2021 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior third place

From its bleak days subjugated under Japanese control to the current conflict with North Korea, South Korea seems to be the perennial target of hostility and enmity. Its history is plagued with horrors of abuse, persecution, and vilification. Yet in spite of the war and destruction, South Korea has persisted, emerging as an economic powerhouse whose pop culture and entertainment industries have influences throughout the world. In short stories “The Poplar Tree” and “The Old Hatter,” authors Choi In-ho and Yi Mun-yol display the power of endurance in the face of adversity. Both stories are of loss, change, and ambition shown through the dedication of an old man. In “The Poplar Tree” and “The Old Hatter,” meaningful narration, careful placement of symbolic elements, and allegorical themes prove how perseverance can merit both gain and loss.

Both “The Poplar Tree” and “The Old Hatter” are stories told through the perspective of a young man as he follows and narrates the life of an older man. In “The Poplar Tree,” a nameless narrator describes the misfortune that befalls upon a neighborhood blacksmith and his journey to jump over a poplar tree. In “The Old Hatter,” a young man details the life of an old hat maker named Top’yeog and his attempt to preserve the hat making tradition in Korea.

In each story, the old man is used as a symbol for perseverance within a larger metaphoric context. In “The Poplar Tree,” the old man represents the spirit of the Korean people. After losing his family, the once intrepid high-jumping blacksmith became deranged: “He still made horseshoes, sickles, and hammers, but his sickles couldn’t cut grass and his hammers couldn’t drive a nail” (1). The loss of his family, which can be also seen as the loss of unity within Korea, causes the old man to lose purpose, much like the loss of spirit Koreans felt after the initial split. In time, the old man even loses his leg to a high jump accident. But even with his deformed leg, the old blacksmith persists, determined to get his ability back: “‘Every day I’m going to jump over that tree. If I can keep up, then one day I’ll be able to jump as high as the sky’” (2). The old man’s persistence is synonymous with the Korean people’s ability to restore and keep going in spite of the devastating split. This is similar to old man Top’yeog’s fight to uphold the tradition of horsehair hats within a westernizing Korea. Despite the daily antics of the young boys and the dwindling number of customers, the old hatter “opened his shop every market day” (9). Top’yeog’s unyielding determination is a great show of perseverance against the forces of modernization and displays a noble fight to conserve Korea’s tradition. Top’yeog’s perseverance to “continue to make [horsehair hats]” (14) shows the unyielding determination of many who fight to keep Korea’s tradition afloat amongst the influence of popular western culture.

While “The Poplar Tree” shows what is gained through perseverance, “The Old Hatter” shows what is lost. After years of dedication and assiduity, the old man in “The Poplar Tree” finally achieves his goal of “jump[ing] as high as the sky” (2). The old man, who had once been trapped by his unfortunate circumstances, is liberated as his final jump leads him away from earth and to the heavens. In this way, he overcomes his struggle, ultimately displaying a gain of freedom. Additionally, the narrator, after witnessing this great feat, is compelled to plant his own “apple tree” (4). Thus, the hope that was once cultivated by the old man is passed down from him to the younger narrator, showing a gain of hope for the younger man. Meanwhile, as time goes by in “The Old Hatter,” the horsehair hat, which had once been “more important than [a gentleman’s] body” (3) loses the honor and tradition it once represented. Though Top’yeog worked diligently day and night “without eating or sleeping” (17) to preserve the hat-making craft, he is unable to win against the rapidly modernizing world. After the betrayal by Venerable Kyo’cheon, the old hat maker fell into deep despondency, and his hat “turned to ashes” as “the old man continued weeping” (19). In the end, Top’yeog loses in the greater struggle, exhibiting what was lost in the fervent transition towards modernity.

“The Poplar Tree” and “The Old Hatter” are both allegorical and are used to depict a larger, worldly Korean issue. In “The Poplar Tree,” an allegorical reference is made to the axe murder incident of 1976 in Panmunjon, hinting at the ever-present tension between North and South Korea. And for “The Old Hatter,” the conflict between the young boys and the old man Top’yeog is clearly used as an allegory for the clash between traditional culture and modernization. Authors Choi In-ho and Yi Mun-yol utilize these allegories to elevate their stories and create a nuanced argument that works to solidify their themes of perseverance. By relating their stories to a real-life issue, their ideas are put into perspective, making them more applicable and palpable.

Through the use of allegories and symbolic characters, “The Poplar Tree” and “The Old Hatter” demonstrate two very polar ramifications of perseverance. While the old man in “The Poplar Tree” ultimately gains freedom and gives hope through his dedication, the old man in “The Old Hatter” loses both his hat and his pride as the hat-making tradition goes out of practice. While it is evident that perseverance may not alway lead to the desired outcome, both stories demonstrate the importance of the journey and fight itself. Without it, the old blacksmith's jumping ability would not have been restored, and the hat making tradition would have been lost much earlier. In Korea’s ever changing and developing society, it is more important than ever to remember the journey, and recognize how South Korea got where they are today: perseverance.