho taking a minor role in the novel, a love story also thrives. Being married for only a day and separated for eleven years, reader's will find out if love is enough for Najin and her husband. The ending will leave reader's dabbing their eyes. Truly, a gem and absolute must read. Highly recommended.
SamSattler on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
"The Calligrapher's Daughter" is Eugenia Kim's debut novel and, as so many first novels do, the book tells a story very close to the author's heart, one, in this case, inspired by her own mother's life. Set in Korea between 1915 and 1945, it recounts the suffering inflicted upon the country by Japanese invaders that arrived there early in the 20th century. Japanese administrators, determined to wipe out any memory of an independent Korea, allowed only Japanese to be spoken in schools, taught only Japanese history to Korean children, destroyed the Korean royal family, and filled local prisons with those that dared protest. During World War II, when Japan realized its chances of prevailing were slipping away, life became particularly desperate for Koreans because Japan saw Korea as little more than a source of slave labor, food, and raw materials to be exploited for the Japanese war effort. Many Korean patriots, however, refused to submit to the inevitable - and they paid a heavy price for their resistance. Najin Han's father was one of those. Najin began life as her Christian family's first born child, enjoying the comfortable lifestyle her well known artist father was able to provide. But, though she was too young to recognize it, all was not well in her world. By the time she was five years old, Japan was well into its efforts to annex her country and her father had begun to attract the attention of local Japanese authorities concerned with snuffing out the resistance. Over the course of the next thirty years, Najin will struggle to carve out an independent life for herself, one with which her tradition bound father will never be completely happy. Najin is fortunate, however, to have as ally a mother willing to defy her husband in the best interest of her daughter. Rather than capitulate to her husband's decision to marry off his 14-year-old daughter (to the 12-year-old son of an old friend of his), Mrs. Han secretly sends Najin to the royal court in Seoul where Najin's dream of an education is made possible. "The Calligrapher's Daughter" is, though, as much the story of 20th century Korea as it is an engaging family saga. Readers, like me, whose sense of Korean history begins with the Korean War of the 1950s and ends with the horrors perpetrated by the almost cartoonish North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, will come away from the book with a new appreciation of Korean culture and the suffering its people have endured for the last 100 years. They will also become emotionally attached to Najin and her family as they follow the course of Najin's life and everything that happens to her during this violent period in Korean history. Some readers may find the book's initial pacing to be a bit sluggish. I want to encourage those readers not to give up on the book too quickly because its pacing mimics that of Japan's efforts to assimilate Korea - things begin to happen quicker and quicker as the country, and the book, move toward their respective climaxes. Rated at: 4.0