Essay by Seo Yunhee
On October 26, 1909, An Junggeun assassinated Ito Hirobumi, the first Resident-General of Korea, by shooting him three times at the Harbin Railway Station. After being arrested and sentenced to death, An wrote hundreds of calligraphy works from his jail cell in Lüshun, pleading for Korean independence and peace throughout Asia, before his eventual execution on March 26, 1910. To date, sixty-two of An’s writings from this period have been identified, both in Korea and abroad, twenty-six of which have been designated as Treasures of Korea.
This particular work, housed at the National Museum of Korea, reads “庸工難用連抱奇材,” which means “An inferior carpenter is incapable of working with a huge piece of wood of exceptional quality.” This saying implies that great talent and character is wasted if it is not properly applied. An wrote this calligraphy work in March 1910, shortly before his death. On the lower left, he wrote “大韓國人 安重根 書” (“Written by An Junggeun, a Korean national”), before adding his distinctive handprint, with the upper joint of the ring finger missing.
Using great talent to seek independence
In Korea, there is a saying that can be roughly translated as, “The handwriting is the person,” meaning that a person’s penmanship (i.e., calligraphy) reflects his or her personality. In other words, the better a person’s calligraphy, the better the person. Indeed, as this work exemplifies, An Junggeun’s youth, vitality, and lively spirit are embodied in his calligraphy. This energy fueled An’s passionate efforts to rescue Korea from the desperate situation of Japanese imperialism, a mission for which he was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. Conveying his strong faith in his homeland, his wish for peace throughout Asia, and his desire for Korean independence, An’s calligraphy is characterized by vigorous, dynamic brushstrokes that demand our attention.
The eight Chinese characters in this work—“庸工難用連抱奇材”—are borrowed from Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government, a classic work of Chinese historiography by Sima Guang. The book includes a story from China’s Spring and Autumn period, in which Zi Si recommended a great general named Ju Bian, who had won every battle, to the king of Wei. However, the king of Wei refused to hire Ju Bian because the general had previously accepted a bribe of two eggs. In response, Zi Si compared the process of hiring a government official to a carpenter selecting a piece of wood, stating that a great carpenter does not abandon a huge piece of wood from a boxthorn or walnut tree just because it has a few tiny spots of decay (“杞梓連抱而有數尺之朽 良工不棄”).
Rather than directly quoting this phrase from Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government, An Junggeun slightly altered a few characters to create a new meaning: “a great carpenter” (良工) became “an inferior carpenter” (庸工); “does not abandon” (不棄) became “is incapable of working with” (難用); and “a huge piece of wood from a boxthorn or walnut tree” (杞梓連抱) became “a huge piece of wood of exceptional quality” (連抱奇材). Thus, while the original saying suggests that it is foolish to reject a great talent because of a minor flaw, An Junggeun’s revision claims that great talents are wasted if not used properly, in the same way that a master carpenter commands a large piece of fine wood.
An Junggeun: eternal son of Korea
The entire thirty-two years of An Junggeun’s brief life were marked by unpredictability and instability for Korean society. In the late nineteenth century, Joseon was kept under close watch by various Western powers. Hindered by the unequal terms of the Treaty of Ganghwa, signed with Japan in 1876, Joseon suffered from financial and military infringements from both Japan and the West. In 1884, a Japanese-supported group called Gaehwapa, which actively promoted reform and modernization, seized the royal palace during the Gapsin Coup, but they were eventually defeated with the help of Chinese forces.
The early 1890s saw the rise of the Donghak (東學), or “Eastern Learning” movement, a peasant-led reform group that had emerged in opposition to “Western Learning,” but they were defeated with the help of Japanese forces. The Gabo Reform of 1894 was not well received by the Korea people, since it was enacted with the support of the Japanese. After the Japanese assassination of Queen Myeongseong in October 1895, King Gojong proclaimed the founding of the Korean Empire, declared himself emperor, and began carrying out a series of modern reforms. While Japan gained strength by winning the Russo-Japanese War, Korean intellectuals and activists sought to save the country through reform and modernization, as well as the Uibyeong (“Righteous Armies”) movement, but all of these efforts eventually came to naught, and Korea became a colony of Japan in 1910.
