A Short History of Modern Korean Literature (part 1)


After dealing with the various discussions within South Korean scholarship on the emergence of Korea’s modern literature in earlier posts, and the almost unanimous agreement of Yi Kwangsu’s The Heartless as its very first product, I will now turn to a short historical overview of the literature that came afterwards.

In the period that Yi Kwangsu’s story came out, cultural and political life within Korean society had been severely restricted by the Japanese colonizer. Privately run newspapers were forced to closed down and the largest pre-colonial newspaper, the Korea Daily News (Taehan Maeil Shinbo 대한매일신보), became a state organ.
Strict rules on publication and censorship were established through the 1907 Newspaper Law and the 1909 Publication Law, made it very difficult to obtain a publishing permit.

Putting the lid on Korean intellectuals’ freedom of expression was an important cause for the 1919 March 1st Uprising. Even though the protests didn’t lead to a hoped for regaining of national sovereignty, it did lead to change in the cultural sphere.
The Cultural Policy was proclaimed in 1920, making it easier for Korean intellectuals to publish and voice their opinions. Immediately a publishing boom was visible, with 409 permits being given for the publication of magazines and journals in 1920 alone. This was in sharp contrast to the 40 permits that had been given out in the whole 10 previous years.

With their newfound freedom of expression, an air of optimism reigned among the intellectuals as if a new era had begun for Korean society. For the colonial power, censoring and monitoring the huge output of these Korean views, was a difficult task. In the beginning, newspapers who had printed an article deemed to be unsuitable for the censor were to be deleted by replacing it with dashes or broken lines. (making the newspaper articles look like “bricks”) Since this kept the deleted and censored parts visible to the reader and alerted them to illicit passages in the text, this kind of censorhsip was later replaced with no visible deletion (passages would just be left out).

Brick newspaper

A so-called "Brick"-newspaper

The most serious issue for censors were related to 1) criticism of the emperor, 2) advocating class warfare, 3) revealing military information, or 4) criticism of the Government General.
Of course a cat-and-mouse game could be played with these censorship rules. Newspapers, for which it was too cumbersome to be screened before distribution, were permitted to start its print run before the issue went to the censor. In order to gain more readers, and establish itself as an anti-Japanese periodical, some newspapers would deliberately write articles that would surely be seized by the police. The trick then was to hire more delivery people and start printing earlier than usual, so that when the issue was banned, it would already be too late to seize them.

Poetry and serialized novels were almost exclusively to be found in the daily press and virtually all magazines and journals. With the repression of the previous years gone, a lively literature movement was established that soon split up into many different artistic and political groups.
The earlier tendency to translate Western literary works was continued by Kim Ǒk through his magazine Artistic and Literary News from the West (T’aesŏ Munye Sinbo, 1918).
In Tokyo, Kim Dong-in and other writers were influenced by Japanese realism and established the magazine Creation (Ch’angcho, 1920).
Romantic poets like Hwang Sŏk-u and Pak Chonghwa would publish their poetry in Rose Village (Changmich’on, 1921).

1920s magazines

The magazines White Tide, Ruins and Genesis

The magazines White Tide (Baekcho, 1920) and Ruins (P’yehŏ, 1920) were specifically set up for publishing “pure” literature, with the aim of making literature without a political or social reform ideological message, in reaction to the heavily didactic tone of earlier “enlightment” novels. Writers like Yŏm Sangsŏp and Kim Dong-in were experimenting with naturalist and romantic forms to establish such a view, of which Kim’s Potatoes (Kamcha, 1925) is one of the more famous stories in Korean literature.
Famous poems or poety collections from this period are Kim Sowŏl’s Azaleas (Chindallae-kkot, 1922) Yi Sanghwa’s Does Spring Come to Stolen Fields? (Ppeakkin ttŭr-edo bom-ŭi onŭnga?, 1926), Han Yong-un’s poetry collection The Silence of Love (Nim-ŭi Ch’immuk, 1926) and Sim Hun’s When that Day Comes (Kŭ nar-i omyŏn, never published during the colonial period due to censorship).

