Category Archives: The Korea Blog

Dispatches on the literature, cinema, current events, and daily life of Korea from the LARB’s man in Seoul Colin Marshall and others.


Why Does Korean Literature Use an Alphabet?

By Charles Montgomery

The LARB Korea Blog is currently featuring selections from The Explorer’s History of Korean Fiction in Translation, Charles Montgomery’s book-in-progress that attempts to provide a concise history, and understanding, of Korean literature as represented in translation. You can find links to previous selections at the end of the post.

Perhaps the most important advancement for Korean literature in the Middle Ages was the development of the Korean alphabet, hangul. Chinese had historically been the language of the literati, but the development of a national literature required a writing system of Korea’s own.

During the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), King Sejong decided to create a Korean alphabet. Officially it was created in 1443, but it actually took a few years beyond that, and then it slowly became the language of literature (very slowly, in fact, as even today some Chinese characters, or hanja, are still used in South Korea). King Sejong had been unhappy with the idea that peasants, uneducated in hanja, were therefore essentially illiterate. In an effort to make it easier for “normal” Koreans to read and write, Sejong imagined a set of letters that were Korean, simple to learn, based on the position of the organs of speech when spoken, and formed by two- and three-letter syllables.

At the beginning of the hangul project, King Sejong clearly stated his reasons for creating the alphabet:

Being of foreign origin, Chinese characters are incapable of capturing uniquely Korean meanings. Therefore, many common people have no way to express their thoughts and feelings. Out of my sympathy for their difficulties, I have created a set of 28 letters. The letters are very easy to learn, and it is my fervent hope that they improve the quality of life of all people.

King Sejong also had a semi-philosophical goal in mind: the (mainly) three-letter syllables were constructed so the initial consonant represented the moving sky, the middle vowel the stationary earth, and the final consonant the human being, both still and in motion. Hangul is phonetic, so non-Koreans who understand the rules can read it and often pronounce it quite accurately. (King Sejong could not have foreseen it, but this also makes his alphabet, particularly among Asian alphabets, uniquely suited to computer keyboards and smartphones!)

Sejong preferred achievement to traditional position, and under Sejong’s guidance a national agricultural handbook was written, as were two important works on Korean medicine. King Sejong was also responsible for the creating of a fully “Korean” calendar, free of Chinese influence. Still, the creation of hangul remains his best-known accomplishment; October 9th, Hangul Day, is a national holiday.

Hangul originally used 28 letters, but over time that number has declined to 24, and the pronunciation of some of those letters, distinct in spelling but not in speaking, grows increasingly redundant still today. The alphabet was originally called by the depressingly bureaucratic name hunmin chong-um. King Sejong’s search for simplicity drove him to create a language that stacked consonants and vowels, rather than laying them out in a linear fashion, as in English. The result takes up less space and suits either horizontal or vertical writing. It can also lead to increased legibility, and reading speed. Here, for example, is how the National Hangul Museum renders that idea in both hangul and English:


In addition, at least in principle, the base consonants of hangul, ㄱ, ㄴ, ㅁ, ㅅ, and ㅇ, were composed according to observations of the movements of the speech organs forming those consonants. Consequently, the shapes of the basic consonants mirror those of the speech organs.

The alphabet uses an ingenious system in which strokes are added to the base forms of vowels and consonants to create new and similar sounding letters, all following consistent patterns. If you learned the stroke patterns for one vowel or consonant, you would essentially know all of them.


Hangul’s relative simplicity and small number of letters makes it surprisingly easy to learn (theoretically possible in less than a day) and read. Because of that ease, Korea is a nation with almost no illiteracy, and the clustered-letter syllabic nature of hangul makes the creation of new words near-instantaneously possible. When chicken-and-beer restaurants were first introduced to Korea, college students merely combined the first syllables of chicken (치킨) and beer (맥주) to create the now well-known portmanteau chi-maek (치맥).

The practical effects of hangul’s creation were at first slow but steady, and then revolutionary. Because the quickly learnable hangul fit naturally to the spoken language of Korea, it could be taught to the poor, and particularly to women. In fact, it was sometimes known as the “language of the inner rooms” (in other words, the domain of women), a dismissive term used partly by the scholar-aristocrat yangban class. It first saw wide use in diaries, while many Confucian scholars and kings refused to advocate it, considering only hanja the proper language of literature. Hangul did continue, however, to provide a written voice for the the country’s women as well as its poor and disenfranchised population.

According to the National Hangul Museum in Seoul, hangul also revitalized literature as a whole, allowing common people to share in a privilege that had once been the preserve of the upper classes. Traditional works, once transmitted only orally, could now be recorded by anyone who learned this simple new alphabet. This revitalized Korean poetry, particularly the forms of gasa and sijo (which remains popular to this day), and eventually helped Korea develop entirely national prose forms such as Korean-based novels and nationalist essays.

Thus Hangul came into use to create documents of classical lyrical songs (sijochang), musical storytelling (pansori), mask dance (most famous in Andong, a town famous for its an annual mask dance festival). Most of Joseon’s most famous plays and performances began to be written in hangul. King Sejong, in his time, fought back against early resistance by having the Joseon court translate important Confucian and Buddhist works into hangul and then distribute them. Practical texts, such as those on military strategy or medicine, received similar treatment. These projects, long though they took, were thorough, and eventually they did their part to make hangul the norm.

Only Japan’s humiliating defeat in World War II finally freed hangul, scotching the occupier’s demented colonial plan to make Japanese the official language of Korea and letting the real Korean alphabet come into common use. This, among other things, opened the gates for a deluge of female writers, beginning with a trickle in colonial times, and ending up at the state of Korean literature today, half of whose writers and poets might well be women.

Hangul changed everything: Korean literature not only became Korean in its alphabet, words, and sentences, but it also became open to all Koreans. King Sejong began his project with high hopes, and were he to visit Korea today, he would no doubt be amazed that not only at hangul’s success as a literary tool, but also to discover that its creation went on to have a strong hand in altering Korean society in ways that eventually lead to modernization. Only when hangul was in place could modern Korean literature come into being.

Related Korea Blog posts:

 How Did Korea Get Fiction in the First Place? 

Where is Korean Translated Literature?

What Shaped Translated Korean Literature?

The Triumph of Han Kang and the Rise of Women’s Writing in Korea

Charles Montgomery is an ex-resident of Seoul where he lived for seven years teaching in the English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University. You can read more from Charles Montgomery on translated Korean literature here, on Twitter @ktlit, or on Facebook.


Wangsimni, My Hometown: a Gangster (and a Filmmaker’s) Pledge of Devotion to Korea

By Colin Marshall

This is one in a series of essays on important pieces of Korean cinema freely available on the Korean Film Archive’s Youtube channel. You can watch this month’s movie here and find links to previously featured movies below.

If you want to go see a movie in Seoul, you might well go to Wangsimni. Right above the neighborhood’s station on the central circular subway line stands a high-rise shopping complex whose multiplex theater boasts the largest IMAX screen in the country. It went up less than a decade ago, in 2008, but Seoul changes quickly. This has held true at least since the end of the devastating Korean War, when the capital of the new state of South Korea had nothing to do but develop. Still, Seoul remained in fairly rough shape a decade later, in the early 1960s, the time in which the protagonist of 1976’s Wangsimni, My Hometown (왕십리) last saw his homeland.

The disoriented but stylishly dressed Joon-tae first appears onscreen in a once deeply familiar Seoul, made strange in just fourteen years. As he struggles to place himself through the window of a cab, the driver asks what he’s looking for. “I don’t see the trolley,” says Joon-tae. “It’s been at least ten years since they got rid of the trolley,” the driver tells him. Joon-tae asks about another railcar he used to ride in his youth. “Trolley, railcar… that’s all history.” An Angeleno in the same era and in the same situation would have had the same conversation. Where did all the streetcars of the far-reaching Pacific Electric and Los Angeles Railways go?

Their disappearance looked dramatic enough to convince some of a conspiracy, but larger processes had converged to turn the city into something other than it had been before. Just as Los Angeles discarded the trappings of the late 19th and early 20th century it spent as a booming, barely-tamed settlement (and, to an extent, giant real-estate hustle) on the edge of the continent, Seoul discarded the trappings of the late 19th and early 20th century it spent as a subject of the Japanese empire. But that  mid-1970s Angeleno riding back into town might also wonder about something else: where did all these Koreans come from?

Though immigration from South Korea to Los Angeles began around 1900, it didn’t start happening in enough force to affect the character of the city until the exodus resulting from the Korean War and, a little over a decade later, the passage of the restriction-loosening Hart-Cellar act of 1965. The Koreans who came to America up until that time left a homeland still partially in ruins, and many never updated their mental image of the place. In her story collection Drifting House, Krys Lee writes of one such immigrant, who “had watched Korean news clips of the developing country’s daily disasters — student demonstrators attacked by pepper-spray bombs in 1986, the Sampoong Department Store collapse that killed generations of families in 1995 — and convinced himself that he had been right to leave.”


Of those former Seoulites who convinced themselves of their rightness in leaving — even, as Lee puts it, “after the country flourished and began giving academic scholarships to the brightest from Guatemala to Mongolia, and setting trends in film and technology” — the ones who return today, even just to visit, find the city utterly transformed. The trolley and railcar never came back, but Seoul, safe to say, doesn’t need them now that it has perhaps the world’s finest subway system, while even Los Angeles still struggles to build out its own.

To be fair, the Seoul Metro had a bit of a head start on the Los Angeles Metro, opening its first line in 1974 rather than 1990. Two years later, it hadn’t yet reached Wangsimni, which thus remained in enough of an urban isolation to qualify more as a true “hometown” (고향) than as just the old neighborhood. It also retained its now long-gone rough-and-tumble image, exhibited — and insisted upon — by the remains of Joon-tae’s old crew. Checking into a cheap hotel, he begins seeking them out by heading straight to the local pool hall, the hangout of choice for every Korean man of a certain generation, finding both the establishment and its owner in a diminished state.

The hall has shrunk from two floors to one, and the man, Choi, rendered nearly unintelligible (at least to my foreign ears) by ancient slang and drink, bursts every so often into intense despondency about his lack of progress in life. Joon-tae, too, sees himself as having stood shamefully still for the last fourteen years. He left Korea suddenly in order to avoid an epic inheritance dispute, his tearful fiancée chasing futilely after his departing taxi. Though the intervening time apparently saw him make quite a name for himself, as well as a small fortune, as some kind of valuable operative in the Japanese underworld, he returned just as suddenly, bringing his cashed-out savings with him and claiming to have come for one reason only: to see Jeong-hui, the girl he left behind, one last time.

But before he can get to Jeong-hui, another woman comes his way: Yoon-ae, a prostitute sent to his room by Choi and the rest of his buddies. Instantly enamored by Joon-tae’s distance, disinterest, and apparent inability to take care of himself, she goes from washing his clothes (for which he reprimands her) to inviting him over and cooking dinner (an appointment he forgets, or simply disregards) to proposing marriage, all in a matter of days. And as the whore tries to turn Madonna, the Madonna seems to have endured deeper reversals of fortune: while Joon-tae at first hears, and hopes, that Jeong-hui has married well and now lives comfortably, he comes to find out that she’s actually fallen to the status of “the biggest floozy in Wangsimni.”


Joon-tae nevertheless feels honor-bound to do right by Jeong-hui, going so far as to take out an ad in the newspaper to find her and, when he does, to buy her a new, Western-style house in cash. He does so in front of an infuriated Yoon-ae, who’d taken him for a fellow lost soul but now, having found out about his money, demands a few gifts of her own. Later, sitting amid the almost parodically 1970s décor of one of the many coffee shops that proliferated in Seoul in that era, she rejects the finery he’s just bought her and, before storming out, tells him off: “You made me think a girl like me can get married. You made me have hope. Do you know how? You looked like someone who could need me.”

But our laconic antihero has bigger problems: all throughout the film, a minder name Sasaki has tailed him through the city, trying to hasten his return in order to secure his participation in a mob war about to erupt back in Japan. Despite at first having vowed to make this trip the last time he would ever set foot in Korea, his resolve seems to waver as the complications of his situation mount. The more he learns of Jeong-hui’s current situation, the less she seems like an innocent victim of circumstances — and the more appealing Yoon-ae’s proposition becomes. Maybe, he starts to think, he can take her back to Japan with him.

