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Cl earCommandment s

Ki m Dong-i n

Tr ans l at edbySt ephenEps t ei n, Ki m Mi Young


Clear Commandments By Kim Dong-in Translated by Stephen Epstein and Kim Mi Young

Literature Translation Institute of Korea

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Originally published in Korean as Myeongmun in Gaebyeok, 1925 Translation ⓒ 2014 by Stephen Epstein and Kim Mi Young

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and Literature Translation Institute of Korea. The original manuscripts to these translations were provided by Gongumadang of Korea Copyright Commission.

The National Library of Korea Cataloging-in-Publication Data Kim, Dong-in Clear commandments [electronic resource] / by Kim Dong-in ; translated by Stephen Epstein, Kim Mi Young. – [Seoul] : Literature Translation Institute of Korea, 2014 p. 원표제: 명문 Translated from Korean ISBN 978-89-93360-36-3 95810 : Not for sale 813.61-KDC5 895.733-DDC21

CIP2014028968

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About Kim Dong-in

Kim Dong-in (1900 – 1951), together with Yi Kwang-su, is one of early modern Korean literature’s representative writers of “pure” fiction. His debut work “The Sorrow of the Weak,” which appeared in the journal Changjo (Creation) in 1919, is considered the first Korean short story to focus in earnest on character development and psychological analysis. A clear, concise style is the hallmark of Kim’s writing. As the first author to adopt the plain past tense “-ieottda” style and to establish an objective stance in fiction with a third person point of view, he is regarded as having employed a realistic technique and well-rounded character types, in contrast to Yi Kwang-su, who saw literature as a vehicle for enlightenment and whose characters were more flatly drawn. At the same time, Kim declared that fiction should create an autonomous world whose value inhered within itself. His belief in “art for art’s sake” led him to a unique method of composition, which he likened to handling puppets. In Kim’s view of literary creation a writer must act like a puppet master, controlling his characters, just as God created human beings. This attitude contributes unbridled free rein to a writer’s imagination. In “Clear Commandments” (Myeongmun, 1925), this free play of imagination is on display in a story that in fact introduces God as an important character. The text begins in a realistic mode, as it explores familial strife between a son and his parents as a result of his conversion to Christianity. After death, however, the protagonist finds himself in a heavenly court, where he must justify a life based on self-righteous and self-serving interpretation of doctrine to a harshly critical and mocking Jehovah. In depicting a society in the midst of social ferment and intergenerational conflict, the story in many ways predicts Kim Dong-ni’s renowned “Portrait of a Shaman”, written a decade later, which also treats the collision of worldviews between a shaman mother and her Christian son.

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Clear Commandments

Junior Officer Jeon was a devout Christian. His father’s home was noble, wealthy, and steadfast. There Jeon had studied the teachings of Confucius and Mencius until his teenage years. One day, however, he happened to visit a Christian church where he heard a sermon. All at once, he was overwhelmed by his family’s ignorance of life’s ideals and their scorn of the hereafter. From that day on he became a fervent believer in Christianity. His first act upon acquiring his newfound belief in Jesus was to convert his wife. At the same time, his terms of address for her rose in register. “Hey, you,” “woman,” and the occasional “bitch” were replaced by “my love,” “dear wife,” and “darling.” He cut his hair in the modern style and tried to preach the gospel to his parents. “Get yourself to Heaven, then!” So responded his mother. “Heaven? Flowers all year round? Flowers bloom even in winter at a botanical garden,” his father said. “You don’t need to go to Heaven for flowers. You’re trying to tell me that souls don’t die but go to Heaven? Huh. Nice story. Listen to me. When people die, their spirit dies, and their corpse stays behind…And you’re saying death doesn’t mean that the body dies but that the soul departs and goes to Heaven? Nonsense! How idiotic!” His father laughed uproariously. Scoffing, he suddenly burst out, “Listen, you rascal! Jesus in a yangban family? With short hair cropped like a commoner! If you dare say such things in front of me again, I will behead you!” Junior Officer Jeon prayed for his father and his father’s soul. Then he returned to his room. All sorts of turmoil arose once Christianity stepped into the household of this peaceful, gentle, solemn family. “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Jesus’ words were realized in this family. On a daily basis Jeon committed the most evil of the seven deadly sins. His father, who considered superstition a sin, threw the house into an uproar by bringing in a shaman and a blind fortuneteller each day to mock his son. “Let my kid’s Jesus and the shaman’s god wrestle it out with each other.” On those occasions when his father’s roar of laughter travelled to the wing of the house that Junior Official Jeon shared with his wife, the good and filial son would crawl, weeping, into a small attached nook to pray for his parent. The Christianity that came to this strict, solemn house did not succeed in 4


