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The Calligrapher’s Daughter

by Eugenia Kim

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6264627,716 (3.9)60
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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» See also 60 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 47 (next | show all)
What a gorgeous novel! takes place in Korea during the Japanese occupation, a historical period that I am less than familiar with but newly intrigued by. The novel takes us through thirty years of Najin's life and is filled with interesting and well-developed characters. It was a bit slow to start but I soon found myself absorbed in Najin's story. I wholeheartedly recommend this book! ( )
  bookishblond | Oct 24, 2018 |
The narrative is delicate and sensitive as the mannerisms and language of traditional Korean propriety. And though the daughter of the calligrapher is born unnamed, her strength of character and unwavering discipline and grace evolves as naturally, artistically, and raw as the process of calligraphy itself. It goes without saying that the art of Korean calligraphy is one engraved with history, tradition, years of training, depth of feeling, artistic pride, and fluidity.

Yes, the novel is about the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early twentieth century, but it is more so about the resilience of Korean propriety, patriotism, duty, cultural tradition and history, faith, and the strong love and bond between family, specifically, mother and daughter as shown in the characters of Najin and her Umma-nim.

There are competing values in the book: tradition vs. modernism; Korea vs. Japan; propriety of women vs. men; aristocracy vs. the underprivileged; Christianity vs. Confucianism; domestication vs. pursuit of higher education; and the list goes on.

What I enjoyed most about the book was the window it provided in disclosing traditional Korean propriety and the secret world of the Korean aristocracy as shown by the Emperor and its Korean royalty. Where westernized values often demean subservience, conservative cultural practices, and even domestication, as well as self-discipline (viewed as a form of rigidity)—I, myself, from an Asian background, understand their significance and appeal.

The traditional propriety found in Korean practices come from an intent of honour and decorum, which I, from reading this novel, have come to truly appreciate. Others may scoff and march in bands of protest, the cries of “independence” and “liberation” and “modernism,” but I find as a native born into western culture, but raised by an ethnic (namely Asian) cultural paradigm, I feel the pull of sentimental tradition and its quiet, subdued, and subservient qualities, its actual richness— something that the west actually lacks. What could be naturally condemned in the novel by western beliefs is actually what I became nostalgic for in reading it.

It’s an elegant, lyrical novel with characters who are well-versed and practiced at concealing what is a deeply rooted passion for country, culture, history, tradition, and family. A beautiful read. ( )
  ZaraD.Garcia-Alvarez | Jun 6, 2017 |
The Calligrapher’s Daughter – Eugenia Kim
3 stars
Najin Han is the privileged daughter of an aristocratic Korean calligrapher in the early 20th century. Her story evolves through 30 years of the Japanese occupation of Korea. As the centuries-old dynastic Korean culture is destroyed, Najin finds that despite the pervasive oppression of her people, she is able to continue her own education and achieve some independence from traditional roles. This debut novel has been compared to the work of Amy Tan and Lisa See, but I felt this book had more in common with Gail Tsukiyama’s Women of the Silk. The message seems to be that the strife and suffering of the world wars did in some measure benefit women by destroying many of the traditions of the paternalistic society.

A great deal of this novel dealt with the role of Christianity in Korea. I was interested to learn from the author’s note that Christianity was not brought to Korea by missionaries. Rather it came initially through Chinese bibles brought into the country by Korean scholars. Throughout the book Najin struggles with her faith as a Christian. I never felt that the author did justice to this topic which was ultimately left unresolved.

This was an audio book which I think effected my impression of it. The reader was not bad, but she was not Korean. It would have helped if the story had been read with an appropriate accent. Some parts of the book came across as preachy and insipid, but I’m not sure if this was the author’s intent or just the reader’s influence. Overall, I enjoyed this book as it gave me insight into an aspect of world history that I knew little about.

( )
  msjudy | May 30, 2016 |
The plot of this book seemed interesting -- a young woman living through a highly volatile political paradigm shift in Korea. The beginning of the book describes her youth and I enjoyed this part of the story. You learn some key events that shape her personality and thought. Toward the middle/end of the book, however, I lost interest. Kim goes to great lengths to provide useful and creative description and I think there is a bit too much detail considering this book is a story about a specific person (which is inherently already very detailed). It also doesn't help that the author's bio pretty much explains the entire story. I felt like I didn't need to read the end as I already knew what was going to happen.

I may return to this book to finish it. I may not. ( )
  gabesmom | Apr 20, 2016 |
Another win. This was a great book, and I would recommend it to fans of Wild Swans by Jung Chang, Leaving Mother Lake by Yang Erche Namu & Christine Mathie, and even Memoirs of a geisha by Arthur Golden. I got the same feeling as I got from those books, and not just because those took place in China and Japan, and this one in Korea. No, it was because two of those were about real events, and in this one the author was inspired by her mother's story. There was reality and everyday life. And life in a time of turmoil.

This was the story about Najin, a girl who is not named and gets her name by mistake, a name that doesn't even mean anything. She lives in Korea, a country occupied by Japan, and life gets harder and harder as the Japanese tries to oppress the people. She is headstrong, much to her fathers regret. And thanks to her mother she gets to attend missionary school, and she has a real yearning for education. But her father wants to hold on to the old ways, and tradition. While she wants more.

I admired her a lot, because she was so strong and wanted so much. And then there is the way they spoke then, I was fascinated. She meets the emperor and thanks him for remembering a a screen her dad had painted.

"Thank you for your Imperial Highness's kindness to this persons worthless family."
And that is not the only time she says something like that, but it is used in other places. So yes rather fascinated by the way they spoke back then.

It is a story about a girl growing up, going to school, and everyday life. And watching the political unrest around her. Her dad getting beaten and put in jail, people dying after a failed protest march, a woman taking her own life after being raped by soldiers. Land being given away to Japanese families, and Korean families starving. At the same time she also spends time at court, and watches the fall of the royal family, as the emperor is murdered. Her dad who was a famous calligrapher, and who had a lot of money slowly poorer and poorer.

But she never says that this is wrong, and this is right. The book tells it as she sees it, and also sometimes from her father's and mother's POV. There is also a mention about a certain rebel leader up north, but her dad is not so big on communists, even if they fight the Japanese.

This was such an enjoyable story. 30 years of Korean history in a country that truly changed during that time. There is friendship, hardship, and even romance promised as the grows up as the Armstrong woman she was.
A truthful look at a time gone by.

( )
  blodeuedd | Mar 2, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 47 (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 editionscalculated
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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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.

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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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Average: (3.9)
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2.5 4
3 25
3.5 18
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