Han Sok Bong and His Mother


HAN SOK BONG (1543–1605) was a celebrated calligrapher well-known in and out of Korea during the feudal Joson dynasty. In the summer of 1559 he, still a boy, was returning home after the lapse of seven years. He had left his home when he was nine years old under promise to stay away from home for ten years while serving his apprenticeship in calligraphy.

“Oh, how come you’re back home already?” exclaimed his mother in surprise rather than glad to see him.

“The teacher says I’ve learned enough and tells me to return home to support you well. So, I’ve come back three years earlier.”

“Now, then, let me see if you write a good hand,” said the mother.

At this, the boy thought he would show off his calligraphic skills and rubbed down an ink stick and spread a sheet of paper before him, taking up a writing brush. Seeing this, his mother asked him if he was ready.

“Yes, may I go ahead?” the boy was on the point of writing off on the white paper.

“Wait,” the mother stopped him. “I have to prepare myself, too.” With this, she put a stick of rice cake on the chopping board lying on a large wooden basin and took up the kitchen knife.

“Now,” said the mother, “let’s compete with each other. I’m slicing all the rice cakes in the basin and you’re writing all over the paper in the dark room with the light put off to see who is the better hand—I in slicing and you in writing.”

This was something quite unexpected for the boy. He could not help it but to write on the paper by feeling in the dark like a blind man. He was unable to see anything and so it was impossible for him to give full play to his writing capacity. He was desperate in the competition into which he was dragged reluctantly by his mother. Soon, the regular sounds of the kitchen knife slicing rice cake stopped. The lamp was lighted.

“Now compare the first, middle and last batches of the sliced rice cakes. What do you say?” said the mother.

The son compared rice cakes in the wooden basin one by one. They were all alike in size and thickness. However, the characters of his writing were diverse in size and their strokes were all untidy.

“Is that what you have learned?” the mother demanded. But he had no excuse.

“Go back right now. Come home after learning for three years more,” ordered his mother.

“Mother, but I can’t leave you alone. I’ll continue calligraphic learning at home while looking after you. Please let me fulfil my filial duties.”

“Filial duties do not mean relieving one’s parents from a hard life but mean bringing joy to them. Your father wished you would be a noted calligrapher, but how can you make me happy today without meeting his wishes?”

The next day, Sok Bong left his home with a firm determination to fulfil his parents’ desire without fail, and went to Hansong, the capital city. He called on Sin Hui Nam, a war councillor widely known as a calligrapher, and became his pupil. He devoted himself to mastering the powerful strokes of the brush rather than attaining tricky styles of calligraphy.

In the course of three years when Sok Bong was absorbed in improving his calligraphic techniques, a rumour about his unique hand spread in the capital city. Hanging scrolls of his calligraphic masterpiece appeared in the houses of high-ranking officials and even folding screens in the government offices bore characters from his writing brush.

After serving three years of apprenticeship with the calligraphic master in Hansong, he returned to his mother in Kaesong. That night he made a challenge to his mother for another competition in darkness saying that he was sure of winning it this time.

“If so, there’s no need for it in my view,” said his mother. “Three years ago, I tried to see whether you’re as skilful in your calligraphy as mother in rice cake dealing. But now, as you say you’ve mastered the calligraphic art, what’s the need of competition? I’ve heard the rumour going round in Hansong that you write a very good hand. That was really happy news which relieved me from all the hardships and cares of life in an instant.”

Later, his calligraphy won fame in neighbouring countries, too.



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