History of Korean Literature: Han Miracle; Pundan Munhak Lives

KTLIT LogoMiracles!
(As usual, I welcome disagreements and corrections^^)

I) Hyangga and Koryeo Kasa
II) Sijo & Kasa
III) Classical Fiction
IV) Pansori
V) Introduction to Modern Literature
VI: Enlightenment
VII: Background to Colonial Lit
VIII: The History of Korean Modern Literature
IX: Themes & Approaches to Fiction

X: The Colonial Era
XI: War and Separation Era

1970s Korea was marked by two distinctive but related features. First was political trauma and second was economic success. Korean President Park Jung-hee suspended the National Assembly, radically restricted political freedom and in 1972 extended his military dictatorship without limit. At the same time, due to mandated economic programs this decade was also a time of spectacular economic growth.The economic growth, however, came at a price as traditional agriculture imploded, economic disparities grew, and a host of new problems, attendant to industrialization, arose. Traditions eroded, pollution exploded, and economic development proceeded quite unequally. Cultural changes occurred as well, as the political oppression of the time lead to a desire for freedom, and protest, in the forms of music, clothes, long-hair, and open demonstration. With the beginnings of economic success and the imposition of dictatorship came a kickback from authors.

In the early 70s authors began to address the problems resulting from rapid industrialization including the destruction of traditional village life, including farmers, the commodification of relationships, the growing gap between rich and poor, the destruction of the traditional family unit, and increasing materalism. Pundan Munhak continued to be popular, as the issue of the split country was no closer to being solved. However most of the focus turned to social issues and this also meant that literature continued to focus on the real problems of real people. Particularly, authors began to focus on characters who lived on the periphery of society or who had been marginalized by the rapid rate of economic and social change.

One result of this tendency was the emergence of “labor” fiction which focused on the status of workers as they attempted to negotiate industrial development in Korea. Shin Sang-ung’s Our Friend’s Homecoming explorers some of the lesser known costs of Korean economic success. It is the story of a group of friends awaiting the return of a friend from overseas. During the 70s Korea often provided labor for other states, particularly in the Middle East, looking for workers to do the three D jobs that they no longer wanted their own citizens to do. Short, sharp, and featuring a surprising and shocking ending it demonstrates a kind of sharply plotted story-telling that is sometimes missing in Korean fiction. In a very few pages Shin outlines the unfortunate labor system in Korea, one so troublesome that leaving sometimes seemed a better option than staying, and then reveals that none of the options were really good. Shin was a remarkably brave writer, and it is worth noting that he was often detained by Korean police for his political stances.

Hwang Sok-yong’s The Road to Sampo is a reflection on the losses to Korean culture caused by the successful modernization of the economy, particularly the loss of “hometown.” The story begins with two laborers meeting on the road close to the jobs that they have just lost. Yong-dal has been caught in a dalliance with his landlady, and he and Chong (who goes by last name only) have just been let go of their construction jobs for the winter. With little else to do, Yong-dal decides to accompany Chong to Chong’s hometown of Sampo, and island town just off the coast of Korea. At first, Chong and Yong-dal are somewhat diffident companions, but they quickly settle into a rhythm of talking, walking, and stopping in little towns along the way. In one of these towns they stop at a bar-restaurant that is in some confusion as the attractive young barmaid has run away. The proprietor tells the two men that there is a reward of 50,000 won if they catch and return the barmaid, and this is in their mind as they head out of town. Soon, of course, they do catch up with the barmaid, but instead of returning her to the bar, they all decide to continue their trek to a train station. The woman, whose pseudonym is Paek-Hwa, like Chong, has decided to journey home. The three form a loose alliance, with a slightly romantic sub-plot thrown in, and become something like a team as they walk through the snow. Personal histories are revealed, and Hwang is a master at describing the scenery of rural Korea. Finally, the trio arrives at the train station and, has to separate. Here Paek-Hwa reveals one last bit of information about herself that completes the bonding that the trip has begun, and she departs on a train of her own. Chong and Yong-dal, then, wait for the train to Sampo.

Which sounds fine and good, but of course nothing is so simple, and at the end, in a casual conversation, it is revealed to Chong that the goal towards which he is traveling does not really exist.The ideal rustic town of Sampo, like all of Korea, has been turned into a construction zone (amusingly, Yong-dal is thrilled by this turn of events, because he sees employment in it) and Chong’s dream does not exist.The Road to Sampo is a vignette of the economic cost of development, with all three characters rootless and exploited. Even more, it reveals the psychic cost of development to Korea. The notion of a destroyed hometown is a devastating one in Korea, where one’s hometown is an important place in a way that is not common in the west. Where one is born is a very common and important question in Korea, and westerners soon grow to recognize that word, as it is only of the first pieces of information that Koreans attempt to get after an introduction (after things like age, marital status, family members, and sometimes University – The Korean introductory script is actually quite rigid).To have a hometown destroyed is to suffer a psychological trauma of high order.

