Category Archives: Korea

The Price of Fame

I wanted to share a quote from the Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong, which I had talked about recently.  This is a postscript to the 1795 memoirs where she warns her younger relative about the rise and fall of the Pungsan Hong clan:

Our family has enjoyed power and fame for generations.  Father reached the highest official posts.  My two uncles and my three brothers, one after another, entered officialdom.  The power and prestige that our family enjoyed for a time was truly immense.  We did feel a certain trepidation, but, as affinal relatives, we did not think it possible to separate ourselves from the throne.  Yet because we did not reckon upon the jealousy of the world, our family fortunes reversed.1 The root of the calamity was that we were infected by power and wealth. What a fearful thing the holding of office is!

…Now none of my nephews holds even the low degree granted to successful candidates in the preliminary examinations. Living in obscurity, you are not usefully employed [in the government]. While this occasionally brings pangs of regret, I most emphatically do not wish members of our family ever to hold high office again.

In some ways, this reminds me of the infamous rise and fall of the Heike family in 12th century Japan. The Heike, under Taira no Kiyomori, let power to go their heads and brought about their own ruin when the rival Genji opposed them.

However, unlike the Heike if Lady Hyegyeong’s account is accurate and her family was indeed innocent, their fall was due more to bitter rivalries in the Joseon Court, but their fall was no less tragic.

It also kind of reminds me of a quote from the book Dune Messiah:

Here lies a toppled god.
His fall was not a small one.
We did but build his pedestal,
A narrow and a tall one.

The greater one’s rise, the greater the fall. 

1 Lady Hyegyeong’s father, Hong Ponghan, was executed after false charges were repeatedly brought to the court by rival factions over the death of Prince Sado. Her third brother, Hong Nagim, was similarly executed on separate charges of becoming a Catholic (illegal at the time in Joseon Dynasty Korea). In both cases, they were exonerated after death, but the damage had been done.

Japanese Home Cooking II: Easy, Healthy Rice

Since my wife is from Japan, we eat lots of rice at home. So much so, that I prefer it over bread these days. :-p

So we cook rice at least daily, if not more so1 which means we have a lot of experience and the way we’ve cooked has evolved over time.  Back in college, we started out with the “Yan Can Cook” brand rice-cooker which costed maybe $40 and was very basic. Later, we eventually moved up to fancier Japanese rice cookers. 

Lately, though we just cook our rice in stainless steel pots or pans from IKEA:


The teflon rice pot in our cooker got scratched somehow and started peeling off. We got worried about teflon leeching into our food, so on advice from a Japanese housewife friend we tried stainless steel. It was easier and faster to cook, but also came out surprisingly good. 

Just take some short-grain white rice2 and rinse it in cold water 3-4 times. Each time you do, drain the cloudy water and repeat. Once rinsed, add about 1.25 parts water to 1 part rice. Then, cook on high until it boils over, then turn off and let it steam itself for another 20 minutes or so.

Pro tip: for extra nutrition add barley, millet, black rice and/or other grains to your rice. You can even add a thin slice of dried “konbu” seaweed or a dash of tumeric for extra flavor. We get our grains as a mixed bag at the local H-Mart Korean market along with the konbu. 


P.S. The previous home cooking article. 

1 Little Guy is now 2 ½ years old and eats a lot of food. He eats more than his 9-year old sister!

2 Brown rice has more arsenic in it and is harder to digest. You can get the same health benefits and more by adding other grains to white rice.

Life As A Princess in Joseon Korea

There is no tree that does not fall after ten blows. 

–Korean proverb,
Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong 

Hi Guys,

Lately, in addition to the usual Buddhist stuff, I’ve also been delving into a book I bought a while back, but had no opportunity to read until now: The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong. This book is a fascinating collection of memories by Lady Hyegyeong (1735-1816) who was the wife of the infamous Prince Sado, son King Yeongjo of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea. I wrote about King Yeongjo in a previous post, but I didn’t delve much into the tragedy and madness of his son, the designated heir of the throne.

