A week ago I dropped by an exhibit featuring one of the eminent artists of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty, Gim Hongdo*. The exhibit had some issues, namely humidity damaged many of the works which, thankfully, were not originals. However, it was still well organized and informative enough to pique my interest in the artist again.
Unfortunately the brochure imagery for the exhibit is not representative of what you’ll experience. While there are a few reinterpretations using Gim’s work as a basis, nothing so spectacular or interesting as what is promised on the publicity. Despite all this, it’s still worth checking out. The exhibit is running through February of 2019 at the Korean War Memorial Museum.
Gim Hongdo is most famous for his genre paintings, though he was also an official court painter and loved painting travel scenery of Korean mountains. All of which are interesting topics for another day. I want to focus on…
The final piece in the exhibit was a replica of one of Gim’s final paintings, made a year before his death in 1806. The title, Chuseongbudo (추성부도) translates as ‘Ode to a Sound of Autumn’.
Gim Hongdo, being yangban and thus familiar with Chinese poetry, seems to have realized the autumn of his life was well at hand when he made this piece. Chuseongbudo is an illustration of a Chinese poem by Ouyang Xiu (歐陽脩), and both the painting and the poem revolve around the poet who pontificates to his servant on the nature of autumn and death.
It is difficult to tell if the poem is really pretentious and takes itself super seriously or if it creates a humorous ending to a somber topic. While I do not have the skill, background knowledge or mind reading capabilities to understand the original intent, I like to think it is a little of both. Let me share a synthesized version of the poem from various translations I’ve come across. If you know Chinese and the poem, feel free to e-mail me corrections or considerations!
Ode to a Sound of Autumn
- One night while reading I heard an unfamiliar sound coming from the southwest. “That’s odd.” At first it was the like a light rain on the roof and the rustling of the wind in the trees, then suddenly the sound crescendoed into crashing waves.
- The waves howled out the approach of a storm, heavy rain clanged on metal surfaces, the sound of a vast army marching quickly to meet the enemy line. The din is so loud that no commands can be heard, only the rush of feet and horse hooves.
- I called my servant to look around and find the source of the sound. He returned, telling me “The moon and the stars are clear and bright, the Milky Way runs across the sky. In all directions there is no one to be seen. The sound is only the trees.” “How sad,” I sighed, “This must be the sound of Autumn. How did it arrive so soon?”
- Autumn is as such: In color, it is bleak and pale, yet the sky is clear and vast. The sun shines but the cold air bites flesh and bone. The life of both mountains and rivers becomes desolate and so the sound of Autumn is bitter, angry, and sorrowful.
- The grasses and bushes strive with each other to grow; the trees are lush and beautiful. Yet the excess harshness of Autumn’s chilly breath destroys them all. It touches them and the trees shed their leaves and the grasses lose their color.
- Autumn is the executioner. It is the dark side, the duty bound soldier. Like metal, it becomes cold and without feeling. It is the righteous wrath of heaven and earth. Spring brings birth, but Autumn brings the harvest. Autumn is an elegy, a lament that all must become old. It is the requiem for all that flourished, as they must die.
- The grass and trees have no emotions; they grow and then are nothing. But humans move about, a hundred worries push and pull their hearts while labor tires their bodies. And so they think about things beyond their control and grapple with unsolvable issues. It is no wonder that a youthful face turns wrinkled and black hair turns grey.
- What is the use for beings not made of metal or stone to strive to outlast the grasses and trees? Their own actions bring about mortality, so why do they despair when they hear the sound of Autumn?
My servant had no answer having nodded off to sleep. I only heard the cicadas droning on outside, as if to accompany my sighing.
I find this poem interesting for a few reasons. On the one hand, I enjoy the nihilistic musings on the vanity of life which parallel the sentiment in Ecclesiastes. This musing is set in a framing device where the poet himself is taken aback by the sudden approach of the autumn winds. One day he wakes up and realizes he is old. While it isn’t surprising that autumn or old age comes, it takes us by surprise nonetheless.
But what really sets this piece apart for me is that most of it is the poet musing on the meaning of autumn, yet his servant, a young boy, doesn’t seem to care. I’m not sure the intent, but I can easily read this one of two ways. First, it implies the ignorance of youth to the impending death we all must face. That, ‘we’ll live forever’ mentality that youth are supposed to poses. As such, he just dozes off, implying that one day he too will be surprised to find himself facing the sound of Autumn.
The second reading is that this is taking the piss out of the tendency of elderly people to pontificate and drone on and on without actually engaging those around them. The servant has to be there, its not like he has a choice. It’s not that the topic is necessarily boring, but being required to stand at attendance accompanied by long lectures that require no input, followed with a question that really isn’t answerable? Of course the servant fell asleep, and the cicadas droning which is like a lullaby reflects the droning of the rumination of the poet.