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My Tale of the Bamboo Wife

  • By Hwang Sun-won
  • Issue 14
  • FableFebruary 2016

For the first time in a long while the elderly Mr. Han had a visit from J, one of his former high school students. Under J’s arm, wrapped in paper, was a long, round object that didn’t seem all that heavy for its size.

After an exchange of greetings, J placed the object on the coffee table. “Sir, I’d like to give you this.”

J was now an associate professor of classical Korean literature. He was also quite talented in calligraphy, a framed sample of which, in a style emphasizing simple strokes, adorned Han’s living room wall: 文者求道之器也, “Behold writers, truth-seeking vessels.” You could almost feel the power of the brushwork. And then there was the time J had dropped by with a porcelain vase bearing the two characters 守拙, which Han liked to think of as meaning “stick to your guns,” executed in a semi-cursive hand. Fresh out of his friend’s kiln, J had reported.

Now what? Han wondered as J began unwrapping the parcel. He hadn’t the faintest clue what it might be.

The object that came into sight was a loosely woven bamboo-mesh structure, hollow inside. When all the paper was off, Han could see it was perhaps three feet long and eight inches across.

“You know what this is, don’t you, sir?” asked J with a wry smile.

“Well now … Maybe a headrest, for summer use? But it looks too high for a headrest. Maybe it’s meant for a couple—no, it’s too long for a headrest for two …”

“Considering your venerable age, sir, I thought you might know. Actually you’re not far off. For summer use and for sleeping, yes, you deserve points for that.” J then stood the object up before placing it back down. “It’s not a headrest, it’s a kind of substitute.”

“A substitute for what?”

“For a wife.”

“Ah yes. Right you are, a bamboo wife—I’ll be darned.” Long ago Han had read about such items. “But who in his right mind would come up with something so obscene?”

“Obscene? But sir, imagine how refreshing it would feel to tuck your arm around her on a sultry summer night. It’s ingenious—the best thing since massages were invented.”

“Sure, I can see the air-circulation part of it. But who’s our Mr. Ingenious who came up with the idea? Someone from China, I bet.”

“Right again, sir. One Zhang Rui, a literatus from the Northern Song—the zhang means ‘benevolent’ and the rui means ‘plow,’ by the way. He left us with a story titled ‘The Tale of the Bamboo Wife,’ which if I may I would be more than happy to relate to you.”

During the reign of Emperor Wu of Han there lived a lady surnamed Chuk, meaning “bamboo.” One summer the emperor set out for his summer retreat with the empress and some thousand concubines. Expressing his wishes to be made cool and refreshed, he ordered them to find a loyal, good-hearted, genteel, and honest person. Consulting among themselves, the empress and concubines presented the emperor with a woman made of bamboo.

“That’s interesting,” said Han. “Among all the possible candidates, the empress and concubines chose a woman who lacked emotion or sensation.”

“And the emperor bestowed on this bamboo woman the title of Madam,” J continued. “This being a story of a personified object, she was of course clothed, green for her outer garments and ocher for her undergarments, just like the outside and inside of bamboo, you know. And when she approached the emperor, she did not bow, just as bamboo does not bend. The emperor kept his bamboo wife beside him all summer long. And then as autumn drew near and the summer heat eased, he had her laid to rest in a box, wishing her a comfortable rest until he summoned her back the following summer. And when that time came, summon her he did. She remained in service until the fall of the dynasty, when Wang Mang—wang meaning ‘king’ and mang meaning ‘lush’—seized the throne, at which time the bamboo wife was burned along with the palace.” After pausing to let the story sink in J said, “Some two hundred and fifty years after Zhang Rui, late in the Yuan Dynasty, a literatus named Liu Weizhen—liu meaning ‘willow,’ wei meaning ‘maintain,’ and zhen meaning ‘privet’—also wrote a ‘Tale of the Bamboo Wife.’”

