Monday, August 5, 2013

An Ancient Book, A Dream - A True Genealogy put to Story

Ma - Horse
As a writer I see the world around me in the form of stories.  Each person has a past, a present and a future. A beginning and an end. The line of time between birth and death, those latter two being like well-wrought book covers, constitutes the story of each individual that sets foot in this mortal domain. The creation of these stories forms the ever shifting web of what we call life, each strand intersecting other strands, crossing, connecting, joining, consuming. After the death of each protagonist the vast majority of those stories are quickly forgotten like a cob wed swept from the corner of a ceiling. There are some that are preserved for much longer. Those are the stories that become the history of the world as we know it. We are often told that these who are remembered were the greater beings of their particular generation, but this is not necessarily so.

Those whose tales have made their way into history were not necessarily the greater peoples who shaped history, they were merely the ones whose stories were repeated, and remembered by later generations because they were written down. Whether in words, in art or in some other type of representation, their tales were kept and remembered long beyond the point where the protagonist’s lives, loves, and struggles have ceased along this mortal strand. Not only were their stories written down, but they were repeated, translated and kept up to date to ensure future audiences would hear the story of the ones whose stories we have.

First Page from the
History of the Ma Family in Korea
I happen to own a similar tale.  I doubt anyone reading this blog has heard of this historical character, unless of course you happen to be a member of a small family in South Korea descended from a man named Ma Chun Mok. My wife, Ma Mi Kyong, happens to be a direct descendent of said famous ancestor. We know this because we are in possession of the genealogy and eulogy of Ma Chun Mok himself that has been passed down from generation to generation for nearly 700 years.  There were other parts of the family history dating back even farther, to nearly 500 AD, but those were apparently lost during the Korean War in 1951 when my wife’s father, then an eight year old boy, was running for his life from the invading North Korean and Chinese armies with a load of books entrusted to him by his grandfather. He ended up losing many of the priceless ancient books, some falling out of his pack, others traded for food to survive, the child being unaware of their real value. They may well still exist somewhere in Korea but we don’t know where. The first page of the oldest book we have is pictured on the left, the Chinese character for their name is on the right. 

General Ma Chun Mok
(c. 1400AD)
An interesting fact about their name is that there are at least eight different characters pronounced “Ma” in Chinese. Each different character has a very different meaning. 磨 means ‘mill’ or ‘grind’, a worker’s name like the English ‘Miller’. 碼 means ‘code’ or ‘counting’ and may have been a family of accountants or tax collectors. Another ‘Ma’ has a much darker meaning. 魔literally means ‘Magic’, but in a very negative sense, like black magic, evil like a dark sorcerer. My wife’s name symbol is which means ‘Horse’ and would’ve been used for royalty or high ranking military families. Ma Chun Mok was born in the city of Yangcheng, Shanxi province China in 1358. Something I have yet to discover (Mongolian invaders? War with neighboring states?) caused his family to move to Korea, then called Koguryeo, where he joined the army Taejo, the man who would bring the end of the Koguryeo Dynasty and ushered in the Joseon Dynasty that would last over five hundred years from 1392-1897. Ma Chun Mok became the supreme commander of Taejo’s army.
During General Ma’s lifetime he got to witness the introduction by the Great King Sejong of the Korean Alphabet, the first alphabet of any Asian nation designed to be easily learned by every level of society, from peasant to emperor, propelling Korea into an era of great social impact and technical advancement. This is the same Great King Sejong who still appears on Korean money and is revered throughout their culture.

A Faithful
of the
Ma Family
The title of one of the books we have is “The Faithfully Told Family History of General Ma Chun Mok”. In it there is a record of General Ma serving the first four kings of the Joseon dynasty.  Of what we’ve been able to translate, there are several specific lines that really caught my eye. In one King Taejon makes General Ma a Duke over a region of the country. In another line Great King Sejong, 4th in line after Taejon, gives him a special title of Most Honorable, True and Faithful General Ma. In the way Korean linguistics works, this is an amazingly honorific title. It signifies that as a man Ma Chun Mok was beyond reproach. He accepted no bribes, could not be swayed from his loyalty and lived an honorable life even in the face of death. His impact was so great that even today, nearly seven hundred years after his birth, a group of his descendants still holds a memorial service for him. My wife had no idea of the depth of her own past until we started researching these books.

Way back in 1988, shortly after we were married, I had a dream. The dream involved a happy little kingdom in China that was invaded by five neighboring states that drove it off the continent. They escaped the slaughter by hiding in a ring of mountains in Korea until their enemies stopped the pursuit. When I told my wife about my dream she was speechless at first. Eventually she told me about her family’s history as far as she knew, which was very little at the time. She grew up in a busy town called Dong Du Chon about an hour east of Seoul, just outside Camp Casey US Army base. Two uncles and her father and mother owned a string of shops that peddled wares to the soldiers ranging from R&B records, to 60’s & 70’s Mod-Squad clothes, to transistor radios and other trinkets and technologies any US soldier would pay cash for. One day her Harabujee (grandfather) took her on a trip to meet some other relatives. The trip involved a long train ride, followed by several hours on a bus, then a five mile hike off the road system into a mountainous area. Upon passing through a narrow valley into a place surrounded on all sides by tall jagged mountains they came to a large village. Painted on the outer walls of the vast majority of households was the name 馬or its Korean rendering ‘마‘, both of which are pronounced ‘Ma’.  At home her family were the only Ma among tens of thousands, and yet here was an entire village, over a thousand people, that shared her name. 
Map of Ma Chun Mok's tomb

Decades later, on a trip to visit her family in Korea for the first time since marrying me, my wife’s father gave her a keepsake: his copy of the family book. As I browsed through it I saw something that captured my imagination and sparked a time distant memory, the hiding place of my dream. The picture to the right is a page from the book showing the burial place of General Ma Chun Mok. Is this the location of the village where my wife’s relatives lived forty years ago? Is the place I saw in my dream a real place, and not a mere fantasy of dream webs conjured in my imagination while sleeping next to an Asian beauty I have always pictured as a Korean Princess. Were my muses awakening my mind to a memory not my own, but one which I am destined to write about. There is a story here, one which I intend to glean from these ancient texts. This is my life’s work, the story I live to write.

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