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  • My Tale of the Bamboo Wife
  • Hwang Sunwŏn
    Translated by Bruce and Ju-chan Fulton

For the first time in a long while the elderly Mr. Han had a visit from J, one of his former high school students. Under J’s arm, wrapped in paper, was a long, round object that didn’t seem all that heavy for its size.

After an exchange of greetings, J placed the object on the coffee table. “Sir, I’d like to give you this.”

J was now an associate professor of classical Korean literature. He was also quite talented in calligraphy, a framed sample of which, in a style emphasizing simple strokes, adorned Han’s living room wall: 文者求道之器也, “Behold writers, truth-seeking vessels.” You could almost feel the power of the brushwork. And then there was the time J had dropped by with a porcelain vase bearing the two characters 守拙, which Han liked to think of as meaning “stick to your guns,” executed in a semi-cursive hand. Fresh out of his friend’s kiln, J had reported.

Now what? Han wondered as J began unwrapping the parcel. He hadn’t the faintest clue what it might be.

The object that came into sight was a loosely woven bamboo mesh structure, hollow inside. When all the paper was off, Han could see it was perhaps three feet long and eight inches across.

“You know what this is, don’t you, sir?” asked J with a wry smile.

“Well now … Maybe a headrest, for summer use? But it looks [End Page 173] too high for a headrest. Maybe it’s meant for a couple—no, it’s too long for a headrest for two …”

“Considering your venerable age, sir, I thought you might know. Actually you’re not far off. For summer use and for sleeping, yes, you deserve points for that.” J then stood up the object before placing it back down. “It’s not a headrest, it’s a kind of substitute.”

“A substitute for what?”

“For a wife.”

“Ah yes. Right you are, a bamboo wife—I’ll be darned.” Long ago Han had read about such items. “But who in his right mind would come up with something so obscene.”

“Obscene? But sir, imagine how refreshing it would feel to tuck your arm around her on a sultry summer night. It’s ingenious—the best thing since massages were invented.”

“Sure, I can see the air circulation part of it. But who’s our Mr. Ingenious who came up with the idea? Someone from China, I bet.”

“Right again, sir. One Zhang Rui, a literatus from the Northern Song—the zhang means ‘benevolent’ and the rui means ‘plow,’ by the way. He left us with a story titled “The Tale of the Bamboo Wife,” which if I may I would be more than happy to relate to you.”

During the reign of Emperor Wu of Han there lived a lady surnamed Chuk, meaning “bamboo.” One summer the emperor set out for his summer retreat with the empress and some thousand concubines. Expressing his wishes to be made cool and refreshed, he ordered them to find a loyal, good-hearted, genteel, and honest person. Consulting among themselves, the empress and concubines presented the emperor with a woman made of bamboo.

“That’s interesting,” said Han. “Among all the possible candidates, the empress and concubines chose a woman who lacked emotion or sensation.”

“And the Emperor bestowed on this bamboo woman the title of Madam,” J continued. “This being a story of a personified object, she was of course clothed, green for her outer garments and ocher [End Page 174] for her undergarments, just like the outside and inside of bamboo, you know. And when she approached the emperor, she did not bow, just as bamboo does not bend. The emperor kept his bamboo wife beside him all summer long. And then as autumn drew near and the summer heat eased, he had her laid to rest in a box, wishing her a comfortable rest until he summoned her back the following summer. And when that time came, summon her he did. She remained in service until the fall of...


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pp. 173-185
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