The History of Korean Modern Literature VIII: Themes & Approaches to Fiction

KTLIT LogoOK, here is where any feedback might be useful. After my lecture in Kuala Lumpur I realized I never explicitly laid out the themes and approaches of Korean Modern Literature, so on the plane on the way back I punched this out. We’re starting to get a bit out of order here.^^  Anyway, any feedback, constructive or otherwise, is appreciated, and remember the focus here is on translated Korean fiction

I) Hyangga and Koryeo Kasa
II) Sijo & Kasa
III) Classical Fiction
IV) Pansori
V) Introduction to Modern Literature
VI: Enlightenment
VII: Background to Colonial Lit

The previous chapter discussed some of the influences on Korean culture and literature, and this chapter will attempt to outline how these influences have affected Korean literature, particularly its themes and approaches.

The themes and approaches which result from the Korean philosophical and political history are multiple and as in the case in most societies, sometimes contradictory. In order to better understand this, it might be best to first list the themes and approaches, and then attempt to group them into logical categories. Here are some of the most important themes in Korean literature

  • Loyalty
  • Order
  • Relationships
  • Alienation
  • Separation

These themes result from the relationship between a society based on predetermined and fixed social structure (primarily developed from Confucian beliefs) and a society and country constantly at threat of dissolving or invasion.These themes are repeatedly explored in Korean literature, and one resultant theme to them is:

  • Resentment at all of the above

The resentment in Korean literature stems from the idea that a fixed social structure such as Confucianism is not flexible enough to deal with the alienations and separations that it creates within its social structure. The Story Of Hong Gildong, which we will discuss shortly, is one of the first stories that tightly concentrates on the unfairnesses that result from this fixed social structure, but that theme resounds through literary history, finding different social inequities to focus on, from era to era (Oppression by Japanese in the colonial, the lack of opportunities for educated Koreans of both sexes in the colonial and post-war periods, the split between North-South / Communist Capitalist in the post-war and industrial periods, the emerging schism between classes / country-side and city / men and women, as development took place, and finally the alienation and removal of reassuring fixed social structures during the post modern era in Korea).

  • Xenophobia
  • National Literature
  • Han

Xenophobia, of course, results from the kind of international relations history that Korea has experienced. Essentially, outside nations have rarely had good intentions with respect to Korea, and Korea internalized this into a defensive tactic. Koreans often refer to the nation and themselves as “uri nara,” or “our country,” and all non-Koreans, whether in Korea or in theif homelands are known as waekugin, or ‘foreigners.’ Given this attitude towards outsiders, and the historical difficulties Korea has faced, it is no suprise that Korean literature has largely been a national one – based on issues that faced the nation, and often didactically approaching them.

Take a national literature, and mix it with the inwardness, resignation, and tight social structure of Korea and you come to one of the approaches to Korean literature that sometimes seems odd to English-language readers

Han is a Korean word that has a mixture of meanings, but might be summed up as the sadness and resignation one feels knowing that things will go as well as they could/should. Han is subdivided into chônghan and wônhan with the first being gentle and sentimental resentment and the latter a stronger and suppressed insult that is apt to surface at any time (Freda, 7). Han may be thought of as the overarching philosophical concept created out of the synthesis of all the other themes and influences that we have discussed so far.

These themes and approaches have some very real implications for how Korean literature reads to English language readers, and sometimes these implications make Korean translated literature a bit difficult to understand. Some specific implications are:

  • Lack of agency
  • Relationships over plot
  • No need for a conclusion
  • Some genres that are important to recent Korean history, but foreign to English language readers
  • Romance and Comedy are often absent

Lack of agency, or the reduced role of the individual or hero, is one of the most obvious features of Korean modern literature. Even in the case of heroes, such as The Tales of Hong Gildong (something like the Korean Robin Hood), the ‘heroism’ is practically forced on them. And in many works, Korean characters put up with situations and conditions that would cause a western character to snap, but because social situations are so over-determined, and han is so deeply embedded, the Korean characters plod forward stolidly. Characters often let social expectations determine their actions, and this can sometimes be troublesome to English-language readers. In Hwang Sun-won’s The Descendants of Cain, the hero and heroine live chastely together despite the fact that they are madly (or as madly as Korean fiction allows) in love, but neither will make a move, because they are of different social statuses, and another spouse hangs around (largely) off-stage.

Similarly, plots are not always in the forefront, or a perfunctory, with the relationship of the characters often the main point. Perhaps When Buckwheat Blossoms Bloom is the best example of this, a shaggy dog story in which the plot is negligible. Two men, one old and one young, travel the rural salesman circuit in the 1930s and have various unimportant experiences and conversations. It becomes clear to the reader that the two are father and son, but by the stories’ end this reality has never been explicitly admitted, and the point of the story is the relationship between the two men, and not what they do, or even discovery.

Buckwheat Blossoms is also an example of a story not needing an end. The story more or less peters out, on the road at night, but because the relationship is, by Korean standards, well described, and the role of the cycles of seasons described both by the characters and the natural backdrop against which the story works out, the story works in Korea. The same is true of The Descendants of Cain, in which the ending is merely the decision of the protagonists that they must attempt to escape; but it is an escape attempt the reader never sees.

Finally, Buckwheat Blossoms also represents a genre that is still somewhat important in Korea, something like a pastoral reverie. This is a genre that has largely not existed in English literature since the time of Thoreau.

he absence of romance is tied in to the national nature of Korean literature, but in an unusual way. It is not so much that comedy is absent in the Korean language, but what has been chosen for translation is rarely comic. This is for two reasons, first that comedy is the hardest kind of writing to translate, and second that the importance of ‘national’ literature to Korea has meant that certain kinds of literature, mainly serious, have been chosen for translation.

Romance falls into a similar category in that it is not ‘serious’ and thus is usually only found in tories which have a strong ‘national’ component. In the aforementioned Descendants of Cain, the protagonists are in love, but this love is primarily used to explore issues of embedded class structure and the political problems surrounding land reform in the immediate post-war period.

With all that said, I\it is only fair to note, that in recent years choices of kinds of works to translate have broadened, and it seems fair to predict that in the years to come, English-language readers will see more translations of Korean romances and comedies. Certainly, recent works by Kim Young-ha and Pak Min-gyu suggest that there is a lot of humor to be found on the other side of the translation barrier.

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