Where are the origins of Korea’s Modern Literature? (Part 1)


As a way of introducing this blog and modern Korean literature, I thought it would be a nice idea to kick of with some opinions from Korean literature scholars on where they think the origins of Korea’s modern literature can be found.

Of course before we start searching for such origins, it is important to ask ourselves what the term ‘modern’ actually means when it is related to literature. As with most concepts and terminologies that we come across in the humanities, we will see that their definitions and interpretations are slippery and highly debatable. (This is one of the biggest reasons why the humanities have been criticized for not being an exact science, a very judgmental statement in itself, however to me this ‘confusion’ is also the beauty of it.) The term ‘modern’ is no exception to this. Anyway, if I had to make up my own definition of what the ‘modern’ part means, I would say that the term in some way or the other revolves around a feeling of alienation that enters the literary work, and the characters in it feel displaced and out-of-touch with their own environment, which in turn forces them to search for their own (individual) identity.

With this out of the way we are a bit better equipped to discuss where Korea’s literary modernity starts, because now we ‘know’ what to look for. When we look at the discussions of literary scholars in Korea, we see that there are three suggested starting points as to where to find these origins:

1) one starting with the Kabo reforms of 1894
2) in the long process that started from the 18th century
3) the specific date of 1866

The first of these starting points is the opinion promoted by literary scholars An Mak (in 1922), Kim T’aejun (in 1939) and Im Hwa (1939-1941). They argue that Asia’s modern literature started by appropriating Western literature. According to them, it would have been impossible for modern literature to develop within Chosŏn on its own, because of ‘medieval constraints’. Thus a break from traditional literature was needed and an external impetus, therefore, a must. They stress the impact of foreign influences and also praise the Shirhak (Practical Learning) movement. The reason for putting the modern origins of literature with the Kabo reforms from 1894 is done because, although the reforms themselves didn’t last long, it opened up a pandora’s box with new ideas that could not be put back anymore. Since their argument relies on stressing the influences derived from Western and Japanese trends, they are mostly dismissive of Korean authors who did not have a connection with these, a prime example being the poet Kim Sowŏl.
After the Colonial period, this viewpoint was further developed by Paek Ch’ŏl (1948) and Cho Yŏnhyŏn (1955) who focused more on the history of an emerging writer’s class and thus stressed the efforts of writers like Ch’oe Namsŏn and Yi Kwangsu. (I will go into more detail about these two figures in the second part)

The second viewpoint originated around the 1970s and is associated mostly with the scholars Chŏng Byŏng-uk, Kim Yunshik and Kim Hyŏn (1973). Their analysis is obviously to try and counter Im Hwa’s theory that Korean literature broke with its tradition and surplanted it with a new one. Therefore they argue that there was no break with tradition, but that the turn of Korea’s literature to modernity was a slow, but continuous development. This is why they start searching for its origins around the 18th century, seeing evidence for its first steps towards modernity in such classical works as the Hanjungnok (“Records written in silence”; translated by JaHyun Kim Habousch, who tragically passed away recently), continuing with the Yŏrha ilgi (“Yŏrha Diary”; an interesting snippet of this diary can be read here), Kuunmong, and the famous P’ansori story Ch’unhyangchŏn.

Yorha Ilgi

A modern publication of the Yŏrha Ilgi


Finally, the 1866 starting point is the one chosen by North Korean scholars (1977-1981). Since in North Korea the stress of its history is on the struggle against foreign invasions, the choice of this year, with the General Sherman incident and the French campaign against Korea, is an obvious choice. Since literature should serve a political purpose, any discussion in North Korea on literary changes should be explained from this perspective. And so it happens that North Korean scholars give important status to Shin Chaehyo’s poem “The Disgusting Western Barbarians” (괘씸한 서양되놈) along with a few hanshi (Chinese style poetry) written by Yu Insŏk and Yi Kŏnhang.

So as can be seen from these three vantage points, the debate on the origins of Korea’s modern literature revolves around the relative importance of external vs internal factors. Important external factors being, for example, the writers who had studied in Japan where they were exposed to Western literature and the Japanese literary world. Some internal factors that are mentioned are the references in ‘modern novels’ to Korea’s classical literature like the aforementioned story of Ch’unhyang or to Chinese classics and the Samguk Yusa (” Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms”). Other internal factors that are mentioned to be more important to the development of a modern literature is a growing audience for vernacular literature which had developed through urbanization and the rise of markets during the previous centuries, as well as through a more recent movement to promote the use of the vernacular.


A children's book telling the immensely popular story of Ch'unhyang

Coming back to our earlier definition of the ‘ modern’ we do not find a literary work around the time of the three ‘points of origin’ in which a sense of alienation and a personal search for one’s identity is present. At the end of the 19th century and early 20th century the focus was still more on the didactic aspect of literature. I will leave the discussion as to how Korean literature developed from this didactic nature towards its ‘first’ modern Korean novel for the next installments.