An important socialist literary group was established in 1925 with the KAPF (Korean Artists Proletarian Federation), whose aim it was to serve the cause of class liberation. They experimented with “socialist realism” to promote class consciousness among the intelligentsia and to expose the bad conditions of the minjung (proletarian masses). Cho Myŏnghŭi’s Nakdongkang River (Nakdongkan, 1927) and Yi Kiyŏng’s Fire Field (Hwajŏn) are prominent works in this regard. Since the advocation of class warfare was prohibited, this group had to deal with the constant harassment by the Japanese authorities, which many times led to strict surveillance, arrests, and heavy censorship.
Last but not least the magazine Genesis (Kaebyŏk, 1920) which was issued by the Ch’ŏndogyo religion, featured leftist literature, which sometimes featured stories by “New Tendency”(Shin Kyŏnghyang) leftists like Kim P’albong and Han Sŏrya, who deemed the poetry of romanticists like Yi Sanghwa and Hong Sayong to be too decadent.

Thus the 1920s can be seen as a very lively period in Korea’s literary history, although all these differing (political and literary) opinions and views would also be the genesis of the later (post-colonial) ideological differences that would appear on the peninsula.


Yi Bŏmsŏn – “An Aimless Bullet” (1959)


Yi Bŏmsŏn’s (1920-1981) short story “An Aimless Bullet” is rightfully among the best short stories ever written in Korea. In summary the story goes like this:

After the devastation of the Korean War, accountant Song Ch’ŏrho lives with his family in the poor slumps of Seoul the ‘Liberation Village’. It doesn’t matter how hard he works, he still does not earn enough money to make a living and care for his families needs. At home there are his mother, who has gone crazy because of the war and can only cry out to ‘go north’. His younger brother, who hasn’t been able to find a job for two years after returning from the army, his younger sister who has become a prostitute for American soldiers, and his wife and child.

He is suffering from a toothache, but cannot spare any money for a dentist. Meanwhile his brother is dreaming of becoming an instant millionaire by unlawful means. Not soon after their argument he gets a phone call from the police with the news that his brother has been arrested for robbery. Back home he hears that his wife has died while giving labor. After confirming her death, he aimlessly enters a dentist to let his molars be pulled even though the dentist warns him that it is dangerous to pull both at the same time due to the blood loss it causes. After this he enters a taxi, but cannot decide whether he has to go to his office, the police station, the hospital or home. The taxi driver complains that he one’s again has picked up an “aimless bullet”.

After hearing this, Ch’ŏrho thinks to himself: “I’ve too many roles to fulfill. As a son, a husband, father, older brother, a clerk in an accountant’s office. It’s all too much. Yes, maybe you’re right—a stray bullet, let loose by the creator. It’s true, I don’t know where I’m headed. But I know I must go, now, somewhere.”

Yi Bomson

Yi Bŏmsŏn (1920-1981)

The story poignantly depicts the hopeless social situation directly after the Korean War of many Koreans. Soldiers returning from the army found themselves without jobs, and even if a job could be found, it was hard to make ends meet. Of all places, the “Liberation Village” in which the story is set was one of the dreariest places of all. The shanty village consisted of refugees returning from forced labor or prostitution after World War II, North Korean refugees before the Korean War and Korean War refugees. None of these people had much hope of getting up in society.

Yi’s story received the Tongin prize in 1961 and was also made into a movie in that same year. The movie that was made out of the story is on top of my favorite Korean movie list, probably mainly because of my interest in 1940s/1950s Korea and the impression it gives of the hopelessness that many people living in post-war (South) Korean society felt.
A translation of Yi’s short story (translated by Marshall Pihl) can be read here, while the complete movie can be seen here.

Aimless Bullet movie poster

The movie poster of Aimless Bullet

Kim Chi-ha’s narrative poem “The Five Bandits”


Whoever writes poetry, you should be daring, not finicky-fussy. Write straight like this.

My writing-brush had an untamed spirit, a rugged tip,

and for that crime I was dragged off to jail, butt-flogged,

but that was all a long time ago; now my joints and sinews itch,

my rash lips flip, wrists mutter and twitch,

coercing me to write again no matter what; I can’t stand it.

Oh my god! What the hell? I don’t care what happens to me.

Even if my butt gets flogged again, beaten till it catches fire,

I’m going to write one ever-so-strange story about some thieves.

