Where are the origins of Korea’s Modern Literature? (Part 2)


I hope from last week’s installment it became clear that finding the exact origins of Korea’s literary modernity is impossible and that it is only possible to find some “internal” and “external” clues that changed Korea’s literature to a level that we today would call ‘modern’. This time I look at the literary works that appeared at the beginning of the 20th century.

I left you with the comment that literature at the end of the 19th Century was didactic in nature. This sort of literature remained popular as the 20th century began with works such as Chang Chihyŏn’s The Tale of the Patriotic Wife (Aeguk Puinchŏn, 1907) and Shin Ch’aeho’s Ŭljimundŏk (1908). The former tells the story of Jeanne d’Arc. Writing this work was done with the intention to provide Korean women with a modele heroine whose patriotic example should be followed. The latter story is about Ŭljimundŏk, a famous general from the Koguryŏ period. This story shows the reader that heroic figures who rise to the occassion in times of a national crisis did exist previously in Korea’s history.
lot of the stories are related to the predominant concern of intellectuals to ‘translate civilisation’ (munmyŏng-ŭi bŏnyŏk) in order to introduce the reader to Western knowledge and spread these ideas throughout Korea, so that Korea would become civilized (civilized in this respect would probably mean to become a modern nation-state). With the encroachment of various foreign powers on Korea’s soil, the intellectuals sensed that in order to keep the independence of Korea, it was necessary to strengthen Korea’s institutions and identity. (For a comprehensive overview of this issue look here) The stories of Shin Ch’aeho and Chang Chihyŏn, therefore, can be seen as an attempt to instill the idea of nationalism in its readers.

The civilisation that the intellectuals envisioned should, of course, be built upon the Confucianist foundation that was already present, and therefore we find in the same period fables that focus on wrong moral attitudes that created social problems. Examples of these works are Yu Wŏnp’yo’s Dreaming of Zhuge Liang (1908) or An Kuksŏn’s Council of Birds and Beasts (1908). In Dreaming of Zhuge Liang, the narrator dreams that he meets with the famous Chinese politician Zhuge Liang (who lived from 181-234). He discusses contemporary problems with him, and then criticizes the political situation in which Korea finds itself today.
Critique of society and the changing times could also be shaped in the form of satire of which the stories Questions between a Blind Man and a Cripple (소경과 안즘방이 문답, 1905) and Misunderstanding of Rickshaw Men (거부오해, 1906) that appeared in the Daehan Maeil Shinbo are most representative. The first of these works follows the conversations between a blind man practicing divination and a cripple who makes headbands for a living, in which they mostly talk about the foreign encroachment upon Korea, the corruption of government officials, and ineffective reforms. The second story criticizes the new institutional reforms, especially that of the establishment of the Residency-General.

Another issue that arose during this period is that of Korea’s written language system. As is clear from the newspapers of the time, there is no unified agreement on which script was regarded as the national language (kukmun), let alone that there was a unification of grammatical rules. Several writing systems were present, one written in classical Chinese (hanmun), one mixing Chinese characters with Korean, and one using only the Korean script. This confusion as to what constitutes the Korean national language lead to many open discussions in the newspapers. For example the Toknip shinmun (The Independent) of the 5th of August 1898 wrote a commentary on the cons of using the mixed script (kukhanmun) in that it interferes with Korea’s independence, since it is Chinese and also because it just takes too much time to learn. Furthermore the power rests with people who know the language, and since the country should be for all people only the Korean script should be used. (Although obviously this is not mentioned in the commentary, this anti-Chinese argument was without a doubt influenced by the Qing’s defeat in 1895).

This is just one such opinions appearing in the papers, with many others vehemently promoting one of the other scripts. Of course in hindsight the opinion of in the Independent newspaper won out, but this was far from being an obvious result. In South Korean scholarship a lot of research is nowadays being done on these turn of the century discussions on Korea’s language system and make for interesting reading.

In the next part we will turn to the publication of Korea’s ‘first’ modern novel, which is regarded to be Yi Kwangsu’s The Heartless (Mujŏng) published in 1917.

The Tale of the Patriotic Wife (left) The Council of Birds and Beasts (top right)

The covers of the Tale of the Patriotic Wife (left) and the Council of Birds and Beasts (top right)