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The Looking Glass

2006-07-09 00:52

  A long time ago, an aspiring young scholar went to the capital city (seoul) to take Kwago, the state civil service examination. One day he was browsing through a general store and a small reflective object caught his eyes. He looked closely into it. And lo! It showed the image of his own very face clearly on its surface. He remembered that he had often seen the image of his face, usually distorted, reflected in the washbowl, but he had never seen such a mysterious object which reflected his own image so clearly. After the examination he returned home to a small hamlet with the small pocket-size looking glass he had bought.

  Back at home, he did not show the looking glass to anyone, including his family members; instead, he hid it in his chest drawer, peeking into it secretly morning after morning. Then, one day, his wife saw his strange behavior: he took something out of the drawer, staring, smiling at it and then putting it away. She became very curious and wanted to find out what he was smiling at. While her husband was out, she looked inside the drawer and found a small shiny object. Picking it up, she looked into it to examine the object, then stepped back instantly, startled by a sudden appearance of a very attractive but perplexed young woman. Incredulous, she shook her head vigorously. She thought, “Maybe I am seeing things!” And so, she peeked into it, again. And there was that same attractive woman, looking a bit peevish this time. Enraged with jealousy, she dashed over to her mother-in-law with the looking glass held tightly in her hand. “Mother dearest, my husband came home from Seoul with a young mistress!” said she, bursting into tears.

  Mother-in-law could not believe her son brought home another woman when he returned. “There must be some mistake, dear. Where is she now?” Daughter-in-law handed over the looking glass to her. Mother-in-law brought the object closer to her face and found a wrinkled old woman staring at her! “Dear, where is that attractive mistress you were talking about? I see, instead, a granny visiting us from a neighbouring village!”

  Meanwhile, her father-in-law heard all that unusual noise coming from women's quarters and wanted to know what it was all about. He took the looking glass and looked into it for a while. What old woman? An attractive young woman? What he saw was an old, old man with gray hair. Suddenly he kneeled down and said ever politely to the looking glass: “Dear late Father, what unhappiness brought you back as a spirit? Have I done anything to make you restless?” And he bowed and bowed on his knees.

  Daughter-in-law was dumbfounded by all this. She could swear that she saw a pretty young woman. And what was her father-in-law doing? Puzzled and perplexed, she took the object back and looked into it, again. Behold, there was no doubt about it. That young mistress appeared, again! The infuriated young wife ranted and ranted at the mistress for her crafty disguises. And the mistress was mimicking her with a contorted face and twisted lips! The young woman grew more and more angry, and finally threw the looking glass down hard onto the floor and broke it into pieces.

  This is a funny story developed around simple folks and an ordinary household object, a mirror. On the surface, the story looks like nothing more than a caricature of ignorant peasants who can not recognize even their own faces when they see them. But let us not be too hasty. Suppose one has never seen one's own image, how then would one recognize an image as one's own? Furthermore, even when we do recognize our own faces in a mirror, are we really seeing ourselves in it? The totality of oneself? Suppose what is reflected in the mirror is the totality of oneself, both mind and body, as what one is here and now, how many of us would like to look into that image? In this story, what is emphasized seems to be not the physical shape of man but what is behind his mirror image, the image which the mirror cannot show. The image we see in the mirror may be then, not that of what we are, but that of what we want to see or are afraid to see.

  In Korean folk ways of thinking, the mirror is often associated with some mythical quality which presages the future. Stories abound with a mirror as such a symbol. For example, a mirror was a token of promise for their future between lovers; it was given by one to another as a symbol of oneself. When such a mirror breaks, it is regarded as a portent of a broken promise or of some misfortune to the giver. If one breaks it intentionally, one may be saying that one no longer wants the tie symbolically associated with the mirror or one may be smashing the nightmare associated with it.

  Korea

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