Korean stories, though, have never let their characters execute their plans or satisfy their desires as simply as that. He catches Yoon-ae already on her way back to the farm village she calls her own home town, planning — doomedly, one senses — to lie her way into marriage to a childhood friend. The movie ends on New Year’s Day, with Joon-tae chased through a lumber yard by a team of enforcers assembled to bring him back at any cost. “I decided to stay,” he explains to Sasaki and his glowering, advancing henchmen. “I just realized that this is where I belong.” Just then, Choi and the rest of the fellows with whom he presumably belongs with rush up to defend their friend. The Japanese gangsters fell them easily, but Joon-tae, turned into a fighting machine by a presumable burst of hometown pride, in turn fells the distracted Japanese gangsters even more easily.

“I’ve been living all these years not caring about anything,” Joon-tae admits to Choi as they stand on a stone bridge overlooking some watery land surely soon to be developed and redeveloped. His closing monologue convinces them both to finally “lay down some roots” in the Korea that threatens to pass them even further by. “Everyone’s busy living their lives, while the two of us circle around the same spot not knowing what to do. We’re the only two who haven’t been able to really live our lives. Let’s on our lives from now on. This is our home. Why do we live like we’re just passing through? We’ve got to find our lost fourteen years and make up for lost time. Let’s make wings. With those wings, let’s fly in the sky.” The two old friends then nearly double up in non-ironic laughter.


A free-floating modern Westerner could find this stirring indeed, revealing as it does parts of the  Korean sensibility that entices many expatriates to stay: the refreshingly unquestioned emotion, the nigh-unbreakable bonds of friendship, the sense of a country and culture as collective enterprise. But that sort of thing also puts off its fair share of Koreans — including, for a time, director Im Kwon-taek. A teenager at the time of the Korean War and later vilified as the son of a communist, he saw firsthand how a society can tear itself apart. He effectively turned his back on his homeland, becoming a self-described thoughtless journeyman filmmaker known in the industry for his ability to near-continuously crank out cheap, commercial genre pictures.

The effects of Im’s awakening manifest gradually over the course of his work in the mid-1970s. Wangshimni came out in a year when he made at least three other pictures, none of which contain the kind of declaration of self he put into the mouth of Joon-tae. Over the following decades, Im would transform from a pure hack into a maker of art-house films — and sometimes blockbuster-successful art-house films — that examine the Korean condition past and present. Revivre (화장), a dreamy drama of a tormented middle-aged cosmetics executive (played by Ahn Sungki, Man-su of Chil-su and Mansu) debuted in 2014 promoted as Im’s 102nd film, though given all the losses and rediscoveries made since he began his directorial career in 1962, nobody can be quite sure of the number.

None of us would want to subject ourselves to the societal forces that freighted Joon-tae and Choi, or indeed Im, with such apparent despair in the first place, but more recent generations of Koreans seem to have positioned themselves relative to Korea, whether inside or outside it, with less agony. When Tokyo-based American friend of mine recently visited Seoul, he caught up with some of the Koreans with whom he’d studied in Japan, all as international students, years ago. He expressed great admiration for their sentiments that, though they’d spent significant amounts of time living, working, and studying in other countries, they’d returned to Korea confident that they would, in the long term — or could, in the long term — make their homes nowhere else.

Declarations of that kind can, of course, smack as much of complacency as devotion. For all the fuss made here about producing “global challengers,” fewer Koreans have a genuine interest in hammering down stakes outside Korea than the nation’s image of internationalist dynamism make make it seem. (This goes especially for Korean men, with their notorious resistance to embrace things foreign in comparison with the country’s more xenophilic women.) And as much sincerity as Im’s more personal films of the Wangshimni period and after evince, he also made his artistic shift with a certain degree of strategy. The blockbuster era having just begun over in Hollywood, he knew the homegrown genre pictures of the day couldn’t compete with imported multimillion-dollar spectacles. Now, of course, Korea makes its own multimillion-dollar (or rather, multibillion won) spectacles of its own, which screen right alongside the American ones. If you don’t believe me, catch a train to Wangsimni and see for yourself.


Related Korea Blog Posts:

Watching Madame Freedom, the Movie that Scandalized Postwar Korea

The Unbearable Preposterousness of Westernization: Park Kwang-su’s Chil-su and Man-su

Between Boring Heaven and Exciting Hell: Kim Soo-yong’s Night Journey

You can read more of the Korea Blog here and follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.


How Did Korea Get Fiction in the First Place?

By Charles Montgomery

The LARB Korea Blog is currently featuring selections from The Explorer’s History of Korean Fiction in Translation, Charles Montgomery’s book-in-progress that attempts to provide a concise history, and understanding, of Korean literature as represented in translation. You can read the first selection here and the second here.

Korea’s literary preferences have historically leaned toward poetry and song, a common condition in pre-print cultures as rhythm and rhyme make them easy to memorize. Even when reliable tools for writing were perfected, the survival of written materials remained quite uncertain. Unless inscribed in rock, writing is very fragile, especially when contained in bamboo books in an age when Korea often suffered invasions and had its cities looted. Consequently poetry, including poetry sung and chanted, came down from memory to memory as first form of Korean literature, just like Homer’s Odyssey in the West.

Chinese dynastic histories including the Bamboo Annals (prior to 296 BC), History of the Later Han Dynasty (compiled in the 5th century), and History of Wei (compiled 551 to 554) mention the recitation of religious oral literature by the Korean people, as well as the performance of origin myths and histories at early state meetings and in early shamanist-type rituals. These Chinese documents even describe the northern tribes as “the people who enjoy singing and dancing.” Poetry and singing were seen as a way to communicate to and build relationships between Nature, Heaven and Earth, and in this the influences of Animism and Shamanism can certainly be seen.

Korean literature began orally and in the vernacular, but slowly slid into Chinese when it moved to print. Eventually Korea’s literati, known as yangban, practiced literature solely in Chinese, while the rest of society — i.e., the lower classes and women — simply used the Korean language. As Chinese-characters were introduced, narrative folk poetry was replaced by the lyric and didactic variety known as hyangga. Simple, polished, quite lyrical or philosophical, and often short, these poems were initially recorded in Chinese characters that reproduced the sound of Korean words (hyangch’al), creating the first bridge between the two languages.

The creative process still happened in the Korean language, but when hyangch’al disappeared, the schism widened and literature became almost exclusively composed in Chinese, leaving the remainder in the hands of the singers and poets. After hyangga emerged sijo (don’t worry too much about these names; we’ll be explaining them soon), which lived alongside kasa. While sijo continued in the lyrical spirit of hyangga, kasa was didactic and entirely composed in Chinese. This split between the lyric and didactic was exacerbated by the introduction of hangeul, the Korean alphabet, which finally gave the vernacular or “common” literature an outlet in which to be recorded.

Korean poetry has had a handful of predominant forms, all partially associated with the empires under which they flourished, all of which help draw a broad outline of the development of classical Korean fiction. It is a bit artificial to use western poetic conventions to explain Korean poetry, partly because what we think of as “rhyming” is often an inconsequential achievement in modern Korean, a language whose verb forms inherently sound similar similar.

In the classical era’s “mid-rhyming,” for example, the writer of a poem arranged in five-word line would make the first, third word and fifth word play in alliteration, mid-rhyme, and final rhyme. This was possible because the poems were written with Chinese characters — and thus disappeared as hangeul gained dominance. But the idea of syllables is not sufficient to explain Korean poetry. “Korean verses allow a different number of phonemes within a metric unit and the rules of versification metamorphosize freely,” writes the scholar Cho Dong-il — which is a complicated way of saying, listen not to Korean poetry’s syllables, but to the flow of its sound.

Not much remains of the literature of the Silla dynasty, which lasted from 57 BC to 935 AD. What does survive takes the form of hyangga poetry, written in hyangch’al. The word “hyangga,” which means “rural village song” derives from what the Silla people called their empire. A total of fourteen poems were passed down in the Samguk Yusa: Legends And History Of The Three Kingdoms Of Ancient Korea (c.1285), and eleven more survived in the Tales of Kyunyo.

The first of these, recorded in the Samguk Yusa, also informs us that the poem was sung by members of the Karak state during the third moon in the year 42. This is the Seodong-yo (The Ballad of Seodong), an uncomplicated four-line lyric by a commoner named Seodong, who wrote the poem to persuade the king that the king’s daughter has slept with he, Seodong. As it happens, his poetic ruse succeeds: the princess, banished for her fabricated lack of chastity, eventually marries the author.

Hyangga forms vary, including four-line, eight-line, and ten-line poems. In ten-line hyangga, the first section introduces the idea of the poem; the second either distills or distorts feelings related to the topic; in the third, which runs for only two lines, a declaration comes to a strong conclusion. This general form of construction is quite similar to that of the sijo, which we shall discuss shortly. The Buddhist monk Weolmyeong’s Requiem for My Sister, until its rather traditional and predictable religious end, exemplifies the structure quite beautifully:

The road to life and death
Stands fearfully before us.
Without saying good-bye,
Have you left me?

The early morning wind in autumn
Scatters leaves here and there.
Though from the same branch
They know not where they’ve gone.

Oh my dear sister, to see you again in Amitabha’s Paradise,
I shall wait, perfecting Buddha’s way.

(Translation: Robert Fouser)

During the Goryeo dynasty of  918 to 1392 AD, the use of hyangch’al disappeared as conventional Chinese characters came to dominate Korean literature. Hyangga itself did not entirely disappear, but turned from a literary form into a religious one, leaving the so-called Goryeo Songs as a legacy. The elimination of hyangch’al meant that no even approximate way to write down “native” Korean poetry remained, so it continued primarily to be expressed orally. As Chinese characters became the de facto written language of Korean literature, and the Goryeo dynasty become increasingly mannered, Korea’s literati began to look down their nose at poetry composed in hyangch’al, refusing to record and reproduce it. In its place, they developed a new form of poetry, the kasa.

Although primarily oral, kasa lived long enough to be recorded in hangeul during the later Joseon dynasty. Unfortunately, for political and linguistic reasons, the new dynasty was not particularly interested in saving the literature of the previous one. Through conscious destruction and indifference, much literature was lost, though the popularity of kasa itself continued to grow, achieving its greatest heights toward the end of the Joseon era. As the Goryeo dynasty declined, this loss of literature overtook much of the Goryeo works as well. When the Joseon succeeded the Goryeo, it adopted a policy similar to that the Goryeo’s of expunging the “inappropriate” and “obscene” poetry of the recent past — and so barely sixty works of Goryeo poetry survive.

The kasa had two forms: shorter, with one stanza, and longer, with up to thirteen. Each stanza includes a refrain in the middle or at the end intended to establish the mood of the piece or tie the stanzas together. More loosely structured than its predecessors, and took on far bolder topics, even love. It often discussed such subjects rather bluntly, though often also didactically, a quality that over over time saw the kasa lose popularity to the more lyrical sijo. Kisaeng, the officially recognized Korean female courtesans, often performed the kasa, which may give some clue as to the reason behind their directness and sexuality relative to their predecessors. Although kisaeng technically ranked among the lowest in the Korean caste system, they were also entertainers of great skill who sometimes worked for yangban or the court.

Relatively unimportant during the Goryeo period, the kasa became more robust and well-known in the Joseon dynasty in the form of works like the Manjeoncheun, an anonymous love poem likely from the mouth of a kisaeng. Most readers will note a narrator shift towards the end:

Were I to build a bamboo hut on the ice
Were I to die of cold with him on the ice,
O night, run slow, till our love is spent.
When I lie alone, restless, vigilant,
Only peach blossoms wave over the west window.
You have no grief, welcome the spring breeze.
I have believed those who vowed to each other;
“My soul will follow yours forever.”
Who, who persuaded me this was true?
“O duck, beautiful duck, why do you come
To the swamp, instead of the shoal?”
“If the swamp freezes, the shoal will do.
A bed on Mount South, jade pillow, gold brocade.
And beside me a girl sweeter than musk,
Let us press our hearts together, our magic hearts.

