“Problematic Continuity” and a new Korean Literature Blog

I was at the RASKB annual lawn-party at the British Embassy (stunning, by the way) yesterday.  There I grabbed a couple of books including Understanding Korean Literature, by Kim Hyunggyu.

It has a brief but interesting essay at its end, titled, Phases of Korean Literature, which makes an interesting argument, or semi-argument, that it is theoretically problematic to separate Korean literature into “traditional” and “modern.”

This was a new thought to me, since as a Westerner looking at Korean literature, the break between the 19th and 20th centuries seems obvious and abrupt. But as I thought about that it occurred to me that of course it would. I would identify all the “modern” things because they would fit neatly into what I expected the spectrum of literature to include, while looking at ‘traditional’ literature I would find all the oriental things that I expected to find. It is a bit of confirmation bias in the eyes of the modern Western reader.

Further, my understanding of history, being US-centric, automatically finds a convenient break in 1905 as this is the start of the colonial period and the point at which the US sold Korea down the river. This is, of course, an important break in history by any standard as the effects of Japanese colonialism are difficult to underestimate, but it is an artificial one. To conflate the two things, the essay argues, is convenient but overly simple.

Which brings me to a website digression. Today, whilst  cruising the internet, I came across a new(?) and promising (but embryonic) website, the Korean Literature Blog, by some bloke in the Netherlands. It is only two posts “old” and has its very own problematic continuity – the two posts are dated some 4 months apart, even though the second post refers to the post “last week” – which may in fact only be an error in posting dates.

In any case, this fellow is also discussing the issue of where ‘modern’ Korean literature begins and he starts at an interesting spot. First, he sensibly defines what modern means (this definition is absent from Hyunggu):

I would say that the term in some way or the other revolves around a feeling of alienation that enters the literary work, and the characters in it feel displaced and out-of-touch with their own environment, which in turn forces them to search for their own (individual) identity.

This seems quite sensible to me. As I’ve argued elsewhere, one of the major differences between Korean and Western literature, even in modern literature, is the lack of agency/separation that Korean literary figures are characterized by. While it wasn’t until the “4th Wave” of Korean literature (or the postmodern, call it what you will) that complete alienation entered Korean fiction, it was clearly in the early 20th century that fiction stepped outside of its neo-confucian mime-box.

The Korean Literature Blog notes three proposed start dates:

1) one starting with the Kabo reforms of 1894
2) in the long process that started from the 18th century
3) the specific date of 1866

I won’t go into the details, you can see here for that, but this is interesting because it  breaks with the model that modernism was synchronous with colonialization.  Not surprisingly, these dates are proposed by Korean critics, who may well have an ideological interest in avoiding the conclusion that modernism in Korean literature was the result of external forces. KLB, by the way, seems to reject these starting dates as literature continued to be largely Confucian in nature, at least up until Yi Kwangsu’s Heartless.

These arguments still, however, raise some questions about how clearly the break between traditional and modern literature can be defined.

Looking at it the other way round, Heartless wasn’t published until 1917, which is over a decade after colonialization. The question arises as to what historical event modernism can be tied to, and I think choosing one is nearly as arbitrary (Although I’m not saying necessarily incorrect) as the other.

Which lands me rather neatly back at the original question of where there is continuity and where there is schism between the traditional and the modern? I see very many traces of the traditional in the modern – the role of women, the lack of agency, han, inevitability, etc. – now I think I have to go back a bit and read to see where the modern snuck in.

As I type that, it occurs to me that Heartless was in fact quite traditional in many ways and calling it “modern” is to ignore those other aspects.

LOL.. there’s a Ph.D. in this somewhere, for some greasy-pole-climbing assiduously scribbling academic.


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