Secret Agency-Less, Man!

Reading an introduction to a collection of Korean short stories, I was struck by the introduction in which the editor attempted to explain why Korean fiction was sometimes unsatisfying for Western readers. His argument, essentially, focused on style, which I thought was a bit shallow, but he did mention something that I had already noted about Korean fiction; something that makes it a bit dispiriting from a Western point-of-view. That recognition is that there is no “tragedy” in Korean literature in the Western sense of tragic heroes. Of course, much Korean fiction is tragic in the prosaic sense of horrible things happening to people who don’t deserve it. But there is no heroic arc, in the Aristotelian sense, and without this arc, much of the fiction seems flat and affectless to my eyes.

One way to briefly summarize the problem is to note that Korean fiction is notably short on agency. The Wikipedia does a pretty fair job of briefly describing agency: Human agency is the capacity for human beings to make choices and to impose those choices on the world. Korean literature is quite short on this kind of approach. For reasons that I will detail in the next couple of posts (I hope), I think it is fair to divide Western and Eastern literature along these lines:

  • Western concepts of “agency”: the individual, action, will, intentionality, choice, freedom, Manicheanism.
  • Eastern Concepts against which “agency” is commonly situated: structure, determinism, society, environment, inevitability, dialecticism.

Without agency, fiction must develop a different kind of plot. Certainly (and probably thankfully), agency-less fiction cannot go the Ayn Rand route, but neither can it go the Macbeth, or even the Great Gatsby route. As the tragic hero is the epitome of agency, it seems like an interesting character through which to approach modern Korean literature.

There are at least two reasons that Korean modern fiction necessarily developed without the tragic hero, one historical and one philosophical. Then, also, there is the result, the literature itself. Separating these ideas is a bit arbitrary, since each feeds the others, but I think it is defensible to achieve a greater understanding.

Because these are biggish ideas, I’m going to break this post up into three parts, with today serving as the introduction and historical record, a following post on philosophical influences, and then an exploration of what this makes Korean modern fiction look like.

History is, in many ways, the easy part. Korea has always been nation that sees itself as at the mercy of other nations. China, the Mongols (1231 – 1270), even Japan (1592–1598), have all at one time or another threatened Korea’s existence. China was such an important ‘influence’ on Korea, that when a Chinese King died, Koreans donned mourning clothes for three years, as though it were a Korean ruler who had died. As a nation, Korea has historically seen itself as at the mercy of the agency of others.

This construction has lived on into the modern Korean history of Japanese colonialization and then a nation split by Cold War forces, Korean fiction tends to focus on stories in which characters are tossed by the times. There is a classic Korean bit of folk-wisdom that sums up this history in a culturally precise way: “When whales fight, shrimp are crushed.”

I have recently been lucky enough to edit a Korean Studies textbook, and it is rife with examples of the authors describing the modern powerlessness of Koreans. The powerlessness comes with different historical reasons, but it remains constant.

Japanese colonialism is represented:

The liberation signified that Koreans were released from poverty, a result of Japan’s economic plunder, political oppression, and psychological incapacitation. Those who lived the moment when the liberation was announced stated what they witnessed:

The war is represented:

Obaltan is known as a work that represents realism and modernism in Korean movies. The movie is based on a fiction of the same title by Yi Beom Seon. The backdrop of Obaltan is Haebangchon, Seoul, bleak and impoverished in the post-War era. Typical of many houses built of dusty crates that once contained humanitarian supplies from America, the main character Cheol Ho’s house on top of the hill is too small for 7 family members to reside. Obaltan illustrates the tragic life of displaced North Koreans trying to settle in the South. Poverty and pain of the uprooted; cold reality that denies any comfort in life; instability, irony, life of frustration for the powerless; this was the depressing reality of Korean society.

Even when Korea ‘wins’, it is presented as an imposition:


For Koreans, modernization was not a national choice, but a shock that overtook them by surprise. …. As the colonizer, Japan held absolute power over Korea, and Japan’s plan to modernize Korea was to use it as a forward base to advance into the mainland. It is only natural that, as a result, Korea’s modernization has its deformations.


Seopyonje is based on the Seopyonje, the Light of Sound in Namdo Saram, written by Yi Cheong Jun. Through the neglected lives of Korea’s forgotten artists of traditional pansori music, the disappearing sound of art in Korea is compared to the crumbling body of an artist under the modernization process.

By noting these things I don’t mean to belittle their impact on Korea, rather to explain that Korean history, and the Korean interpretation of that history, focuses rather directly on inability to have agency. This means its literature would innately have a much more difficult time using the idea of the tragic hero, which is essentially a fiction of agency.

And then there is the 300 pound historical gorilla – Confucianism. Korean history is even easier to analyze in an agency-less environment given Korea’s essentially Confucian nature. In Confucian thought the kind of agency that Westerners routine
ly assume to exist, does not in fact exist.

Which leads us to the next post – philosophical underpinnings of agency-less fiction.

8 thoughts on “Secret Agency-Less, Man!

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