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Course: Art of Asia > Unit 3

Lesson 7: Joseon dynasty (1392–1897)

Kim Jeonghui’s calligraphy of Kim Yugeun’s Autobiography of Mukso

By Lee Sukyung and the National Museum of Korea
Autobiography of Mukso, text composed by Kim Yugeun (金逌根, 1785–1840), calligraphy by Kim Jeonghui (金正喜, 1786–1856), before 1840, Joseon Dynasty, ink on paper (handscroll), 32.7 × 136.4 cm, Treasure 1685-1 (National Museum of Korea)
In trying times, we yearn for the people who best understand us, whether they are friends or family. Even if they are not related by blood, our dearest friends, with whom we have developed trust and understanding over many years, can often comfort us through life’s hardships and renew our spirit to endure. In our contemporary society, where values and opinions are constantly changing and being challenged, such friendships—as solid and enduring as stone—are indeed priceless. Such was the bond between Kim Jeonghui and Kim Yugeun, as demonstrated by Kim Jeonghui’s calligraphic transcription of the latter’s Autobiography of Mukso, which was produced when Kim Yugeun was ill.
Autobiography of Mukso (detail), text composed by Kim Yugeun, calligraphy by Kim Jeonghui, before 1840, Joseon Dynasty, ink on paper (handscroll), 32.7 × 136.4 cm, Treasure 1685-1 (National Museum of Korea)

