“Il-cha, I-cha, Sam-cha, More!”


And So it Begins!

Some things became clearer through experience. Any reader who embarks upon Korean modern fiction will quickly be impressed by the amount of drinking it contains. And not drinking in the Western literary modes.

In western literature drinking often devolves into one of three models; either as evidence of hyper-sophistication as in The Thin Man, as evidence of hard-bitterness as in any noir detective story, or as an abysmal sewer of the soul as in Charles Jackson’s The Lost Weekend. Sometimes these clichés are combined as in Fitzgerald and Hemingway, who both idealized and vilified booze in their works including The Sun Also Rises (1926) and Tender Is the Night (1934). It is, of course, worth noting that in their personal lives both Fitzgerald and Hemingway also had complicated relationships with alcohol.

And it is not fair to say that some of these clichés are lost on Korean modern literature. Surely The Boozer and A Society that Makes You Drink are examples of stories depicting alcohol as moral sewer.

The Boozer, by Ch’oe Inho, is a story of loss and delusion. The unnamed narrator is an orphaned boy searching for his drunken father through bar after bar and tent after tent. The tale is told in semi-fantastic narration in which verb tenses slip from the present, to the past, and back to the present, and the impossible is presented as real (“You know, once he took copper and made it into gold. Gold!”). The boy, apparently believing he will someday find his father, cadges drink after drink, retreating into the warm insensibility of drunkenness before returning to the institution at which he lives. The nature of the boy’s quest alters subtly through the course of events, and the ending is poignant, suggesting the story is one day of an endless cycle in lives that also endlessly cycle.

A Society That Drives You to Drink (1921) is a bit more of a hectoring piece. Reflecting the national nature of Korean literature (particularly under occupation) in its political message. And, to be fair, that message is a bit blunted. An uneducated wife more or less reflects on her intellectual husband’s drunkenness and tries to assign the blame on society, as his education does not seem to make him employable. This is a bit difficult to discern from a western perspective as the husband seems like a standard-issue drunkard, but in the Korean context it is clear that an argument is being made that the social milieu in which he lives has created him.

But in general drinking, and even its sometimes horrible aftereffects are taken as a part of life. This is of course a reflection of social reality in Korea where, particularly if you are a man, drinking is not only par for the course, but is de rigueur. Many Koreans believe that you cannot know a man until you have seen him paralytically drunk. And, wandering around any city in Korea after a certain hour and you are certain to see a percentage of men attempting to walk while under the influence of soju-induced leglessness. And this becomes quite clear as you read the fiction – drinking is ubiquitous. If two friends meet unexpectedly, they seemingly have no choice but to had to the nearest bar and toast this bit of good luck. And, in a stiff and sometimes relentlessly hierarchical social structure, getting drunk and breaking loose is often just ticket, even if it is sometimes pro-forma, and more rarely, even joyless.

There is a clear social stratification in what is drunk in Korea fiction, although the stratification is breaking down in real-life as Makgeolli is slowly becoming a more sophisticated drink. In the city and in the upper income ranges, Korean fiction tends to focus on soju (or even more upscale, western alcohol, known as “yangju”) while in the poorer outlying regions the alcohol of choice is Makgeolli, which is more easily made and cheaper. I happen to like both.^^

For those who don’t know, soju is a distilled alcohol, which used to be made of rice, but is now made of any starch that can be turned into alcohol. It is clear, and its alcohol content varies from about 16% in soju advertised to women to 20% for ‘normal’ soju, and up to nearly 50% for the highly reputed Andong soju. Soju tastes a bit like vodka, although it is noticeably sweeter.

Makgeolli is often referred to as a rice wine, although in reality it is a fermented drink, and thus much closer to beer. It is brewed from wheat and rice, has the look of milk and a sour/sweet taste. It generally contains 6.5–7% alcohol. It was historically a rural drink and was then known as nongju (meaning “farmer liquor”). Unlike soju, Makgeolli is unfiltered.