Non-kisaeng female writers were generally not published during either the Goryeo or Joseon dynasties, but the record hints that yangban women did write thousands — probably hundreds of thousands — of kasa in hangeul. This was mainly anonymous, and is today known as kyubang kasa, or “inner-room kasa,” so named because the women’s rooms in a traditional hanok house were located toward its center. Mostly instructional in nature and typically given to a younger woman on the occasion of her marriage and departure to her husband’s house, these poems transmit advice and admonition from one generation of women to another:

Listen, my dear child,
Tomorrow is the day of your leave-taking.
Leaving your parents’ home,
You will be entering your husband’s.
As your heart must be,
So is mine, also uneasy.
Your things loaded on a white horse
And the gilt saddle firmly tied down.
As I send you off out the gate
I have much advice to give you…

Neither spellbinding as literature nor intended to be, these vessels of exemplary advice. But in many cases these kyubang kasa, passing from generation to generation,  came to include many other kinds of passages. In fact, while the most common form of kasa was admonitory, the kyubang kasa also included the “songs of lament” and the “songs of flower viewing” — the latter perhaps hinting at the rather philosophical or even effete tendencies sometimes evinced by poetry of the era.

During the Joseon period, from 1392 to 1897, Korean poetry shifted to the sijo. The original sijo poets were yangban who wrote poetry to pass the time and amuse their friends. There is an amusing split here: while “serious” literature was still supposed to still be composed in Chinese characters, or hanja, apparently Goryeo-era yangban had begum to “slum” in hangeul. This may help explain both the spread of hangeul itself and the continued popularity of the sijo form. Its themes, consequently, were often Confucian in nature and focused on loyalty. Sijo had three stanzas (often expressed in lines) of four feet each and can be compared, in some ways, to the Japanese haiku, though the sijo’s longer form allows for greater explication of themes and more syllabic flexibility.

The form of the sijo is semi-regular: three lines of fourteen to sixteen syllables each, with a total between 44 and 46. Readers often first encounter sijo in an “idealized” western structure based on syllable count, but this ideal is complicated and often inaccurate. A more natural way to explain the sijo is that its topic is introduced in the first line, explored in the second line, given a surprise twist at the outset of the third line, and then concluded by the end of that line, a structure intended to create an aesthetically “complete” poem that unfolds in a brief space, but without hurry.

Sijo originated with the yangban’s expression of philosophical or religious concerns, but in the eighteenth century its popularity quickly spread among common people. With this new mass popularity, the form also began to change, ultimately splitting into the p’yong (flat) and changhyong (long) sijo. The new sijo also tended to be less rarified, often focusing on commonplace emotions and satire. The first sijo compilation, the Cheonggu Yeongon, was not printed until 1728, but many individual works remain scattered in the private collections of the families of the yangban who wrote them.

The sijo below was composed by the famed Admiral Yi Sun-sin in 1599, on the eve of a battle with the Japanese — a battle he won, but in which he was unfortunately slain:

At Hansan Island Fortress
Moon-bright night on Hansan Isle, and I sit alone atop the lookout.
I hold my great sword by my side, and as my worries deepen.
From somewhere comes the single note of the Mongol flute, piercing to the very bowels.

Interested readers can find it translated in Richard Butt’s The Bamboo Grove: An Introduction to Sijo.

Pansori, or “story-in-song,” is still enjoyed today. Believed to have developed from the shamanist chants of southeastern Korea in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, pansori differs from those in not being based on religion, and in fact often focusing on more tangible subjects including the yangban and issues of social structure. It began in the second half of the Joseon era (during the reign of King Succhong, or Kim Yeongjo, between so 1674 and 1776) and was most likely — though there is no definitive proof — an outgrowth of shamanic practice in Jeolla-do. But pansori subverts shamanism, and in fact often mocks. To western eyes, pansori may seem less like literature and more like song-and-dance, but Korea considers it a literary form (and recognized, of course, as song and dance as well).

Presented as an up to eight-hour-long narrative musical performance with two performers, a drummer and a singer, it consists of two internal musical forms, the main song called ch’ang and rhythmic spoken passages called aniri, with the latter serving as kind of thread running through and connecting the former. Pansori emerged from a primarily oral tradition, and one that revolved around superhuman characters, myths, and the like, but by the late Joseon period it had evolved into a set of stories based on more typical events using human characters. The plots, therefore, became increasingly “true to life.” Pansori mixed prose and verse as well as vernacular language, including slang, sarcasm and jokes, with the more traditional classical language of the past.

In terms of literary “quality,” pansori was a kind of pastiche that included well-known truisms, a surprising amount of earthy humor, and a mixture of high- and low-level speech (the Korean language has formal registers for communication between equals and those who are not equal, for various reasons including age, education, and sex). As time went by, this latter set of opposites caused pansori, initially the literature of the common man, to split into two schools: a common version representing entertainment for the masses, and another that continued to depict the lives of the royal court.

Pansori began in the oral tradition, but passed down from generation to generation, they became increasingly memorialized in print as well. There were two different stylistic strands:the sung (indicated by the Korean word ka) and the written (cheon). According to Kim Hyunggu, the three most popular pansori novels were Tales of Shim Cheong, The Tale of Chunghyang, and The Tale of Heungbu, the last of which remains popular as a children’s tale.

As the popularity of these and similar works grew, and as they were transmitted in first oral and, from eighteenth century on, written form, novels that appealed to common tastes were increasingly prevalent, partly due to the fact that they were also now available in hangeul. Over time, pansori moved away from relentless focus on one main character, and so-called “family novels” became more popular. This period represents the first mercantilization of Korean literature, when we can first see the focus of the works themselves move away from the self-expression and meditations of the yangban to material crafter for success in the emerging fiction market.

The length and breadth of pansori, as well as the general appreciation for the form, lead to its becoming, in a sense, the first “common” literature of Korea. As it began to spread in printed form, it gave first form to the Korean “classic” novel. Peaking in the nineteenth century, pansori entered a slow, apparenly inevitable decline thereafter. Performances of it can still be seen in Korea, usually in extremely truncated forms, and only in locations of formal cultural presentation such as the National Theater at Mt. Namsan.

Before we can continue to the creation of the “classic” novel and the invention of literature as we know it now, we must take a short detour next time to discuss perhaps the most important development in the emergence of a common Korean literature: the unprecedented creation of a national alphabet, hangeul.

Related Korea Blog posts: 

Where is Korean Translated Literature?

What Shaped Translated Korean Literature?

Looking Back at Modern Short Stories from Korea, the Very First Collection of Korean Fiction in English

The Triumph of Han Kang and the Rise of Women’s Writing in Korea

Bright Lies, Big City: Korean Authors and Seoul

Charles Montgomery is an ex-resident of Seoul where he lived for seven years teaching in the English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University. You can read more from Charles Montgomery on translated Korean literature here, on Twitter @ktlit, or on Facebook.

KB - Nam June Paik Show 1

A Society of Screens: the Korea, and the World, Envisioned by Nam June Paik

 By Colin Marshall

Video monitors started appearing on Seoul’s subway trains long before I arrived here. More video monitors — or, to be precise, old televisions — started appearing on those video monitors a few months ago, announcing a big show of the work of video artist Nam June Paik. (Paik made his name in the West, literally, with not just unconventional Romanization but a Western-style re-ordering that put his given name first and family name second.) The straightforwardly titled Paik Nam June Show (백남준 쇼), which runs through October at Seoul’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza, commemorates the tenth anniversary of the death of the most creative old-television enthusiast ever to live, as well as, for a time, the most famous Korean artist — and quite possibly the most famous Korean — in the world.

“I start in 1960, first time television sets become cheap, become secondhand, like junk,” said Paik in a 1975 profile by New Yorker art critic Calvin Tomkins. “I buy thirteen secondhand sets in 1962. I didn’t have any preconceived idea. Nobody had put two frequencies into one place, so I just do that, horizontal and vertical, and this absolutely new thing comes out.” He refers to his discovery that manipulating the electronics television sets use — or then used, anyway — to produce an image could produce, in an unpredictable fashion, another, stranger image.

This led to his creation, with Japanese engineer Shyua Abe, of the more controllable Abe-Paik Video Synthesizer, and ultimately to his status as the father of video art, builder of television robots, television cellos, television-watching Buddhas, and television maps and flags of the United States of America. While other artists began to use video around the same time he did, when the gear came down in size, down in price, and out of the studio, none displayed quite the same intensely zealous interest of the early adopter.

Paik’s embrace of the moving image as displayed on consumer electronic devices now looks prescient, as do several of the futuristic ideas upon which he speculated. He even coined, in a 1974 proposal to the Rockefeller Foundation (a major source of funding for early video artists), the term “electronic superhighway,” imagining a time in which “we connect New York with Los Angeles by means of an electronic telecommunication network that operates in strong transmission ranges, as well as with continental satellites, wave guides, bundled coaxial cable, and later also via laser beam fiber optics.”

Tomkins, in the New Yorker profile, wrote of Paik’s vision for a familiar-sounding “’global university’ — a place where vast quantities of up-to-date information on every conceivable subject can be stored, with computers to provide instant retrieval, so that a student of any age can pursue his own education at his own pace.” And so it feels highly appropriate to see him celebrated in his homeland, a place whose high internet speeds and rates of connectivity get it routinely described, in the 21st century, as the most wired country on Earth.

KB - Nam June Paik Show 3

His countrymen tend to seize upon each new device as soon as it comes to market, and even among Koreans close to Paik’s own generation (he was born in 1932, with the end of the Japanese colonial era still nowhere in sight), one sees much less of the kind of technological foot-dragging common among older people in the West. American youth might just have got around to teaching their grandmothers how to use a smartphone; in Korea, grandma’s already in line for the next one. Those screens on the subway already seem superfluous; who can get bored enough to watch the advertisements they play between station announcements with a personal screen in the palm of their hand?

Often enough I’ve looked up on a subway ride to see literally every other passenger absorbed in what Koreans call their “handphone,” texting, gaming, and scrolling through page after page of one kind of information or another. Sometimes, on these occasions, I’ve looked up from my own, an iPhone so bashed and so many generations behind that, here, its ownership almost violates some sort of social taboo. Besides, for every (newer) iPhone user in Korea, several have a local model made by Samsung or LG instead — companies that also manufactured more than a few of the many screens glowing from within the works on display at the DDP.

Paik’s sculptures, made of not just wood-grained and dial-controlled sets of long-forgotten brand but paint, neon, cameras, and many kinds of non-televisual junk, present what museum professionals call a “preservation challenge.” Peer around the back of the hulking, friendly-looking robots that greet you as soon as you enter, and you see that someone has hollowed out the bulky, even-then-obsolete televisions that compose their bodies and mounted outward-facing flat-panel displays of various sizes up against the glass.

Paik could hardly have known, putting his television robots together in the 1980s when the Korean economy still grew itself — and with astonishing rapidity — through industries like shipbuilding, that flat-panels (surely a term soon to go the way of “computerized” and “portable”) would do much to make his homeland a global economic power. Had by that time spend a decades away from that homeland, in a kind of exile. “Because of South Korea’s stringent military-conscription law,” Tomkins wrote in 1975, “he could technically be arrested as a draft dodger if he ever returned.”

He’d left with his family in 1950, after their luck at home finally ran out — a luck that came in large part due to his merchant family’s open collaboration with the Japanese occupiers. They managed to retain their status for a time even after liberation, albeit not for long. “Growing up in a very corrupt family in a very confusing time,” he later said, “I learned how to survive, and survive well.” Paik’s family settled in Japan, where he graduated from the University of Tokyo before moving to Germany to study avant-garde music composition.

KB - Nam June Paik Show 4

The Japan connections continued throughout the rest of his career and life. He and Yoko Ono both once counted themselves as members of the Fluxus artistic movement (there exists a later photograph of Paik, Ono, Shuya Abe, and John Lennon standing in front of a wall of televisions). He married Shigeko Kubota, a Japanese colleague in video art. His work incorporated many pieces of Japanese technology, like Pioneer’s LaserDisc media and Sony’s Watchman handheld televisions, still flickering away after all these years.

Paik eventually made it back to Korea in 1984, writes scholar Robert Fouser in “Having Fun with New Toys: Nam June Paik and the Aesthetic of Jaemi.” This homecoming “started a broad shift in Paik’s work. Despite the immense change in Korea during the intervening 35 years, the jaemi of the streets of Korea brought back memories of the street jaemi that Paik had known as a youth.” The what? Fouser quotes the Minjungseorim’s Essence Korean-English Dictionary‘s definition of jaemi (재미) as “interest; amusement; enjoyment; fun.”

Artistically, it means that “a work or performance needs to entertain and stimulate an audience through amusement and fun. Humor, sarcasm, and visual stimulation all qualify as jaemi,” which also “contains the element of surprise and keeps audiences slightly off balance with jocular spontaneity.” According to Fouser, “jaemi best summarizes the dominant aesthetic of Korean modernism,” and to my mind also summarizes the enduring appeal of Paik’s art. His robots, grinning or raising a glowing arm in salute, exude, and possibly define, late-20th-century techno-whimsy.

