Korea has a long-standing literary tradition and literature has always occupied a position of high cultural importance. Korea for instance, is number one per capita internationally in poetry publications per person . Korea’s history is thoroughly represented in its literature, and its literature is often centered on arguments or representations about that history. Korean literature is normally inteneded to mean something and be taken quite seriously.
According to Kim Hunggyu “more than 6,000 collections of writings by individual writers from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century are extant,” (Kim, 3) and Korea is number one per capita internationally in poetry publications per person..In Korea becoming an author is actually an “official” process This massive literary proiduction is despite the fact that Korean literary history, as an object of formal literary study and concern is relatively recent, really beginning in the post WWII era (Lee, ix).
Korean literature is broadly divided into two eras; classical literature and modern literature. Roughly speaking, classical literature lasted until the end of the 19th Century and modern literature began at about the beginning of the 20th century. Across these eras Korean literature has five major philosophical influences: Shamanism/Animism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. Shamanism, is expressed in Korean emotionalism and ties to nature. Confucianism laid primary cultural importance on reading and writing, and thus also had a profound impact on how seriously Koreans take education and literature. At the same time Confucianism valued order and contemplation and these two influences are also strong in Korean literature. Buddhism has had an influence that led to a certain kind of cyclicality and and sometimes passivity that one often finds in Korean literature, and Taoism also had some hand in this. In addition, Koreans were very deeply tied to nature and their land, and this, though not a formal philosophy, is deeply reflected in Korean literature. Finally, in the modern era Christianity has also had a strong influence.
These influences resulted in an oral literature portraying a love of and relationship to nature within which an individual man was just one part of a much larger picture. The literature was often quite mannered, with evil deeds punished, good deeds (eventually) rewarded, and a series of relationships structured by loyalty – to the King, to parents, to elders, to friends and to ‘proper’ sexual relations, meaning chastity and male domination.
One of the interesting aspects of classical Korean literature is the question of the two “alphabets” used in Korean literature. For centuries, the “alphabet” of Korea was Chinese characters. To read, write and study in Chinese was the mark of a cultured man. Chinese characters were to the Korean intelligentsia exactly as Latin and Greek used to be to the educated man in the West. Consequently much early literature in Korea was heavily influenced by Chinese thought and the bulk of it was written in Chinese. There has been critical controversy as to whether Korean literature written in Classical Chinese is actually a part of Korean literature as narrowly defined. For the purposes of this book however, all literature written by Koreans, in whatever language, is considered as part of “Korean Literature”.
Influences of the World
Because of its geographical location between historical superpowers China and Japan, Korea is fiercely independent, and although it has a history of internal strife has also fought to maintain its autonomy. This gives impetus to tropes repeatedly found in its literature including a strong internal definition and a fear of separation or alienation. Some things, in fact many things, have historically been considered beyond personal, even national, control.
At the end of the classical period Korean literature began to struggle towards modernity. While this struggle was strongly influenced by ‘Western’ ideas, these ideas were not originally directly imported from the West, but rather introduced to Korea through neighbors Japan and China. Then, the turn of the 20th century and the onset of Japanese colonial rule had effects that sped up economic development of Korea in areas that supported Japanese expansionist desires while crushing and distorting native development (particularly cultural and social) in both predictable and unpredictable ways.
The aforementioned influences on Korean culture and literature have affected Korean literature, particularly its themes and approaches.
The themes and approaches which result from the Korean philosophical and political history are multiple and as in the case in most societies, sometimes contradictory. In order to better understand this, it might be best to first list the themes and approaches, and then attempt to group them into logical categories. Here are some of the most important themes in Korean literature, most of which proceed from the philosophical bases of the society at the times, Animism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Shamanism, and far later, Christianity.
• Fear of Alienation
• Fear of Separation
These themes result from the relationship between a society based on predetermined and fixed social structure (primarily developed from Confucian beliefs) and a society and country constantly at threat of dissolving or invasion and one that from the three dynasties until today has always been divided, or at threat of division..These themes are repeatedly explored in Korean literature, and one resultant theme to them is: Resentment at all of the above, despite the fact the culture embraces them.
