The Color of Earth, The Color of Water, The Color of Heaven
This manhwa trilogy by Kim Dong Hwa, a coming-of-age story set in rural Korea several generations ago, follows a young girl learning about love.
Ehwa lives with her mother, a widow who runs the local tavern, which means the men think she’s easy. Living in a farm community, the kids are exposed early to the facts of life and how cruel others can be. Although her mother is a lovely, still-young woman, she’s become distrustful of men because of the gossip they spread. Then a traveling painter and salesman comes to town.
Ehwa slowly learns about the birds and the bees as she observes the people around her and asks questions of her mother. Where she is beginning to be interested in love, her mother is on the other side of the experience, having lost her husband and considering whether to care again for the Picture Man. Ehwa is concerned most with love, which she experiences as a strange feeling in her stomach, while her mother coyly suggests sex.
At the age of 13, Ehwa becomes interested in a young monk in training. They exchange flowers, but their love can never be, given his calling requires celibacy. At 15, Ehwa becomes a woman and meets another boy, a student intellectual. Her relationship with her mother becomes more that of a friend, as they talk more about their feelings and female secrets, and Ehwa knows to make herself scarce when the Picture Man visits.
Much of this story is told through nature, whether artistically — beautiful portraits of butterflies or flowering bushes or riverbank scenery — or textual. A man’s organ is described in slang as a chili pepper, or blooming blossoms symbolize curiosity about sex and marriage, or women are described as various kinds of flowers attracting butterflies (men). Rain often brings change or reflection. Actions represent emotion — azalea wine is made for someone special, or the gourd flower, which blooms only at night, suggests a tryst. The open white space in many panels echoes the poetry of the text.
The settings are my favorite part of the story. Seeing the fields rimmed by trees or the homey, rundown tavern really makes the earth and the rain palpable to the reader. In contrast to the lovely, detailed scenery, the figures are simple, almost cartoony. The artist has an odd quirk of drawing most eyes as stacks of lines, giving the women an exotic feel and making it seem that they don’t look at life straight on, but sidelong, from the corner of their vision.
The core relationship, regardless of men who come and go, is between the mother and daughter, and it’s strong and inspiring. Because the story is told by a man romanticizing his mother’s memories, however, we don’t really get a true sense of the pain that must have accompanied some of these incidents. Instead of being concerned that her seven-year-old daughter is starting to ask about genitals, for example, the mother is only poetic about how precocious Ehwa is about maturing. Maybe that’s appropriate for a different age, but it feels a little rose-colored. When it comes to Ehwa’s mother courting with the Picture Man, though, the poetic hinting and flowery allusions make what could seem tawdry memorable and meaningful.
It’s festival time, and (appropriate for a trilogy), Ehwa is advised by her mother that the third time’s the charm. After liking two boys but coming to naught, will the wrestler Duksam who surprises Ehwa while she’s washing her hair be the man for her? And how much, if anything, about her feelings should she share with her mother?
There’s more comedy and wordplay in this volume, as Ehwa and her mother tease each other now that they’re both women. Ehwa also gets lessons on “being an adult” from a friend, a girl who’s been messing around with a neighbor boy. The girls share the small pieces of secret knowledge they learn about sex because there are few other sources of education on the subject.
But deeper feelings have their place, too, with Ehwa learning more about how her mother felt about her departed father. She’s finally old enough to understand her parents’ love for each other, without relation to her place in their relationship. There’s even more flower imagery and sex instruction in this part of the trilogy, matching Ehwa’s status as a blossoming young woman.
That attractiveness takes an unpleasant turn when Duksam’s master, a wizened old man, tries to buy Ehwa for himself. Ehwa’s mother wants to protect her daughter but realizes that eventually, she’ll be alone — since wives become part of their husband’s family household. A cautionary tale of another girl in the village, a teenager like Ehwa but married off to a nine-year-old boy, shows that marriage isn’t always the happy ending the girls dream of.
After falling out with his master, Duksam is going to sea to make his fortune so he can afford to marry Ehwa. She is now in the same place her mother has been — waiting for a man to return for her, not knowing when they will see their loves again. Their lives aren’t considered complete without a husband, but because of when they live, they can’t take action, only wait.
Ehwa’s jealous of Duksam’s ability to do something, but Ehwa’s mother is sympathetic at the same time she’s concerned and angry about Ehwa’s behavior and the secret she’s keeping. She wants to protect her daughter from the gossip that’s plagued her. In contrast, Ehwa’s childhood friend is frequently talked about, since she’s shameless about engaging with her boyfriend.
Although the girls have been playful up to now, the morals of the village can be enforced severely. A village elder’s new daughter-in-law was followed by her former servant, a man in love with her. When caught, he was beaten to death by the men of the village. The violent event reminds the reader that this is a different culture and unwise choices shouldn’t be taken too far.
The 17-year-old Ehwa is beginning to receive proposals for marriage arrangements, some quite prestigious because of her beauty, but her mother gently turns them away. She begins teaching Ehwa to cook and to be a good housewife while reminding her that the heart of a woman is to wait. Thankfully, Ehwa is due a happy ending, as shown by her wedding finery on the cover.
Some may find the floral symbolism in this series overwhelming or too precious, but to a receptive mind, it’s refreshing in its quiet reflection. It’s still rare to see such a detailed exploration of women of different generations. The overall approach is delicate, as when dealing with blossoms to avoid crushing them. (The publisher provided review copies.)