Even his more austere pieces, such as those Buddhas staring eternally into their own motionless images reflected by television screens, draw chuckles from their viewers. As for the element of surprise and jocular spontaneity, Paik began using that well before he entered the secondary market for TV sets, driving nails into pianos on stage (one critic called him “the world’s most famous bad pianist,” a title in which he delighted), snipping ties and shirttails with scissors off of it, and, with the cellist Charlotte Moorman, staging topless or otherwise scandalous musical performances (some of which had her wear a “TV Bra” of Paik’s invention).

Despite his start in the avant-garde, his work has retained plenty of relevance in our time when the term “avant-garde” itself no longer means much of anything, and when new technology, especially new technology related to the display of images, no longer impresses on anything like as deep a level as it once did. But to the younger generations who’ve started to regard VHS cassettes as nostalgia objects, images out of a cathode ray tube look compellingly unusual and rich with imperfection. Twenty years ago, sheer availability had rendered the household electronics Paik made his signature materials almost invisible. In the 21st century, they’ve regained the something of the strangeness — now accompanied by echoes of the past instead of messages from the future — he must have sensed when first he discovered their artistic potential.

KB - Nam June Paik Show 2

Call it a kind of “authenticity,” an aesthetic quality much prized by the retromaniac hipsterism of the West, a movement that has so far shown few signs of penetration into the neophiliac un-irony of modern South Korea. Though possessed of a formidable sense of humor, Paik’s work has never exuded irony. In that, the Japanese-educated artist who spent most of his life in Europe and the United States — as well as the Buddhist who never drank, smoked, or drove — represents the sensibility of his people more than he might at first have appeared to.

Korea almost automatically celebrates its native sons and daughters who’ve won acclaim for themselves abroad, and thus acclaim for their country, no matter how aberrant their behavior or unfashionable their creations. Fouser sees Paik, who accomplished what no other Korean artist could by “influencing the West with a subverted view of its own culture,” as “a combination of Paik the inheritor of Korean modernism and Paik the inheritor of bourgeois careerism.” Having drawn his first feelings of “techno-jaemi” from listening to the radio, riding in the car, and playing the piano in his youth, he went on to observe his family “use its wealth and power to maintain the status quo after liberation,” learning that “systems have to be manipulated for self-protection, and that ideals matter less than practicality.”

Fouser credits Paik’s use of jaemi as having “helped to desanctify art and make it fun again.” Asked by Tomkins why he doesn’t make boring art, Paik himself replied: “I come from very poor country and I am poor. I have to entertain people every second.” Not that you’d know, strolling through Zaha Hadid-designed Dongdaemun Design Plaza and into the Paik Nam June Show, that either Paik or South Korea came from poverty. It even ends in with a genuine spectacle, in a room built for a huge sea turtle made entirely out of 1990s-style television sets, all boxy yet rounded. Every few minutes, much newer projection technology, still impressive in itself, sends the entire floor around the electronic reptile through a rippling metamorphosis, from solid to liquid, concrete to abstract.

From there you exit straight into another room containing (this being Korea, after all) a pop-up coffee bar and a display of all the Nam June Paik merchandise available for purchase. The hallway outside that contains a video work built in tribute to Paik by the media artist Choi Jongbum — making use, the signs tell us, of the latest models in Samsung’s lineup of “quantum dot display” ultra high definition TVs — and a lounge area bristling with cables loungers can use to charge their handphones. They might well need to, having drained their batteries snapping selka (샐카, or the Korean version of “selfie”) with friends standing beside Paik’s robots, or in silhouette against the colorful video collages of his not-quite-regular grids of monitors.

All this does little to actively refute the notion, long held by Paik’s critics without seeming to bother the artist himself, that his work wasn’t quite serious, that it was a little too much fun. As the standard translation of “fun,” jaemi, sound like a highly specialized cultural concept though it may, is one the very first vocabulary words a student of the Korean language learns. If you want to say you enjoyed something, you say “Jaemi isseosseoyo,” literally something like “There was fun.” If you want to say you didn’t enjoy something, you say “Jaemi opseosseoyo,” or “There wan’t fun.” This becomes something of a crutch later on, when people begin to expect more specific responses, but later in the day I’d seen the Paik Nam June show, when a friend asked how it was, my response — jaemi isseosseoyo — sounded a great deal more meaningful than usual.

Related Korea Blog posts: 

Writing About Korea, in Korean, for Koreans — as an America: an Interview with Robert J. Fouser

Why Korea Needs Alain de Botton (and Why Alain de Botton Needs Korea)

You can read more of the Korea Blog here and follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

The Story of Hong Gildong

What Shaped Korean Translated Literature?  

By Charles Montgomery

The LARB Korea Blog is currently featuring selections from The Explorer’s History of Korean Fiction in Translation, Charles Montgomery’s book-in-progress that attempts to provide a concise history and understanding of Korean literature as represented in translation. You can read the first selection here.

Korea’s long-standing literary tradition has always occupied a position of high cultural importance. In all its forms, its history is thoroughly represented, often in order to make arguments about that history. Korean literature is normally intended to mean something, and so to be taken quite seriously.

According to Kim Hunggyu, “more than 6,000 collections of writings by individual writers from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century are extant,” and Korea is number one per capita internationally in poetry publications per capita. This massive literary production has occurred despite the relative recency, only really emerging after World War II, of Korean literary history as an object of formal study and concern. Modern literature is also constrained by the “official” process that actively limits who can be considered an “author.”

Still, there is plenty of Korean literature about, and it is broadly divided into two eras: classical and modern. Classical literature lasted, roughly speaking, until the end of the 19th century, and modern literature began around the beginning of the 20th. Across these eras, Korean literature has had five major philosophical influences: Shamanism/Animism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.

Shamanism is expressed in emotionalism and ties to nature. Confucianism laid primary cultural importance on reading and writing, and thus has also had a profound impact on how seriously Koreans still take education and literature. At the same time Confucianism valued order and contemplation, and these two influences are also strong in Korean literature. Buddhism has had an influence that led to a certain kind of cyclicality, and sometimes passivity, that one often finds in Korean literature. Taoism also had some hand in this. In addition, Koreans were very deeply tied to nature and their land, and though not a formal philosophy, this is deeply reflected in Korean literature. In the modern era, Christianity has also had a strong influence.

These produced an oral literature portraying a love of and relationship to nature, within which an individual man was just one part of a much larger picture, an often quite mannered literature with evil deeds punished and good deeds (eventually) rewarded in a world of relationships structured by loyalty – to the King, to parents, to elders, to friends and to “proper” sexual relations (entailing chastity and male domination).

One interesting aspect of classical Korean literature is the question of the two “alphabets” used in Korean literature. For centuries in Korea, to use Chinese characters, to read, write and study was the mark of a cultured man, written Chinese being to the Korean intelligentsia exactly as Latin and Greek once was to the educated man of the West. Consequently, much early literature in Korea was heavily influenced by Chinese thought. There has been critical controversy over whether Korean literature written in classical Chinese counts as part of Korean literature, narrowly defined. For the purposes of this book, however, all literature written by Koreans, in any language, is considered “Korean literature.”

Its geographical location between the historical superpowers of China and Japan has made Korea fiercely independent, and though the country does have a history of internal strife, it has also fought to maintain its autonomy. This gives impetus to certain literary, including a strong internal definition and focus as well as a fear of separation and alienation. At the end of the classical period (roughly the turn of the 20th century), Korean literature began to struggle towards modernity, strongly influenced by “Western” ideas not directly imported from the West, but rather introduced through Japan and China.

The onset of Japanese colonial rule had effects that sped up the economic development of Korea in areas that supported Japanese expansionist desires, while crushing and distorting native development (particularly cultural and social development) in ways both predictable and unpredictable. The literary themes and approaches resulting from Korean philosophical and political history are multiple and, as in most societies, sometimes contradictory.

In order to better understand this, it might be best to first list these themes and approaches, then attempt to group them into logical categories. Here are some of the most important themes in Korean literature, most of which proceed from the philosophical bases of the society at the times, Animism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Shamanism, and far later, Christianity:

  • Loyalty
  • Order
  • Relationships
  • Fear of alienation
  • Fear of separation

These themes result from the relationship between a society based on a predetermined and fixed social structure (primarily developed from Confucian and Buddhist beliefs) and one constantly subject to the threat threat of dissolution or invasion, and one that from the three dynasties, until today has always been divided or threatened by division. Korean literature explores these themes repeatedly, resulting in another emergent theme: resentment at all of the above, despite the fact the culture embraces it.

Some resentment in Korean literature stems from the idea that a fixed social structure such as Confucianism is not flexible enough to deal with the alienation and separations it creates within its social structure. The Korean classic The Story Of Hong Gildong tightly concentrates on these inequities, and it is not alone: that theme resounds through literary history, finding different social inequities and different political and geographical schisms to focus on from era to era.

Over time these historical circumstances have included oppression by Japanese in the colonial era; a lack of opportunities for educated Koreans of both sexes in the colonial and post-war periods; the North-South and Communist-capitalist split in the postwar and industrial periods; the emerging schism between the classes, the countryside and city, and men and women as development took place; and during the postmodern ara, the removal of what reassurance fixed social structures once offered. This laundry list of unfortunate circumstances has in turn led to certain ideas that, it is generally fair to say, continue to affect Korean literature today, even as that literature turns, controversially, toward things more international and less specifically Korean. These ideas include those of xenophobia, natural literature, and han.

Xenophobia results, of course, from the kind of international-relations history Korea has experienced: essentially, other nations have rarely had good intentions with respect to Korea, and Korea has internalized this as defensive tactic. Koreans often refer to the nation as uri nara, or “our country,” and all non-Koreans, whether in Korea or in their homelands are known as waegukin, or “foreigners.” Given this attitude towards outsiders, and the historical difficulties Korea has faced, it comes as no surprise that Korean literature has largely been an explicitly national one, based on, and often didactically approaching, the issues that have confronted the nation.

The Korean word han carries a mixture of meanings, but it might be summed up as the sadness and resignation one feels knowing that few things will go as well as they could or should — that life is often externally dictated (by social status, religion, political exigencies, and so on), and that it contains deep-seated, unresolvable problems. In balance, the concept of jeong has to do with the relationship and feelings amongst people; it reflects, to put it perhaps too simply, a Korean desire for harmonious relationships even when things may not be completely harmonious themselves. It contains elements of affection, empathy, sympathy, and unspoken community.

Korean literature strongly reflects both han and jeong, and a fuller understanding of those concepts makes understanding the literature much easier. Even so, Korean translated literature can present difficulty to international readers, who run into obstacles like a lack of character agency in comparison to Western fiction; the prominence of relationships over plots; sometimes-flat characters; no requirement for conclusions, and genres based on a different set of social conventions and shared understanding.
Lack of agency, or the reduced role of the individual or hero, was until recently one of the signal qualities of modern Korean literature. Even for heroes like Hong Gildong (something like Korean equivalent of Robin Hood), “heroism” is essentially forced on them. The notion of an anti-hero has been nearly impossible. Korean characters put up with situations and conditions that would cause a Western character to snap because social situations are so strongly determined and han is so deeply embedded. Korean characters often let social expectations determine their actions, which can be difficult for English-language readers to understand.

KB - What Shaped Korean Lit 2

Similarly, plots can be perfunctory or even absent, foregrounding instead the relationships between the characters. When Buckwheat Flowers Bloom, written in 1936 by Lee Hyo-seok, might be the best example. Two men, one old and one young, traveling the rural salesman circuit of that era, meet a third “greenhorn” peddler. It becomes obvious that the latter two men are father and son, but by the story’s end this reality has never been admitted. The point is the relationship between them and — nature almost constituting the fourth character — the inevitable turning of the seasons.

Similarly, Hwang Sun-won’s 1954 The Descendants of Cain ends with the decision of the protagonists to attempt an escape from their village, but the reader never sees the attempt itself, even after scores of pages of the two main characters ignoring their own love and the possibility of escape itself. Korean literature doesn’t insist upon a formal plot or climactic ending, but in some cases, to Korean readers they may indeed have clear endings, ones based on a cultural and social understanding not always clear to non-Korean readers. From a Western perspective, flat characters can result from these influences, particularly under didactic authors. Acceding to the wishes of larger society or manipulated to further the authorial aims, they can seem much less than fleshed out, their individual motivations unclear.

