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A mother’s rice cakes

I don’t know when I first heard this story. I know I was young. It’s a story that has been passed down the generations from parent to child, teacher to student. Almost every Korean child knows about this man and his rise to fame.

Han Seok-bong. He was born in the early sixteenth century, in the reign of King Jungjong of Joseon. It was what Korea was called back then.

They say he became a master calligrapher and a royal scribe called sajagwan, responsible for diplomatic documents and royal letters during the reign of Seonjo, the next King of Joseon. His fame spread from one region to the next, across the country and into China.


But before he was a great calligrapher recording the history of Korea’s Kings, he was just another boy. Legend has it, he was born into poverty and raised by a single mother.

She discovered his talent for writing at a young age and packed him off to a temple to study. She said she would support him as best she could selling rice cakes to make ends meet. She told him to stay there for ten years, learning everything he could and mastering his skill, before coming home.

The years passed. He became homesick. He worried about his mother. He also felt he had learned all he needed to know. He left the temple and came home early.

In some stories, his walk quickens and breaks into a run as he sees his home in the distance. They say his mother is there to greet him. In other stories, the young man comes home and waits for her to return from the market in the dark.

But the next part is always the same. Instead of being overjoyed to see her son, she is concerned.

“You’re back early,” she says.

“I’ve studied hard mother,” he replies. “I know everything I need to know. Let me come back and look after you.”

She sits next to him.

“Show me what you can do then. I will cut my rice cakes beside you.”

They start. His mother’s cakes are neat and uniform. He begins to show off his skill. While he is in mid-flourish, his mother leans over and blows out the light. Darkness engulfs them. He turns to relight the lamp.

“Keep it out,” she insists.

Han humours her and keeps writing in the dark. She quietly cuts the cakes beside him. When there are no more to cut, she lights the lamp. Han looks down. His writing is illegible. But his mother’s rice cakes are still neat and uniform.

He is ashamed. In that moment, Han realises he has still more to learn and returns to the temple to finish his studies.

His story has echoed over the centuries. Told to millions of Korean kids struggling with their studies.

Han Seok-bong, his lowly start and famous career attained through hard work and humility may be the morality tale, but his mother has always been my hero. A woman who endured difficulties and sacrificed much to give her son a chance she never had. Someone who had cut so many rice cakes to support her son, she could do it in the dark. And I still don’t know her name. She doesn’t have one in the story. She’s only known as Han Seok-bong’s mother.


Featured image by JEONGUK HA on Unsplash

via the Daily Prompt: Patience

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March 2018
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