Love Is A Many-Splattered Thing (A Valentine’s Day meditation on romance in Korean Fiction^^)

Walk it Off!

(NOTE: This post is a Valentines’ Day post that changes from time to time, so any feedback or additions are welcome)

Some time back, regular reader and man of international mystery “Charles” (the other) asked me about Korea love stories. And it brought me up a bit short, because I had a bit of difficulty immediately conjuring up names of what I would call “love stories” in the modern western sense.

I could think of stories in which there was plenty of love, but I really couldn’t think of the many that had the Western arc of love declared, love blunted, then love happily ever after. Or the even newer Western arc of two people who don’t like each other becoming lovers despite their differences.

As I type that I think of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and have to reconsider how “new” that arc is.^^

In any case, even in what small samples of classic Korean literature I’ve read (Yi-Saeng Peers Through the Wall), love may pop up, but it is very certainly extinguished quickly.

In general, I identify four general threads (the latter two of which sometimes intersect) of romance stories.

  • Young Love Lost
  • Blunt Love Unexpressed
  • The “Anti-Love” Story
  • Real love?
  • Love made impossible by (commodified and patriarchal) society

And very occasionally, what we in the West would call a love story (returned romantic love) ending either tragically (love lost) or happily. At the end of this post, I’ll suggest an “all-in-one” book that can be picked up from Amazon on the cheap, and that contains three superb stories about love.

First, though, the standard approaches.

The “Young Love Lost” story is a Korean favorite, in which true love, often extremely young, either never flowers or flowers briefly and is then cut down. Perhaps the most famous example of this thread can be found in Hwang Sun-won’s Sonagi (Sonagi means a brief, intense, shower of rain).  Novels often contain stories like this within them. A stock character in Korean modern novels is the young widow who never remarries and essentially stays wed to the image of her lost husband until she is old and worn. Of course there are strong social pressures that create this character, but nonetheless it is a common one. This theme is expressed by other authors including an excellent job of it in Kim Yong-ik’s Love in Winter.

The “Blunt Love Unexpressed” is often a story based on class differences, or inability to express love across the gender gap. This is the love of a married couple that somehow survives horrible circumstances and often horrible mistreatment. A great example of this is  Hyon Chin-gon’s The Lucky Day in which the male protagonist is revealed to truly love his wife, even though he treats her horribly. Similar stories include absentee or cheating husbands, husbands who beat their wives, yet all of whom profess to love them. Another great example of this is Kim Yu-Jeong’s The Camellias, which is a s a “first-love” story in which a rather bumpkin-ish boy confronts Jeomsun a rather higher class girl who loves him. The tone is rough and humorous as Jeomsun is only capable of showing her interest through aggression, but the love is there, even though it cannot formally be stated. Hwang Sun-won’s Descendants of Cain, while also dealing with the agonies of political separation and civil war, also features a central love story that has to struggle to be expressed.

The “Anti-Love” story is often a proto-feminist one and sometimes masquerades as “Love Expressed With Blunt Objects.”  This is the love of a married couple that somehow survives horrible circumstances and often horrible mistreatment. A great example of this is  Hyon Chin-gon’s The Lucky Day in which the male protagonist is revealed to truly love his wife, even though he treats her horribly. Similar stories include absentee or cheating husbands, husbands who beat their wives, yet all of whom profess to love them. … a story in which “love” is revealed to either be a purely social construct – in fact it is more fair to say the construct is marriage than love – or one in which love is entirely and brutally absent from a relationship. Two early examples of this kind of story (though, obviously with other themes as well) are Kim Dong-in’s Potato and Hyun Jin-geon’s Fire.

Potato (1925) is probably Kim Dong-in’s most famous short story (I read somewhere that it is the second most anthologized story in Korean modern literature.