Soju, is the national drink… thus it is also the drink of the national literature. In any Korean fiction, when characters drink any unnamed alcohol, it is safe to assume that it is likely soju. This is partly related to history. Soju, as it is enjoyed, can get you drunk fairly quickly, and thus it is seen as a palliative drink. In 2009 the Chosun Ilbo reported:

In the survey by the Korea Alcohol Research Center late last year of 2,200 people aged 19 to 59, some 85.2 percent of respondents said they drink Soju when they are distressed by personal problems, and 63.5 percent said they prefer beer when they are tired. Whiskey was the preferred drink for business occasions among 63.5 percent of respondents, and 70.8 percent chose wine as the best drink for creating a friendly or romantic mood.
Location also affected people’s choice of drink. In Japanese restaurants, Soju was the most popular with 67.2 percent, followed by clear rice wine with 53.7 percent. Soju also ranked first in Chinese restaurants with 49.6 percent, with hard liquors at second place with 27.1 percent. In sushi restaurants and Korean restaurants, Soju was the undisputed leader with 81.1 percent and 88.9 percent respectively.

In a country whose society and literature is often based on the idea of han (a kind of historically injected resentment that must be borne), soju therefore is the drink of choice.
And this works itself out in the literature. In Seoul, Winter, 1964, one of the earliest Korean literary works of modern social/economic alienation, when two friends meet a suicidal loner, all they can think of to do is to go drink soju. In this way, they can bond, even over the wreckage that is their lives.

But it would be wrong to think that soju is only a drink of han and desperation, in fact it is a drink with a powerful bonding purpose. In Oh Sang-won’s A Betrayal, soju is the glue that holds an underground political association together. The Chronicle of Manchwidang, a bittersweet tale of a father, son, family history and loyalty, features the narrator, Yi, doing the unheard of, and drinking soju alone.

But in general, soju is a profoundly social drink in Korean literature, even if the drinking of it often leads to lashing out, or other anti-social behavior. There is a brilliant episode in A Toy Story in which a neighborhood man works repeatedly gets drunk and utterly destroys the interior of the hovel in which he and his wife live. But this destruction give his life meaning, as once he sobers up, he meticulously builds a brand new configuration for the interior of his shack. While his drinking is Sisyphean in that it rolls a rock through his living room, it also give his life a resultant order and purpose.

When foreigners come to work at Korean institutions, one of the first things they encounter is the idea of hue-shik. Hue-shik literally means “office-food” but actually meaning post work drinking and anju, the food intended to be drunk as an accompaniment to drinking – it is worth noting that no matter how heavy drinking a Korean or Korean social circumstance is, it is shockingly poor form to drink without food.

I knew soju before I came to Korea, but I had only read about Makgeolli. Of course, there was plenty of reading from Ch’oe Chong-hui’s The Ritual at the Well through the Korean classic When the Buckwheat Blooms by Hwang Sun-won and even in the tragic and ironically titled A Lucky Day by Hyeon Jin-gon.

My personal introduction to Makgeolli was by the scruff of my neck. Icheon, Korea is known for at least three things, first is its rice, second is its ceramics, and third is its makgeolli. My wife and I visited the ceramics festival. Fascinated by the traditional Kiln that ran up the side of the hill, I lay down on the ground to get a long perspective shot. I was happily clicking away. In my blog I noted that the kiln:

was in full flame and I took some pictures of the mouth of the thing. This required me to lay full out on my stomach, and when I got up and brushed off my shirt, a man walked up to me and waved me over to a table surrounded by other Koreans, a few in traditional kit. He offered me a cup of Makgeolli, and I’m never one to turn down a drink. I had read about this drink, it’s just a bit above beer in alcohol content, so it was good to taste it. We sat around and talked about the kiln, ceramics, and Icheon in general, until it was time to go.

Kiln Fire

A Burning Desire for Makgeolli is Born ^^

But that isn’t exactly what happened, I was providing a semi bowdlerized version (for what reason I can’t remember) – in fact, as I was brushing myself off, the guy came up behind me and grabbed me by the back of my neck and turned me towards some tables next to the kiln. For a moment I thought I had done something horrible and was in trouble, but he was waving towards his friends, who we then walked to (past a rope marking the territory off – I quite felt that I was being allowed into the Champagne room!). Also, when I saw we “talked” I mean that we communicated on a very primitive level.^^