As the story ends, with a train pulling out of the station, the reader is left unclear as to what Chong has decided – the question of whether he is on the train to his ‘hometown’ is left intentionally open, and the reader is free to make his or her own decision.That Hwang meant this to be a general indictment is clear by his use of the name Sampo for the ideal island-hometown. Although Sampo is a port-town in Korea, there is no island of that name, and as in Park Wan-suh’s Who Ate Up All the Singa (in which Singa is not an actual plant or food) Sampo is intended to be something like a Platonic ideal.

Cho Se-hui’s The Dwarf, was written between 1975 and 1978 as a series of semi-connected short stories (a yŏnjak sosŏl or linked novel) which were published in several Korean literary magazines. It is a powerful work of social criticism which focuse on the human costs associated with the forced redevelopment of Seoul in the 1970s. Cho’s writing is kaleidoscopic, often fantastic, and occasionally difficulty to follow. The work features interlocking narrative arcs and narratorial shifts that are ultimately quite rewarding to follow. Cho Sehui was an author suited to write about such a topic. Born in 1942, he was a member of the “hangul generation,” the first post-war generation who were taught and wrote in Hangul, not Japanese. Cho’s work was overtly and directly political wich was a departure for Korean literature in which most political commentary had largely been in the background or historical in nature, but rarely commented on directly by characters or in text. Cho’s generation was to be the one that broke this wall of silence:History was also poised for Choi’s work as well of that of the other “labor” novelists. On November 13th of 1970, Chon T’ae-il publicly immolated himself in protest against labor exploitation in the rayon garment industry and this act helped define a new era of workers activism. At the same time increasing demographic and economic pressure on Seoul resulted in waves of ‘illegitimate’ housing developments being razed in un-remunerated and semi-remunerated evictions of the poor, who could often not afford the replacement housing that was only sporadically provided for them.

The dwarf is a handyman living in the Felicity District of the ironically named Eden Province. The area is slated for forced redevelopment and the dwarf and his family are evicted from the only place they can call a happy home, notwithstanding the “sewer-creek” which runs next door to it. Economic forces destroy the dwarf’s home and as the story works towards its unhappy conclusion the dwarf eventually commits suicide in a factory smokestack while his family is sundered. With his diminutive height of 3 feet 10 inches in “real life,” the dwarf is also symbolic of the individually crippling and diminishing immensity of the economic apparatus of the modern.

This diminished state is represented physically and symbolically throughout the work. The book is partially framed by two stories featuring the crippled Squatlegs and Humpback who are forced from their homes and into a literal freak-show. Healthy characters grow disabilities throughout the work. The dwarf’s health fades. The union organizer, Chi-Sop is slowly whittled down throughout the book. Near the conclusion of the book he is missing two fingers and his face has nearly been destroyed, “his nose was squashed down and disfigured and below his eyes there were scars.” Even the rich and apparently successful son of the Chaebol leader is rendered psychologically broken (The Spinyfish Entering My Net) and spiritually empty.This scarring and diminution is not merely physical, it is social and economic as well. The dwarf dies, his son becomes a murderer, and the dwarf’s daughter is reduced to concubinage to steal back her families’ right to a home. This last theft is largely unrewarded as when the daughter returns to her home, “there was no sign that the dwarf, the dwarf’s two sons, and the dwarf’s daughter had ever dwelt there.” Instead, the engines of omnipotent capital have destroyed all signs of previous human habitation and sundered all previous human relationships.The confusion, disorder, and randomness of the world Cho describes is partially paralleled in his structure of loosely linked yet intersecting stories, narratives out of time and space, and short, disconnected sentence structure. Cho’s narrative structure, is analogous to the era about which he writes and it gives a sense of the disorder in which the characters live. In this time neighborhoods, families, and social structures were destroyed in seeming instants by the implacable onslaught of government mandated economic progress. From inside that historical process, events must have seemed without meaning, or conscious intent, a series of random forces converging to destroy.

In The Dwarf traditional social structures, communal and Confucian, are eliminated in a moment and replaced by the relationships of capital. Nelson notes that the eviction/building process “represented a rupture with the nations’ Korea history” and Choi articulates this dislocation clearly. Similarly, outcomes are random and often without meaning. One of the key plot turns is the dwarf’s eldest son’s murder of the head of the Ungang Group, which has spearheaded the mass eviction that catches up the dwarf and his family. The son, however, mistakenly kills the boss’s brother, who is similar in appearance. Even rough justice is, apparently, random.Cho leaves his final question unanswered, except by symbolic implication. The Dwarf starkly delin eates the emptiness of promises of “modernization.” But who is responsible and what is the future?

