Photo by Caitriana Nicholson(CC BY-SA 2.0)

 On the Okke Brook 

Mirok Li 

This is an excerpt of the memoir, The Yalu Flows, written by Mirok Li who was a Korean writer and wrote his works in German; Li was born in 1899 in Haeju City, Korea, and fled his country to Germany for political reasons when he was a college junior; he got involved with his fellow students in the patriotic movement of the March First Independence Movement in 1919 to resist pressure from Japanese rulers.

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In the autumn school took up more time, for now we studied geography and what was called world history; our lessons, moreover, had to be copied laboriously from a blackboard for lack of textbooks. Often it was already cool when I left the schoolgate behind me in the half-light of the evening. 

 

It was on one such late afternoon that I was fetched by Kuori, our maid. She had been sent by my mother because, so she said, it was dangerous to be alone in the streets today. Many Japanese soldiers were about the town, and some had even forced their way into private houses. 

 

I felt uneasy, although I had often heard that the Japanese had come to us not as enemies, but as friends and to help us. We hurried home. When I heard Japanese soldiers spoken of, I was always rather frightened.

 

"What does my father say?" I asked Kuori. "I don't know." 

"And what does Mother say?" 

"That there will soon be war again." 

"And Sunok?" 

"That this will be the end of the world." 

 

We hurried on. Agape against the dark night sky stood the large south entrance to the city. The main street was darker than usual. The fruit-vendors had abandoned the stalls where on other days they sold melons, pumpkins, pears, and pies by the light of their paper lanterns. The pieman with his beautiful haunting tunes had made off too. 

The Yalu Flows: A Korean Childhood

Published by Hollym International Corp. in 1986.

Translated from German into English by H.A. Hammelmann & Gertraud Gutensohn, and edited by Dr. Kyu-Hwa Chung.

 

 

We are not sure if we are allowed to publish the English translation of The Yalu Flows here as a reference for the Japanese translation that Happano did in 2005-2006.  But we could not find the translators on the internet to contact with.  So we decided to put the manuscript without permission, but if any should not be displayed here, let us know, so we will remove it immediately. Or if any need credits, tell us and they will be added.

(Kazue Daikoku: editor@happano.org)

At home the events of the day were the subject of excited discussion. It was true that soldiers had turned up in every street and lane to search houses. Sunok had seen three soldiers forcing their way into the Bread House at the top of the main street. Nobody knew what they were looking for, because it was impossible to understand their speech, and no one was allowed to go near them. The general feeling was that something terrible awaited our town. 

 

My parents conferred late into the night. My mother proposed that at least some of the children Ojini especially, who was already grown up, and I, as the youngest should be taken to safety. My father would not consent, though he did not understand the significance of the searches any better. There was no reason, he said, to fear war, and the soldiers would do no harm to innocent citizens. We should offer no resistance and give up whatever they wanted. The soldiers were certain to have been sent by our King himself for some good reason. 

 

My mother found it hard to regain her composure after such a day of excitement, but she gave way with a heavy heart, and in the end only directed that I was not to leave the house for the next few days and should sleep in my old east room on the inner courtyard. I obeyed her willingly, although I was no longer afraid now that my father had entirely dispelled my fears. 

 

The next afternoon four soldiers armed with rifles actually did come to our house. They walked through all the courtyards, pried into every room and shed, and then left again as my father had foretold, without molesting us or taking anything. After that we all calmed down and I was allowed to go to school again. Only Ojini, who had fled from courtyard to courtyard at the very sight of the soldiers, was upset and scared for weeks to come. 

 

Such house searches were repeated often, almost every day or even twice a day. Occasionally the soldiers appeared early in the morning; sometimes they turned up unexpectedly in the inner courtyard during the evening and caused the women to run away in terror. 

 

At the same time a sinister rumor was about: it was said that some of our countrymen young peasants, hunters, and others opposed to the new times and suspect-ing the Japanese of evil intentions had gathered in the nearby mountains to fight the invaders. This would explain the recurrent searches in our town for hidden arms. 

 

At first my father took all of this for mere gossip. Yet there seemed to be truth in the story, for we saw more and more heavily armed Japanese troops pass through Somun (West Gate) and Pukmun. They marched out singing and singing they returned to the town. 

 

Later they brought prisoners. It was a terrible sight, terrible to watch our own peasants being dragged through the streets, beaten bloody and in heavy manacles, their features swollen and appallingly mutilated. Never had I seen a human being in chains nor one so flayed. I staggered home sick with fear and horror and a cold sweat ran down my face. 

 

My mother again proposed that I should be taken away from school in order to go to a more peaceful part of the country. I was a young child, she argued, and ought to be spared such impressions. Father discussed the matter at length but in the end did not consent. He only sent Pang the laborer and our bailiff to the peasants on our farms; they were to warn our people not to get involved in any trouble with the Japanese. As for me, he said I should simply not look at the marching soldiers. Only an uneducated child could be so inquisitive as to stare into their faces. 