Autobiography of Mukso: Paragon of Kim Jeonghui’s regular script

Kim Yugeun’s penname was “Mukso Geosa” (黙笑居士), which literally means “scholar named Mukso.” “Mukso,” a combination of the terms for silence (“muk”) and laughter (“so”), is a shorthand reference to “one who stays silent when silence is required, but laughs when laughter is required.”
This scroll is a transcribed copy of Kim Yugeun’s Autobiography of Mukso (黙笑居士自讚), written in
calligraphy by his friend Kim Jeonghui, one of the greatest scholars and calligraphers of the nineteenth century. Although best known for his unique “Chusa” script—named after his own penname “Chusa” (秋史)—Kim Jeonghui excelled in every style of calligraphy, including
Ouyang Xun, "Inscription on the Sweet Spring in the Jiucheng Palace (九成宮醴泉銘) Image 1," Tang dynasty, dated 632; Song rubbing (12th century), 36 leaves, each 28.3 cm × 13.3 cm (Art Museum, CUHK)
The style of calligraphy seen here is known as regular script, in which each stroke is clearly written in the basic style. Kim Jeonghui’s regular script was based on the calligraphy of
, and was also partially influenced by
, and
. While showing a keen interest in the regular script of China’s
, Kim Jeonghui’s favorite example of regular script was Ouyang Xun’s calligraphy in in the latter’s “Inscription on the Sweet Spring at Jiucheng Palace."
Left and right sides of Autobiography of Mukso (detail), text composed by Kim Yugeun, calligraphy by Kim Jeonghui, before 1840, Joseon Dynasty, ink on paper (handscroll), 32.7 × 136.4 cm, Treasure 1685-1 (National Museum of Korea)
Very few original examples of Kim Jeonghui’s regular script have survived, making this work especially valuable. Indeed, Autobiography of Mukso is now recognized as the representative example of Kim Jeonghui’s regular script. Written on red paper speckled with flecks of gold, the simple, gentle, and elegant characters are perfectly aligned and balanced, indicating that Kim used a grid to guide the spacing between the lines and characters. The work contains a total of eighty-two characters in twenty-one lines. Stamped in black ink at the end are two personal seals of the calligrapher: “阮堂” (“Wandang,” another of Kim Jeonghui’s pennames) and “金正喜印” (“Seal of Kim Jeonghui”).
The work reads:
"Staying silent when silence is required is the realization of shizhong (i.e., timeliness). Laughing when laughter is required is the realization of zhongyong (i.e., the ‘doctrine of the mean’). There are times when a person must determine right from wrong. There are times when a person must decide whether to take a government post or withdraw from the world as a recluse. In any case, when one takes action, he does not violate tianli (i.e., the ‘heavenly principle’), and when one opts for non-action, he does not violate renqing (i.e., ‘human obligations’). It’s wonderful to stay silent when silence is required and to laugh when laughter is required. Even though I do not say a word, I can still be understood. What harm can my silence cause? When I laugh, what trouble can my laughter cause, since I express my emotion after having mastered the doctrine of the mean! Try harder! Thinking properly about my own situation, I know that I can be saved from disaster. Mukso Geosa comments on himself.
當黙而黙, 近乎時, 當笑而笑, 近乎中. 周旋可否之間, 屈伸消長之際. 動而不悖於天理, 靜而不拂乎人情. 黙笑之義, 大矣哉. 不言而喩, 何傷乎黙. 得中而發, 何患乎笑. 勉之哉. 吾惟自況, 而知其免夫矣. 黙笑居士自讚"
Colophon on Wintry Days, calligraphy by Kim Jeonghui, 1844, Joseon Dynasty, ink on paper (handscroll), National Treasure 180 (National Museum of Korea, Collection of Sohn Chang Kun)
Each character is elaborately written yet perfectly aligned. Popularized during China’s Tang Dynasty, the use of a grid in Korean calligraphy dates back at least to the
. Another famous example of regular-script calligraphy aligned with a grid is the
on Wintry Days, Kim Jeonghui’s exceptional painting.
In Autobiography of Mukso, the script is rather long and slender, but also sharp with numerous changes in the brushstrokes. While following the overall style of Ouyang Xun, Kim also incorporated the influence of Yan Zhenqing, giving the work a unique mix of delicacy and power. Exuding both strength and tranquility, the work is a masterpiece that has now become the benchmark for evaluating all of Kim Jeonghui’s calligraphy. Interestingly, the calligraphy is quite different from the colophon on Wintry Days, which was also written in regular script, but with a distinct flavor of clerical script.
The seal on the lower left reads “金逌根印” (“Seal of Kim Yugeun”). This seal is a key part of the evidence indicating that Kim Jeonghui likely transcribed the work in his calligraphy and gave it to Kim Yugeun, who then stamped it with his own seal. In the lower right, the round seal of “黃山” (“Hwangsan,” Kim Yugeun’s penname) is stamped on across the line between the paper and the underlying silk. Autobiography of Mukso (detail), text composed by Kim Yugeun, calligraphy by Kim Jeonghui, before 1840, Joseon Dynasty, ink on paper (handscroll), 32.7 × 136.4 cm, Treasure 1685-1 (National Museum of Korea)
Because this work bears two personal seals of Kim Jeonghui—“阮堂” (“Wandang,” another of Kim Jeonghui’s pennames) and “金正喜印”(“Seal of Kim Jeonghui”)—it was formerly assumed that “Mukso Geosa” was the penname of Kim Jeonghui, and that Autobiography of Mukso was his explanation of the meaning of that penname. In 2006, however, in preparation for the special exhibition A Great Synthesis of Art and Scholarship: Paintings and Calligraphy of Kim Jeonghui (2006), the National Museum of Korea carefully examined this work and its seals. As a result of that research, the museum proposed that the text of Autobiography of Mukso had actually been composed by Kim Yugeun, and that Kim Jeonghui had transcribed the work in calligraphy.
The calligraphy is surrounded by a border consisting of eighty-nine stamped seals, some of which appear multiple times. Forming the upper and lower borders, two different seals—“醉翁” (“Chwiong”) and “黃山” (“Hwangsan”)—were stamped thirty-five times each (for a total of seventy stamps), overlapping the edge between the paper and the underlying silk. “Hwangsan” is a known penname of Kim Yugeun, who also used the seal of “Chwiong” (meaning “old drunk”), although it is not known if it was another of his pennames. The two side borders consist of various different seals (ten on the left and nine on the right), some of which are difficult to decipher.
However, a close examination reveals that this work was likely composed by Kim Yugeun. In particular, the arrangement and interpretation of some of the seals has led researchers to believe that “Mukso Geosa” was actually a penname of Kim Yugeun, rather than Kim Jeonghui. In the lower right corner of the photo above, the round seal of “黃山” (“Hwangsan,” Kim Yugeun’s penname) is stamped on across the line between the paper and the underlying silk.
The two seals on the lower left are also crucial to the new interpretation. The seal on the bottom left reads “金逌根印” (“Seal of Kim Yugeun”), while the one just above it reads “黙笑居士” (“Mukso Geosa”). Based on the arrangement and meaning of these three seals, scholars now believe that Kim Jeonghui likely transcribed the work in his calligraphy and gave it to Kim Yugeun, who then stamped it with his own seal and the seal of his penname, “Mukso Geosa.” Strengthening this hypothesis are three more seals associated with Kim Yugeun: “玉磬山房” in the lower right corner of the work, and “玉磬書齋” and “緣境爲戲,” which are the fourth and fifth seals from the upper left corner. Notably, all of the aforementioned seals associated with Kim Yugeun were stamped with the same type of red ink, strongly suggesting that they belonged to Kim Yugeun and that they were stamped around the same time. Finally, it is known that Kim Yugeun suffered from aphasia (a speech or language impairment) from 1837 to 1840, which sheds new light on the content of the text, about the virtue of knowing when to laugh and when to remain silent.
In 2007, the true identity of “Mukso Geosa” was all but confirmed when one of Kim Yugeun’s descendants donated Collected Writings of Kim Yugeun (黃山遺稿) to the Sustainable Agricultural Museum of Yangpyeong, making the text available to the public for the first time. The fourth volume of Collected Writings of Kim Yugeun included “Autobiography of Mukso,” seemingly verifying that “Mukso Geosa” was in fact the penname of Kim Yugeun.