The Dwarf blames capitalism as an historical force and goes on to suggest that the dystopia it creates might be endless. Two of Choi’s signature symbols in the work, the Mobiüs Strip and the Klein Bottle, focus on the interlocked and/or infinite. These scientific creations are both limited and local while at the same time looped and without boundary. They go on ‘forever and ever’ without delineation or distinction, without beginning or end. This circle of life and endless, but flat and repetitive, work is also suggested by the framed nature of The Dwarf. There is no explicit responsibility, the evil “they” are unnamed and unnamable. The ‘internal’ frame is the story of the handicapped and murderous duo of Squatlegs and Humpback who, after even the ‘success’ of an initial murder and robbery of a property speculator, are betrayed and left alone. Their promise of savior, their “master,” turns out to be nothing but another one of the “them.” In The Dwarf there is no way out but the choice the dwarf himself takes – a futile attempt to scale the heights and a fall back to death.

The Dwarf ends, without hope, instead with the promise (and curse) of endless repetition.In the 1980s, as the democratization movement strengthened in Korea, more aggressive considerations of social problems emerged.

Among the writers to emerge at this time as the elegant Yang Kwi-ja who sometimes covered the same territory as Cho. A Distant and Beautiful Place (1985-87) is a stunning and well-translated collection of short stories from Yang Kwija. Like The Dwarf (and similar on more than just this one ground) A Strange and Beautiful Place is a yŏnjak sosŏl, or an intentionally connected series of short stories gathered together in a collection. These works were originally published in literary journals from 1985 to 1987 when they were published in Korean under the rather less interesting name People of Wonmi-dong.

Situated south of Seoul, in Bucheon, Wonmi-dong is in the shadows of Wonmi Mountain, and here Koreans who can’t quite make it in Seoul struggle, mostly without notable success, to create lives for themselves and their family: An innocent poet is violated while his neighbors look on, jobs are lost, and small division exploited. The work is full of clever descriptions, well-marked social observations, perhaps a surfeit of imagery, and a way of crystallizing larger social issues in miniature scenes and stories. There is also great detail and versimilitude in the shifting gossip and allegiances of the “villagers” and even a reader unfamiliar with Korea will easily absorb a great deal of information about modern Korean culture while reading this novel/collection.

Yang Gui-ja (as she prefers it) has also had the novel Contradictions translated into English as well as a volume in the KLTI/Jimoondang Portable Library of Korean Fiction collection, titled Rust.

In 1987 the June Revolution overthrew Korea’s military rule, while the economy continued to grow at a rapid rate. In one sense, this was confusing, as Korean literature had extensively focused on the dictatorial nature of the Korean government. Just as the elimination of dictatorial political power had earlier robbed literature of a low-lying target, the relative success of industrialization blunted some of the force of the “labor” literature and other works that dealt with the displaced and dispossessed. These problems and literatures did not disappear, but the focus on them faded. As a result, literature’s role as a mass political and educational tool began to decrease. In response, many authors chose to turn away from the outer world of society and politics in general to focus on internal explorations of characters somewhat adrift if the new social relationships and new work relationships dictated by the needs of industrial capitalism. Some of the themes which emerged included personal alienation, sexual roles, internal psychological landscapes, and the impact of information technology.

This shift lead to a reaction against “objective” literature, while expanding permissible subjects and themes. Pak Wan-so was one of the representative female writers of the era. Her writing was split between reminiscences of the war and post-war era and short often horrific vignettes of modern success for Korean women, as in her Identical Apartments, in which a housewife slowly drive herself mad while living in an apartment complex in which apartments are less differentiated than hexagons in a bee-hive, and the desire for bourgeois success slowly sucks all the joy out of life.

Ch’oe Yun was another important writer, who burst on the literary scene in 1988 with the novella There a Petal Silently Falls (Which will be discussed at greater length in the next chapter), a multi-faceted and stunning evocation of the Gwangju Massacre. Petal was one of the first works to directly address the Gwangju Massacre and was indicative of Ch’oe’s no-holds-barred attitude towards society. This attitude was extended in The Gray Snowman (1992), which won the Dongmin Literary and explored the cost of the ‘succesful’ political revolution from the perspective of a woman who has been used and cast aside from it. Ch’oe’s The Petal with Thirteen Fragrances was a different type of triumph. Once again Ch’oe frontally attacked Korean modern society, but the attack was in the form of a delicate love story, a fairy story, and even in its grimiest details carried off with humor and elan. The stories’ central image, the heroine uselessly copying a German translation of an Italian historian has been interpreted in multiple conflicting ways, but give a hint of the delicacy which Ch’oe can write with. All three of these stories can be found in one book, titled There a Petal Silently Falls.

