More on Yi Kwang-su and his “Nationalism” (Inspired by Popular Gusts & UPDATE)

Yi Kwang-su

Yi Kwang-su

Gusts of Popular feeling has me, as it often does, thinking. He dropped a second post on Yi Kwang-su (The author of “Heartlessness,” or ”Mujeong,” or 무졍) and his extremely odd political/nationalist evolution. You can check out Gusts’ first post here, and second post here.

It’s interesting to me because as I try to find a thread in Yi’s changes, I discover I really can’t. Gusts, if I read it right, eventually tries to tie the changes to a general notion of nationalism, but I can’t do that, both based on what Yi did and on the argument that you can’t really fight for the generalized notion of nationalism.

Additionally, I don’t see any mention in Gusts essays of a motive that I’m reasonably sure was on Yi’s mind throughout his labrynthine political maneuvering, and that is modernization, or more accurately, making Korea competitive with, or defensible from, other modern nations.

Gusts begins by theory-checking Shin Chae-ho, the father of the idea of minjok, or something like national bloodline (and idea Koreans are still over-fond of today). Gusts does this, because Yi, at least initially, took Shin’s ideas and tinkered with and popularized them.

Gusts notes Yi’s internationality – He was raised in Japan, and spoke fluent English. I suspect this internationality was one of Yi’s formative influences. Having said that, Yi was all about nationality and I think most of his stances were based on creating any kind of Korean nationality that could stand up to the rest of the world.

Yi’s focus (as in Heartlessness) was on creating a “new man” and new national character. Yi blamed his own people for having become something like vassals to China. Yi was also the writer of the February 8 Declaration of Independence by Korean students in Tokyo, which predated the March 1st movement by several weeks.

By 1930, however the individualism inherent in the “new man” and shown in Heartlessness, was off Yi’s radar as he became increasingly racialist and collectivist, arguing in 1932 that Korea should focus on “we-ism,’ “groupism,” and totalitarianism. This was a stance he was later to completely repudiate when he argued that Korea should accept its digestion by the Japanese nation. By 1940, Yi was a pretty raving apologist for the Japanese colonial project.

Gusts second post focuses on that part of Yi’s ideological wandering in which he argued for a Borg-like assimilation into a “single body” with Japan. In fact, Yi apparently happily changed his name to a Japanese one . As I read through these passages I tried to construct an overall narrative in which Yi was protecting Korea. All I could come up with was that Yi saw absorbtion into Japan as a necessary defense against the evils of western individualism and liberalism (yet again, I return to Heartlessness and wonder how Yi could be that author of that and the author of his later works). Gusts adds a few specific pieces that could be used in such a defense. Japan had a “death-list” of between 30,000 and 38,000 Koreas and some speculate that Yi thought the lack of collaboration might bring the death list into use. Additionally, Yi himself later explicitly argued that he had collaborated from a Buddhist desire to save his nation. I am tempted to dismiss that defense as revisionist, but even if you take it at face value, it seems odd. This is the same man who, not so many years before (1940) argued (from Gusts’ post): “The Koreans must forget they are Koreans; they must become Japanese in flesh and blood, to the bone; and this is our only way of perpetual preservation.”

As a call for preservation, this is somewhat akin to a wild pig, upon discovering that it will be captured and eaten, adopting “hunterism” and arguing that only by being “absorbed” by a hunter will the pig ever be free of the fear of wolves in the wild.
Gusts seems to accept this as a possibility and argues that Yi was merely “nationalist” in nature, and thus could find Korean and Japan, as nations, interchangeable. I’d argue that this distorts what nationalism actually means. Gusts concludes:
I can’t help wondering if looking for similarities between Yi’s 1930s Korean nationalist writings and his Japanese nationalist writings might bear some fruit.

Gusts also, in his understated manner, notes that such comparison might not be welcomed in modern Korea.^^

I have a disagreement with Gusts’ general conclusion, because to me in conflates tactics with beliefs, further it discards the additionally complicating arguments that Yi was making in his early fiction. Of course if you compared Yi’s nationalist writings you would likely find similarities – same writer. The important thing this ignores is that Yi’s aims had apparently (again, unless you accept the “I did it for the nation” argument for his collaboration) changed drastically from a purely nationalist (Korea alone) endeavor to a sub-nationalist (Korean digested by Japan) endeavor, and BOTH of these stances seem to have some ideological tension with Heartlessness. I should say, before I seem too black and white on the latter point, there certainly are ways that Heartlessness, particularly its conclusion of “working together to build a better Korea,” can fit into a Korean nationalist ideology, but there are also ways in which it does not fit.

In any case I would present one more “change” on Yi’s part that helped me to my conclusions as to who/what he is. That change was his conversion to Buddhism in 1934.

Adding that rather major religious change to the other peregrinations Yi went through, and I think it adds up to a perpetually disgruntled “true believer.” The “true believer” is Eric Hoffer’s construct in which some people just have to have a controlling idea. From the Wikipedia:

Part of Hoffer’s thesis is that movements are interchangeable and that fanatics will often flip from one movement to another. Furthermore, Hoffer argues the motivations for mass movements are interchangeable: religious, nationalist and class-based movements tend to behave in the same way and use the same tactics, even when their stated goals or values are diametrically opposed.

This seems to fit Yi completely.

It isn’t, of course, a complete description, but it seems, to me, to fit slightly better than the argument that Yi had a kind of generalized nationalism (that just sounds mutually exclusive to me) that he applied to two countries successively.

UPDATE: Speaking to a colleague today, I was given one more bit of the Yi puzzle that seems to support the idea that Yi was a true believer. Yi was orphaned at about the age of 10 and it doesn’t take a puff of Dr. Freud’s cigar to suggest that this might create an adult who searched for some greater authority in which to subsume himself. This greater authority was Korea, until Korea was infantilized by Japan, then Yi switched his allegiance to the new “dad” in town.

2 thoughts on “More on Yi Kwang-su and his “Nationalism” (Inspired by Popular Gusts & UPDATE)

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