The Memoirs is divided into four memoirs at different stages in Lady Hyegyeong’s twilight years: 1795, 1801, 1802 and 1805. The first three focus on the innocence of the Hong family amidst the conspiracies in Court that led to the wrongful execution of her father and brother. They are pretty circumspect about Prince Sado’s madness and death. The prince was compelled by his father the King to climb into a tiny rice chest to die from suffocation and heat Confucian norms at the time for id any bloodshed of the Prince. Lady Hyegyeong was very attached to her husband, even after the tragic events, and evidentially didn’t stop caring for him long after he died. The 1805 memoir though goes into much more detail about the curcumstances leading up to Prince Sado’s demise. Decades after his death, it was still a taboo subject at court, so few other records from the time are available.  

The Memoirs are also interesting becausethey show life in the Joseon court, which was highly regulated by Neo-Confucian norms to the point that Court life became very rigid. It’s amazing the number of social rules, and how strict the rules of filial piety were. Even the calendar years were carefully organized along the sexagenary cycle imported from China, while advancement in Court often hinged on the Confucian civil service exams and intimate knowledge of the ancient Chinese classics.  

Finally, it’s fascinating to see how difficult life at the court was. Lady Hyegyeong had many obligations as a noble woman in the Confucian Joseon court, but to make matters worse, the throne was being torn apart by obnoxious infighting and factionalism. It’s amazing the lengths the different factions would go to undermine one another by manipulating the Confucian bureaucracy for revenge or gain.1  The factions themselves were often based on hair-splitting differences in interpretation of Neo-Confucianism and details about who should inherit the throne. Further there were power plays against Lady Hyegyeong by Prince Sado’s power-hungry sister Princess Hwawan and also from the rival Gyeongju Kim clan under one Kim Kwiju who sought to undermine Lady Hyegyeong’s venerable Pungsan Hong clan. Other, more obscure clans occasionally had vendettas against the Hong clan as well due to grievances in generations past. 

The proverb above was frequently quoted by Lady Hyegyeong to describe the relentless assault on her family.  Rivals in the Court would often fabricate charges of sedition against Lady Hyegyeong’s father and third brother which would tie up the legal system and cast their loyalty in doubt, even if proven innocent. Over the years, as the charges mounted, it was harder for King Jeongjo (Lady Hyegyeong’s son) to protect them from a hostile Confucian bureaucracy until they were eventually executed.   

As a 9 year old girl, who had to marry into Joseon Court and adjust to life there, it was a great shock and adjustment for her, and the Memoirs have her looking back on the frustrations, plots against her family and trauma she and those around here frequently underwent. It’s a fascinating, though frequently tragic read.

1 For reference, the Hong family was part of the “Noron” faction by Lady Hyegyeong’s admission in the 1801 memoir.

Running Man

From time to time, my family and I watch a Korean TV show online called “Running Man”. The show has a simple enough premise, but is surprisingly fun and entertaining.  Unlike Japanese TV,1 which has strict policies and laws about licensing, Korean TV often provides its shows on YouTube for easy access, often with official subtitles and such.  The shows might be a week or two later, but they’re totally open and free to watch. So, we often watch Korean TV shows on weekend mornings because they’re just interesting, and openly accessible.

Running Man (런닝맨, reonningmaen) is one such show. There are no official subtitles, but it has many fans across Asia and the West who volunteer subtitles every week. Thus, we often watch Running Man on the weekends as a family, or my wife also watches them frequently at night.

But what is Running Man?  Running Man is a long-running (since 2010) live-action show featuring the regular cast, mostly comprised of well-known comedians and actors, plus usually a guest celebrity.  The cast are well-known, but at the outset weren’t necessarily the best looking or most popular celebrities.

In the early episodes, the challenges mainly included having the crew split up into two teams, and chasing one another, while also finding hidden items in malls, campgrounds, etc.  In time, the challenges changed, and the entire crew was looking for the hidden guest celebrity among a crowded place, while the guest was trying to find the hidden items. Here is the first part of episode 35, which is a good example of this:

And in another, later episode, they simply have to eliminate one another (one of my favorite episodes thus far):

What makes the show so fun is that the particular crew have a really good rapport with one another, and their personalities have changed over time.  In the early shows, some of the players were really weak, and frequently eliminated early, but over time they got smarter and wiser, and became a greater challenge.  Also, there are many witty side-jokes between cast members, as well as many nicknames.