 

The fighting became still more violent. Throughout winter and spring prisoners were brought into the town. Even women were among them. 

 

Not until summer, with the onset of the rains, did things begin to settle down at last. The house searches ceased altogether. Steadily the monsoon rains fell from morning till night. 

 

One evening Kisop came to see me. He looked pale and wan. "Have you heard?" he asked me. "No; what do you mean?" 

 

He kept me waiting for a while. "I think we have been tricked after all," he said at last; "our country has been annexed." 

"By Japan?" 

"Of course by Japan." 

"Where did you see that?" 

"If you have time you can go to Nammun later and read the proclamation. But be careful. A soldier is there. You must not make any fuss or tear down the poster." 

 

After our evening meal I went to Nammun accompanied by Kuori. There it was, a large printed manifesto illuminated by two big lamps. All around was still as the grave. Not a soul was to be seen near the gate or in the main street. Only two lights flickered in the darkness, and a soldier with a rifle stood beside the proclamation. I approached cautiously and saw impressed on it a large royal seal. 

 

Yes, it was a letter from the King, the first and last I ever saw in my life. It touched my heart, for it was a parting letter—the parting letter of a whole race of kings who had given us their protection for half a millennium. When I had read it all, Kuori came up to me and pulled me out of the archway. 

 

"What does it say?" she asked me. She was unable to read. 

"Our King had gone away!" 

"Forever?" "Yes, forever." 

"Why has he gone away?" 

"I don't know." 

 

At home I repeated to my father the text of the proclamation word for word. 

 

He listened attentively, but made no comment. 

"Is there still worse to come?" I asked him. 

He only looked at me in silence. 

Everyone in the house was silent, the men in the outer courtyard, my mother, my sisters—all were silent. 

 

Late into the night my parents and Sunok sat over a jar of wine and spoke of the kings of the last dynasty. In the end my father came to the conclusion that the whole Royal Family had become too weak to protect us. Now we should have to wait patiently for a new King to come and rule over us. To me he said that I should go to my school unafraid and take no notice of worldly matters. 

Before autumn was over they began to pull down the town walls, the town gates, and the official palaces, and to widen the narrow streets. Shops were dismantled, houses and courtyards broken up. Newly exposed heating shafts peered through the rubble-heaps, and with difficulty I made my way to and from school across what were once our streets. Day and night the work went feverishly on. From all directions came the heavy crash of the battering ram, the sharp bang of the hammer, and shrill whining of the saw; thick dust filled the air. Men shouted, gave orders, gesticulated, and quarreled. I was glad when our gate closed behind me. 

 

But even our outer courtyard had been affected by this unrest. Incessantly people came and went. Expelled peas-ants, dismissed officials, refugees, and emigrants adrift across the country came to ask for shelter. Sunok offered them hospitality only for a few hours and then sent them on their way again. He had to explain the whole day long that our house was not as wealthy as it looked and that they should try their luck elsewhere. This went on throughout the long, cold winter. More and more beggars and refugees arrived to fill all the guestrooms; Sunok sat in front of the house cross and full of bitter words: "Oh, these miserable times, this miserable world!" 

 

Only the courtyard with the well remained quiet; indeed it was more quiet than ever. The whole day long my father, with the help of an interpreter, was involved in discussions with the occupation authorities over the countless new regulations or the new taxes, and this so exhausted him that quite early in the evening he had to lie down and could not stand very much conversation. When I told him about my school he only listened for a short while and then asked me to lie down myself and to blow out the lamp because he was in need of rest. Quite often he interrupted me saying: "Enough of that now; go for a walk and come back to me later." 

 

I felt I was becoming tiresome to him and held my tongue. 

 

I did not care to go for a walk. The dismantled town walls, the unroofed tower gates filled my mind at night with unspeakable sadness and great terror. I preferred to stay at home. When I was with my father, I still felt somehow protected. I was his flesh and blood, he would surely be able to look after me. 

Photo by Brandon HowardFollow(CC BY 2.0) 

Summer returned. One hot afternoon my father asked whether I would like to go with him to the Okke brook to bathe. I was delighted. The Okke was a fine, small river in a quiet valley full of old trees. In their shadow I had spent many days of my childhood while I was still at the 'old school.' 

 

Kuori preceded us with a mat and a small tray of fruit and wine, while I with the paduk board under my arm followed my father. Outside the town we took the familiar path along the brook and gradually climbed through the defile to the mountain farm where the old pavilion stood. Kuroi had already prepared our seats and left. While my father looked around the countryside, I set up the paduk game and covered the squares with black handicap stones. 

 

"Nothing has changed here during all these years," my father said with a smile. "Don't you feel that this is a world of its own?" 

