Shedding of the Petals ~ By Ji-hoon Cho
(Cross-Cultural Communications, Columbia (MD), 2019, ISBN #978-0-8930-4293-6)
Review by Yearn Hong Choi (Spring 2021 issue)
News in Brief from New York was the name of a small book party in which the outgoing United Nations Ambassador Tae-yul Cho read his father’s poem from Shedding of the Petals, the first collection of poetry by Ji-hoon Cho in both Korean and English. Ambassador Cho’s famous literary father Jihoon Cho, wrote from the 1940s to 60s, and died in the 1960s. This collection of nearly 80 poems in translation was published by the family more than 50 years after the poet’s death.
I knew both father and son well. I read the senior Cho’s poems during my high school and college days. Then I met the junior Cho in Washington DC in the 1980s when I was working for the government, and he was starting his diplomatic career in the nation’s capital.
I invited the junior Cho to the Korean Poets and Writers Group to speak about his father’s life and poetry. He related that he lost his father when he was in middle school, so he did not have much to talk about regarding his father’s life and death, but it seemed to me that he has learned a lot between then and now.
Once, while in South Korea, I visited the Cho Jihoon Literary Museum in his hometown, Joosil Village, Youngyang County, which is about 70 km. from the city of Andong in North Kyungsang province. Beginning in the 16th century, the first community of neo-Confucian scholars was located near Andong. That was where Ji-hoon Cho learned Chinese classics from his grandfather. Traditional Korean studies was a form of resistance to Japanese rule over Korea.
After the liberation of Korea in 1945, the elder Cho was offered a teaching job at Korea University. He turned it down because he did not have a formal doctoral education. However, he was already a famous young poet, one of three Chongrok-pa poets. Chongrok-pa means literally the “Blue Deer Horn Group,” a nature-oriented poets’ group. Korea University knew that he was qualified to be a Korean studies college professor, and urged him to accept the post.
Eventually, Ji-hoon Cho accepted the college teaching job and became a famous scholar in Korean cultural studies. His 20 years at Korea University was marked by his advocacy for traditional Korean culture and literature, and he was known for his courageous opinion writings on democracy and freedom during the 1960s.
Many years ago, on April 19, 1960, I participated in a street protest demonstration by Yonsei University students against the rigged and corrupt presidential elections that eventually toppled the Syngman Rhee government. Some demonstrators were gunned down in front of the Central Government Building while I was in a crowd of students nearby. Hearing gunshots, we threw ourselves on the pavement. After a while, I opened my eyes and looked up. There I saw Ji-hoon Cho and Doo-jin Park, two of the Chongrok-pa poets. Park was my college professor. I will never forget the moment when our eyes met. They were standing on the roadside, watching us. After a few days, President Syngman Rhee resigned and was exiled to Hawaii.
During his teaching days at Korea University, Prof. Cho would wear traditional Korean clothes while he lectured on Korean culture and arts. Korean clothing was his trademark, and he clearly believed in the beauty of traditional Korean poetry and culture. The titles of his three most famous poems, Buddhist Dance, Flower Petals on Sleeves, and Old-Fashioned Dress eloquently speak for his mind and heart. His poems were products of his scholarship in Korean history and literature combined with his appreciation of nature — delights of the changing seasons, flora and fauna, white clouds in the blue sky, mist, moonlight, mountains and rivers.
Reading his new poems from New York reconfirmed for me that Ji-hoon Cho’s ideas and thoughts dwelt on traditional Korean objects and arts (e.g., an ancient temple, a stone gate, a bamboo flute player, or the music of a kayageum). The poet’s language was rather antique, and today’s young people cannot easily comprehend it.
Cho reflected in his poem a certain acceptance and appreciation for what he had, and the contribution he had made to the intellectual heritage of the nation. He even accepted his forthcoming death as an order of nature. In the final poem he wrote, his spirit is vivid, and I can perceive a farewell to life. The last three lines of the poem, To My Illness, are the following;
To life, it still is boundlessly beautiful,
And even if torture is in store in the netherworld,
I am not really afraid of dying.
You were a friend dear to me,
And one to whom I harbor reverence.
If I could choose only one favorite poem from this volume it would be Flower Petals on Sleeves. This poem was written in 1942 after he first traveled to Kyungju where Mokwol Park, one of three Chongrok-pa poets, lived. This poem was sent to Mokwol after their first encounter. After that, Mokwol produced his most famous poem, Wayfarer, in response to this poem. I still admire their friendship with poetry.
Almost all Ji-hoon Cho’s poems are in this volume, but one of the most famous, Buddhist Dance, was missing. A translation of that poem would be nearly impossible for anyone. However, the omission of this poem is a critical weakness of this collection. Moonlit Night the title of a poem in this book, that I once translated as Old-Fashioned Dress. “Spring Night” might be a more accurate translation than “Moonlit Night.”
Professor Sung-il Lee of Yonsei University, the translator of this volume, emphasized that Cho was a dreamer. Of course, poets are dreamers. But in Cho’s poems, I also see his reflections as a social thinker, especially in the later part of his life, and his poet’s willpower to preserve and pass down the beauty of traditional Korean life.
Dr. Choi, a poet and writer based in Northern Virginia, died January 6 of complications related to his battle with cancer. He was a longtime friend and contributor to KQ.