Some genres do not match. When Buckwheat Flowers Bloom represents something like a pastoral reverie, a genre that retains some importance in Korea, though primarily as a historical vestige. It has largely not existed in English literature since the time of Thoreau, if even then. The same can be said, to a great extent, of the Korean literature of separation (pundan munhak), which has no direct equivalent in English-language literature and a history unknown to most English-language readers.

Korea’s is nonetheless a remarkable literature produced from a remarkable history. In its particularly interesting modern form, it reflects the raw speed at which Korea has catapulted itself into the modern world. In less than eighty years, Korean literature has attempted to reprise a process that took the West’s at least three centuries. Fortunately, merely by knowing a very broad and simple outline of Korean history and society, this opacity can turn transparent, and translated Korean literature can open to a wide range of readers while at the same time introducing them to an immensely entertaining intersection of history, society, and culture.

Even better, publishers have in recent decades includes useful forewords, authorial comments and essays, afterwords, biographies, and critical commentaries in their books. All of this “external” text helps make the fiction more accessible to readers not intimately familiar with Korea and its culture. At the same time, more accessible books are being chosen for translation, and the translators themselves have grown increasingly adept at rendering their stories in easily readable English prose. That last is particularly relevant and amusing in its effect on what has been translated: the original absence of comedy and folk tales in translation is tied to the notion of the national nature of Korean literature, but in an unusual way.

Comedy is not absent in everything written the Korean language, but it usually has been absent from the works chosen for translation. This is for two reasons: first, that comedy is the hardest kind of writing to effectively translate, and second, that the importance of a “national” literature to Korea has favored certain kinds of mainly serious works for translation. Humor, most often broad or satirical, can be found in translation: the collection A Ready Made Life, for instance, while focusing on the effects of colonization, manages to include stories that both broadly humorous and genuinely witty.

A kind of “gatekeeping” has also gone on, primarily performed by educated Koreans who decided what should be represented in translation. The renowned translator Brother Anthony of Taizé has assembled Eerie Tales from Old Korea, a compilation of stories collected by 19th-century missionaries Homer B. Hulbert and James S. Gale. Hulbert and Gale’s fondness for ghost stories had them spending many years fruitlessly chasing down the Korean varieties, but local scholars at first insisted that such stories did not exist, presumably because of their association with folk beliefs, and therefore their insufficient “seriousness” to count as literature.
Thankfully, Hulbert and Gale persevered, eventually collecting a selection of yadam, short stories particularly popular in the Joseon period between the 14th and 19th centuries. To be fair, this kind of artificial gate-keeping has declined as translators, publishers, and organizations such as the Korean Literature Translation Institute have begun to widen the breadth of what is considered appropriate for translation. It seems fair to predict that, in the years to come, English-language readers will see more translations of Korean romances, comedies, “low” fiction, and other genres ignored in the past.

This chapter may be mistakenly read as calling Korean literature difficult or inaccessible, but that is not the intended point. Like all translated literature, a little judicious choice about what to read is advisable, particularly at the outset. The rewards of the ending far outweigh any confusion at the beginning. Once a reader wets their feet wet in the river of Korean literature, and if that reader understands why some things may initially seem strange strange, that reader has a world of discovery ahead of them.

Related Korea Blog posts:

Where is Korean Translated Literature?

 Looking Back at Modern Short Stories from Korea, the Very First Collection of Korean Fiction in English

The Triumph of Han Kang and the Rise of Women’s Writing in Korea

Bright Lies, Big City: Korean Authors and Seoul

Charles Montgomery is an ex-resident of Seoul where he lived for seven years teaching in the English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University. You can read more from Charles Montgomery on translated Korean literature here, on Twitter @ktlit, or on Facebook.

KB - Non-Summit 1

That’s Korean Entertainment: the Freakishly Fluent Foreigners of Non-Summit

By Colin Marshall

“Whatever you do,” fellow foreigners here in Korea occasionally tell me, “don’t go on television.” Easy enough advice to follow, you’d think, though many Koreans, upon meeting a Korean-speaking non-Korean, almost automatically insist that they should go right before the cameras. Flattery in the absence of anything else to say aside, the response reflects a real viewer demand. Recent years have seen a flowering of shows about foreigners in Korea, and not just EBS’ documentation of the home and work lives of the various Canadians, Jamaicans, Vietnamese, and Russians who wind up married with children here. You can easily channel-surf your way to other shows, hit shows, that have made their foreigners into stars.

If you often fly on airlines that serve South Korea, you’ve probably noticed among their canned television a program with the curious title of Non-Summit, originally from the cable network JTBC. Pitched as a comedic G20 meeting, most of the show takes place around a U-shaped table. On its sides sit eleven or so men in their twenties and thirties, all of various non-Korean nationalities — English, Canadian, Japanese, Italian, Chinese, American, Belgian, French, and Australian on the 2014 debut. At its head sit three slightly older Korean men who preside each week over a discussion of current events in Korea as well as in the countries of the “representatives”, the more emotionally charged — whether in the nationalistic sense or in the realm of mild scandal — the better.

The episodes’ overarching issues range widely: fashion trends, the War on Terror, pre-marital cohabitation, the generation gap, sad pop songs. All these discussions, apart from the readings-out of each country’s news item under discussion, happen entirely in Korean. This by itself, even two years into the show’s run, constitutes a real element of novelty, since most of the foreigners who appeared on Korean television before had a patchy to nonexistent command of the language. Even Non-Summit‘s closest precedent, KBS’ all-foreign-women Global Talk Show, never seemed overly concerned with its panelists’ language ability. (Its Korean title 미녀들의 수다, or “Beautiful Women’s Chat,” sheds some light on its priorities.)

KB - Non-Summit 2

But Korea, as I’ve written here before, lags behind the rest of northeast Asia in foreigner integration, especially of the linguistic variety (the only kind of integration a foreigner, especially a Westerner, can really achieve here). A popular television show that features a group of them every week does its part to alleviate that condition, though that very popularity would seem to indicate that Korea, unlike Japan and China, hasn’t quite made it out of the stage where a foreigner can attain celebrity status by competently speaking the language. Dave Spector, known across Japan as “Dave-san,” put down stakes there in 1983; Mark Rowswell became the Chinese public’s beloved “Dashan” when he appeared on a 1988 New Year’s broadcast watched by 550 million people.

Non-Summit has come closest to creating a similar breakout personality in Tyler Rasch, the representative of America during its first two seasons. By background and inclination a quick and thorough language-learner, he seems, just like the mild-mannered Rowswell, to draw resentment from other foreigners as he does admiration from the locals, who invariably describe him as a better Korean speaker than they themselves. “It used to be that people in Korea would praise my Korean abilities. But now that so many foreigners fluent in Korean are appearing on TV, the mood has changed,” writes the film critic and longtime Seoul resident Darcy Paquet. “People may not say it out loud, but I know it’s true: in their heads, everyone is comparing me to Tyler.”

Clearly the smartest guy in the room — and one who certainly didn’t force the editors to cut creatively around his speaking deficiencies — during his time in the American seat, Rasch vacated it in June, leaving viewers to wonder who would hold up the show’s high level of discourse. But it makes me and his other foreigner fans consider a different question: what do you do after Non-Summit? Many non-Koreans here complain of having “hit a wall,” but most of them came to teach English and, having never learned Korean to a high level, can’t find a way out of the industry they never really meant to get into in the first place. Work in Korean media, no matter how acclaimed, may present a similar dead end; scratch the surface of half the foreign-language broadcasters here, and you’ll find something like desperation for a job back “home.”

At least they have endorsement deals. I’ve seen Rasch pop up in language-product ads on the internet, and just about equally famous Ghanian Non-Summit colleague Sam Okyere in ads on the subway. Okyere, who’s also moved on from the show, must also have wielded serious influence behind the scenes, since the producers seemed to allow only him to have a normal-looking hairstyle. Everyone else’s hair juts out and swoops around in all manner of ridiculous angles, the better to complement their flashy suits (often with chasm-like collar gaps) and glowing makeup — the dire aesthetic fate, perhaps, that inspires all those warnings about not submitting to the Korean televisual machine.

Or maybe they refer to the layers and layers of extra text and graphics applied, as in so many Korean television programs, to enliven the proceedings, underscoring slights and embarrassments, intensifying emotions, and hammering on the occasional mispronunciation. They also have a good deal of fun with the icons and traditional costumes of each representative’s country of origin, one of those practices that gets so many foreigners — mostly Westerners, and then mostly Americans — firing off accusations of insensitivity, condescension, racism, and what have you from the moment they arrive. But the show has also made an effort, against expectations, of introducing representatives from nations it could have overlooked, like Egypt, India, Mexico, and Iran.

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It once had a Turk at the table — naturally, given the Turkish-South Korean special bond — but that didn’t work out so well. Over the first twenty or so episodes, Enes Kaya made his name as the show’s conservative loudmouth, referencing at every opportunity his devotion to family, respect for tradition, abstention from alcohol, and so on. An American viewer, witness to the constant disgracing of their own fire-and-brimstone preachers, homophobic politicians, and aggressively wholesome sportsmen, would have known exactly what to respect. But Korean viewers (the society’s dim view of its own sexual morality as revealed in novels and films notwithstanding) still haven’t fully recovered from the shock of revelation at the texts Kaya, already married to a Korean woman, exchanged with his girl (or one of his girls) on the side.

That degree of scrutiny provides another good reason not to go on Korean television, as does the fear of becoming what the expat-in-Asia parlance calls a “performing monkey.” Non-Summit doesn’t exactly downplay its freak-show angle: the Korean title, 비정상 회담, translates as “Abnormal Summit,” and the concept’s basic humor comes out of holding up anyone so patently eccentric as a Korean-speaking foreigner as a “representative” of anything. But I suspect that the success of these shows has less to do with the fascination of watching any particular foreigner than watching other Koreans interact with foreigners. (Non-Summit also brings on a steady supply of pop stars, actors, and other famous Koreans for its representatives to chat with.)

That fascination extends beyond the television screen. As one Korean friend (who happens to run an online Korean-teaching empire) put it, “If you’re a foreigner riding the subway with a Korean, every other Korean onboard is watching to see how that Korean is interacting with you.” Whatever the language of that interaction, the “audience” wants to observe how one of their own engages with, to use the academically fashionable term, the Other. And though you could probably live out your life in Seoul without once having to appeared on television, as for avoiding the subway… well, you’ll sooner learn to speak Korean like Tyler Rasch.

Related Korea Blog posts:

Multicultural Love and Its Discontents

Among the Korea Vloggers

Why Is Korean So Hard?

You can read more of the Korea Blog here and follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

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Where Is Korean Translated Literature?

By Charles Montgomery

Over the next two months, the LARB Korea Blog will feature chapters from a draft of Charles Montgomery’s book-in-progress titled The Explorer’s History of Korean Fiction in Translation, an attempt to give a concise history and understanding of Korean literature as represented in translation. Here is the introductory chapter.

Almost every English language reader would immediately recognize the words “Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to discover that he had been transformed into a giant cockroach” as the first line of Franz Kafka’s masterpiece The Metamorphosis, a work that helped define his style and changed literature forever.

Or, quote to an English reader the line “Mother died today,” and they might well immediately recognize it as the first line of Albert Camus’ The Stranger. If they did not recognize it, perhaps one would only need to begin humming “Killing an Arab” by the English band The Cure to make the literary allusion obvious. Though written in French, The Stranger has been translated and not only read, but incorporated into English-language culture in such a way that it can become not just a hit as a piece of literature but a hit in popular music as well.

To go even farther back in time, one can quote the famous line, “The whole of Gaul is divided into three parts,” and the savvy reader will immediately recognize the first line of Julius Caesar’s account of the Gallic wars. Some might even recognize this quote in its original Latin: “Gallia omnis divisa in partes tres est.”

“The taxi’s radio was tuned to a classical FM broadcast. Janáček’s Sinfonietta—probably not the ideal music to hear in a taxi caught in traffic.” That might be a bit more obscure, but it is the first line from Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, which sold out upon its first day on sale in Japan and has been translated into many languages with first editions published in at least seven countries (Japan, United States, United Kingdom, Hungary, Norway, Turkey, and Greece). You could go to your local bookstore and immediately purchase this book, most likely in English, perhaps even in some language other than English or Japanese. 1Q84 has also been translated into Persian, Chinese, and Korean. In Korea, the book sells as a three-volume set, as it originally in Japan, but in Korean literature, it has few if any equivalents.

