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The Calligrapher’s Daughter

by Eugenia Kim

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6814734,053 (3.91)63
Fiction. Literature. HTML:

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.

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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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» See also 63 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 48 (next | show all)
The life of a Korean woman during the Japanese Occupation. A fine study of a woman's place in time and the terrible consequences of occupation during wartime. ( )
  jemisonreads | Jan 22, 2024 |
You know a book is good when you get to the end and you wish it would keep going. That's exactly how I felt with this book. While at first I was a bit put out with how the story ended, I quickly came to appreciate it--this book is Najin's story, and she has enough tradition in her that she will start telling a very different story. The historical note helped, too. I felt a bit stupid for not realizing that this story is bookended by the beginning and the end of Japanese occupation.

I'm sure it will come as no surprise that I knew next to nothing about Korea before I began reading this--just a few anecdotes from acquaintances who'd traveled there in the past few years and, of course, [b:The Orphan Master's Son|13641972|The Orphan Master's Son|Adam Johnson|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1367939664s/13641972.jpg|16467838]. Well, and [b:Sondok: Princess of the Moon and Stars, Korea, A.D. 595|440124|Sondok Princess of the Moon and Stars, Korea, A.D. 595|Sheri Holman|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1315446323s/440124.jpg|428933], which I read ages and ages ago. Anyway, none of these came close to the early 1900s. Thanks to my ignorance, there was a bit more overlap in my imagination with Chinese and Japanese cultures than I would have liked, though China did have a very strong influence on Korea.

So much happens in this story, and it's one of my favorite kinds: sweeping, years-long, with dozens of characters. One special element of the book is that Kim departs from Najin's POV every so often to offer other another's: her mother's, her father's, her brother's. These were regular enough that they didn't feel forced, and they actually did help me to sympathize with characters who, in the context of Najin's story, can seem cruel through my 21st-century US lens. So often when I see these alternate perspectives, they only serve to reinforce their role in the main character's narrative; in this book, the interludes instead round out already vividly described characters.

I'm trying to think of how to describe what I loved so much about this book, and I think I'm going to go with the purple-prose-ish, "gentle poetry." So often when I read books about young women defying convention, they rebel against every aspect of their lives. Najin, on the other hand, has great respect for her past even as she explores the new room she has to grow her future. The reader sees that rebellion, either by completely rejecting the old ways or completely refusing the new ones, can actually be problematic instead of just noble for the sake of rebellion (a very American notion, I think). Najin's efforts to bridge her traditional upbringing and her modern life are deeply moving.

I always have to have a complaint, of course, and this time it's (probably) entirely directed at the publisher.

First of all, the title. Yes, "The _'s Daughter"/"The _'s Son" is a hugely popular formula these days, and I'm guilty of succumbing (case in point, [b:The Hangman's Daughter|9496240|The Hangman's Daughter (The Hangman's Daughter, #1)|Oliver Pötzsch|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1327868295s/9496240.jpg|14381730]), but it seems a shame to limit Najin's life so much when she's only identified by the phrase once (15). There's a little bit of me rebelling at the patriarchy here: despite her remarkable story, she's identified by her father's occupation; but there's also the practical fact that "[description]'s daughter" is actually a way that Koreans in Najin's world identify each other. This puts even more weight on the tie with her father, when I would argue that her far more significant tie is with her mother. That's how she gets her name, after all: "her mother is the woman from Nah-jin" (15). Granted, "The Daughter of the Woman from Nah-Jin" is a bit clunky, but I think it rolls well enough. Still, that simple formula won the day. I'd love to know if Kim offered any alternative suggestions.

Second of all, the back cover blurb. This is frequently a source of frustration for me in fiction books, since they're written by the publisher and they tend to play up the parts that don't interest me and play down the parts that do. Most of the second paragraph on this book plays up a love story that, in the text, is so fragile that Najin isn't sure she can call it that. Oh, and the first line of the second paragraph gives away a major plot point--spoiler right on the cover! There's also a curious amount of attention paid to Najin's time in the royal palace, which only takes up one chapter of the book but gets one out of only seven sentences in the description. I have a few ideas for how I'd rewrite it, but I won't bore you.

But back to the praise: all in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and definitely recommend it to fans of historical fiction. Don't forget to read the historical note at the end!

Quote Roundup

112) My tears were for [my mother's] sacrifice of her principles of duty and honor to Father because of me. I was overwhelmed with new understanding of her love, only to be saddened at having to part from her.
Najin and her mother never say that they love each other, but their actions show it in the most beautiful ways. Najin may be the modern woman, but it's often her mother who defies tradition on her behalf--incredible bravery in such a strictly patriarchal culture.

153) "You mustn't tell him! What will he think of me then!" I considered what to do. Joong might indeed find fault with his bride if he knew she'd seen another man's sex.
A Japanese soldier stands in the way of Najin and her servant/friend Kira to be sure that they see him masturbating while looking at them. When Najin suggests that Kira should only travel with her fellow servant and fiance Joong, Kira has the reaction above. This, more than most of the other slights against women in the book, rattled me. Everything else seemed like a gradient of attitudes that I've read about before. It's bad enough that most major countries have a history of rape apology and overvaluing virginity, but the fact that sexual harassment--by its very nature unwanted and unprovoked--could so negatively impact the life of the recipient rather than reflecting badly on the instigator was especially gut-wrenching. I couldn't help thinking of some of the experiences my friends in Morocco had, and how devastating this kind of thinking would have been for them.

237-238) I had needed his permission to go to America more than I realized--no, not his permission, but his understanding that every action of his affected all the family, and that our individualism was meaningless without accepting our bonds of blood.
I just thought this was exceptionally beautifully phrased. Kim is a master of providing glimpses of humanity in even the story's main antagonists, and this is a case in point.

314) I had felt pride in describing Bible stories to him, in God's choice of me to deliver his Word, and in God's watchfulness that had kept me whole. It was because of me that the Major had noticed our estate. Because of me, Major Yoshida would take from my father, from all of my family, the markers of our ancestry, tradition and history that creaked in the ancient beams, lived in the mortar, the stones and soil, and sang in the trees and stream. And then I thought that man was small, so easily overcome by demons of pride and hatred, but I was less than small, and should have been among those who screamed in the night.

374)I had a quote on this page before I realized that it was the second-to-last page in the book. For that reason, I'll leave it out, and leave you to get this far and read for yourself.

378) Quick fascinating item from the historical note: Korea is the only nation in the world where Christianity first took root without the presence of priests or missionaries, but exclusively as a result of the written word--Bibles, translated into Chinese by Jesuits, that a Korean scholar-official brought home from a diplomatic trip to Beijing in 1631. ( )
  books-n-pickles | Oct 29, 2021 |
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. ( )
1 vote 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 |
Showing 1-5 of 48 (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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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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Fiction. Literature. HTML:

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.


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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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