Some resentment in Korean literature stems from the idea that a fixed social structure such as Confucianism is not flexible enough to deal with the alienations and separations that it creates within its social structure. The Story Of Hong Gildong, which we will discuss shortly, is one of the first stories that tightly concentrates on the unfairnesses that result from this fixed social structure, but that theme resounds through literary history, finding different social inequities and different political and geographical schisms to focus on, from era to era (Opression by Japanese in the colonial, the lack of opportunities for educated Koreans of both sexes in the colonial and post-war periods, the split between North-South / Communist Capitalist in the post-war and industrial periods, the emerging schism between classes / country-side and city / men and women, as development took place, and finally the alienation and removal of reassuring fixed social structures during the post modern era in Korea).
This, in turn has led to certain features that it is generally fair to say continue to affect Korean literature today, even as that literature turns, contrroversially, to the more international and less specifically Korean.
These features include:
• National Literature
Xenophobia, of course, results from the kind of international relations history that Korea has experienced. Essentially, outside nations have rarely had good intentions with respect to Korea, and Korea internalized this into a defensive tactic. Koreans often refer to the nation and themselves as “uri nara,” or “our country,” and all non-Koreans, whether in Korea or in their homelands are known as waekugin, or ‘foreigners.’ Given this attitude towards outsiders, and the historical difficulties Korea has faced, it is no suprise that Korean literature has largely been a national one – based on issues that faced the nation, and often didactically approaching them.
This, in turn has led to certain features that continue to affect Korean literature today. These themes include: han; jeong; strong nationalism; and strong distrust of outsiders.
The Korean experience with foreign nations has often been that of invasion so Koreans refer to the nation and themselves as uri nara, or “our country,” and non-Koreans, whether in Korea or at home are described by Korean as waegukin, or ‘foreigners.’ Given this and Korean international history, it is no suprise that Korean literature has been a national one; based on national issues and often approaching them didactically.
Han is a Korean word that has a mixture of meanings, but might be summed up as the sadness and resignation one feels knowing that few things will go as well as they could/should – that life is often externally dictated (social status, religion, political exigencies, etc.), and contains deep-seated and unresolvable problems. In balance to this is jeong a Korean concept having to do with relationship and feelings amongst people and, to put it perhaps too simply, reflects a Korean desire for harmonious relationships even when things may not be completely harmonious. Both of these influences are strongly reflected in Korean literature.
These influences and themes affect how Korean literature reads in translation and can occasionally make Korean translated literature a bit difficult to understand. Some specific perceptions for international can include: lack of character agency compared to western fiction; relationships are featured over plot; characters are sometimes flat; conclusions are not required; genres that don’t exist in English exist in Korean. Romance and comedy are often absent or often slapstick in the case of humor and their content is dependent on a social structure that a western reader might not immediately recognize
Until recently, lack of agency, or the reduced role of the individual or hero, was one of the most obvious features of Korean modern literature. Even for Korean heroes such as Hong Gildong (something like the Korean Robin Hood), ‘heroism’ is essentially forced on them and the notion of an anti-hero is nearly impossible. Korean characters put up with situations and conditions that would cause a western character to snap, but because social situations are so strongly-determined and han is so deeply embedded, Korean characters allow social expectations determine their actions, and this can be difficult to understand for English-language readers.
Similarly, plots are not always present, or can be perfunctory, with the relationship of the characters often the main point.
When Buckwheat Flowers Bloom, written in 1936 by Lee Hyo-seok might be the best example of this. The plot is negligible. Two men, one old and one young, travel the rural salesman circuit in the 1930s where they meet a third “greehorn” peddler. It becomes obvious that the latter two are father and son, but by the stories’ end this reality has never been admitted, and the point of the story is the relationship between the two men and the inevitable turning of the seasons – nature is nearly a character in this work. Similarly, in Hwang Sun-won’s 1954 The Descendants of Cain the ending is merely the decision of the protagonists that they must attempt to escape; but it is an escape attempt the reader never sees ,and it comes only after scores of pages of the two characters ignoring that they are in love and that the possibility of escape from their village is even an option. Korean literature often has a willingness to not insist upon a formal plot or climactic ending. In some cases, to Koreans there may in fact be clear endings, based on shared cultural and social understanding, but these are not always clear to non-Korean readers.
From a Western perspective flat characters can result from these influences, particularly when authors are being didactic. Characters accede to the wishes of larger society and/or are manipulated to further the aims of the author. Sometimes characters are un-fleshed out, and their individual motivations are unclear, particularly to Western readers.
