A Living Memoir of One Thousand Characters

One Thousand Characters, Courtesy of Kim Jaehee

Written by Jaehee Kim Wilder

After living many years away from one’s hometown, the number of possessions that bring memories of one’s childhood dwindles. When I left Seoul to begin my career with the U.N. in 1975, I used up the full amount of the allowance for shipment of personal effects. The allowance was generous enough that I was able to take a few things that made my place retain some Korean flavor for my two already teenage children and me. I have since worked in seven different countries (two to six years of service at each) until I retired in 1995. Every time I moved from one duty station to another, and then made the big move for retirement, invariably I had to reduce the amount of my cumulated possessions to the allowable size for shipment. In the process, old things from Seoul gradually disappeared.

One exception was the little book of Chŏnjamun, or One Thousand Characters. Written with pen and ink on plain newsprint, bound with cotton thread, and protected by a dyed rice paper cover; it is a true antique. It is the book my mother made as a refugee in the middle of the Korean War.

I was in the tenth grade when North Korea launched a surprise attack on June 25, 1950, and captured Seoul. My family and our neighbors endured both the war and the resulting shortage of everyday necessities for three long months. We had become refugees trapped in our own homes. Then, in September, the South Korean military, aided by the forces of twenty-four U.N. member nations, marched back and reclaimed Seoul.

However, another three months later, something incredible happened. In January 1952, North Korean forces, bolstered by the Chinese, marched south again. However, my parents apparently knew of the North’s second advance and were determined not to be trapped in Seoul again. We abandoned our home and fled to the port of Inchon. My parents rented a fishing boat there and sailed south to Pogil Island, a small island at the southwestern tip of the Korean peninsula and the birthplace of my older sister’s husband. His father owned a large estate there where we finally took refuge. A few months after my family arrived, the book came into being.

Both my parents were school teachers in Seoul, but, as refugees in a remote and sparsely populated island, they expected that they would become idle and their lives would be dull. However, things quickly became quite hectic — for my mother especially. She became the sought-after tailor of the island because, among the few things my parents had packed for our flight from Seoul, was a sewing machine. I now see that, like all women of those days, my mother had many plans for emergency preparedness, and the sewing machine was a crucial part of those. I do not know how she started it — and she was the only person in the entire ward who could cut and sew military uniforms by copying [patterns] from existing ones — but I know she was producing many uniforms those days.

As the battle between North and South escalated, increasing numbers of young men from the island were drafted to the frontlines. Some of them were leaving the island for the first time, and most of them had never had a chance to use Western style outfits until then. The military never managed to supply these young recruits with uniforms; they were told to report to duty with privately acquired ones. Mothers of the newly drafted soldiers flocked to our place with cotton fabrics, and ordered uniforms for their sons that they could not get anywhere else. It was my job to keep records of these clients’ names as well as the items that were being made for them.

My mother dyed the cotton military green, starched it a little, and cut it into suitable shapes according to basic patterns she had developed. I ironed the pieces to make visible sewing lines for her to follow. I did it with a delightfully shaped small iron called an indu, which is heated by being buried beneath a charcoal fire. The villagers paid my mother in kind, with their catch of fish of the day, chicken or vegetables. They typically did not have money.

One day, Mother wanted to order some herbs from an herbal medicine store on a larger, nearby island, and I had to take a dictation from her while she operated the sewing machine. In the preceding months, my mother had become a mentor to the women for whom she made uniforms and, now, she was ordering herbs for various ailments of their family members. In fact, by then, she had practically become a medicine woman for them. She had brought with her, from Seoul, a thick red book — it was sort of an encyclopedia containing ailments, their traditional cures and therapies varying from China and India to ancient European countries. I had to copy some of the names of the herbs from the book, mostly written in Chinese characters. Then, Mother wanted to proofread my note, which is when disaster hit me. She could not believe what she saw. She was brokenhearted with my primitive handwriting. She said, “Who would believe that you actually spent ten years, no, eleven years, including kindergarten, of schooling when they see this ignorant-looking handwriting?” She forbade me to take part in the daily sewing projects right then and there.

That night, under a kerosene lamp, Mother wrote the first few pages of Ch’ŏnjamun. She actually preferred calling the book, Paeksumun (or “Grey Hair Book”). As told by her, Paeksumun was composed in one night. In an ancient Chinese court, a young poet committed a grave crime and the king was ready to execute him. However, his ministers begged him to forgive the poet and persuaded the king to delay the execution. The king said to the young man, “If you compose 250 verses of four characters before tomorrow morning, then I shall forgive you.” The young man started writing verses right away. Imagine. Rice paper, brush and ink are the only things he could use in those days and he needed to compose 250 verses. He completed his assignment by the dawn next morning and brought the verses in rolls of rice paper to the king, who almost did not recognize the young man. The effort to write so much, so quickly, caused his hair to go totally grey overnight.

I think Mother had gotten hold of a book of Ch’ŏnjamun from somewhere in the meantime and she did not have to write from memory after a few days. When she finished her copy, she had some 21 sheets of newsprint paper in legal size. Each sheet folded in the middle to make two pages of six verses with four characters each. Each character is placed in a thinly lined square (she drew the lines in pencil) and has a note in small print on top to indicate the meaning and how to say it in Korean and in English. For the next few months, my life was focused on learning to make correct strokes of the thousand basic Chinese characters in this book. I spent a fixed number of hours daily with the book, writing and copying a page or two — twenty-four to forty-eight characters. I would show my work before dinner to my parents. Depending on how I did for the day, I could advance to the next page or repeat practicing the same strokes the following day.

I did contribute to the making of the book before it was bound. Mother had found some good quality rice paper to use as the book cover. For preparation, she had me cook thinly mixed wheat flour water, and then cool it in a large basin. She gave me some lavender powder to dye the gruel with which made it beautiful pale lavender. I furled the rice paper into the basin in order to soak in the gruel water, and I took the paper out when it was soaked through — but before it became too soggy. I placed the sheet flat on a bamboo rack to dry. When all moisture had evaporated from it, it became sufficiently stiff to be a good book cover. I do not remember seeing her binding the sheets with those beautiful lavender covers, but I do remember seeing the thread that she used. Most of her work on the book she did was during the night when we were already in bed and that is why, I think, I do not remember seeing her complete it. I do remember how delighted I was when she finally presented me with my own one-of-a-kind edition of the Grey Hair Book of Verses. The front cover has her handwritten title of Paeksumun.

The book will soon be sixty years old and the lavender from the cover has faded to almost grey, but it is still my most prized treasure.

My handwriting never became as elegant as she had hoped. Nevertheless, I cannot deny the fact that I gained a bit of knowledge of ancient Chinese philosophy expressed in those verses. I remember friends teasing me for sounding like an old person when I blurted out one or two verses from the book occasionally in my late teen years. If I possess any desirable tendencies as a productive member of society (sense of justice, loyalty, etc.) in my own way, then, while I was under my parent’s watchful eyes, the germs for them were there for me to pick up in those years of reading and learning from such books as Ch’ŏnjamun.