“Potato” offers a portrait of a woman destroyed by her wretched environment. The  heroine is Pongnyŏ, a diligent and forthright girl whose personality undergoes a gradual  transformation under circumstances of extreme poverty. Her downward trajectory is expressed  sexually: sold into marriage to a man too lazy to make a living, Pongnyŏ is driven into the  slums, where she begins selling her body to make a living. Pongnyŏ’s sexual commodification is  paralleled by her moral deterioration. Drawn into a vicious cycle of twisted sexual lust and  vulgar appetite for material gain, Pongnyŏ ultimately meets a tragic death. (20th Century Korean Literature, Page 10)

In Fire, Suni is a 15 year old “bride,” in a miserable marriage in which her husband is her “enemy” and rapist. In Korean traditional fashion, she is also at the beck and call of her evil step-mother. Suni is crushed by this life, and Hyun displays this in a minor but horrifying scene in which Suni kills a minnow at the stream. Everything is horrific, and even when her husband expresses compassion (his attempt at “love”), Suni is too terrorized to recognize it. Suni characterizes the problem as her “room” in the house. So she burns her house down to get rid of the room.

So, you know, not that much hearts and flowers stuff.^^  To this list, in more recent publications, I might include Broken Strings by Gang Gyeong-ae and  Bunnyeo by Yi Hyo-seok, both of which are available free online


Park Wan-suh began to kick this can down the road with her Identical Apartments (90’s I believe) which posited that the uniform, keeping-up-with the Jones’ Korean society made actual love so impossible that a wife could literally enter any uniform apartment building, make a generic meal, sleep with the man of the house, and it would be no different than any other experience she might have with any other man.

This has now become an oldie but a goodie to which I would add the Bae Suah “Alienated Middle Class Woman who just feels too much Ennui to love.” (Eun Hye-kyung did the best of these with Poor Man’s Wife and My Wife’s Boxes, |Christmas Specials by Kim Ae-ran” is similar, and Green Apples by Bae Suah,. Also, special notice must be made of love either faked or destroyed by society… Han Kang’s Vegetarian being the most awesome and brilliant example of that kind of fiction with its brilliant premise and layer by layer unpeeling of what a loveless society means.


Tends to be in the older works.

The Scorching Heat (by the previously mentioned Kim Yu-jeong) is a story of tragic love. A loving husband carries his ill wife on his back, to a hospital that he believes will cure her. The story is a detailed pointillist achievement of encroaching despair. When, at the end, the husband and wife walk back to their home, the wife crying on her husband’s back,  outlining her final wishes, the deep love the two share is nearly heartbreaking. The last sentence, a brilliant concoction of multiple short phrases, and cascading punctuation, puts the tragic message of the story home: This love may not end, but one life assuredly will.

A Wanderer in the Valleys (also by Kim Yu-jeong) features a wandering woman who enters a small settlement, revitalizes a drinking establishment, and marries the son of the owner. On her wedding night she reveals where her true love lies and at the stories’ end Kim gives us a vision of a world threatening and closing in on the narrator, “From all around the howling of wolves drifted down, echoing among the valleys and hills”

Finally, Ch’oe Yun’s brilliant The Flower with Thirteen Fragrances, is an attack on commercialism and a brilliant fairy-tale story of two lovers escaping a world that attempts to commoditize erverything

Anyway.. enjoy your roses before they wilt.

And they will.


10 thoughts on “Love Is A Many-Splattered Thing (A Valentine’s Day meditation on romance in Korean Fiction^^)

  1. 1. I of course like it that you are discussing Korean love literature.

    2. The obvious question is [i think] why do Korean novels not deal positively with the topic of love?

    Are Korean women [women being globally the largest readers of romance fiction] profoundly different?

    Do Korean women not love, or exist only as serfs that love their evil lovers who beat and degrade them?

    3. The second question is: why has no one exploited the commercial possibilities of romance fiction?

    *****Now, I want to challenge you.********

    I see that Harlequin (the megapublisher of romance in the USA) seems to have some type of relationship with this ROK publisher:

    Looking at (admittedly unreliable) machine translations, it looks like some of their offerings are romance.

    Am I right?

    4. I see [] that film studios produce romance in ROK.

    So, clearly someone recognizes that romance sells to Koreans.

    in the USA, it is so big that has even launched a romance novel imprint:

    I see an older post about romance fiction that does mention Korea, but with no specifics —

    I even see that the powerhouse publisher Harlequin has a Japanese affiliate —

    So, with all that I have provided you< I think that I have added grist for the mill.