This is how Kim Chi-ha’s (기지하 1941-) narrative poem The Five Bandits kicks off and never pauses in its humour and sharp criticism of the elite. It is well known what happened next after the poem got published in the May issue of Sasangkye in 1970: Kim was arrested and imprisoned along with the editors of Sasangkye magazine on charges of having violated the infamous anti-communist law. The magazine was forced to close down.

Five Bandits

Poet Kim Chi-ha and the editors of Sasangkye on trial

The poem is interlaced with many cultural and social references. The title itself, for example, refers to the “Five Eulsa Traitors“(을사오적) who signed the 1905 treaty with Japan turning Korea into a colony. By making use of narrative strategies that are commonly used by shamans in their songs (with its many onomatopoeia) the poem becomes a rip-roaring read. For (English) translators it is really hard to convey all the references and sounds and keep the original speedy reading and meaning intact.
Happily there are some translators who have dared to take on such a difficult task to make this poem more widely known. One translation can be found in the excellent Sources of Korean Tradition (vol.2), but I recently also found a translation done by Brother Anthony on his website on Korean Literature. (the poem can be found here)

Five Bandits cover

Cover of a poetry collection including The Five Bandits

Hwang Sun-wŏn’s short story “Shower”


By far the most famous short story in Korean literature is Shower (소나기 Sonagi, 1952) written by Hwang Sun-wŏn (1915-2000).
For many Koreans it is the most representative story for portraying the sensibilities that are unique to Korean culture.
All schoolchildren are raised with this story since it has been part of the required curriculum for a long time.
It is a story of two young people on the verge of falling in love. (the story can be read here)

The story begins as the protagonist boy spies on the great-granddaughter of Mr. Yoon, who is sitting on a stepping stone in a stream playing with the water.
She is scooping up a handful of water to try to grasp her face reflected in the water. Suddenly she picks up a pebble, turns around and throws it to the boy shouting ” You fool!”.
The next day the boy returns to the stream but the girl is not there. From that day on he develops the habit of rubbing the pebble that was thrown at him.
One day it is the boy who is sitting on the stepping stone trying to catch his own reflection in the water. As he is doing so, he sees the reflection of the girl in the water.
Embarrassed, he runs away, but trips over a stepping stone.

On a saturday the boy and the girl meet again and she shows him a “silk clam”. From now on they become good friends, running around the countryside playing with scarecrows in the field and a calf. After being reprimanded by the owner of the calf they suddenly find themselves in a severe shower. They seek shelter in an old lookout, but since the rain keeps pooring in, they take shelter in a haystack. After the rain stops the boy carries her on his back, in order to cross a ditch.

After this day, the boy keeps coming to the stream, but the girl is not there. After a long time, the girl appears to tell him that she has been ill ever since she got a cold in the rain and that she is still not feeling any better. She also shows him the dress that she wore that day, which was stained by the water from the ditch.
She gives him some dates that she took from her family’s ancestoral worship ceremony that day and leaves. In return the boy sneaks into a walnut grove that same evening to give her some walnuts. As he returns and is lying on the bed, he overhears his father speaking to his mother that the Yoon family’s fortune has declined and that the girl has died. He also mentions that she must have been an extraordinary girl, because she said she wanted to be buried in the same clothes she was wearing that day.

Hwang Sun-won

Hwang Sun-won

This sweet but sad story about the budding love between the boy and the girl has become a popular topic for novelists and movie directors alike. That the story remains to be popular can be seen in the many cartoons and movies that have been made over the years. Also Hwang Sun-wŏn rightfully got his own museum (황순원문학촌) recently which is called the Sonagi Village and is located in Yangp’yŏng. Established in 2009, the museum organizes all sorts of events to keep promoting Hwang Sun-wŏn’s legacy with a Festival in his name and even a Hang Sun-wŏn Sonagi Marathon. (A small item about the museum can be viewed here. Beware! Don’t fall asleep because of the narrators entertaining voice while watching!)

One of the funnier references to Shower is undoubtably the short parody that was inserted in the movie My Sassy Girl (2001). The girl being a bit ‘weird’ is dreaming of becoming a scriptwriter and therefore let’s her boyfriend read her scripts to comment on them. Not happy with the ending of her movie, he explains to her that the ending should be more romantic. He is using Hwang Sun-won’s Shower as the example that set the norm for these type of endings, to which she replies that actually Hwang Sun-won’s ending should have been different. How different? Judge for yourself.