The History of Korean Modern Literature: Classical Lit III – Fiction

Hong Gildong

Hong Gildong (by Jang Soohye)

Two days I began my quick canvas of Korean literature with a discussion of Hyangga and Koryeo Kasa, then a post on Sijo & Kasa. Today we move into Fiction, which is a seemingly underrepresented field as the oral and poetic nature of Korean literature made straight fiction a less explored realm.

NOTE: The references to sidebar material are to items that will be included in a presentation I will be giving in a few months. When the whole thing is available I will post it here. As usual, chime in with anything I seem to be misunderstanding or leaving out.

Because of the strong emphasis on oral tradition and poetry as literature, Korean written literature is not as robust as one might expect.  While the oral and poetic traditions date back to the Silla period, the classical written fiction appears relatively late in the Joseon Dynasty. This literature was the Tales of Kumo (Kumo Shinwa, or New Stories from the Golden Turtle, ) Kim Shi-sup in the mid 15th century and The Tale Of Hong Gildong (Hong Kil-tong chon) by Hyo Kyun in the late 16th or early 17th century.  Indicating the language split that still existed in literature, Tales of Kumo was written in Chinese, while The Tale of Hong Gildong was written in Hangul. Not surprisingly, the latter work has had more of a lasting impact on Korea (see sidebar).

From the 17th century on other written literature became more popular and a larger reading public developed. Later, when commercial publishing (see sidebar) developed in Korea, book rental operations did brisk business. Subject matter expanded to include attacks on social problems of the day as well as ridicule of them, and the potential cast of characters, as the parable-based nature of fiction decreased, increased. Characters of ‘lower’ social status, characters of mercantile nature, criminals, and even kisaeng, began to populate literature.

These diversions were no doubt hastened by, and at least accompanied by, an increasingly large number of works being created in Hangul. While Hong Gildong is the most notable, these works also included Sassi namjonggi (Lady Sa’s Southward Journey, 18th century) and Kim Man-jung’s Kuunmong (Dream of the Nine Clouds). These were widely read by women and common men, as Chinese was still the language of the literati. Other fictions of the late Chosun Dynasty were concerned with proceedings of the court, including Hanjungnok(Record of Leisurely Feelings) and Inhyon Wanghujon (Tale of Queen Inhyon).

NEXT:  Pansori

 

NEXT:  Pansori

4 thoughts on “The History of Korean Modern Literature: Classical Lit III – Fiction

  1. If poetry remains a strong tradition to this day, I think Korean fiction is underrepresented nowadays also because of an anti-creative education system that leaves no time to read: you can see many Korean kids who love reading and enjoy books, but then they enter the dark tunnel that leads to the final exam and cannot read things that don’t fill that purpose. That’s a tragedy, and I know some who suffer from the loss.
    Bestseller lists are also distressing: either international blockbusters or junk like “be the next steve jobs” / “speak like obama” / “real estate for dummies”.
    I do see a silver lining though, and international readers have a role to play too: they help Koreans rediscover their own talents, including new ones.

  2. Dear Stephane,

    I feel as though there has been a bifurcation in Korea… there are still a lot of very talented artists, but they are marginalized… think of all the bearded dudes in and about Insadong or Samcheongdong who pursue their crafts. And your point about the educational system is a good one. OTOH, you can assume EVERY Korean has read Sonagi.^^

    Unfortunately the general populace and gov’t done give a rat’s butt about them and unless they hit bit internationally (as in how B-boys went from foreign worshipping pariahs to native heroes as soon as some international competitions were won).

    Even in the “creative” communities there are “established” protocol to become successful in which an aspiring artist or writer is expected to work the steps and those who don’t are discarded. And the steps are quite formal, if never explicitly listed. I wish that tendency would go straight to hell.

    Your point about ‘internationals’ helping Korea find its culture (which I substitute for talent here) is a salient one. Who is spearheading saving the hanok, for instance? Korea has developed so quickly that it has not had time to assess the wins and losses of that development, partly because the wins were so obvious and epic. I think a cultural (and economic) breathing moment might create something that looked (to me!) more like balance…

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