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An educated person might well recognize “Tell me, Muse, of the man of many devices, who wandered far and wide after he had sacked Troy’s sacred city, and saw the towns of many men and knew their mind” as the first line of Homer’s The Odyssey, or “To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s,” as that of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

All of these first sentences cross time, space and language, to achieve immediate recognizability to many English-speaking readers of fiction, whether that reader knows the original language at all, or even that the works come from other languages in the first place.

Yet ask that same reader about the following classic lines from Korean literature in translation:

“Why do murders always seem to happen on Sundays?”

“Perhaps we ought to begin this investigation into the deviations of his life by evoking the problem of memory.”

“Fighting, adultery, murder, theft, prison — the shanty area outside the Seven Star Gate was a breeding ground for all that is tragic and violent in this world.”

or one of my all-time favorite first lines in Korean literature,

“Before my wife turned vegetarian, I thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.”

It is an almost certainty that the “well-read” reader of translation will not recognize the first line, from Kim Young-ha’s brilliant detective novella Photo Shop Murder. The second line, nearly Nabokovian in nature, comes from Yi Mun-yol’s The Poet, and the third from Kim Dong-in’s translation of the tragic Potatoes. The last sentence is from possibly the most successful translation of Korean literature to date, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (and, it is worth noting, a kind of spiritual heir to the first line of The Metamorphosis).

There is, in fact, possibly only one opening line that many readers of Korean fiction might recognize: “It’s been one week since Mom went missing.” And yet, ask yourself if you actually did recognize this line from the other candidate for most successful translated work of Korean fiction in history, Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom.

Now consider the following plots:

A young, sexually abused hacker takes revenge, with the help of an older male journalist, on her abusers.

A deranged knight on horseback, followed by his loyal companion on burro, tilts ridiculously against windmills.

The adventures, misadventures, and disillusionment of a young man who ends up wanting nothing more than to tend his own garden.

A great, but blocked author visits Venice and finds himself obsessed with an extremely attractive young man. While the writer suffers the pangs of unrequited and unattempted love, he dies of cholera.

To many readers, these plots would be instantly identifiable as those of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Don Quixote, Candide, and Death in Venice. But describe the following story to any English-language reader (or non-Korean speaker): a young boy and a young girl meet while playing by a stream. They meet again and form a kind of friendship. Suddenly, a cloudburst appears out of the sky, forcing the boy and the girl to take shelter in a cramped stack of millet. The story ends with the girl dying, her final request being that she be buried in the same clothes that she always wore when she met the young boy.

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This would most likely ring no bell with a non-Korean reader, even though it comes from Sonagi (“Cloudburst”), among the most famous stories in Korean fiction. In fact, until quite recently one would have been hard-pressed to come up with any plot description of a Korean story that a non-Korean would recognize.

When I presented at conferences in Korea, I would always begin with a thought experiment. Imagine someone at a cocktail party in any intellectual city in the English-speaking world. The topic might well turn to literature, at which point the question might arise: “Who is your favorite author from (insert any country here)?” It is easy to imagine a partygoer with quick and easy answers for many countries: Japan, Asia, Russia, Sweden, Germany, Brazil, China, and so on. But faced with the question of “Who is your favorite Korean author?” our hypothetical partygoer may feel the immediate need to go refresh their drink.

And this is the unfortunate position in which translated Korean literature now finds itself, despite yeoman’s work from translators, publishers, the Language Translation Institute of Korea, and others. Despite a few breakthrough works, Korean literature has not succeeded to a level weaves it into the intellectual fabric of the Western world. The good news is that this seems to be slowly changing, and The Explorer’s History of Korean Fiction in Translation will look at Korean fiction through translation, trace its influences and development, and suggest where an interested non-Korean-speaking reader might begin — in some sense, an “idiot’s guide” to translated Korean fiction.

To understand Korean fiction, we must first discuss some of the historical and social influences that have made it what it is, and to some extent helped keep it off the international literary map. This discussion will occur two posts from now, and chapters from The Explorer’s History will appear here at a pace of about one per month. I would love to hear any feedback that readers of the Korea blog might have on them.

Related Korea Blog posts:

 Looking Back at Modern Short Stories from Korea, the Very First Collection of Korean Fiction in English

The Triumph of Han Kang and the Rise of Women’s Writing in Korea

Bright Lies, Big City: Korean Authors and Seoul

Charles Montgomery is an ex-resident of Seoul where he lived for seven years teaching in the English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University. You can read more from Charles Montgomery on translated Korean literature here, on Twitter @ktlit, or on Facebook.


Lost in Seoul, a New York Poet’s Memoir of Marrying into a Transforming Korea

By Colin Marshall

Book-length first-person narratives by Westerners in Korea have so far come in two waves: one in the 1890s, and another in the 1980s. Or perhaps, given that they produced only a handful of works each, long-form first-person narratives by Westerners in Korea have had more like two splashes. But though few in number, these books have held up through the decades: here on the Korea blog, I’ve already written about Percival Lowell’s Chosön, the Land of the Morning Calm: A Sketch of Korea and Isabella Bird Bishop’s Korea and Her Neighbors, both published in the 1980s, both earnest, witty, and by modern standards massively detailed attempts to replicate in text the life and landscape of an obscure and frustrating but ultimately endearing country few of their readers could imagine, let alone visit for themselves.

The second wave, or splash, of Korea books happened in the run-up to the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, an event now regarded as the reconstructed South Korea’s debut on the world stage. Simon Winchester, the writer of popular history and a traveler of British Empire vigor, took the whole country on foot and published his experiences in 1988 as Korea, a Walk Through the Land of Miracles. The journalist Michael Shapiro spent a year here around that same time, chronicling the country’s transition from military dictatorship to democracy in 1990’s lesser-known The Shadow in the Sun: A Korean Year of Love and Sorrow, which interspersed his high-level political observations with everyday ones about life in the country he briefly called home.

That same year, another American Michael, the poet and playwright Michael Stephens (also professionally known as Michael Gregory or M.G. Stephens) came out with Lost in Seoul and Other Discoveries on the Korean Peninsula. An inversion of Shapiro’s proportion of the political and the personal, the book draws on the New York-born, New York-raised, New York-based Stephens’ marriage to a Korean woman, and five or six of the visits they made, young daughter in tow, back to her homeland in the 70s and 80s. Its fourteen essays, all framed by his interactions with the pseudonymous family Han and their culture, find ways deal with Korea’s history, language, and politics, but also its variety of cultures: commercial, military, shamanistic, drinking.

The marriage put Stephens among a colorful cast of Korean characters, not least his chain-smoking, eyeshadowed opera singer wife, here called Haeja, the only member of her family to have settled in America. She’s spent a full decade away by the time of their first trip to Seoul together, meant in large part to introduce the family their two-year-old daughter Fionna (who, in real life, grew up to become the filmmaker Mora Stephens). A pack of excited relatives comes to pick them up from weary old Gimpo Airport, Korea’s only port of entry by air at that time long before the construction of the perpetually award-winning Incheon International. But soon an air raid drill — just like the one that opens Chil-su and Man-su — has halted all traffic into the capital.

 “Haeja, Fionna, and I climb out after the Hans,” Stephens writes. “The siren whines and whines incessantly, and I half expect that we’ll all be diving for cover under the cars, hands over our heads, waiting for an incoming artillery from the lunatic communist horde.” Fear soon gives way to fantasy: “I’m already composing the copy to be smuggled out of the city at dusk via medivac helicopter to an American military base in Japan, where it’ll be wired to the New York Times — which will of course run it on the front page under my byline.” Passages like this, and others on the U.S. as well as the protest-bashing local military presence in the streets, capture the martial tone of South Korean life that lingers to this day, though (the occasional unexplained siren aside) the air raids have long since ceased, the tear gas he smelled in the streets has dispersed, the American soldiers seldom stray far off base, and the Korean ones look younger and more harmless by the year.

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 Even in the late 1970s, the regimentation of the postwar period had begun to loosen up, though the book opens with Stephens in a South Korea still run by developmentalist strongman Park Chung-hee. “Any day,” he reflects while making his way through busy market alleyways and factory-thickened air, “this nation will slough off that label ‘third world.’” In the only scene of his and Haeja’s life in New York, he gets home after day his university job to the news of Park’s assassination by his own security chief. Grimly fascinated, he can’t stop himself from asking questions about the event on his next visit to Korea, even as he dines on pseudo-French cuisine high up in the newly built Lotte Hotel — albeit early, “in order to have a full evening on the town before curfew,” adhering to the terms of the martial law then in effect.

By the final chapters, with the Olympics looming, the Koreans around Stephens have begun to speak of democracy in non-hushed tones, even at as staid a gathering as his mother-in-law’s sixtieth birthday party. He describes the event, which celebrates the most important age milestone one can pass in Korean culture, as “like those gala balls found in nineteenth-century Russian novels.” Indeed, Seoul itself “reminds me of Moscow a century earlier, or should I say, it reminds me of that city I think I know from Russian literature of a century ago.” That may reflect his elevated coterie: Haeja’s family, though not, strictly speaking, aristocratic, maintains powerful government and business connections, and most of its members live in a large, servant-staffed traditional Korean courtyard house, renovated by Haeja’s architect-scion stepfather and located right next to the residence of the president.

 That, combined with the very title Lost in Seoul, leads one to expect a standard memoir of the coddled, uncurious, and often hired American abroad. Standing at a deliberately uncomprehending distance, they grind out interminable pages of futile struggle with laughable foreign customs, unappetizing foreign food, and incomprehensible foreign language — the sort of thing, in other words, that hit its intellectual apex with Dave Barry Does Japan. But in many ways, Stephens has written the opposite of that, the story of his ever-deepening relationship with, especially at the time, a poorly understood and little-respected culture.

 “I grew up with bitter old men cursing the Korean peninsula because they fought a dirty war there,” he writes, scraping together whatever impressions of the country could have preceded his marriage to one of its people. “Their minds were filled with images of rubble, gutted landscapes, biting chill, Chinese hordes, napalm, claymore mines, frozen ghosts.” Whether meeting Haeja drained these frightening second-hand memories of their power or sparked a latent interest in Korea he doesn’t say; in fact, he says nothing of the courtship at all, though he does make several connections, explicitly and implicitly, between his wife’s heritage and his own.

 “Her crazy face reminds me of a redheaded Irish aunt with a bottle of whiskey in her,” he writes of a Korean spirit medium deep in the throes of exorcism. “The Irish of Asia,” once the standard shorthand description of the Korean people, evokes hard work, binding family ties, and, not unrelatedly, hard drink. But like many Westerners in Asia, even those married into the society, Stephens enjoys a certain degree of freedom from societal expectations, and even faux pas — smoking in front of his elders, giving too-colorful ties as gifts — stay off his permanent record. Not so Haeja, who immediately upon stepping onto Korean soil again becomes, in an official sense, “a wife and mother, two important roles to add to her repertoire in this familial world, where she is already daughter, sister, and aunt, each with its own complex decorum.”

 Despite the comforts of the Han household and its accommodations (including but not limited to an order given to its servants to replicate a daily “American breakfast” as best they can), Stephens eventually chafes against it as well. Hence the titular state, which he finds “sometimes the only way for me to experience Korea away from the overprotectiveness of Haeja’s family. When they are not too carefully watching out for my well-being, they are often too caught up in the pride of being Korean, in wanting to show their Western relative an airbrushed, charming side of Seoul.” Not a scene in the book takes place in, say, the subway (the Hans keep a driver, or drivers, always prompt with the pick-up), or in one of the lookalike tower blocks already on the way to becoming the standard form of Korean housing in the 1960s.

 Yet Stephens develops a keen eye for the city, then as now “a hodgepodge where the wealthy, the middle class, and the poor live side by side.” The concentration of wealth in what this book refers to as New Seoul, now far better known in the West as Gangnam, has since introduced more segregation into the cityscape, but visitors from other countries still quickly take notice of the relative proximity of the seemingly disparate, from social classes to architectural styles. Nor does its distinctive religious iconography escape them, as it doesn’t Stephens, who takes early note of a mountaintop atop which “a huge neon cross proclaims JESUS SAVES!” — and, in another direction, a Buddhist temple. “My eyes freeze,” he writes, “on a swastika painted just under the rooftop.”

