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The Calligrapher’s Daughter by Eugenia Kim

The Calligrapher’s Daughter

by Eugenia Kim

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    The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston (Anonymous user)
    Anonymous user: The first widely read Asian American book written by a woman, blending memoir, fiction and legend.

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This is the multi-generational story of a young, unnamed girl growing up in Korea during the Japanese occupation in the early 1900s. Despite her father's disapproval, Najin sets out to obtain for herself an education and a life unlike any other woman in her family. She wants to be a doctor. She wants to decide for herself who she will marry. She wants to be useful and intelligent rather than polite furniture in the home of a man. This is her story.

A very moving and engaging tale. I would get so frustrated when Najin was oppressed that I would often be in a bad mood and snap at my husband! You really pull for the protagonist and wish her every success. Loved it. ( )
  Juva | Mar 31, 2015 |
I learned I had no name on the same day I learned fear. Until that day, I had answered to Baby, Daughter or Child, so for the first five years of my life hadn't known I ought to have a name. Nor did I know that those years had seen more than fifty thousand of my Korean countrymen arrested and hundreds more murdered.

When a daughter is born to calligrapher Han and his wife shortly after the Japanese occupation of Korea, Han refuses to name her until the occupation ends. Najin eventually gets her unusual name through an American missionary's misunderstanding of a conversation. She hears adults speak of “self-determination” and, when it is explained to her, she decides that's what she wants for her life. Self-determination won't be easy with a father who clings to traditional ways in defiance of the new Japanese laws, nor with the ever-increasing restrictions the Japanese are imposing on Koreans. Najin has her mother's love and support, but she struggles with doubt as she tries to emulate her mother's strong Christian faith.

The words on the page embodied textures, tastes, and smells so strong that I felt I was in Korea with Najin. I was particularly fascinated by the intersection of Christianity and traditional Korean culture. Church was central to Najin's family. Najin's mother had internalized her Christian faith, while her father never really gave up his Confucian principles. Christianity was compatible with those ideals so he was able to integrate them into a system that worked. Najin struggled with her faith because of the suffering and injustice she experienced. The historical afterword explains that Korean Christianity was not the result of missionary efforts, but rather it came to Korea by way of Bibles that a Korean scholar brought back from China in the 17th century. Now I'll be looking for a history of Christianity in Korea to find out more.

Highly recommended for readers with an interest in early 20th century Korean history, Japanese history, women's history, or family novels. Although most readers wouldn't classify this novel as Christian fiction, it will appeal to many readers of Christian fiction. ( )
5 vote cbl_tn | Sep 17, 2014 |
A well-written, enjoyable book full of history, tradition, and story. The only thing that stopped me from giving it five stars was the ending. I wish it had gone one or two chapters further so we would know a little more about what happened to Najin and Calvin. ( )
  eesti23 | Jul 19, 2014 |
Born the daughter of a calligrapher-scholar, the young narrator goes unnamed for several years. Her father, distracted by the Japanese occupation and his artistic pursuits, lets time drift by without bothering to find a name for his child, so eventually she claims one on her own: Najin, the name of her mother’s hometown. Thanks to the determination of her mother and the help of local Christian missionaries, Najin is blessed with a fine education, but her desire to continue with it instead of marrying in her early teens enrages her traditional father, who has already found her a match. Again, Najin’s mother intervenes, and arranges through a noble kinswoman for Najin to be a companion to a princess. However, it is not long before the king is assassinated, and the occupying Japanese make life harder for the Koreans. Home again, Najin is married off to a young pastor who proposes that she accompany him to America to study medicine. Najin’s joy is cut short when her passport is denied by the Japanese, and she is forcibly separated from her husband. As months turn into years, Najin must remain strong and support her family as war erupts around them.

