[Viewpoint]Humiliations line the path to honorI recently read “Namhansan-seong,” the new novel by Kim Hoon. I had waited a long time for the epic novel to be published, so I rushed to a neighborhood bookstore as soon as I heard it was out. I sat up all night reading the story and underlining passages.
The novel described the disgrace King Injo of the Joseon Dynasty experienced after taking refuge, joined only by scores of courtiers, on a mountain fortress on top of Mount Namhan, south of the Han River, for 47 days when the Qing Dynasty of China invaded in 1636. The king finally had to come down to a village at the foot of the mountain, Samjeondo, and had to suffer the humiliation of kowtowing to the Qing emperor to save his life.
Choi Myeong-gil, a courtier in King Injo’s court, described the wretchedness of the situation by saying, “There was almost nothing the strong and the powerful did not do to persecute the weak, and there was almost nothing the weak did not do to save their lives.” The author added, “Remember the dishonor you suffered. Life is a series of days in which we endure humiliations. The people who were contaminated so they could live are graceful.”
Kim Hoon’s novel raises a few more questions: “Is it better to live by dying, or die by remaining alive? Is it better to die with grace, or live in disgrace?” King Injo’s courtiers, who supported a war against the Manchurian invaders, supported a just and noble cause, but resisting was not possible. The words of the courtiers who wanted a compromise with the Chinese were disgraceful but practical.
In the novel, a courtier named Kim Sang-heon crossed the frozen Han River with guidance from an old boatsman. He was the ferryman who had helped the king’s procession cross the river from the other side the day before. He complained, “The procession of the Royal Highness crossed the river without any problems, but I had to return to my empty village, which was deserted because the villagers had fled south without being paid their bowls of rice.” And he said that he did not intend to leave the village, even though he was told the invading Chinese troops would arrive there soon. Kim Sang-heon swallowed his sobs when he heard the boatsman’s monologue: “I wonder whether I could get some grain if I guide the Chinese troops cross the frozen river when they arrive here.” Kim cut the throat of the boatsman after crossing the river.
Different people may read the historical meaning of the novel differently. But the reason why men, who are said to be the last group in Korea who read fiction, are so excited about the novel is because the pattern of their lives is not much different from the ferryman. The pattern of the lives of the ordinary people was, is and will always be the same as that of the ferryman.
Life is full of beautiful things, and concepts such as justice and ideology add brilliance to it. This novel clearly depicts the lives of ordinary people who faithfully perform their occupations. “What on Earth! How can they do such things to me?” were the first things I heard when I answered a phone call from a painter several days ago. Here is his entire story:
About 10 years ago, it was not easy to live on the salary of an artist. Someone visited him, along with a well-known entertainer. The person proposed selling the painter’s artwork to entertainers, because he said he knew many of them. He also asked the painter to give one of his pieces to the entertainer who was with him as a token of appreciation. The painter handed over 20 of his pieces to the man, but hadn’t heard from him since. The painter was the victim of a fraud.
His pride was damaged and he got sick from the humiliation he suffered.
Incidentally, he found one of the paintings he gave to the entertainer for sale at a gallery recently. After making several inquiries, he found out the entertainer’s contact number and quickly gave him a call. Naturally, the conversation was not friendly. He said, “This is a painter you met 10 years ago. I understand that you want to sell a painting I gave you at that time. Can you tell me the price?” After exchanging rough words, the entertainer apologized to the artist and returned the controversial painting, too.
Even after being victimized by fraud, the artist experienced a lot of humiliating incidents while dealing with galleries. So he clenched his teeth and dug into the job of painting. Now, he is one of the most popular painters in Korea.
Michelangelo, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Lee Jung-seob and Park Soo-keun, etc. Not one painter has become famous without overcoming humiliation. Michelangelo was adopted to the Medici family when he was 15. It is said that he suffered his entire life from the the fickleness and oppression of his guardians. He served seven popes, including Pope Leo X and Pope Clemente VII, who mainly ordered him to work on their graves and sculptures for cathedrals. They unfairly meddled in his work and paid little, so Michelangelo deplored that his job was like “a tragedy in the graveyard.”
I think the same applies to our daily lives. Therefore, I take the passage from Kim’s work seriously: “No disgrace is unacceptable, and humiliation and self-respect are two sides of a coin.”
*The writer is the chairman of K Auction. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Sun-eung