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Loneliness and loyalty in exileChusa, one of Korea’s greatest painters and calligraphers, spent 8 years on Jeju
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승인 2010.11.14  08:54:46
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▲ A painting of Chusa Kim Jeong Hui. Photo courtesy Yesan County

Kim Jeong Hui, better known as Chusa or Wandong (although he is credited with having used more than 200 nicknames during his lifetime), was a member of the Gyeongju Kim family and a descendant of Hwasunongju, the second daughter of King Yeongjo (r. 1724-1776).

Born in 1786, Chusa’s talent was recognized even when he was a small child. His parents were warned that while he should be taught to read and paint, he should not be taught calligraphy for to do so would condemn him to a life of hardship. The advice was ignored and, subsequently, the prophecy was fulfilled.

In 1809, Chusa’s father, Kim No Gyeong, was appointed vice ambassador and sent to China. Chusa accompanied him and while there studied under some of the greatest Chinese scholars. When he returned to Korea he brought back with him the seed (more likely a seedling) of a white pine and planted it at the tomb of his great grandfather, Kim Heung Gyeong.

The Chinese often planted these white pines near important graves and the Koreans seem to have adopted this custom. The large white pines that are scattered throughout Korea are often protected as treasures and are invariably located near tombs or historical sites.

Following the death of King Sunjo (r. 1800-1834) in December 1834, political strife was rampant in the Korean court. Queen Kim Sun Won, the wife of Sunjo and a member of the Andong Kim clan, held immense power, especially after her grandson, Heonjong (r. 1834-1849), merely a boy, was made king. Because of his age, Kim Sun Won acted as his regent.

Over the next several years the strife within the Korean court grew. In 1840, Chusa was supposed to take part in the annual winter mission to China as a vice envoy but before he could depart he became embroiled in Kim Sun Won’s intrigue.

Chusa was accused of having played a role in presenting King Sunjo, just prior to his death, a memorial in which a court official was accused of misusing or misappropriating government funds. The document declared Crown Prince Heonjong to be lacking in virtue – serious charges considering Heonjong was only seven years old when he was crowned king.

Chusa’s own family’s political orientation helped seal his fate and he was banished to Jeju Island – a fate deemed almost as bad as execution. This was not the first time his family had experienced exile. In 1830 Chusa’s father had temporarily fallen from favor at court and was banished to Gogeom-do, a small island off the southeastern coast of Korea, but he was promptly recalled.

Prior to departing for Jeju, Chusa visited one of his best friends, Seon Master Cho-ui Ui-son (1786-1866), now popularly known as the “Korean Tea Sage.” Master Cho-ui was so concerned about Chusa’s welfare that he had a place built at Daeheungsa Temple so that he could go and offer up his prayers for Chusa’s safe return.

While he was exiled on Jeju Island, Chusa was occasionally visited by friends and students. Naturally, one of his most frequent visitors was Master Cho-ui who visited Chusa on at least five occasions – once for a period of nearly six months. According to Brother Anthony of Taize, an expert on tea culture in Korea, Master Cho-ui “took [Chusa] tea and sympathy,” but he also spent time teaching him about tea culture (which has been attributed as the source of Jeju’s tea industry) and Buddhism.

One of Chusa’s most loyal students was Yi Sang Jeok (1804-1865) who seems to have visited him at least twice bringing with him and sending to Chusa a large number of rare books that he had purchased during his travels. Chusa was apparently so touched by Yi’s gesture that he painted a picture of white pine trees in his honor. The tendency of the white pine tree’s needles to remain on the branches even while surrounding trees were rendered bare by the cold wind of winter was comparable to Yi’s loyalty to Chusa during his own hard times.

Finally, after eight years of exile, Chusa was allowed to return home. One of the first places he visited was Daeheungsa Temple in order to let him know that he had safely returned to the mainland and to thank him for all that he had done.

Three years later Chusa was again embroiled in scandal – once again involving King Heonjong. Heonjong had died of venereal disease at the age of 22 in 1849 and a dispute arose over the relocation of his tomb. Chusa had evidently supported the wrong person and was once again banished – this time to Bukgyeong in Hamgyeong province.

Fortunately for Chusa, this banishment ended after little more than a year and he was allowed to return to Gwacheon and live the few remaining years of his life near his father’s tomb. Chusa, one of Korea’s greatest painters and calligraphers, died in 1856 but his legacy lives on in the museums and temples scattered around Korea.

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