There lived a lady surnamed Chuk, meaning “bamboo.” At birth she was the scrawniest thing you could imagine, but she grew up to be a respectable bamboo wife. She had no innards, for she was hollow like bamboo. She wasn’t a chatty sort, and even if she was wronged by others she didn’t make an issue of it. She had her standards, and felt it humiliating to have to bow to others. Nor did she make a point of prettying herself up. All of which endeared her to the empress and court officials. She maintained her standards until the end, when she became a goddess and vanished without a trace.

“Don’t we have a bamboo-wife story, too?” asked Han.

“Indeed we do. The one by Yi Kok, the late Koryŏ scholar-literatus.”

“Ah, yes, Yi Kok.”

“He was a contemporary of Liu Weizhen, died about twenty years earlier. Academics today interpret the story in at least three ways. Since it’s an object-personification tale, the question is, what’s being personified? Some scholars say it’s the bamboo itself, and a second group says it’s a product made of bamboo, namely a bamboo wife. A third group says it’s not bamboo at all, it’s a calligraphy brush that’s being personified.”

“It’s been ages since I read it,” said Han. “And I can’t remember a blessed thing.”

“You could say it’s bamboo being personified, or you could argue it’s the bamboo wife, the product. I guess it all depends.”

“And so, my dear professor, which interpretation do you favor?”

“For me it’s the product, the bamboo wife, that’s being personified.”

“On what basis?”

“First, there’s the beginning of the story. As usual the lady’s surname is Chuk. But her given name is Ping, meaning ‘to lean.’ Combine that with her dependence on a person, and I’m led to believe it was a bamboo product Yi had in mind. If you focus on the development of the story, at least sixty percent concerns bamboo itself, before the bamboo wife comes into being—for example, all the different types of bamboo, classified by place of origin and usage—from which it might appear that Yi Kok meant to focus on the bamboo itself, in much the way we might praise our lineage. But I believe we have to see the story as emphasizing the preciousness of the material that becomes the bamboo wife. And don’t forget that the two Chinese writers also begin by extolling the integrity of bamboo, the material of the wife.”

“I’m no expert, but I guess it’s safe to assume that since there’s an actual bamboo wife and Yi took it for his title, his ‘Tale of the Bamboo Wife,’ like those of the two Chinese men, focuses on the bamboo wife.”

“So you agree with me.”

“My question is, what are the three writers trying to express through the bamboo wife?”

“I think each wanted to mention the virtues of the bamboo wife in his story by way of raising an alarm about the corruption of their regime and society. At the same time they seem to be dealing with pent-up anger from their unrealized dreams; implicitly they want to show the world how high-minded they are.”

“Regardless of the period, guys writing about their pent-up anger and how high-minded they are? Come on.”

“But that’s what most of our classics are based on.”

“Precisely my point. And not just the classics.”

“In any event, I find all three stories a lot of fun. I only offered bare-bones accounts, but they’re full of historical allusions and they have a good dose of humor—they’re worth rereading.”

“So, I’m supposed to read this?” said Han, indicating J’s gift. He knew J was as forthright as scholars come and wouldn’t have an ulterior motive, but he played innocent and said, “You wouldn’t by chance be raising an alarm about me, would you, something unsavory you’ve discovered about your old teacher?”

“Please, sir. Nothing could be further from the truth. But if I must explain, isn’t life a bit tedious for you these days?”

“Rubbish. Hugging this thing at night is supposed to relieve tedium? On the contrary—it’s just one more nuisance I have to deal with.”

Han had never liked sharing his bed. Even after marriage he and his wife slept apart, and for the past twenty years they’d kept separate bedrooms. It wasn’t just Han’s idiosyncrasy; he and his wife went to bed at different times and didn’t want to disturb each other.

“That’s the last thing she would want, sir. My guess is, you’ll feel comfortable having her at your side.”

“So I should think we already had bamboo wives when Yi Kok wrote his story.”

“Yes. At least from late Koryŏ and then all the way through Chosŏn, something to keep you cool on a summer night.”

“Then why not an air conditioner instead of this naughty relic?”

“But sir, lover of things natural that you are—how could I give you a machine?”