spreading new branches, given the family’s yangban traditions, but, against obstacles and oppression, it took firm root in the heart of the younger Jeon and his wife. “Heavenly Father! Please forgive my earthly father’s sin. He is a good man. He does no harm to others. If his not knowing the Almighty Lord’s prophecy is a sin, it is his only sin. Though worshipping idols might be the greatest sin unto you, my earthly father’s worship of idols does not come from his heart. Rather he does so to mock me. Please forgive him.” Thus he prayed in his room. One day, as he was about to emerge from this nook, his father, who dared not enter quarters inhabited by his daughter-in-law, stood before the door. Alarmed to see his father’s stern expression, Jeon immediately lowered himself and knelt. “Thank you, son. You asked your god to forgive me? I’ve never once committed sin since reaching an age to be aware of the world. Sin? You bastard! What the hell is your father’s sin? Answer me!” Jeon lifted his head but a little. “Father, please let me speak. I prayed to God before, telling him you have no other sin, and that worshipping another god besides the Almighty is your greatest sin.” Jeon’s father guffawed. “Your god is pretty damn jealous. Son, listen to my words carefully. Of all sins I hate jealousy most. You can judge from the fact that I don’t have a concubine how much I despise women’s jealousy. I cannot worship your deeply jealous god. Your god must be a woman.” He walked out, shrieking with laughter. Not long after, Junior Officer Jeon was cast out of the house for his offence of believing in Jesus. Upon his banishment his mother gave him 1,000 won, keeping it secret from his father. Even after being expelled, Jeon felt no resentment toward his father. Instead he shed tears because his father was not a god-fearing man. Jeon rented a small store and started selling odds and ends. Just as he was sincere and diligent in his devotion to Jesus, Jeon was honest and diligent in business. He held firm convictions that three virtues exist in this world: first, belief in Jesus; second, honesty; and third, modesty. He went about his life filtering his view of all sorts of activities through these glasses of “virtue.” He even prayed for Confucius and Mencius, who died before Jesus was born. Day by day his business, based upon honesty and modesty, fared well. Cash flowed in and out of his shop, from the snot-smeared five-pun coins of children to 10-won and 100-won notes. Though Jeon became more and more successful, his capital did not grow at all. He had not realized when he dwelled in his parents’ home what an atrocious reputation his father had. After Jeon came to live on his own, however, he could see how people badmouthed him because of his stinginess. “If my father is so wealthy, I wish he’d give to others.” 5


So Jeon initially thought. But once his business began to turn a profit, he would gather the money and donate from 100 won to 500 won here and there in his father’s name. Believing that he was acting on his father’s behalf, he felt happy. “Darling, people aren’t talking about my father being stingy as much these days, are they?” he asked his wife at one point. “That’s right. A few days ago I heard some people in the street saying that Father-in-law’s donation to the poor had been in the newspaper. They seem to think he decided to become generous in his old age.” “In the newspaper?” From that day on Jeon bought and read the papers. At one point he donated 1,000 won to build a church in his father’s name, and then waited for the news to be published. Two or three days later, he was browsing through a newspaper. Suddenly he ran into the room with a cry, clutching it. The headline read, ‘His Excellency Jeon Seong-cheol Donates 1,000 Won for Construction of Church.’ “Darling, let’s pray. Lord, please forgive my father’s sin, even if only ever so slightly. I pray to you in the name of Jesus’ sacrifice. Amen. Oh, darling, look at this. I am sure Father will be happy, too.” Another two or three days passed. That evening an employee of his father’s whom he hadn’t seen for several years paid an abrupt visit. Handing over 1,000 won, the worker reported his father’s words: “When a story appeared in the paper that 1,000 won had been donated to a church in my name, I made inquiries and found out that you’re behind it. Never sell my name again. A contribution to a church? If I had money to donate to churches, I’d buy land instead. I have retrieved the 1,000 won and am sending it to you. Don’t ever do such a thing again!” Jeon shed tears for his father upon hearing his words. The following day he went to the church and, after ensuring that they would not reveal the story in the newspapers, bequeathed the 1,000 won once more. Ten years passed. Junior Officer Jeon had been cast out of his father’s house at around age twenty. In no time at all, it seems, he had turned thirty. His circumstances hadn’t changed at all: any profit that he made he’d give away in his father’s name, pray for his parents’ souls daily, and run his business honestly and modestly…Then, the year he turned thirty, his father suddenly fell critically ill. As the oldest, and only, son, he returned to be near his father. Jeon broke down in tears, clutching his father’s sallow hand. Once strong and firm, its veins now bulged thickly. His father cast him a sidelong glance and said, “My Jesus fanatic,” closing his eyes as if annoyed. But hidden in those closed eyes Jeon saw warm paternal love for the son he hadn’t seen in so long. He prostrated himself by his father’s bed and sobbed out a prayer. On behalf of that pitiful but good-hearted soul, Jeon offered God the most wonderful prayer among the tens of thousands of prayers he had made. 6