The cast, which has almost all been around since episode 1, and are still with the show, are:

Name Nickname(s) Description
Yoo Jae-suk Yoo-ruce Willis, Yoo-mes Bond The main host of the show, and a popular celebrity in his own right. Owing to his seniority, he is also one of the leaders of the group.
Ji Suk-jin Big Nose Older Brother A good friend of Jae-suk, and also the oldest member of the group. One running joke is that since Suk-jin is usually eliminated first, the chase doesn’t officially start until he is out.
Gary Peaceful Gary, Monday Boyfriend Gary is my wife’s favorite member. He is a sweet guy, and often very innocent, but at times is capable of pulling of some clever tricks. He is the part of the “Monday Couple” including Song Ji-hyo.
Haha Haroro Haha is the silliest member, and frequently gets involved in a rivalry for Song Ji-hyo’s affection, which he often fails. He often gets teased about the fact that he also looks a lot like the famous Korean cartoon character Pororo (hence the nickname). At one point, he married a cute celebrity girl, and has since stopped hitting on lady guests.
Kim Jong-kook Commander, Sparta-kook, Kookie A former idol singer, he has since become the strongest member of the show. Not only is he big and imposing, he is also very agile and smart, and could single-handedly eliminate all the other members. Eventually they gave him a bell to wear so they could cut down on how much he would ambush other members. He has a talent for outwitting other players, but despite his intimidating appearance, he gets shy around ladies though.
Lee Kwang-soo Lee Kwang-soo is the tallest member of the group, and is often shy and awkward around others. My wife, who’s watched every episode tells me he gets much better in the game over time, but for the episodes I’ve seen so far, he frequently gets eliminated early in the game.
Song Ji-hyo Monday Girlfriend, Ace Ji-hyo, Blank Ji-hyo Song Ji-hyo is the only female member who’s consistently stayed on (Lizzie was on for a short while), and is consistently one of the strongest members in the competition. She is strong and fierce at times, and intimidates some of male members such as Haha and Lee Kwang-soo, and is second only to Kim Jong-kook in terms of eliminating others. She is part of the “Monday Couple” romantic story-line with Gary. She is also known for having a blank expression at times, as well as not being a very good singer.

Anyhow, even if you don’t know a word of Korean, or know much about Korean celebrities (I don’t), I can’t recommend the show enough. It’s a brilliant, entertaining show, and well worth watching.

1 Personally, I think this is a short-sighted policy by Japanese media companies because it makes it a lot harder for international students to get exposure to real Japanese media. Personally, I don’t like anime very much so I never watch it. I’d rather watch real TV and documentaries, etc. Korea has a policy of “marketing” its culture, which I think has some long-term benefits. Japan should take note.😉

For The Sake of Even One

One of my favorite Buddhist sutras to read is the Mahayana sutra called the Golden Light Sutra. It was very popular in early-medieval Asian culture, but is less well known now outside of maybe Tibetan Buddhism. In particular my favorite chapter is chapter four, where the Bodhisattva Ruchiraketu speaks a long, long litany expressing his desire to help all beings, expressing regret for his past misdeeds, and finally expressing praise of all the Buddhas. In particular, I was reading again recently when this passage jumped out at me:

“Until I am capable of freeing them all
From countless oceans of suffering,
For ten million eons I shall strive
For the sake of even one sentient being.”

A very simple, but beautiful exposition of the Bodhisattva path to assist all beings, to not abandon them. If you get a chance, definitely read the first four chapters of the Golden Light Sutra, or at least chapters 3 (very short) and 4. They are very inspirational.

Namu Amida Butsu

P.S. Not sure what a Bodhisattva is? Start here. :)

The Thousand Character Poem

Hi guys,

Recently my family and I were watching another episode of the Korean family show Return of Superman (we watch every Sunday morning together), and in this episode the children stayed overnight at a traditional Korean, Confucian-style etiquette school called a seodang (서당, 書堂). According to Wikipedia, these villages existed in the Korean countryside during the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties so this is a historical recreation. I recommended watching the whole episode, it’s a great, but if you’re short on time, go to 26:50 or so. Also, click on “CC” in Youtube so you can see English subtitles.