Assitionally, sometimes genres do not match. When Buckwheat Flowers Bloom represents a genre that is still slightly important in Korea, though primarily as a historical vestige, something like a pastoral reverie. This is a genre that has largely not existed in English literature since the time of Thoreau, if even then. The same thing can be said, to a large extent, of Korean literature of separation (pundan munhak), which has no direct equivalent genre in English literature and has a history that is unknown to most English-language readers. The themes and approaches of Korean literature are often quite different from the themes and approaches of English literature. Nonetheless it is a remarkable literature from a remarkable history, and its modern literature is particularly interesting as the raw speed at which Korea has catapulted itself into the modern world has been reflected in it’s modern literature. In less than eighty years, Korean literature has attempted to reprise a process that took the Western literary world at least three centuries. Fortunately, merely by knowing a very broad and simple outline of Korean history and society, this opacity can be turned transparent, and translated Korean literature can be enjoyed by a wide range of readers while at the same time introducing them to a wide range of history, society, and culture that is immensenly enterntaining.. Even better, in the past decades publishers are including useful forewords, authorial comment/essays, afterwords, biographies, and critical cemmentaries in their publications. All of this ‘external’ text helps make the fiction more acccessible to readers who are not intimately familiar with Korea and its culture. At the same time more accessible books are being chosen for translation while translators are increasingly adept at producing translations that are easily readable in English.
This last point is particularly relevant and amusing for it has affected what has been translated. The original absence of comedy/ folk tales in translation is tied in to the notion of the national nature of Korean literature, but in an unusual way. It is not so much that comedy is absent in the Korean language, but what has been chosen for translation is rarely comic. This is for two reasons, first that comedy is the hardest kind of writing to translate, and second that the importance of ‘national’ literature to Korea has meant that certain kinds of literature, mainly serious, have been chosen for translation. Humor, most often broad or satirical, can be found in translation (The collection A Ready Made Life, for instance, while focusing on the effects of colonlalization, manages to include several stories that range from broadly humorous to witty). There is also a kind of ‘gatekeeping’ that went on as it was decided, primarily by educated Koreans, what should be represented by translation in Korean literature. The renowned translator Brother Anthony has put together Eerie Tales from Old Korea. The book is a compilation of stories collected by missionaries Homer B. Hulbert and James S. Gale. Hulbert and Gale were both fond of ghost stories and spent many years fruitlessly chasing down Korean ghost stories as scholars who were Korean originally insisted that such stories did not exist, presumably because these stories were associated with folk beliefs, and therefore not ‘serious’ enough to consider (Thus these Koreans were some of the first “gatekeepers” of Korean culture – deciding what was “representative” and “proper” to disseminate).
Thankfully, Hulbert and Gale persevered, and eventually collected a group of yadam, short stories which were particularly popular in the Joseon period. Brother Anthony has sorted through these tales, and selected 29 of the best for his book. And to be fair to the current crop of stoires being translated, this kind of artificial gate-keeping is declining, largely being kept aive by the alarmingly Korean test-based way that one becomes an author (please see sidebar)
Romance falls into a similar category in that it is not ‘serious’ and thus is usually only found in stories which have a strong ‘national’ component (Yi Kwang-su’s Heartless (Mujong), in which a love triangle is merely a convenient shape upon which to inscribe a political argument), or those that were written in the pre WWII era in which the Japanese colonialists insisted on non-political topics. In the aforementioned The Descendants of Cain, the protagonists are in love, but this love is primarily used to explore issues of embedded class structure and the political problems surrounding land reform in the immediate post-war period.
With all that said, Iit is only fair to note, that in recent years choices of kinds of works to translate have broadened, and it seems fair to predict that in the years to come, English-language readers will see more translations of Korean romances and comedies. Certainly, recent works by Kim Young-ha, Pak Min-gyu and Jang Eun-Jin suggest that there is a lot of humor to be found on the other side of the translation barrier, and often wedded towards emotions of all other kinds.
This chapter may be mistakenly read as saying that Korean literature is difficult, or inaccessible, but that is not the intended point. The point here is that like all translated literature, a little judicious choice as to what to read is recommended, particularly at the outse and the rewards of the ending far outweigh any confusions at the beginning. Once a reader gets their feet wet in the literature, and if that reader understands why some things in Korean literature seem initially strange, that reader will have a world of discovery ahead of them.
In any case, before discussing Korean Modern Fiction, it is necessary to take a trip back through time and explain the elements from which it was drawn and, often, intentionally created, and that will be the topic of next chapter.