 

"Yes, that is so, Father," I replied. No human sound was heard, only the chirping of the cicadas from the treetops, and from the ravine the steady murmur of the brook. All the stillness of the day seemed to repose in the deep green shadow, broken once in a while by a cool mountain breeze. 

 

I filled my father's bowl. "May you live a thousand years!" I said, repeating the salutation of a kisaeng, female entertainer. 

 

He smiled. "Have you ever tried to sing a shijo song?" 

"No, how could I?" 

"Try," he said and sang the song of the 'Mild South Wind.' It was a sombre ancient melody, usually presented by famous kisaengs as a wine song. Speechless with admiration I listened, for I had never known he could sing so beautifully. For myself, I could not summon up the courage to follow his example. He looked at the games board. "Still ten points handicap?" he asked with a frown. 

 

Reluctantly I took away two corner stones and only held the inner wall occupied with my pieces. 

 

He took away another two counters. "Surely you can beat your own father with a handicap of six," he laughed and moved his first piece. 

 

Naturally I lost the game. 

"Well then, make it eight points!" 

I lost again. 

He looked at me with pity. "You have lost practice. There is nothing to be done but to give you two more pieces!" 

"I don't mind," I said and continued playing with ten points. 

 

"Let's stop playing," he suddenly said when he found that I put my pieces all too often on the wrong spot. "Take off your clothes and get into the water for a while." 

 

I was sorry to have disappointed him. "You must remember that a tiger sometimes gives birth to a dog," I said to console him. 

 

"Never mind; come closer and let me have a look at you! Stand straight; you need not be embarrassed before your father." 

 

He looked at me from all sides. "You are still very skinny," he concluded with real concern, "How old are you?" 

"Thirteen." 

 

 

"Well, there is time. Now go slowly into the water. It is extremely cold here." 

 

He took a bowl of wine and watched me wading clumsily from one rock to the next. 

 

Then he came into the water. He seated himself cau-tiously under the edge of a big broad rock and let the water trickle over his shoulder. He had hardly been there for a minute when abruptly he leapt out again and sank into the sand, seized by a sudden spasm. He was deadly pale and shook all over. Quickly I got a towel and rubbed him, because I believed he was cold. 

 

Gradually his face regained color and he got up again. 

"What happened, Father?" 

"Nothing, nothing has happened at all. Just fetch me my clothes." We dressed, but the shock still made me shiver. 

My father, however, said to me: "Don't be afraid; I shall live for a long time 3i-et. I will live until after you marry a beautiful wife and present me with a grand-child." 

 

But for me all the joy of living had been drained away. "Father, please let us go home." 

"No, no," he said with a laugh, "you can see that I am quite well again. Let us stay for a while in this beautiful spot." 

 

He looked at the mountains, still aglow in the evening sun. The farm itself was already lost in shadow and from the valley rose a cool wind. 

 

"Will you try one more game?" 

"No, please let us go home." 

Fortunately, Kuori soon came to fetch us back. 

"The life-force wells up unbroken from this brook," he said as we left; "take care if ever you bathe here again." 

 

Hardly had he crossed the threshold of our house when he was taken with a new spasm. He had to be carried unconscious into my mother's room. 

 

The whole evening I raced from doctor to doctor. Shortly before midnight my mother told me to kneel on Father's left and to take his hand into mine. She took his right hand and began to pray. We all joined in, while Kuori spread out a broad white cloth on the floor to prepare a way for his soul from the bed to the threshold of the house. 

"The Sugar Pine" from The Basket Woman: A Book of Indian Tales, by Mary Hunter Austin

 

Mirok Li 

March 8, 1899 - March 20, 1950.  Mirok Li was a Korean writer who spent much of the twentieth century in exile in Germany. Growing up alongside four siblings, the youngest child and only son of a landowner, Li grew into the Confucian custom, guided by the strict social order of the old Cyrus. In 1905 he attended the village school and was taught in the ancient Korean style (sodang). In 1910, education at Haidju-school changed according to the notions of Japan, which had recently completed the colonization of Korea.

 

In 1919, Li helped with printing and distributing leaflets in denunciation of the Japanese occupation. This got him into trouble and he fled at the urging of his mother to Shanghai, China. There, he demonstrated in front of the Korean Provisional Government in exile and before continuing to Germany.

 

In May 1920 he achieved his goal and in 1922 moved to Würzburg, and a year later continued his medical studies in Heidelberg. However, in Germany he remained ill and had to interrupt his studies for a long time.

 

It was not until 1925 when he was able to resume his studies in Munich again, when he changed his fields of study to zoology, botany and anthropology. In 1928 he submitted his doctoral dissertation and received a doctorate. (referred from Wikipedia)

His main works are Iyagi: Korean short storiesFrom the Yalu to the Isar River: Narratives, The Yalu Flows: A Korean Childhood and Japanese poetry.