During the first evening the children learn the first four characters of something called the “Thousand Character Classic”:

Cheon ji hyeon hwang

The romanization above is the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese characters.

Anyhow, I got confused because I assumed this was a four-character yojijukugo phrase, but I couldn’t find much information or a clear explantion of what it meant. Literally it means “Heaven is black, the Earth is yellow.” But that doesn’t make sense, right? I even looked it up in Japanese, but it just kept telling me it was the first line of a the Thousand Year Classic.

It turns out the Thousand Year Classic (千字文) is a special poem composed in the short-lived Liang Dynasty in China for the purposes of learning Chinese characters.1 The poem has a strongly Confucian theme, but each character in the poem is used only once, and they are neatly divided into 250 lines, 4 characters each. The idea was that practicing writing out this poem would give a student a solid foundation in the basics of Chinese calligraphy. Pretty clever. By the Song Dynasty, it was part of a trio of books used for literacy along with the Three Character Classic and the 100 Family Surnames. These were known as the S&257;n Bǎi Qiān 三百千 or “Three-Hundred-Thousand”. These formed the core of Chinese literacy education up until the modern period.

Anyhow, it’s a fascinating example of Confucian education even in modern times. 😉

P.S. I thought the teacher at the seodang school was great. He was good at teaching kids the “traditional way”, but behind his fierce demeanor, it’s clear he likes kids a lot. :)

1 The poem is called cheonjamun (천자문) in Korean and senjimon in Japanese (same

Dog Days of Summer, in Korea and Japan

Summers in Japan and Korea are hot. I grew up in the Seattle-area my whole life and summers here are usually warm, mild and not very humid.

My first time in Japan during summer was a shock. Other than my time studying abroad in Vietnam, I had never felt such heat and humidity. Even people who live there get pretty uncomfortable this time of year. The summers get particularly bad during late July-August because the rainy season is over but the humidity remains. This is known as zansho (残暑).

In the past, I wrote about the tradition of eating unagi eels in Japan around July 15th. This known as doō ushi no hi (土用丑の日), where “ushi” (丑) refers to the Chinese-zodiac sign of the Ox. Foods with also starting with “u” became popular foods particularly unagi eels.

Eel kabayaki,Una-don,Katori-city,Japan

Korea also has its own traditions and summer foods. The period between mid-July to mid-Auguest is called sanbok (삼복, 三伏) or the “three prostrations”. The name comes from the fact that there are three holidays during this period: chobok (初伏, 초복), chungbok (中伏, 중복) and malbok (末伏, 말복). These signal the beginning, middle and end of the dog-days of summer. The days will slightly vary each year depending on the Chinese-calendar, still in use in traditional Korean culture.

A popular dish during this time is samgyetang (삼계탕 蔘鷄湯):

Korean soup-Samgyetang-06

Samgyetang is chicken soup cooked with ginseng, glutinous rice and often with other assorted herbs. At the H-Mart (Korean grocery store) near our home, we’ve purchased Samgyetang before and cooked it at home. It was pretty tasty. It’s a different flavor than any other chicken soup I’ve eaten before, but it was good.  Also, the ginseng, popular in Korean culture, and other herbs are thought to help reinvigorate a person during the terrible heat.

However you deal with summer heat, make sure to get plenty of fluids and rest, though! Enjoy!

P.S. 妻が送ってくれた韓国の参鶏湯や三伏の日ついての記事はこちらです。

P.P.S. You can find more Japanese unagi and summer here. For the Korean tradition, you can read here.

Buddhism and Printing


As readers know, I’ve been reading a fascinating book about the life of a Japanese-Zen monk named Tetsugen. Tetsugen was a prominent teacher and lefturer of the Obaku Zen sect, but his greatest accomplishment was providing a complete, printed collection of the entire Buddhist canon in Japan called the Obaku Edition of the Triptaka: Ōbakuban daizōkyō  黄檗版大蔵経.

The Obaku Edition was the de facto edition of the Buddhist canon in Japan until the modern period when it was superceded by the Taishō Edition (大正新脩大藏經, taishō shinshū daizōkyō).

But why such a big deal? It helps to look at the history of Buddhism and printing to understand.