 His attempts to get a handle on the distinctive morality and philosophy underlying Korean society lead Stephens to pronounce its people “Confucians socially, Buddhists when times are difficult, but they are animists nearly always.” The dynamic between the sexes, in which “men flaunt power” while “women finesse theirs,” comes explained to him mostly by the men in Haeja’s family, or at least those who willingly bring him into the Korea’s closed masculine circles. Much of it comes from the expansive, gregarious, aspirational (and also English-speaking) Uncle Mo, would-be quasi-royalty severed from the benefits of his pedigree by his illegitimacy. “Write about the women,” goes his advice to Stephens about his book in progress, “but always remember that Korea is a great country for men.”

 And just a few pages later: “If you are going to write about Korea, forget about the men. The women are the real story because everything about them is so subtle, nothing is what it appears to be.” He says this during the same driving range coffee-shop conversation in which he describes himself as a feminist and during which — “it is difficult for me to act like anything but a man in public” — he gruffly orders around and leers animalistically at their waitress, neatly demonstrating what might look to a Westerner like the unhealthy contradictions of Korean gender relations. “For most men, romance comes outside the home,” says another middle-aged Korean man, providing a clarifying addendum to another lecture of Uncle Mo’s, delivered in the locker room of another golf course. “’This is so,’ agrees a businessman, toweling himself off.”

 One personality has more vividness on the page than Uncle Mo: the diminutive, foulmouthed, Grandma Oh, long-widowed and with nothing to do but drink, smoke, and issue various complaints and pronouncements — to “be herself,” in other words, “as irascible and unhappy as that self may be, and accept everyone’s esteem for her. Americans would have sent her to a nursing home long ago. In a Korean household, she is not just tolerated, she is venerated as the great elder of the family.” Then as now, Koreans tend to regard those past the age of about eighty, coarsened, stiffened, and stunted by the sheer difficulty of their lives, as living totems of their country’s hardships. As, in a way, does Stephens: “I feel that if I can explicate the furrows, the cracks, the wrinkles, the deep lines on her cheeks and her brow, in her chin and along the bridge or her nose, I would understand all there is to know about modern Korea.”

 Sometimes, these bent and cranky senior citizens also become unlikely fonts of progressivism, Grandma Oh being no exception: “There’s nothing wrong with a good woman marrying twice,” she declares more than once. “Nothing at all. This is a new era.” Haeja’s mother, after the death of her own first husband, remarried herself, doing so in an era when such an act would have put her decidedly on the vanguard. Despite having been born in 1896 (just a year after “the great matriarch Queen Min had been assassinated by Japanese gangsters,” an era-ending death recounted in detail by Isabella Bird Bishop), Grandma Oh understands the changes sweeping South Korea better than the younger people who supposedly represent them, from the foreign-educated relatives with their surly demands for justifications for every tradition to the teenage Korean-Americans shipped in ostensibly for cultural enrichment. “I imagine that Korean parents driving by probably point them out to their children as examples of what will happen to them if they’re not good,” Stephens says of one such group, dyed of hair and theatrically irreverent of manner, hanging out on a street corner.

 A Seoul city block can change unrecognizably in a matter of months, or even weeks, a pace already set when Stephens first arrived on a background where “about every third building, there is an excavation,” to a soundtrack of “jackhammers, honking horns, whistles, shouts and combustion.” It must owe, then to his sense of the timeless that the neighborhoods through which he describes wandering (when not chauffeured), despite thirty or more intervening years, remain recognizable in the text today. Seoul, as he puts it late in the book, “is where I gather myself, where I put myself back together” on each trip he, Haeja, and the teenage Fionna (fast growing, in Stephens’ description, into of those increasingly alien Korean-Americans herself) eventually make each rainy summer season during the university break.

 Lost in Seoul‘s editor at Random House certainly demonstrated foresight in shepherding the book to publication — maybe too much foresight. Korea had, for the first time since the war, become a big subject in America in the late 1980s, albeit not quite big enough to eclipse the even more astonishing, and thus more anxiety-inducing, rise of Japan, its larger, outwardly sexier neighbor as well as former colonizer. (This opened a river of first-person Westerner’s narratives of Japan, not just by Dave Barry, that still hasn’t quite run dry.) But more than fifteen years of economic stagnation having since neutralized the Japanese threat, the Land of the Rising Sun has lost some ground to the Land of the Morning Calm as an Eastern site of Western cultural interest. It helps that Korea now wields “soft power” in the form of pop music, films, television dramas, and even literature, whereas in the 70s and 80s it seemed to offer practically nothing of potential international interest — in other words, nothing cool.

 But Stephens, a self-described rumpled academic who first brought to Korea little more than his knowledge of “basketball, open-form American poetry, western drama, Buster Keaton, I Love Lucy, and Thelonious Monk,” has little concern for the cool. But his interest in poetry provides him a lighted tunnel into the deep culture of Korea, a place where it holds popularly acknowledged primacy over all other literary forms. My copy of Lost in Seoul came, seemingly untouched, straight from the estate of a Pacific Northwest poetic luminary. Inside I found a letter written to her by Stephens himself: “As the enclosed book is as much about language, and specifically poetry, as it is about Korea,” it begins, “I thought it might interest you.”

 Stephens incorporates his own translations of Korean poetry in the text, and references to the Western variety appear with some frequency. (He titles the third chapter “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon.”) But the interest in the Korean language itself sets him apart, to my mind, from his contemporaries, not just in the endeavor of writing about Korea, but in the endeavor of joining and understanding, to the extent possible, a Korean family. (Most of the first Korean-married countrymen I met, in the late 1990s, didn’t just know little of Korea but insisted on calling their wives by their comically bland “American” names.) He devotes much of another referentially titled chapter, “Politics and the Korean Language,” to the complications of speaking it in the particular way properly suited to one’s age, status, and origin. He even develops a certain ungrammatical, drink-lubricated fluency in the language himself, which is more than many long-term expatriates here can say for themselves.

 In the letter paperclipped into my copy of the book, Stephens also mentions that it “has not yet received too many reviews” despite several months on the market. Now based in London, he seems not to have written much about Korea since, and though Lost in Seoul remains reasonably easy to come by at the better libraries (I first read it at the Koreatown, branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, when I lived in the neighborhood), I have yet to meet anyone, in America or in Korea, who recognizes the title. Ironically, this long-out-of-print book now has more relevance than ever given the West’s rising Korea-consciousness, as well as the incomparably more thorough integration of Koreans into the outside world.

 Back in the era of air raid drills and political assassinations, a Western family member was still a novelty; now at least half of my American friends have married someone from Asia. The only one of them who’s yet read this book on my recommendation happened to marry a Korean woman himself: he has, forty years after Stephens’ experiences, his own Haeja, his own regularly South Korea-stamped passport from visits to his own Hans, and as of this year his own Fionna. Whether he’ll take the next logical step and write his own Lost in Seoul remains to be seen, but I sense that the time has in any case come for the book-length first-person narrative by Westerners in Korea, whether in another splash or that long-awaited wave, to return.

 Related Korea Blog posts:

 Isabella Bird Bishop: Pioneering Female Traveler and Prototypical Westerner in Korea

The Adventures of Percival Lowell, Famed Astronomer and Early Writer on Korea

You can read more of the Korea Blog here and follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

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The Gwangju Uprising as Remembered by The Vegetarian Author Han Kang and Other Korean Novelists

By Charles Montgomery

Previously I discussed William Amos’ The Seed of Joy, which I described as a rare work of fiction on the Gwangju Uprising by a non-Korean author. For an event so critical to South Korea, the Gwangju Uprising has generated surprisingly little fiction in translation, but there are a handful of excellent books by Korean authors that deal with it. The first thing a reader will notice is that while Amos’ work focused on the actual nuts and bolts of the Uprising, the Korean works tend to focus on the aftermath of the events.

These Korean authors rarely focus on the government created in response to the Democratic Movement, nor the culpability of that government in the events of the Uprising. Along those lines, it is also interesting that little mention is ever made of the role, or lack thereof, of the United States in the Uprising, yet several studies indicate that the Gwangju Uprising was the beginning of a powerful switch in public sentiment against the United States, which many believed was either implicitly or complicity involved in the Uprising’s quashing.

Considering how critical the Gwangju Uprising was to South Korea’s Democracy Movement, the translations of these works have been rare. Comparisons are not exact, but think about how much French literature has been written about the barricades of Paris, or U.S. literature about student revolt in the 1960s and 70s. Why has Korean literature been so restrained? The literary critic Chʻoe Chŏng-un, using the kind of logic that his colleagues worldwide might use, posits, “the uprising was like fiction, with a clear beginning and end, teeming with unimaginable incidents. In other words, it would be difficult to write fiction on a bizarre story.” But this hardly seems sensible, as many equally bizarre historical stories have been written, and more obvious reasons exist.

The first apparent reason not much fiction was written about the Gwangju Uprising was purely political and practical: to write about the Uprising was to invite extremely uncomfortable government attention. From the time of the event until 1987, the Korean government zealously guarded the meaning of the Gwangju Uprising to the point of attempting to control the vocabulary used when discussing it. “Murder” by policemen was quickly morphed into a “riot” by citizens, according to Chʻoe, and when the Uprising was mentioned, it was portrayed as the result of “impure” elements in Korean society who were prone to “incite,” “riot,” form a “mob,” and tend toward “anarchy.”

In fact, the government even attempted to rename the Uprising and denature it to an “incident.” Simply put, writing about the Gwangju Uprising invited imprisonment, torture, and perhaps even death. In Lim Chul-woo’s Straight Lines and Poison Gas – At the Hospital Wards, the author’s biography notes, “the society of the 1980s was a regulated one, where social criticism, not to mention that of Gwangju of May, was absolutely forbidden to be expressed.” Even after the dictatorship was scraped, it was often dangerous for writers to produce anything that could be seen as pro-North or anti-government. As we shall see, however, clever writers could sometimes skirt this prohibition.

More recently, there has been a changing of the guard in Korean society to a younger generation that simply cannot connect with the experiences of their parents and grandparents. Korea exists in such a constant state of future shock that looking backwards seems quaint at best and unproductive at worst. Ch’oe Yun, who we shall shortly discuss, notes that “since the latter half of the 1980s, Korean society has changed. I admit that to some degree the actual events of the past have become an abstract concept in our history.”

Ch’oe adds that this is most likely a survival tactic for Koreans. “This does not mean that I simply want to criticize younger Korean readers for being oblivious to the past. I even wonder if it was forgetfulness of the extremity of the past events that actually helped Koreans to move without fear into the future and build their modern nation. Also, I can only speculate about whether being oblivious in this way was in itself a positive source of energy in a uniquely Korean way.” Not surprisingly, a majority of those who did write on the Gwangju Uprising were involved in it, were members of the Democracy Movement, were from Jeolla Province, or sometimes all three. Among this number are Hwang Sok-yong, Han Kang, and Lim Chulwoo.

One of the groundbreaking works on Gwangju, however, was written by a resident of Seoul. Ch’oe Yun’s There a Petal Silently Falls is a multi-narrator examination of a teenage girl’s descent into and occupation of madness after witnessing, and perhaps being partially responsible for, her mother’s murder. The story is told from the perspective of the girl, her abuser, and a group of college students (friends of the girl’s brother) who are attempting to find her. The girl is utterly traumatized, prone to seizures, and follows her abuser around under the mistaken notion that he is her dead brother. All the characters are damaged. Even the abuser is afraid that “the girl would end up just like those coins, slipping through his fingers, trampled by countless feet, covered with earth, and forgotten for all time.” This idea of death and forgetfulness will be revisited in Human Acts by The Vegetarian author Han Kang.

Ch’oe’s girl is an obvious symbol of Gwangju, and her state a reflection of what Gwangju itself underwent after the Uprising was crushed. As Han does in Human Acts, Ch’oe contemplates the role of memory: the desire to both remember and forget. Ch’oe’s girl desperately tries to construct a “curtain” with which to hide herself from her past. Yet even as she does this, she remains conscious of the fact that memory is all that is needed to tear the curtain down, and even that defensive curtain is unreal. Memory is an obsession, curse, and perhaps a kind of gift. As is the case with characters in Human Acts, the girl communicates with the dead in order to keep memory alive, saying, “Don’t put your hand over your ears while I’m talking. If you do, I’ll turn to dust. Now that I think about it, I’ve died and come back to life again and again.”