Even amidst this social turbulence, An Junggeun still enjoyed the normal pursuits of an ordinary life, such as singing, dancing, riding horses, shooting, and developing many close friendships. This changed in November 1905, however, when the signing of the 2nd Japan-Korea Agreement (also called the “Eulsa Treaty” or “Protectorate Treaty”) completely deprived Korea of diplomatic sovereignty, making it a Japanese protectorate. As a result, the Japanese Resident-General of Korea was established to oversee all domestic political activities. In the wake of this calamity, An went to Shanghai, where he met a French missionary named Father Le Gac, who told him that “Heaven helps those who help themselves.” Inspired by this sentiment, An quickly returned to Korea to help in any way possible, and thus took part in various efforts to promote education, open up the society, unify the divided public, and increase national power.
Sincerely inspired by Father Le Gac, An Junggeun vowed to live an ascetic lifestyle, giving up his social drinking until Korea completely freed itself from foreign infringement and regained its sovereignty. Among his most notable achievements, he established Samheung School and Donui School to educate the public, launched a mining company in Pyongyang to promote Korean industry, and led the National Debt Repayment Movement. But the situation worsened in 1907, when Japan disbanded the Korean army and forced Emperor Gojong to abdicate after learning that he had secretly dispatched three special delegates to the 2nd Hague Peace Conference. An fled to Primorsky Krai, Russia, where he attempted to stir up anti-Japanese sentiments. He organized a Korean resistance army and initiated an advance into Korea, but the operation ultimately failed. Refusing to give up, An formed an alliance with eleven comrades in 1909, with the members vowing to devote their lives to Korea by cutting their fingers and writing “Korea’s Independence” in their own blood.
Around 9:30 a.m. on October 26, 1909, at the Harbin Railway Station in China, An shot Ito Hirobumi three times, killing the first Resident-General of Korea. Notably, Ito, who had already led Japan’s invasion of Korea and shattered peace throughout Asia, was in Harbin to initiate Japan’s invasion of Manchuria. After shooting Ito, An Junggeun shouted for Korean independence in Russian, crying out “Корея! Ура!” (“Korea! Hurrah!”). He was arrested on the spot and sent to the Japanese colonial court in Lüshun (formerly known as Port Arthur). In the court, An Junggeun said:
My assassination of Ito is a part of the war for Korea’s independence. I lost the battle, which is why I am in the court of Japan as a prisoner of war. I did not act as a private citizen, but rather as a lieutenant general of the Korean resistance army for independence and Asian peace. Thus, by international law, I should be treated as a prisoner of war.
However, on February 14, 1910, An was sentenced to death. Following the will of his mother—who had told him, “Your death is for the sake of your country, so please do not plead for your life like a coward”—he did not appeal the decision. Before his execution on March 26, he wrote his autobiography as well as On Peace in East Asia, in which he detailed his philosophy of community, state, and peace. Even his Japanese captors were touched by his words and actions, such that An was bombarded with requests for calligraphy works, which were greatly cherished. He generously fulfilled the requests, creating hundreds of calligraphy works in his final weeks.
Before the execution, An Junggeun left his last will and testament:
After my death, I wish for my remains to be buried near Harbin Park, and then to be reburied in Korea after the country regains its sovereignty. Even while I am in heaven, I will exert every effort for the independence of Korea . . . . When the day comes that I hear of Korea’s independence, I will dance and shout ‘Hurrah!’
Fulfilling his promise, An must certainly have cried “Hurrah!” from the heavens when he learned that Korea had regained its sovereignty. Unfortunately, his remains were never returned to Korea, because his grave has never been found. Furthermore, Korea is now faced with another national tragedy, having been divided into two separate nations. Echoing An’s calligraphy work, perhaps this hardship is the result of failing to employ “a master carpenter capable of working with a huge piece of wood of exceptional quality.”
Read this essay and learn more on the National Museum of Korea website.
Explore more calligraphy by An Junggeun via the Republic of Korea’s Cultural Heritage Administration.