Printing in China

As early as the Tang Dynasty, China was printing texts using either movable type or woodblock printing. Movable type is easier for languages with Alphabets like English, but for Chinese, which has 40,000+ characters it was error-prone and time consuming.
Yangzhou Museum - woodblock for printing - fragment - CIMG2879

Instead, a block of wood could be carved to print a whole page and re-used over and over. This is called “wood block” printing. If the blocks were good quality and well-maintained (i.e. protected from insects and the environment), it could be used for centuries. 

Pen ts'ao, woodblock book 1249-ce

The entire Buddhist canon or Tripitaka was a popular choice for printing. However, unlike religious texts such as the Quran or Bible which encompass a single book, the Tripitaka is HUGE. Imagine a complete set of encyclopedias then double or triple that. That’s the size of the Buddhist canon roughly. So compiling and printing an official copy was a massive undertaking.

Further, especially in the Tang Dynasty and earlier, translation was a big challenge. As the story of Xuan-zang shows, going to China was to learn Sanskrit was a dangerous journey and very few succeeded. Instead the Chinese government brought in Buddhist monks from various cultures on the Silk Road: Parthians like An Shigao, Kushans like Lokaksema and Kucheans such as Kumarajiva. The language differences between Sanskrit and Chinese were formidable and sometimes multiple editions of the same sutra were translated but eventually a complete Buddhist canon was compiled in the readable, literary Chinese of the day.

Starting in the year 983, with the Sichuan Edition, to the late Ming Dynasty, 20 official editions of the Buddhist canon were printed out. Some were better than others. The Yuan Dynasty Edition for example was considered inferior quality.

Printing in Korea

Similar to China, Korea developed sophisticated wood-block printing methods for publishing. Both were based off the Chinese Song Dynasty edition and were produced in the 11th and 13th centuries, using the Chinese Song Dynasty edition as their source. Similar to the Chinese editions, they used Korean-style Chinese characters:

Tripitaka Koreana sutra page

Further, the Korean woodblooks used to preserve the printing of the Tripitaka for the 13th century edition are preserved at Haeinsa Temple:

Korea-Haeinsa-Tripitaka Koreana-01

You can see how many blocks it took to print the whole thing. :)

Printing in Japan

Block-printing or any mass-printing of Buddhist texts in Japan came surprisingly late. Further, unlike the Chinese canon, there was never any effort to translate it into Japanese. Instead, similar to the Korean canon, Buddhist texts were preserved in Chinese characters.1 Further, Japanese Buddhist monks often had fewer texts and resources available for research. Finding a copy of the Lotus Sutra or Pure Land Sutras was easy but more obscure texts like the Surangama Sutra2 would be all but impossible for most monks.

Wood-block printing on a large scale finally came during the Edo Period, starting in the 17th Century. As Professor Baroni points out, there are reasons for this: Japan was finally stable after a century of warfare, and Buddhist monks turned more and more to scholarship so the demand for texts increased. At that time, most Buddhist monks relied on hand-copies versions, or Buddhist texts imported from China, which were carefully guarded. A typical monk or temple in Japan would have had access to far fewer sutras than their counterparts in Korea and Japan, but with this Edo Period, the demand for more texts finally changed the situation.

The first edition to be published was a government-sponsored edition called the Tenkai Edition or Tenkaiban (天海版) and was completed in 1648. Professor Baroni explains that only a few copies were printed and it was based on the problematic Yuan-Dynasty Chinese edition. Further, it used moveable-type, so there was a risk of human error in each copy due to the complexity of Japanese language and its use of Chinese characters.

The next edition was the Obaku Edition mentioned above. What was impressive about this edition was that it was superior quality using woodblock prints, and entirely a voluntary effort. Government funds were not used. Tetsugen, the famous Obaku Zen monk, started the effort around 1667. Per tradition, Tetsugen first got permission to take a break from Zen practice from his Chinese-teachers Yinyuan (隠元隆琦 1592—1673) and Muan (木庵性瑫 1611-1684). From there, Tetsugen, a skilled orator, toured Japan providing lectures mainly on the The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana, the Surangama Sutra and the importance of keeping the precepts.

