[Viewpoint] A general’s legacy of art and peaceA traditional New Year’s music performance sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism was held at the Seoul Arts Center at the beginning of the year. Since they were in the neighborhood, some of the ministry’s arts directors - organizers of the event - stopped by the Calligraphy Exhibition Center in the arts complex in Seocho District, southern Seoul. Museum officials, excited by the rare visit by government officials, raced to greet them. They carried in their arms material to explain the ongoing special exhibition featuring works by one of Korea’s most respected heroes and independence fighters, Ahn Jung-geun (1879-1910).
But they found they made a fuss over nothing. The visiting arts directors weren’t interested in the exhibition, nor were they aware of what was being shown. What they were interested in was the exhibition site. One even suggested repurposing the building as an umbrella organization of the ministry.
The museum officials were at a loss for words.
The famous calligraphy works of the general widely celebrated for his martyrdom, virtue and visionary writings had been on display since last year to mark the centennial of his 1909 assassination of a Japanese leader in protest of an annexation attempt, and his execution the following year. The exhibition has had one official visitor from a government-level minister level so far - the defense minister.
But the exhibition’s popularity has warranted a long run, until Feb. 15. Organizers say visitors leave the museum with a different perspective of the historic figure. Before they came, most knew General Ahn as an independence hero who assassinated Hirobumi Ito, resident general of the Japanese colonized government in Korea, on a railway platform in Harbin, Manchuria. But most visitors left with watery eyes, unable to easily walk away from the calligraphy that still breathe Ahn’s spirit.
Sentenced to execution on Feb. 14, 1910, General Ahn used calligraphy in his prison cell to transform his fears of death into art. His is a rarity in world history. He squeezed out his soul over white paper during the 40 days before his execution on March 26.
But how a man who lived not more than 31 years could have had such depth of wisdom and width of vision is astounding.
Yi Ki-ung, head of the publisher Youlhwadang, in compiling the biography “Ahn Jung-geun’s Battle, Still Unfinished,” extolled his talent: “his every words were blossoms from Asian classics.”
If Ahn had left paintings instead of calligraphic works, the modern world would have been abuzz over the hero’s posthumous works. Unfortunately, his descendants have grown too distant and disinterested in classic calligraphy and writings to truly appreciate his artistic legacy.
Ahn was both a nobleman with the courage to gun down an enemy and an artist of refinement.
We hitherto mostly focused on Ahn as the revolutionist. His other half, an ardent reader and self-taught pupil of Chinese writings, remains less celebrated. He was an open-minded reformer, converting to Catholicism and learning French. He was a social activist, advocating for schools and leading a campaign to redeem government debt.
His unfinished essay “Peace in East Asia” - his last wish was to delay his execution until he finished writing it - was born from his multilayered talents.
Despite Ahn’s sacrifice, this country went under Japanese rule a century ago. But what if the patriotic and visionary hero saw us today? We applaud the Japanese Prime Minister’s East Asia Community theory and celebrate ourselves for hosting a G-20 summit event. But do any of the politicians busy biting at each other over Sejong City and the four rivers project know the ideas behind Ahn’s vision for peace in East Asia? Japanese magazines and TV networks have been spotlighting a special series on Ahn and his Pan-Asian theory. Here, meanwhile, there’s little action and all talk. There’s talk of seeking finance and building a museum. But no one seems to really bother about how that museum would be filled.
A calligraphy artist of the Ming Dynasty (1368?1644) wrote that if something is free of the fetters of formalities, it will be a fish breaking through a net. Ahn’s calligraphy is that fish. He left behind not a button, but only his writing. We must stand before his writings and read hard into them.
The exhibition of his calligraphy works should serve as a holy sanctuary we should contemplate. Politicians too wrapped up in themselves and their fight to realize that a new year has dawned should stand before Ahn’s writings for enlightenment. Hopefully, they will try to soak in the words and the spirit behind them.
*The writer is a senior reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo’s arts and sports desk.
By Jung Jae-sook