2021 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior second place

Throughout the 20th century, Korea endured great changes and difficulties, including the brutal Japanese Colonial Period, division, and war. In The Poplar Tree and The Old Hatter, authors Choi In Ho and Yi Mun Yol show their characters’ persistence despite enduring both personal and national issues. While Choi depicts how one’s persistence can challenge others’ perspectives, Yi emphasizes that modernization erases traditions. Throughout the stories, both protagonists pursue their aspirations, while contending with reality and difficult relationships with those around them.

Although both protagonists face resistance from others, they remain stubborn in their efforts to achieve their goals. While the blacksmith had jumped when his family was still around him, after the loss of his family, he stops high-jumping due to his grief. However, he begins jumping again after an injury, becoming fixated on his goal: “Every day I’m going to jump over that tree. If I can keep it up, then one day I’ll be able to jump as high as the sky”(2). While his jumping is futile in relieving his broken heart and does not provide any worldly outcome, the blacksmith perseveres, as it gives him purpose in an otherwise empty life. Through the blacksmith’s longstanding efforts, he resists falling into despair and fights to achieve his goal.

Similarly, Top’yeog persists to preserve his hat-making tradition. When the narrator questions his stubbornness, Top’yeog answers, “If I give it up, from where can I fire my guns? And how can I face my father and my ancestors when a short while from now I encounter them in the next world?”(13). Since his ancestors had made traditional hats for their entire lives, Top’yeog is ashamed at the thought of ending the family tradition. Moreover, he considers his shop a fortress where he battles against westernization with horsehats, his weapons, to protect the tradition. As the townspeople abandon cultural traditions, Top’yeog continues to protect his family’s and nation’s tradition alone. The lonely, but persistent battles of both the blacksmith and Top’yeog show their strength and integrity to their values.

Their relationships with the narrators and villagers nonetheless impact the blacksmith’s and Top’yeog’s journeys. The blacksmith initially maintains amiable relationships with the townspeople; however, after he loses his family, the villagers mock his behavior, his inability in his own job, and difficulty in jumping. The narrator, however, maintains their relationship; as a child, he believes that the blacksmith will always be “the hero” who would “one day clear the lovely colors of the rainbow unscathed”(2). However, as the narrator grows up and comes to disappointing realizations about the world, his childhood imaginations become tainted by reality. Nevertheless, the narrator “alone continue[s] to visit him”(3). Although the narrator is mature enough to know the blacksmith’s goal is somewhat impossible, the narrator supports his naive dream, and respects his persistence. By utilizing a narrator who sees the blacksmith as a “hero”, Choi emphasizes the blacksmith’s stubborn dedication and challenges outsiders’ perspective of the blacksmith’s life as a meaningless existence (2).

While the blacksmith and narrator continue their friendship, the Old Hatter fails to be amicable with his neighbors. While the village had once respected his work, as the townspeople start to follow modernization, they do not understand his headstrong drive to preserve a fading tradition. When he remodels his shop, he makes the villagers think that he has conformed to changing times. The remodeling of the shop, however, is Top’yeog’s final attempt to change others’ minds by accepting some westernization while preserving traditional work. At this realization, the townspeople become angry with his stubbornness: “But most felt, in an undefinable way, snubbed and betrayed… They began to laugh at his impracticality and scoffed at his perverse stubbornness”(12). The presence of the shop guilts the villagers, as it stands as a physical reminder of their abandoning of tradition. They justify this guilt by claiming that Top’yeog has “betrayed” them with his unwillingness to let go of the past (12). As the villagers devalue his work, Top’yeog reciprocates increasing hostility, eventually alienating himself from others.

In his final attempt to preserve his hat-making tradition, the Old Hatter devotes his energy into mastering his final craft. When he realizes, however, that no villager is left to give his hat to, he burns his last masterpiece at his friend’s grave. Top’yeog ultimately feels the fatality of his work: there remains no one alive who he deems to be deserving of the horsehair hat. Feeling the futility of his legacy, Top’yeog isolates himself from the world, giving up his dream.

Whereas the Old Hatter’s death shows futility, the blacksmith’s death shows the hope of reconciliation. The narrator ends the story saying, “Learned that the world we live in is actually a stopping point,... which we leaped from … that we’ll move on to an earth that will receive our tired souls for all time..”(4). After years of suffering, through his death, the blacksmith reunites with his children in this other world. Choi illustrates that the cycle of life and healing is like high-jumping: jumping becomes birth, suspension in air becomes life and landing on the other side, death. As the blacksmith is left suspended in a hopeless life, he perseveres and achieves reconciliation with his family by jumping.

While Choi and Yi end their stories differently, both authors illustrate the strength of a human’s and nation’s persistence. Choi expresses that persistence can make unrealistic dreams come true. He uses the poplar tree as an obstacle that the blacksmith must overcome; the tree alludes to the axe murder incident, an obstacle in North and South Korea’s difficult relationship. On the other hand, Yi ends his story solemnly, showing that Top’yeog could have protected his tradition if he was not alone. Furthermore, Yi reminds readers of Korea’s endurance to fight for national values such as independence, tradition, and unity through Top’yeog’s solitary fight. As both characters demonstrate, to achieve closure and integrity, we must withstand even great pain and heal our deep wounds.