Still, this gave me some little sense of the community notion that Makgeolli has out in the countryside of Korean fiction. This notion manifested in real life when my wife and I began to hike the mountain peaks in Seoul. Like Rome, Seoul is built amongst hills; unlike Rome, the hills of Seoul are worth hiking. The first mountain we climbed was Bonghwasan on the 6 subway line, the line we lived on. We headed out early in the morning, and as we climbed the bottom of the mountain it became clear that my wife was relatively out of shape and was wearing shoes entirely insufficient for the climb. She was immediately adopted by an ajummah and her kids, who went to every extreme possible to help her, even to the extent of pushing her back to help her up the hill. Once we finally made it up the mountain, we sat in the cool wind. The ajummah gave us some fruit, and while we were sitting there, a couple of super-fit middle-aged men came over to use with Sierra-cups. Politely, and with no English, they poured a cup of Makgeolli and offered it to me. It was delicious! The mountain seems to be a place that Koreans go to get in touch with a certain ecstatic thread in their lives. The Joseon dynasty drove the Buddhist temples into the hills and the hills are beautiful. Perhaps these are two of the reasons that Koreans enjoy the hills so much. It has little to do with drinking, but if you want to read a story with an idealized relationship of a Korean to a mountain, read the unsurprisingly named In The Mountains, by Yi Hyo-seok from the excellent collection Waxen Wings.

Anyway, in Seoul, if you want to meet the nicest Koreans you will ever meet. Climb the mountain!

The literature is also full of hangovers often recounted in nearly glorious, temple-pounding detail. In Deep Blue Night and The Other Side of Dark Remembrance the authors revel in the pain of the next morning. The opening scene of the latter work is a classic of its type as you feel the confusion and pain of the narrator as he contrasts what it feels like to wake up sober and content against the eye-splitting headache-inducing, and vomit splattered reality of the hangover. In Deep Blue Night, a kind of stranded buddy story set in California, the characters drink and smoke their way down the California coast, leaving wreckage and alienation in their paths.

And the next night? They all do it again.

Even having met Eddie, and thus having been introduced to some of the drinking culture of Korea, I was a bit surprised at how ubiquitous it was when I came both to Korea, and to its literature. But it is safe to say that you really can’t understand Korean culture and literature unless you understand its drinking culture. There are, of course, certain rules to drinking in Korea, but they are relatively simple once you understand them. Like many things in Korea, they relate to neo-Confucian social structure, which I talk about elsewhere. I learned these rules on my first trip to Korea, in which my best friend Ed’s wedding was negotiated. Yvonne and I traveled with both families, including two ajeoshi who drank at every meal, and they quickly brought me up to speed. I learned to:

    #1. Never Pour Your Own Drink

Pouring drinks for each other is a gesture of respect and affection, part of jung: a word with the combined meaning of “affinity,” “affection” and “friendship.” If you pour your own drink, you are choosing to reject jung and this is not done. Family, friends, even new acquaintances will fill your shot glass and urge you to “one-shot” it for the same reasons.

    #2. If an Elder Pours a Drink, You Drink It

Confucianism demands that Koreans do what their elders tell them; this certainly applies to drinking. This can make some drinking expeditions a bit tough, because if you’re out with a hard-bitten ajeoshi you may end up drinking more than you want to. But unless you’re in AA. Do it. And when you do drink your shot, turn a respectable 15 degrees away from the elder who poured it.

    #3. How to Hold the Glass

There is a proper way to hold your glass when an elder pours. Hold the cup out with your right hand, and with your left hand hold your wrist. Supposedly this is custom is based from the time that Koreans wore hanbok, which had long hanging sleeves that would get in the way of pouring soju.

When pouring soju, hold the bottle with the same hand arrangement.

    #4. “Il-cha, I-cha, Sam-cha, More!”

South Koreans bar-hop with a tenacity that would put most western pub-crawls to shame. This is partly because it is Korean custom that one person pays (typically the most esteemed person) at each venue, and bar-hopping shares this burden. Each stop at a post-prandial bar is a “cha” (literally, “car”) and the stops are counted off as Il-cha (car one), I-cha (car two), sam-cha (car three) and so on until you, very often, end up singing your lungs out in a norae-bang.

Drinking – it is part of Korean literature, and part of Korean life.^^

Leave a Reply