The History of Korean Modern Literature V: Introduction to Modern Literature
Korean classical literature.
It’s forms are different, its themes are different, its style is different, even who can be considered a “writer” is different. And even among these meta-changes, internal changes, struggles and disagreements existed, so across the nearly 150 years of modern literature, many changes, disparities, schisms, and disagreements evolved. Still a few general observations can be made about Korean modern literature, or at least the bulk of it. The first is that Korean modern literature is intensely national – it is concerned with the status of the nation, the power of the nation, and the relationship between citizens and the nation and the nation and the world. Some of this represents a major change from classical literature, which we have seen was initially quite internal in focus, with the concern of the yangban contemplating his navel, or local circumstances predominating. In some ways, Hong Gildong may be said to have been an early herald of Korean modern literature, as it systematically held a light to the social system of the Korean nation, not just local instances of it. Still, Hong Gildong was essentially inward looking with respect to the world, so it can only be said to be the first step of modernization. The second thing that is noticable is that, allied with the national character, and perhaps derived from the sutras of Buddhism and the rules of Confucianism, Korean modern literature was often quite didactic – it was written to comment on the state of the nation and often to imply what should or should not be changed.
Then there is the question of when modern Korean literature began?
Modern Korean literature has two obvious, but different demarcation points. It is common to hear or read that ‘modern’ Korean literature began with the publication of Yi Kwang-su’s Heartless, which is often considered the first fully ‘modern’ novel in Korea (see sidebar). This is a bit of an oversimplification, however, as the forces that lead Yi to write Heartless had in fact been building for nearly 40 years. The ‘sudden impact’ of Japanese colonialization, both in the forced modernization it pursued and the reaction of Korean literati to it absolutely changed and modernized Korean literature. But this was merely a process of frog-marching a procession that had already embarked.
In fact, a better beginning point for modern Korean literature might be placed nearly 40 years prior, when the initial influences of western culture began to be felt in Korea. Critics call this period the “Enlightenment Period.” The Enlightenment Period was followed, in order, by the colonial, divided nation (pundan munhak) miracle on the Han, and postmodern period, all of which will be discussed here in order.
Two general points should be noted before that discussion; the first being that all of Korea, including literature, modernized at astounding speed, and the second being that, one way or another, much of this modernization was accomplished at the point of a bayonet. In fact, Korean was modernized twice, at epic speeds, at the point of bayonet, first by the Japanese, and then by dictatorships after the Civil War knocked Korea back to pre-modernism. These two points have profoundly affected Korean modern literature. One of the most profound effects of these two influences has been that Korean literature has been profoundly national in nature. As mentioned above, the often didactic nature of Korea’s literature militated towards a literature based on nation. After all, what better or better known subject for discussion is there than the nation itself, particularly in a high-context culture such as Korea, where shared history, language, and culture could be assumed? Add to this the fact that bayonets were often pointed at Korea from the outside, that is to say Korea’s role as a small nation among superpowers, and you have another strong impetus towards a national literature. In an evironment in which the cherished nationhood (uri nara, or ‘our country’) was always under threat, the issue of what to do to make the nation, stronger, how to defend it, were necessarily of primary importance in all aspects of culture.