Through these lectures, Tetsugen was able to secure enough funding to setup a print shop in Kyoto, while the compilation and editing of the edition took place at Obakusan, the main Obaku Zen temple an in another temple in Osaka, Zuiryuji where Tetsugen resided. A number of monks under Tetsugen also volunteered in the project, and by 1680, there were 6,956 volumes and over 20,000 blocks used. This was the de facto Buddhist canon used in the Edo Period due to availability and quality of work.

Sadly, Tetsugen did not live to see his edition completed. While waiting in the capitol of Edo (Tokyo) to present an edition to the Shogun, he heard of a famine in the countryside and left to assist in the relief efforts. Tetsugen from illness while raising funds and distributing relief from the famine and his students completed the projected and presented the edition to the government.

Junjiro Takakusu

The Obaku Edition was the preferred copy of the Buddhist canon edition used until the 1920’s when it was superseded by the afore-mentioned Taisho Edition. The Taisho Edition project was started by a Buddhist scholar named Takakusu Junjirō (高楠順次郎 1866 1945 pictured above) who wanted to promulgate Buddhist-based education around the world. The quality and breadth of the Taisho Edition, or “Taisho Tripitaka”, has made it one of the most popular sources used for East-Asian Buddhist research. You can find it online easily, though not all of it is translated into English.


Long before printing was available in Europe, Buddhism and Printing went hand-in-hand in Asia, and due to the complexities of the languages, various methods were used to ensure quality and ease of printing. Much of what we know about Buddhism today and Asian literature is due to the efforts of these early masters of printing.

1 This is a big reason why Buddhist chanting in Korea and Japan uses the original Classical Chinese as the liturgical language. Presumably this was intended to preserve the teachings from changes over time, but comes at the cost of requiring translations for modern readers and students.

2 The Surangama Sutra is very popular in Chinese Buddhism, especially Chan (Zen) Buddhism, but wasn’t well-known in Japan, and did not have much influence until the pre-modern period.

The 48-hour Superman Challenege

Hi Folks,

Lately, my wife and some of her friends (Korean and Japanese) have been avidly watching a Korean TV show called “Return of Superman”, which is available on Youtube by KBS World. In Korean, it is called syupeomaen i dulawadda (슈퍼맨이 돌아왔다) which means “Superman came back”. In Japanese it has a similar title: スーパーマンが帰ってきた (sūpāman ga kaettekita, “Superman came home”).

This adorable show is about celebrity dads who take care of their children for 48 hours. The show films their life and their efforts to raise their children without the mother, while doing some kind of challenge. All the episodes have English subtitles, so Westerners can still follow along:1

Japanese readers can also find the Japanese-subtitle version here (日本語の字幕).

Lately, I’ve been thinking about a “Superman Challenge” for myself: take care of my children for 2 days by myself. My wife works hard all day raising our kids, and she doesn’t get much sleep because Little Guy is still a baby. I want to help, and I’ve taken care of my two kids (Princess and Little Guy) alone for maybe 6 hours, so it’s possible. Not easy, but possible.

On the other hand, Little Guy is still really young (16 months as of writing), so I might have to wait a little bit. But someday, I do want to try it. If I do, I hope to write about it here.

What about fathers reading this blog: do you think you could do the Superman Challenge?

1 I highly recommend this show for Korean-langauge students because the kids speak basic Korean often, so it’s easier to pick up. I don’t watch the show regularly, but I have picked up more Korean than before. My wife doesn’t know Korean, but she can read English fluently, so she can follow the show.

Autumn in Korea

Hi Everyone,

We have friends who recently Korea right now to celebrate the 1st birthday of their son, who was born 8 days after our son. :) The first birthday in Korea, or doljanchi (돌잔치) is a huge event with family all gathering, elaborate feasts, etc. There are good write-ups here and here about birthday traditions in Korea.

Anyhow, the father, who is Indonesian not Korean, is a great photographer and has been taking good photos of Korea in the fall. I wanted to share some of his best photos from his Twitter feed.

This is a photo of persimmons in Seoul:

These photos were taken at a famous mountain called Seorak-san (설악산, 雪嶽山):

And these photos were taken at a famous Buddhist temple in Korean named Sinheungsa (신흥사, 新興寺) which is one of the head temples (大本山) in Korean Buddhism.

Great photos, Budi!

P.S. Congrats on your son’s first birthday! :)