His father’s eyelids trembled a second before fluttering open. “Are you praying for me? Hmph! Jesus freak.” His father began gently but all at once he shook his hand free of his son’s grip and bellowed at him. “Go away! Get out of here! You and your damn God, even at your father’s deathbed! Go cry at your Jesus house! Go!” At this reprimand, Jeon retreated a few steps. His mother, equally startled, trembled as she held her son. However, Jeon’s prayers did not stop. He withdrew but continued praying in his heart for this good-hearted but pathetic soul who knew nothing about prophetic office. A few moments passed. Making successive irritated snorts, the elder Jeon waved his son nearer, eyes closed. “Go ahead and pray! It’s useless, but do what you want. You are more endearing to me than your God. Please warm your father’s cold, cold hands….” Jeon grasped them, sobbing. Late that night, His Excellency Former Prime Minister Jeon Seong-cheol passed away. Even though his reputation made the deceased out to be stingy, the entire city paid its respects at his death. A cloud of mourners gathered. Junior Officer Jeon did not know what was what in the midst of this chaos but merely received their condolences with blank, overwhelmed eyes. In fact, he had been promoted from Mr. Jeon, a petty shop owner, to the former prime minister’s chief mourner, but was unable to distinguish between the roles. He merely relied on the power of God. The first thing Junior Officer Jeon did after moving back in as new master of the house was to donate 500,000 won to build a large community hall in the city, claiming that it was his father’s dying wish. The edifice was named Seongcheol Hall. All and sundry gathered at a ceremony to celebrate its completion and blessed the late prime minister’s soul. Jeon attended the ceremony, all smiles. Returning home, he said to his wife, “Darling, what more blessed use for money is there than being able to buy this honor? Ah, my father… Darling, let’s pray.” Thus, although endowed with riches and honor, he did not become at all extravagant. Indeed, even if he had wanted to lead a life of luxury he did not have the ability. His stomach could not digest greasy meat. If he rode a rickshaw, his feet would fall asleep and he couldn’t stand it. Just as when he ran his business, he ate vegetables, smoked five-jeon cigarettes, and would walk distances of ten ri. Whenever he made a profit he gave the money to charity. But evil spirits can enter through any hole. Ill fortune arrived in Jeon’s household as well. His mother, now over seventy, had become a bit unhinged. She came to speak with increasing nastiness about the fact that her daughter-in-law, close to forty, had 7


not produced a single son. As time went on, she talked to all sorts of people about it as if it were a great sin (indeed, it was no different from a great sin). “Frivolous bitch that she is, she hasn’t produced a son. Every day it’s God this and God that. Is God her husband?” Jeon felt disconcerted every time he heard her words. He ran into his bedroom and prayed for his mother who was saying such frightening things. But his mother’s nasty words came about because she had grown senile. Her daughter-in-law was not the only victim; she acted badly to her servants and even merchants. “You bitches look down on me because I am old. Huh, I… Ah, I feel so bitter!” And with that, she would flop down in the yard and wail. There were also more than a few incidents when she sent pretty maidservants to the bedroom of her son and his wife in the dead of night. For a while she remained cautious in her behavior toward her son, but after he refused the girls several times, she abused him as well. “You youngsters prey on this old woman. Trying to cut off the Jeon family line? All right then, If I have to bear a son myself to carry on the family name, I’ll do it. What a wicked couple!” After that whenever visitors came to the house, she’d hold them and plead that they find her a kind old gentleman. One day, Jeon was looking out at his mother from behind through his window as she was mumbling one complaint or another. He saw a male servant pass by, mimic his mother, and give a punch in the air. Jeon thought he should dispose of her somehow. In fact, he thought that his mother’s life had no value. He considered how he knew of the existence of a country called Germany, and that it held a city called Berlin. But his mother didn’t even know where China was located. What sort of pathetic soul was she? On top of that, in the midst of her senility, she often forgot where the house’s kitchen was and didn’t even know whether she had a grandchild. Sometimes, out of the blue, she would beg people to bring her grandson (she even gave him a name, Bokson) to her. And her servants would feign punches at her… Jeon thought that for such a person to live another day was an insult to herself. He concluded that a being like his mother should disappear, for her own sake and that of others. He even thought that in order to be a filial son he should dispatch his mother to the next world. Indeed, the kind-hearted Junior Officer Jeon couldn’t face the fact that his mother was being insulted from all sides. “God, when sin spread all around the world, you eradicated the world with a great flood. And now, because of my mother, I have come to commit the terrible sin of hating her. She spends her days in suffering, the several people in the house cannot live at ease for even a moment. I believe that sending my mother back to you would be the kindest and most proper thing.” Furthermore, all knew that his mother was too weak to live longer than a year. For her to do so would have been no better than for a fool to live inhabiting her skin. 8