“Solid as a Rock”: The friendship between Kim Jeonghui and Kim Yugeun

From childhood, Kim Yugeun enjoyed a lifelong friendship with his two closest companions, Kim Jeonghui and
. A member of the Andong Kim clan, Kim Yugeun was the son of
, one of the leading political figures of the late
, and the older brother of
, the wife of
. During the late Joseon period, a few powerful families forged a monopoly of power and seized control of national governance. Notably, the families of Kim Yugeun (i.e., the Andong Kim clan) and Kim Jeonghui (i.e., Gyeongju Kim clan) were bitter political rivals. Even so, the two scholars maintained an abiding friendship through their shared passion for writing, calligraphy and painting.
Collected Writings of Kim Yugeun includes the following passage, in which Kim Yugeun describes his friendship with Kim Jeonghui:
"The friendship between Gwon Donin, Kim Jeonghui, and myself is utterly steadfast, as strong and solid as a rock. When we’re together, we don’t talk about political gains or losses, or argue over whether other people are right or wrong. We don’t discuss money or finances. We simply talk about matters of past and present or discuss the merits and flaws of calligraphy and paintings. If we go so much as a day without seeing each other, we get depressed, and even a little deranged.…But looking at a seal that contains a person’s name, penname, or courtesy name is almost like seeing the person himself. So whenever one of us acquires an old painting, we stamp the seals of the other two in the margins, as a substitute for seeing their faces and enjoying their presence. In this way, I can say that there has not been a single day that we did not see each other."
As Kim describes above, seeing a friend’s seal was almost the equivalent of seeing the actual person. Thus, it is no coincidence that the seals were the key to identifying the true author of Autobiography of Mukso. Lamenting Kim Yugeun’s illness, Kim Jeonghui must have reflected on his friend’s words, and thoughtfully transcribed them in calligraphy with a full heart. Kim Yugeun must then have replied by stamping his own personal seal on this masterpiece of calligraphy.
These recently discovered materials have also shed new light on the production date of the work. While most scholars believed that Kim Jeonghui created this work in his fifties, some argued that it was made while he was in his thirties. But as revealed in Kim Yugeun’s own words, this calligraphy work was produced while he was suffering from aphasia from 1837 to 1840 (age 51 to 54). Although we cannot pinpoint the exact year of the production, this work can now serve as a vital reference for analyzing Kim Jeonghui’s regular script while he was in his early fifties.
Sadly, the “rock-solid” friendship between Kim Jeonghui and Kim Yugeun had a rather unfortunate conclusion. In 1840, while Kim Yugeun was suffering from aphasia, Kim Jeonghui was exiled to Jeju Island. Because of his illness, Kim Yugeun was unable to intercede on his friend’s behalf. Shortly thereafter, Kim Yugeun succumbed to his illness and died. Still in exile, Kim Jeonghui belatedly learned of his friend’s passing and became inconsolable with grief.
Additional resources
Read this essay and learn more on The National Museum of Korea's website.

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