Perhaps one more writer of this era deserves a closer look, and that is Yi Mun-yol. Yi wrote across a wider range than most of his contemporaries, from historical novelists about beatnik poets (The Poet), across childhood allegories of fascism and freedom (Our Twisted Hero), and on to semi-hallucinatory odes to love (Twofold Song). Yi is also interesting politically; his father defected to North Korea and Yi was ever after under suspicion of being a spy. Thus it was, that even in relatively traditional tales of Korean poets of the past, Yi Mun-yol could find the political meaning. The Poet, putatively about rebellion and betrayal, and an amusing story of a vagabond poet named Kim Sat-gat (pronounced Sakkat), was also a deeply felt meditation on sins of the fathers, personal betrayal, and isolation.

Our Twisted Hero, is the book for which Yi Mun-yol is best known in English. Our Twisted Hero is both the story of a new student dealing with a classroom bully and a political allegory with hints of Orwell’s Animal Farm, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and even a bit of Golding’s Lord of the Flies. The political allegory, of course, is intended to refer to Korea and its recent history.It is a very short novella, only 119 small pages, which, beneath it’s simple schoolroom setting, is actually a meditation on totalitarianism, and how intellectuals who might oppose it can eventually be brought to heel by it, either through a process of intimidation, or a process of assimilation and ease.

The book was published in 1987 in Korea and was Yi Mun-yol’s first book published in North America. This was seven years after the Kwangju Massacre and, like Ch’oe Yun’s more overt There a Petal Silently Falls is also a comment on the government of that era, which alternately oppressed voices for democracy and attempted to buy them off with economic and cultural goodies. The story is narrated by a middle-aged man reflecting on period of change in his young life.

In some ways it is a fish out of water story with a young protagonist (I say protagonist because he is not the “hero” of the title) moving from Seoul to the countryside and entering a new school there. The protagonist, Han Pyong-Tae is a clever fellow, and sees his new, somewhat bumpkin schoolmates as beneath him. Initially Pyong-Tae is certain that his big-city ways and knowledge will be acknowledged and he will naturally become the head of the class. Pyong-Tae is presented semi-unsympathetically, as something of an arrogant dandy, with little respect for anyone around him and a certainty of success.

This ascension is blocked, however, by Om Sokdae, a student of extreme power and charisma, little formal intellect and less education, but a rather devious understanding of power and coercion; the initial scene in which Om Sokdae easily persuades Pyong-Tae to make a snobbish fool of himself is brilliant. Om Sokdae is the recognized mini-dictator of the class, a status acquiesced to by even the teacher. Om Sokdae is feared by other students and indispensable to the teacher, whose classroom is a paragon of order under Sokdae’s rule. When Pyong-Tae buts head with Sokdae he quickly transforms from mere newbie to object of constant and orchestrated abuse.Pyong-Tae fights the good fight for most of the term, but eventually capitulates to Om Sokdae’s power. Just, however, when Om Sokdae seems as immutable as stone a new teacher is assigned to the class and Om Sokdae’s power is swept away in a revolutionary maelstrom. Om Sokdae’s power is replaced by a multi-faceted system with a byzantine structure for such a small class (a ruling committee, a chairman, vice-chairman, section and subsection chiefs, monitor, vice-monitor, etc.). It is all too much and too inefficient and the order and certainty of Om Sokdae’s reign is replaced by chaos.* Yi is a very sly writer in this piece never letting his suspicions about the flaws of all involved parties become to obvious, and the story can be read on a simple level, or a deeply historical/metaphorical one.

Yi’s last story for discussion here is Twofold Song, but that story was written in 2004, and is so very different in tone, subject and style, that it seems to more properly fit in the next chapter, Post-Modern Literature.

The miracle on the Han did amazing things for Korea – essentially propelled it from the third world to the first world in a bit less than three decades. However  (as there must be a Korean saying for) you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs, and many eggs were broken. Given that the miracle also occurred on the back of a military dictatorship, and the typically nation-oriented Korean authors certainly had a lot to write about, and write they did. When it was all mostly over, Korea was an economic success, on its unsteady way towards complete democracy, and because of that the appeal of the ‘old’ literature was waning, and something new had to come.

2 thoughts on “History of Korean Literature: Han Miracle; Pundan Munhak Lives

  1. Very interesting read, Charles.
    We know how authors resisted under Japanese rule, but are there insights about censorship during the years of dictatorship?

  2. Stephane.. that’s a really great question and I haven’t seen much about it in the journals. This post is part of of the rough draft of a book, and when I come back to it I’m going to have take a look at that. The responses under Japan ranged from Yi Kwang-su getting out the kneepads and vaseline and Hwang Sun-won going underground and ONLY writing in Korean when it seemed like Korean might never see the light of day. I know a lot of stories of “heroic” resistance to the Korean dictatorship, but now that you mention it, there had to be toadies…

    Great question..

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