Even if he killed his mother, he reasoned, she was no longer his mother; he would just be adding a few touches to an already dead body. And so he decided to add the finishing touches for this walking corpse. Two days later, after a bout of severe vomiting, his mother departed from this world. One month thereafter, Jeon was summoned to stand court. He told the entire story without hesitation. From that very night, he came to sleep in the detention center. Another month passed. He was charged with matricide and a trial was held. He vigorously denied the charges. “This is absolute nonsense! Are you saying I laid a hand on my benevolent mother? Come now… And, in any case, her life would not have lasted more than a year. Not only that, at that point, she was almost dead. I just let her sleep peacefully. How could I possibly kill… That is absurd…” The prosecutor stood up to rebut him. “What law states that it is acceptable to kill a person who will not live more than a year? Even if someone kills a patient with only five or ten minutes remaining to his life, he is still a hideous murderer. One year? By that logic, it would be okay to kill someone with 50 or 70 years remaining. Your excuse is no excuse.” “I will not argue with you.” Since the prosecutor refused to understand clear logic, he gave this simple response. “So, is it true that you killed your mother?” “Absolutely not!” “All right. Might we say it’s true that you sent your mother to ‘sleep’?” “Yes, it is.” “Isn’t that a hideous crime?” “Not at all. I was saving my mother from a pitiful situation. In no way was it improper.” “Still, murder is…” “No.” “Putting someone to sleep is not a crime?” “If done to rescue the soul, it rather deserves an award.” So ended his trial. Ten days later, he was sentenced to death. He responded, “Only God understands, none of you understand.” “Do you feel wronged?” “It is a false charge.” “Killing your own mo—” “No!” “Putting her to sleep,” the judge grinned, “is worthy of death.” “You don’t understand. Only God knows.” “If you feel it is unfair, appeal your case.” “Human courts are the same. I will go to my God and ask him….” 9


He lowered his head and went out. On the day the execution was to be carried out, a reverend told him to repent of his sin. Junior Officer Jeon refused bluntly. “I have nothing to repent. Letting my mother sleep in accordance with God’s will is not a crime. If your law clearly states that such a deed demands a death penalty, go ahead. But do not meddle with my beliefs. I am a God-fearing Christian. What I did was simply to follow the fifth of the Ten Commandments, which says ‘honor thy father and thy mother.’ ” An hour later, Jeon’s soul left his body. Jeon’s soul, loosed of the mooring of his body, went straight to Heaven and knocked on its door. Guided by an angel, he was led to Heaven’s court. There the judge ordered him to relate all that he had done in his life. He reported everything unstintingly. “Next please state the things you did in your life that are bothersome to your conscience.” “There are none.” “None? Then please state those acts that are pleasing to your conscience.” “There are two. First, after my father passed away, I built a large community hall in his name. When people who had spoken badly of him, saying that he was stingy, suddenly sang his praises, I was so happy I couldn’t control myself.” “And the other?” “I sent my mother to sleep. By doing so, first of all I preserved her honor, and secondly through her absence, everyone in the house was able to live happily and at peace. As a result, we might consider that my mother acted beneficently.” The judge gave a piercing stare for a moment and then turned around. “Imprison that soul in hell!” Junior Officer Jeon’s soul remained silent, unsure at first what these words meant. But when two angels approached and took his hands, he shook them off with frightening strength and shouted. “Why are you taking me to hell? Who are you?” “Me?” The judge’s sharp eyes flashed. “I am Jehovah.” “What? You are God? Then you will understand the situation well. I have committed no sin that deserves my being sent to hell. I know that all I did were good deeds.” “Listen to me. First of all, you said you made donations in your father’s name after he died. But in Heaven I deny that which is called honor. I simply see that you lied, selling your father’s name and deceiving the world. The Ninth Commandment states, ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.’ Was your action not clearly a lie?” “But what about making my mother comfortable? The Fifth Commandment says ‘honor thy father and mother….’” “‘Honor thy father and mother?’ You killed your mother and you speak of honoring your parents? You claim your intent was to save your mother from agony. 10


But at that point, was your mother suffering? Wasn’t killing your mother a violation of the Sixth Commandment?” “But my intention was to honor my mother…” “Intention? You think that if your intentions are good, any crime you commit will be pardoned?” “Yes. For you see into people’s hearts and the sin in their minds….” “No. Not at all! Don’t try to make excuses. The most pleasant acts in your life for your conscience were violations of the Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth Commandments. From this fact I can make other inferences. Take this man to hell!” “But that’s how the world works. Aren’t there more important things in Heaven than rules and regulations?” God looked down at Junior Officer Jeon’s soul for a while and then burst into laughter. “This too is a court.”

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Clear commandments  

Kim Dong-in (1900 – 1951), together with Yi Kwang-su, is one of early modern Korean literature’s representative writers of “pure” fiction. H...

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