Based on the life of the author’s mother, Najin lives in a very tumultuous time. She must grow into a strong woman, because her family has no one else with the capacity to adapt to the rapid changes in society. Her father still thinks about Korea as a highly stratified society where noble scholars can peacefully spend their days reading and painting. Her spoiled brother expects to inherit his father’s position and wastes his energy on gambling and visiting teahouses/whorehouses. Najin’s mother is perceptive enough to see that the world is changing and that tradition cannot continue to dictate their actions, but she is too old and too undereducated to effect change. She pours great effort into getting Najin the opportunities she did not have, living vicariously through her daughter.

Najin is a sympathetic character, torn between her loyalties to her family and her own dreams. Though she is very liberal by her family’s standards, to us she seems quite conservative. She works hard and sacrifices much to support her brother because he is the family’s heir. After her marriage, she is little more to a servant to her in-laws, slaving away for them day after day for the sake of a husband she knew for only a few weeks. Although some of her devotion may stem from a lack of opportunity elsewhere, it is the strong Confucian influence on Korean culture that binds her to her parents.

Set during the years between the two World Wars, Najin’s life illustrates the harsh, brutal reality of life under the Japanese regime. The suffering of the Koreans is what really lingers after the book is over, and is more compelling than Najin’s personal story.

Compared to China and Japan, Korea’s history remains largely obscure to a Western audience. I can recite the names of the Chinese dynasties and name contemporary TV shows and writers from Japan, but ask me to discuss anything about Korea that isn’t food and I will draw a blank. In the past few years, though, South Korea has been gaining greater recognition as K-pop has increased in popularity and Korean dramas stream online. So a novel like The Calligrapher’s Daughter was very well-timed, arriving on bookshelves just as interest in Korea was beginning to rise. ( )
  makaiju | Apr 6, 2014 |
I heard the author speak at a local book festival and knew I wanted to read her book after hearing her that day. I loved this story based on a family member's life. ( )
  tkhughes8 | Jan 21, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 40 (next | show all)
This debut novel, inspired by the life of the author’s Korean mother, is a beautiful, deliberate and satisfying story spanning 30 years of Korean history. The tradition-bound aristocratic calligrapher Han refuses to name his daughter because she is born just as the Japanese occupy Korea early in the 20th century. When Han finds a husband for Najin (nicknamed after her mother’s birthplace) at 14, her mother objects and instead sends her to the court of the doomed royal Yi family to learn refinement. Najin goes to college and becomes a teacher, proving herself not only as a scholar but as a patriot and humanitarian. She returns home to marry, but her new husband goes without her to study in America when she is denied a visa. As the Japanese systematically obliterate ancient Korean culture and the political climate worsens, so do Najin’s fortunes. Her family is reduced to poverty, their home is seized and Najin is imprisoned as a spy while WWII escalates. The author writes at a languorous pace, choosing not to sully her elegant pages with raw brutality, but the key to the story is Korea’s monumental suffering at the hands of the Japanese. (Aug.)

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Eugenia Kimprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Raver, LornaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For my mother and father, whose lives inspired this novel, and for my family.
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I learned I had no name on the same day I learned fear.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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A sweeping debut novel, inspired by the life of the author's mother, about a young woman who dares to fight for a brighter future in occupied Korea.

In early twentieth century Korea, Najin Han, the privileged daughter of a calligrapher, longs to choose her own destiny. Smart and headstrong, she is encouraged by her mother - but her stern father is desperate to maintain the ways of traditional Korea, especially as the Japanese steadily gain control of his beloved country. When he seeks to marry her into an aristocratic family, her mother defies generations of obedient wives and instead sends Najin to serve in the king's court, where, in the shadow of a dying monarchy, she begins a journey through the increasing oppression that will forever change her world. Spanning thirty years, The Calligrapher's Daughter is a novel in the tradition of Lisa See about a country torn between ancient customs and modern possibilities, a family ultimately united by love, and a woman who never gives up her search for freedom.
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In early-twentieth-century Korea, Najin Han, the privileged daughter of a calligrapher, longs to choose her own destiny. Smart and headstrong, she is encouraged by her mother--but her stern father is determined to maintain tradition, especially as the Japanese steadily gain control of his beloved country.… (more)

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