Where are the origins of Korea’s Modern Literature? (Part 3)


In this final installment we finally turn to what is considered to be Korea’s first “modern novel”: Yi Kwangsu (1892-1950)’s The Heartless (Mujŏng 1917). By many scholars this literary work is regarded as the culmination of developments that started around 1905 with the growth of newspapers, which in turn stimulated the production of the first attempts of modern literature. Writers Yi Injik and Yi Haejo are regarded as the frontrunners in this period. Later their works were categorized as “New Novels” (Shinsosŏl), a genre seen as a transitional stage between classical and modern literature. The vernacular that was used in these novels had not been standardized yet, and the plots resembled the good-versus-evil approach of traditional literature. Also they made more use of allegories, so that it could not be regarded as “realistic” fiction.

After the annexation of Koreaby Japanin 1910, many newspapers were shutdown and the literature that was being written reverted back to the more traditional melodramas and pulp fiction that it had seen earlier. Only Ch’oe Namsŏn (1890-1957), the founder of the influential journal Boys (Sonyŏn 1908-1911) and Youth (Ch’ŏngch’un 1914-1918), attempted to keep publishing “New Novels” in this period (which for the severe repression of the media is usually called the Dark Period (암흑기)).
It was in these journals that Yi Kwangsu published his early experiments with the new literature that he envisioned.

Yi Kwangsu

Yi Kwangsu in 1941

His vision onKorea’s literature was expressed in an article entitled “What is Literature?” In it he says that “the spirit of the nation that has been transmitted from the time of our ancestors…will be the center of literature.” After stressing that literature should stress and reinforce the nation, he criticizes Confucianism, by saying that this ideology had hampered Chosŏn’s modernization, because of their emphasis of 知 (지, knowledge) and 義 (의, will), while neglecting 情 (정, individual emotions). He continues that “in the West great literature could be produced because they had the freedom to express their thoughts and emotions.” He called for a literature rooted in Western realism and stressed that literature should fulfill human emotions and that it must take its material from daily life. Therefore, In his own literature he tried to make the nation visible to the reader. The task (or function) of literature in his view was to preserve that nation and ensure its continued survival.

Michael Shin, in an article on Yi Kwangsu and his novel Mujŏng titled Interior Landscapes: Yi Kwang-su’s “The Heartless” and the Origins of Modern Literature, focuses on the trope of landscape and the concept of interiority in Yi Kwangsu’s early works in order to decode the secondary narrative that is embedded within his stories. Interiority, he explains, is not the same as identity, but a form of identity: identity as an unchanging essence. Accordingly, the descriptions of landscape therefore can be seen as a metonym for Japan. Thus when the protagonists in Yi Kwangsu’s stories move to a new landscape it can be read as the search for an interiority that expresses an identity different from that of the colonizer’s.
The interesting feature of creating this sense of interiority is by using linguistic effects that are borrowed from the vernacular. It is the “neutral” forms of expression that give the illusion of realism to the stories. For Shin the term minjok (민족, usually translated as nation) in Yi Kwangsu’s novel The Heartless, was the name given to this intangible and mysterious “reality” of interiority. With this theory in mind, Shin analyzes the short stories written by Yi Kwangsu before The Heartless as attempts at finding interiority. He therefore notes that the protagonists in his stories are usually students who feel lonely and who aspire to write, but find themselves in desolate landscapes.

Mujong cover

Cover of Yi Kwangsu's most famous novel The Heartless

The Heartless was serialized in the Maeil Shinbo (매일신보) newspaper beginning January 1, 1917, and was an immediate sensation. People walked for miles to get their daily copy. The story itself is about a love triangle between the schoolteacher Yi Hyŏngshik and two women: Yŏngch’ae who became a Kisaeng and Sŏnhyŏng a daughter of a minister. He eventually marries Sŏnhyŏng, since her father had arranged and expected this from him by allowing him to teach English to his daughter, and also with the hopes that they could both go to theUS for studies. The story is quasi-historical with its setting being just before the formal annexation ofKorea. (Yi Kwangsu himself saw this period, the end of the Russo-Japanese war, as the beginning of modern literature)

The coup the force of the novel (where ‘the nation is made visible’) is in Yŏngch’ae’s story of how she became a Kisaeng. This story serves to awaken Hyŏngshik and Sŏnhyŏng to their interiority. At the end of the story Yŏngch’ae goes to Py’ŏngyang to commit suicide, and Hyŏngshik, after hearing of this plan, pursues her. The novel ends when the three of them meet each other on the train. (Hyŏngshik is then engaged to Sŏnhyŏng, but not in love with her) Here Yŏngch’ae tells of her sad story that stirs them both. A heavy rain forces them to leave the train, after which they find shelter in an inn. Here Hyŏngshik is completely awakened and tells the guests that they all should strive to create a better Chosŏn.
For Shin this aspect of the novel shows that “Yi Kwangsu’s novel is intricately linked to modernity since it enabled readers to visualize an emerging national community.” I find this last argument debatable, however, since more recent studies have argued quite convincingly that a sense of a national (“Korean”) community can be traced back to the Chosŏn period, and even as far back as the Koryŏ period.


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)


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.