“You sound like you’re running for the National Assembly! Where did you get this, anyway?”

And then it struck Han that J must have found it at one of the flea markets whose proceeds went to senior citizens. Han remembered one such place heaped with all manner of clothing, handicrafts, and appliances—dresses, traditional men’s outer-coats, macramé decorations, spoon-and-chopstick containers, rice cookers, and transistor radios. The purpose of these markets was to recycle used goods, sell items handcrafted by seniors, supply the elderly with job opportunities, and use the proceeds for those same senior citizens. Most of the buying and selling was done by housewives and the elderly. Han recalled joining the longest line and finding fine handmade birch yut sticks, the stitched-cloth rectangles on which the game of yut was played, and the colorful sacks in which you stored them. The granny selling all these sets was from a senior-women’s association in Kwangju county, Kyŏnggi province, outside Seoul. From an elderly man Han had bought a handmade kite in the shape of a shield bearing the yin-yang symbol. He still remembered the vendor’s delight as he told Han he had brought ten of the kites and sold practically the whole bunch. And as Han made the rounds of the flea market he had caught sight of a spread of bamboo products. He wondered now if a bamboo wife was among them.

“They’re not so easy to find.”

“If she’s so precious, why are you dumping her on me?”

“Well, I’m still young enough to … you know.”

“Young enough to find the real thing for summer use—yes, that makes sense.”

“And sir, one last thing. There are certain items a father and son can’t share. Likewise I couldn’t share this bamboo wife with my benevolent teacher, even though it’s only a substitute for the real thing.”

“There you go again! You got this at an old-folks flea market, didn’t you?”

“Are there such places?”

“All right, then a secondhand shop?”

“No no no.”

“Then how do you explain the faded clothing—the outer garments are supposed to be green and the inner garments ocher, that’s what you said, but now they’re gray. I’d say she’s on her last legs.”

“Well, sure, judging from the fading, she’s done some aging. But remember, a bamboo wife keeps her purity no matter how old she is. And this one is still a virgin! At the South Gate Markets there are three shops specializing in bamboo products, and on my way here I just happened to spot her inside one of them. You know, they don’t make them now, so how could I resist? It was a real find! I didn’t even think about fussing over the price.”

Realizing J had gone out of his way, Han ceased his protestations, and after his disciple had left, he took the bamboo wife to his room and stood it up in the corner of his half loft. But not before showing it to his wife and explaining how he had come by it. It was disgusting, declared the old woman, refusing to look at it.

Disgusting? Well, Han had seen something really disgusting back in Japan, an incident that had kept surfacing while he listened to J.

In Japan he’d had a British professor by the name of More, a man in his late forties with deep blue eyes who lived by himself. He taught Dryden but without a text, jotting down the poems by memory on the chalkboard, the letters tiny specks, explicating the poems as he did so. He might cover as many as three poems in a class. Han considered him one of a kind, and not just for his teaching style; he also smoked nonstop during class, and what he smoked, Bat, was the cheapest and strongest brand you could buy.

Once, with a group of friends from class, he had visited the professor in his small apartment. They learned that he had a maid come every other day to do the laundry and clean, he got by on pastries and coffee for breakfast, and for lunch and dinner he ate out.

In the living room the students drank the beer the professor had set out. They found his clumsy Japanese amusing—why, the man had already been in the country for eight years.

Han was returning from the toilet when he passed the half-open door to a room and caught sight of a woman lying sideways on a bed. She was visible from the shoulders up and wore a pink lace nightcap that didn’t quite cover her blond hair. Han knew intuitively she wasn’t real. Back in the living room with the beer, he couldn’t rid himself of the image of the woman and he felt his heart throbbing. She was artificial, and yet something about her was more stimulating than the sight of an actual, naked woman. He had once heard of a life-size female doll that, when you switched it on, warmed up and functioned like a real woman. Now he understood: there was a connection between the artificial woman and the professor’s lack of a wife—but what exactly was it? And wouldn’t he want to keep the doll out of sight during the day, either hiding it or tucking it inside his bedding? Didn’t it bother him, the maid having to make his bed with an artificial woman inside it? The man must be a pervert. The indecent sight that made him avert his gaze from the professor for the rest of the evening was fresh in Han’s mind even today. Professor More’s doll must have been the reason the word “obscene” popped into his mind the moment he saw the bamboo wife J had brought.