    5. Maybe there IS romance genre fiction in ROK — at least Harlequin seems to distribute stuff through Sybook.

    You should talk to Sybook.

    It would be useful to hear what a genre fiction publisher like Sybook in ROK thinks.

    And, if any of their fiction is written originally in Korean, what do you think of it?

    [Put aside your own preferences about romance fiction; you may not like English-language romance fiction but can recognize what is commercially viable]

    And, then, could any of it be commercially translated?

    For a genre audience of course, not for readers who disdain romance fiction in any language.

    And then, what does Sybook and other genre publishing firms say about the ROK government's translation institute?

    Have they even heard of it?

    Again, I love this post.

  2. I have been meaning to translate one love story (short story), but not been able to until now…
    It goes like this…

    Believing In Love

    Having a favorite pub in a neighborhood may be a disaster in the making for one’s daily life, but it is also an immeasurable blessing for one’s reminiscence.

    It was late evening in lat February. I dropped by this bar by myself. It was rather unusual for me since I do not enjoy soju or makkgeoli, and the bar didn’t look like a place that sold beer or wine. Still, I entered through the door, sat down at a table and ordered a drink. Prior to the ordered anju, some kimchi and namul side dishes were served first. I instantly felt that I found the right place–no, it felt like the place already ensnared me. The side dishes alone are sufficient to finish a half bottle of liquor. Since then, I have become a regular to the place, dropping by every every two or three days…..

  3. Bindaettuk and makkgeoli, or jjigae and soju along with several side dishes of namul and kimchi. What I get to think about while eating and drinking the sort are small, insignificant things of the past–what makes you say things like “Right, I said that at the time,” or ask yourself “now, why did I do things like that?” From the moment I step into the bar, I become free from insecurity of the future or other urgent problems that ought to be resolved immediately. The bar, for me, has become a sanctuary in which I whisper to myself, “reminisce, reminiscence.” During a leisurely drinking, images of myself muddling through life float up instantly like a projection–at times I acted no differently than a person who shoulders an “A-frame” but does not recognize the letter “A.” The time in reality is night, but I live a broad midday in my memory. Nowadays, under the bright daylight, I await for someone–a woman who would now consider me only as a friend although I have been secretly in love with her. Here, I learn that, for some, remembering is a method and pose of waiting for someone who no longer comes around.

  4. Charles,

    Not so much, for two or three reasons.

    1) The romances tend to be harsh – in my post I neglected to mention a classic of this ouvre, “Lucky Day” which I briefly discussed in a review of “Modern Korean Fiction An Anthology” (Fulton, Kwon Eds)

    2) There tend to not be many of them both because of the stated “national” aim of most literature prior to 2000 (which ruled romance out as a genre) and the fact that society was quite restrictive (so the romance in wildly tame)

    3) Current romance is derivative of Western models and does not fully explore the genre

    This may be changing some on the Korean side, but the papers and presentations I’ve seen here in Seoul seem to indicate that the general situation is as I’ve just sketched out.

  5. Any thoughts on the products by Sybook?

    They do look like genre romance.

    For your #3, I do not see that as an issue.

    To say that romance is derivative of Western models is okay, especially if the genre is new to Korea.

    The fact that any genre romance is influenced by Western models is even good.

    In another genre (mysteries, say, or science fiction) it would be a poor genre writer who had no foreign influences.

    ROK is not an isolated bubble, after all.

  6. Christina… it’s by Hyong Chin-gon and it is in the collection “Flowers of Fire.”

  7. Hmmmmmm………unconvincing.

    You never really looked at middle brow literature, like I suggested.

    You need to challenge yourself more and look at actual Korean romance books — the Harlequin type.

    Their sales seem to be adequate, suggesting actual Koreans read them.

    And saying that they are derivative of western lit, while true, is also of literary fiction in RO Korea.

    Also, DPR Korean lit also has romance novels.

    You can do it, I have confidence in you!

    The governmental lit institute in ROK seeks to be uninterested in middle brow and low brow lit.

    Yet that is where all the sales — important to a publisher like me — are.

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