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Manoa 14.2 (2002-2003) 17-24

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The Valley of Utopia

Younghill Kang

from The Grass Roof
[Sending Off]
[The Tale of Tan'gun]
[Sejong's Preface to the Promulgation of Han'gul]
[Moveable Type]

I was told by one of my aunts that I was born somewhere in northern Korea, while my mother was on a trip to China with my father. Since I cannot verify my birth place accurately, it is safe to say that I was born in that village where I was brought up, not far from Asiatic Russia and Manchuria, in a handmade house fashioned of stone, wood and clay, and covered with a grass roof that turned up slightly at the eaves like Korean women's shoes.

I know now that I was born in the year when the minds of the people were greatly perplexed. Everybody was worrying and talking about the coming war, prophesying that the Japanese would soon be over to kill all the Koreans. It was about that time when Japan was to declare war on Russia, and requested from the Korean government permission to use the roads into Manchuria, a request that was really a command, and was followed soon by military occupation.

They said that I was born on the tenth day of May, by the Korean calendar (which is about a month later than by the American), just as the sun came up and the cock crew: also that according to the Four Pillars of Destiny (the hour, day, month, and year of birth) I was born to be a wanderer all my life, with no home but the wide world. I never remember my mother, for she died a few months after I was born, but I fear she must have eaten only grass roots, and suffered every hardship, for the people were very poor just at this time. Besides the political anxiety which recalled my father from China, it had been a hard year for the crops at home, and the whole village was starving.

This village where I was born—Song-Dune-Chi, or The Village of the Pine Trees—was made up entirely of my own relatives, a clan by the name of Han, who were ruled by national ideals which had been handed down from father to son for innumerable generations. Our community had long been looked up to by others for its famous scholars and its olden-time clannish spirit, in a country for immemorial years under the iron thumb of tradition and ancestor worship, a country of which Napoleon said: "A giant is asleep. Do not wake him."

Our village was situated in a huge valley, partly poor sandy rock, and partly fertile soil, between high mountains, covered with pine and oak trees, and many high tall grasses. There were streams running down from each mountain hollow, joining the big river which murmured eternity's chant through the centre of the valley. A few miles farther on, this river passed through the marketplace where the people of my village went every five days for barter, and there it rushed into the sea. Except for the marketplace, the people were rural and isolated, and this mysterious water, constantly tumbling in, was the only far wanderer among them. My native village was the kind which all the great Oriental sages have thought Utopia in itself. The people had been happy in the same costumes, dwellings, food, and manners for over a thousand years, and were like [End Page 17] the ideal state of Lao-Tze, where "though there be a neighboring state within sight, and the voices of the cocks and dogs thereof be within hearing, yet the people might grow old and die before they ever visit one another."

On the right bank of the river, bordered and interspersed by pine and weeping willow trees, was the village, and behind it, somewhat lower, the rice fields. On the left bank grew the millet and other grains, and farther over, against the opposite mountain, were to be found the deer, the hawks, the tiger cats and fabulous Dragons...


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