From that night on, Han had a visitor in his room, a woman, no less.

She wore a green Korean jacket made of ramie and a yellow Korean skirt of hemp; the colors of both garments were faded. Her face bore no touch of makeup, leaving her appearance refreshingly pure. Her age was indeterminate—her pure looks suggested twenty, give or take a year, but her composed demeanor was that of a middle-aged woman.

That night he had returned home to find her in his room, silently offering him a small tray bearing a hot drink.

“I’m afraid I can’t. Coffee keeps me awake at night.”

She accepted this with a gentle smile.

He looked inside the cup. The liquid had a light golden color. He took a sip. The liquid was fragrant and it soothed his throat.

“What is it?” said Han.

She responded in a gentle voice. “It’s tea, made from bamboo leaves.”

Even before he’d finished the tea, the alcohol bloat in Han’s innards had eased. In fact he felt great all over.

The next morning he rose and found his bamboo wife in her place in the corner of his half loft.

One night the woman served him a spirit. Han held a sip in his mouth and noticed a pungent alcohol fragrance, along with a sweetness that spread to the tip of his tongue. He couldn’t tolerate sweet spirits, but oddly enough this one had his stomach asking for more.

“What is it?”

“It’s made from the berries of bamboo.”

The taste was enhanced by the bamboo shoots he ate as a drinking snack.

Three drinks later a subtle buzz had spread through him and he was feeling no pain. Before he knew it drowsiness was washing over him.

“Do spirits of bamboo contain a tranquilizer or something?”

With an airy giggle she said, “Why do you ask?”

“Because sleepy-time never felt so good.”

“It’s because you’ve always had fake liquor, but tonight you’re drinking the real thing. The fake stuff is everywhere you look, and it turns a person’s stomach. So you end up carrying on, whether you’re making sense or not, you get into arguments, fights break out. But with genuine spirits your innards settle down and you’re at peace with the world.”

“So what is it that makes genuine spirits genuine?”

With another featherlight smile she said, “A true mind.”

The next morning he found his bamboo wife still in her place in the half loft.

Before long he realized that the nights he drank he could expect tea when he returned home, and the nights he didn’t drink he could expect spirits of bamboo.

And every morning his bamboo wife was where she belonged in the half loft.

More frequent were the days when Han drank at home, attended by the woman. And then one night as he sipped the spirits of bamboo she served him, the genuine, true-mind-infused drink leaving him gloriously tipsy and relishing the mood, he said to her, “Young lady, I would bet you have had countless admirers, am I right? What with your unshakable constancy no matter what the circumstances or situation, and your being forever true to your principles, rendering you immune to temptation of any sort.”

She kept her silence, displaying the same gentle smile.

“Clean pine, unclean bamboo,” said Han, reciting a four-character Chinese expression. “Meaning pines are planted in good soil and bamboo in poor soil. But despite your unfavorable circumstances you grew up neat and upstanding, which makes you even more noble, and how commendable your humility, your hollowness leaving others unburdened.”

The gentle expression remained.

“Young lady, nowhere do I see in you that which is not pure and beautiful. Your eyes are especially charming. Eyes forever moist—”

Suddenly the smile was gone. Han heard a soft cry.

“What’s wrong?”

“I knew it!”

“Knew what?”

“Look at your face!”

“What about it?”

“I was in the shop at the South Gate Markets.”

“Yes, I know.”

“A few of you knew, but most would point to me and ask the owner what I was. Among the men, the young ones would gigglewhen the owner explained, but the older ones, those of your age, sir, would look at me with an obscene gleam in their eye. And sometimes they would sneak up and give me a feel. Your face now, sir, is so similar to how those old men looked.”

Han took just enough of his drink to wet his throat. “I was only saying what I felt—your eyes really are attractive.”

“But didn’t you call me obscene that first time you saw me? You said I was on my last legs.”

What could Han say to that?

“Dirty old men are disgusting. You need to remember how old you are. It’s so unseemly. Where I come from, nothing like that happens. Even the farmers of your age, they never looked at me like you did.”

The moisture in her eyes was gone and now she looked like a middle-aged woman.

“I don’t doubt it. Farmers are different, after all.”

With the woman, so amiable till now, taking him to task, Han felt an urge to speak his mind on the one hand but was also swept with feelings of guilt.

“To tell you the truth,” he said, “ever since I’ve known what’s what, there’s been something about farmers and manual laborersthat frightens me. I always feel I owe them something and they’re going to make me pay up. So on the one hand I’m scared, and yet it makes sense that there are people who want to get even with you.”

She kept her eyes on him but remained silent.

“Maybe it’s just cowardice on my part.”

“Not necessarily.” Her voice was subdued, almost a murmur. “Maybe it’s courage.”


“Yes. The courage to reveal yourself in all your embarrassment, the courage to feel a sense of shame.”

“Assuming you can use the word ‘courage’ for something that’s passive and useless. Being wrapped up in your own problems is hardly—”

“There’s something you haven’t emptied yourself of, and it’s causing you to be hung up on your own problems.”

“Something I haven’t emptied myself of?”

“Yes. You see, true courage comes from an empty mind.”

“An empty mind?” Han pondered, then regarded her. “Emptied of greed, you mean?” Han couldn’t bring himself to tell her that his entire life had been a journey directed toward ridding himself of greed. “Then what qualifies as the kind of true courage that comes from an empty mind?”

She thought for a moment before saying, “Perhaps the courage that enables you to act on behalf of righteousness?”

“In other words, with your mind emptied you know how to act for the sake of righteousness? Sounds to me like a spirit of self-sacrifice fits in somewhere.”

“That’s right. The way I see it, of all the beautiful things for which people are responsible, not a single one came without a spirit of self-sacrifice. What do you think?”

“I think perhaps you’re one such thing of beauty.”

She gave him a fetching scowl. Her eyes had moistened.

“Don’t take this as a dirty old man’s nonsense. Think about it. You’re made from bamboo that’s been sliced, bent, and shaped. If that isn’t self-sacrifice, then what is? Plus, you never lost your nobility and your grace—I dare say that qualifies you.”

“We need to be careful about that last part—it’s easy to be caught up in vanity. Oh listen to me now, I’m getting carried away.”

“Not at all. There’s not a false note in anything you’ve said.”

“Sir, I’ve been meaning to ask, in terms of self-sacrifice, do you see it more in men or in women?”

Han smiled. “You’re hoping I’ll say women?”

“Not really. At first glance that might seem the case, but in actuality I think men are stronger in that sense. Doesn’t that help explain why women can appear pretty in their eyes—both outwardly and inwardly?”

“Well, a good question deserves a good answer. A woman’s charm restores a man who’s weary in body and soul. So I think we come out even, men and women. And I would have to say that beauty is a woman’s life force.”

She nodded once and then again.

Down Han’s throat went the rest of his drink. He felt warm and tipsy. “What I’d do for one good dose of a woman’s life force!”

And before he knew it he was reaching for her. But just before fingers met shoulder she shrank like a flower folding in on itself and turned back into a bamboo wife.

Han observed his bamboo wife, then nestled her in his arms and took her to bed.

Ever since that night, Han has been dying to report to J how he and his bamboo wife came together.

Hwang Sun-won (1915–2000) was a Korean author of poetry, novels, and short stories. His work in English translation includes the novel Trees on a Slope and the story collection Lost Souls.

Bruce Fulton and Ju-Chan Fulton have translated numerous works from the Korean, including, most recently, O Chonghui’s River of Fire and Other Stories.