Ch’oe’s multiple narrators parallel the often fractured language, imagery, and telling (particularly by the girl) of the story. The literary beauty of this work partly owes to the fact that, while it is clearly about the Gwangju Massacre, its non-specificity about where its own atrocity occurred allows any reader to imagine it as any massacre. This was likely also a politically astute strategy for Ch’oe at the time. “When dealing with a brutal and desperate reality, reality can actually become an anti-literary environment for the writing of reality,” he notes in an interview with Japan Focus. “This is because the momentary utility of literature is always situated in conflict with a more universalizing, literary sense of time which seeks to leap beyond the limited, representational time which literature possesses. I believe that it is from the dilemma of the two temporalities, the two objectives – the writing of reality and the creation of reality through writing – that in fact all genuine literature which writes reality has been born.” It is amazing to note that the stunning There a Petal Silently Falls was Ch’oe’s debut work. The book was also made into a Korean movie titled Petal, for those who prefer their literature in a visual form.

Han’s Human Acts begins with the completely average scene of a schoolboy worrying about the rain for the completely unusual reason that he is afraid that it will speed up the decay of some corpses he is attending. The bodies belong to the victims of the Gwangju massacre. The story quickly turns, as did that of There a Petal Silently Falls, to issues of death and remembrance. “There is no way back to the world before the torture,” one character notes. “No way back to the world before the massacre.” Han lived in Gwangju but moved to a suburb of Seoul at age nine, just before the Uprising. As a result, she is very interested in the idea of a “way back to the world” that has been left behind, an issue that she addresses directly in her final chapter.

Human Acts comes hot on the heels of the award winning The Vegetarian, and packs every bit as much punch as it’s predecessor. Originally titled The Boy Comes (소년이 온다), Human Acts is told in a collection of linked chapters, almost a yŏnjak sosŏl, meaning a “linked novel” or collection of separately published short stories. Only the first two chapters are set at the time of the Uprising — the former in the immediate aftermath told by the living, the latter narrated from the perspective of the dead soul of a young boy on a charnel heap. In chapter three, the book leaps forward to 1985 where it explores the ongoing governmental efforts to dominate the national discourse.

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This control is, of course, exactly what forced authors of the time into indirectness or inspecificity when writing about the Uprising. Chapter Four flashes back to the torture visited upon survivors of the Uprising, managing to present it as horrible and quotidian at the same time. Chapter Six is the “traditional” end of the book with the mother of the dead boy giving a monologue to him on the thirtieth anniversary of his death. Surprisingly, Han concludes the book in with a first-person memoir of the real story that underlies the book and her own experience coming to write it. This section gives a very real historical heft to the work, strange as it might seem to find in a novel.

Han’s writing is much more visceral than in many of the other books, as she presents a modern version of Coleridge’s nightmare life in death. “Just before you step outside, you turn and look back over your shoulder,” she writes. “There are no souls here. There are only silenced corpses, and that horrific putrid stink.” Han is unsparing, and while her virtuoso second chapter featuring the dead boy could have become ghoulish or camp, she carefully plays it straight. She frequently uses the kind of second-person narrative voice heard in Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom, but in this much more serious book, the effect is also much more serious, and the “you” seems to alternate between a standard second-person narrative and a direct appeal to the reader, forming part of the most comprehensive treatment of the Gwangju Uprising with its scenes from the actual massacre right up to the writing of the book.

Lim Chul-woo’s Straight Lines and Poison Gas – At the Hospital Wards is nothing if not anguished. Lim was a student at the time of the Gwangju Uprising, attending Chonnam University, the original center of the demonstrations, and he lived through all the events of the Uprising. Not surprisingly, this informs much of his writing. The novella indirectly focuses on the massacre the national attempt to overcome it — or pretend it never happened. That indirection comes from Lim’s having written the story in the 1980s, that time at which publicly attacking the government, or even discussing dissent and oppression, was extremely risky.

Lim drops the reader directly into the life of an ex-cartoonist directly addressing a doctor. As the story develops, it becomes clear that the narrator has been dropped off at the hospital by detectives who have been torturing him, and that their return, though without a particular timetable, is likely inevitable. In flashbacks, the narrator reveals that he once led a quite ordinary life as a cartoonist, but fatefully drew a cartoon that aroused the attention of the authorities. While never revealed to the reader, it causes the cartoonist to be taken in for questioning, complete with a semi-concealed threat by the police that they remember” his uncle, clearly a political dissident who went into some kind of exile or died in hiding. This threat, and the recognition it brings to the narrator that he is powerless and entirely observable, opens the floodgates in his mind.

The narrator is then overtaken by hallucinations, all barely concealed flashbacks to the Gwangju massacre. Lim uses symbols brilliantly, including the two in the title and at least two more brilliant ones during the course of the story. The lack of control that the title symbols express in the book is almost palpable: breath is squeezed and political lines brutally delineated. Lim fleshes the story out with enough family and social background information to both expand on the history (at least one other character lives in the grasp of Gwangju massacre-induced mental illness), and he does a good job of counterposing these characters against the others, including the cartoonist’s pregnant wife, who are apparently willing to forget the past and simply try to live through the present.

With these three sets of characters — the banal day-to-day survivors, the threatening agents of repression, and those who cannot forget and therefore suffer — Lim builds a pressure cooker. As the hallucinations grow and tighten around the cartoonist, he begins to cartoon again, unofficially, and this leads him back out into the public eye and the novella to its “conclusion.” The book is well written and clear enough that specific knowledge of Korea is not necessary to enjoy it. The interrogation scenes have the scent of Kafka, and the descent of the narrator is reminiscent of familiar stories such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper or George Orwell’s 1984, while also exposing a thick slice of Korea and its culture.

Lim has previously been translated in the three-novella collection Red Room, which takes its title from his contribution, and it, too, seems to make clear reference to the Gwangju Uprising and its results. Lim’s short story “The Red Room” features dual and dueling narrator-protagonists. The first is a mild-mannered everyman/salaryman O Ki-sop whose casual act of kindness many years before and slightly suspect family background combine to draw the attention of the Korean state security apparatus. The second is Detective Ch’oe Tal-shik, who can say, like Macbeth, “I am in blood, / Stepp’d so far, that should I wade no more, / returning were a tedious as go o’er.” The story tells of Ch’oe’s attempts to break O down.

Not only does “The Red Room” feature dual narrators, but Detective Ch’oe also has his own internal narrators that represent the voice of his traumas (one from his domestic life, the other from his distant past). This internal narration gives him a sometimes-problematic inner dialogue: he is a man of contradictions, perhaps more contradictions than one character can conveniently contain. It is not that it is unlikely that a man of high standing in his church could also be a torturer (cf. the Inquisition), rather that such a character should also have such clear inner awareness of the sources of his own trauma, be so able to connect those traumas to his existence in his daily life and aware of their outcomes, but then to draw no conclusions from them.

Despite this slightly puzzling aspect, the inner voice is terrifying, telling visceral tales of terror (the internal narration is italicized): “Look, Tal-Shik! He shouted at the top of his lungs, pointing at the bloody corpses. You have to see this. Those sons of bitches are Reds.” The Detective’s position is clear: he relentlessly relives his trauma, it cycles around in his head, and consequently he cannot relieve himself of it. Ch’oe’s internal retelling of his trauma is intense and relentless; he cannot make it cease and in fact draws a perverse kind of justification from it. O’s writing is clear and direct, as befits a tale this blunt. A clever reader will spot a graceful nod to George Orwell in its conclusion that mankind is haunted by fear itself.

In “The Red Room” there is no hope of escape from trauma: the cycle is burned in too deeply and recurs to frequently to break. At its conclusion, Detective Ch’oe enjoys/endures an epiphany of revenge featuring the disturbing and vivid sanguinary image: “A blood-colored sea filled the room … As I prayed, I felt with vivid clarity a sacred joy and benevolence envelop me with warmth, before beginning finally to fill the Red Room.” Even O Ki-sop, the mild everyman, becomes a vessel of hatred. As he finally wanders home in a daze, he accosts a stranger: “Something is rising inside me, something hot and burning. It’s spreading hot throughout me, building an enormous heat – It’s my rage.” So the trauma continues.

Finally, Hwang Sok-yong ‘s The Old Garden (2000) casts a bleak eye on the Gwangju Uprising’s aftermath. The two main characters are in the student movement, but the book spends almost no time on the movement itself. In a clever narrative trick, the bulk of movement descriptions are attained through political pamphlets distributed by one of the characters. When the activists meet at a new cemetery, they are unimpressed and discover that the city itself has altered beyond recognition.

In fact, the political shift of 1987 has paradoxically resulted in a city that no longer seems to care about the issues that drove the Gwangju Uprising, instead treating its history as a “tourist attraction.” Hwang builds a bridge between the disillusion following the eventual ephemeral “success” of democracy in Korea and the “Hell Joseon” that was to come in which social relations are defined purely by wealth, hypocrisy, and opportunism, and all the noble ideals of the Democratic Movement have been buried under an avalanche of consumerism. Hwang sees the Gwangju Uprising as a movement betrayed.

None of these works are particularly cheery, and most of them are downright gruesome. In addition, they are all well-served by a bit of understanding of their historical background, as the authors prior to Han and Hwang had to make an effort to veil the historical event about which they were writing. Still, for a reader interested in Korean modern history, and particularly its sometimes harsh struggles towards democracy, these books are key literary texts outlining the impact of struggle, death, and memory on the creation of the modern Korean state.

Related Korea Blog posts:

The Gwangju Uprising from an American’s Perspective: a Q&A with The Seed of Joy Author William Amos

Sex, Surreality, and Social Conformity: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian Sprouts Onto the U.S. Literary Landscape

Charles Montgomery is an ex-resident of Seoul where he lived for seven years teaching in the English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University. You can read more from Charles Montgomery on translated Korean literature here, on Twitter @ktlit, or on Facebook.

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Watching Madame Freedom, the Movie that Scandalized Postwar Korea, Fifty Years Later

This is one in a series of essays on important pieces of Korean cinema freely available on the Korean Film Archive’s Youtube channel. You can watch this month’s movie here. Previously featured movies include Park Kwang-su’s Chil-su and Man-su (1988) and Kim Soo-yong’s Night Journey (1975).

“Yasujiro Ozu,” writes critic Donald Richie in his study of the prolific and influential midcentury Japanese filmmaker, “had but one major subject, the Japanese family, and but one major theme, its dissolution.” The best-known of his many domestic dramas like Late Spring, Tokyo Story, and Good Morning dramatize that dissolution of the Japanese family as vividly as they capture its context – those decades after the second world war when Japan seemed to turn more modern, and look more Western, by the day. Korea underwent a similarly heady period of reconstruction and development in the 20th century, but the Korean family – as many Koreans can tell you – remains a relatively robust institution even now.

Then again, Korea’s modernization got started later and had less to work with in the first place.  While Japan’s defeat in World War II ended its colonial rule over Korea, the problems of the newly divided Koreas had only just begun. Five years later, the North attacked the South, sparking the Korean War that would leave much of the peninsula in ruins by the time it stalemated in 1953. On the very first day of the very next year, in a South Korea still struggling to get on its feet, Jeong Bi-seok’s serialized novel Madame Freedom (자류부인) began its 215-part run in the Seoul Daily News, quickly drawing a huge readership by telling a story of romantic intrigue tied up with the trends of the day, from the emergence of underground dance clubs to the craze for luxury goods to the entrance of women into the workforce.

All of those are presented in Han Heyong-mo’s 1956 screen adaptation of the novel, dubbed “the most controversial film in Korean cinematic history,” as phenomena of essentially foreign origin. Throughout Japan’s longer history of engagement with the outside world, it could exercise some discretion about what to pick and choose how it wanted to assimilate into the local culture. South Korea, though, had to take it all in more or less at once, as it was presided over by a highly Westernized new president, relied on American funds for the initial phases of its reconstruction, and was keen to implement any societal model under which people would no longer go hungry.

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Thus, much Korean cinema of the 1950s and 60s deals with the disorientation that results when new ways displace old ones, and a deeply-rooted culture struggles to keep up with changing attitudes — or futilely attempts to stifle them. Ozu’s films did that for Japan, but displayed as much emotional restraint as Korean films displayed (what often strikes foreign audiences as) emotional excess. Jeong’s novel provides the movie prime material for melodrama: accepting the household’s need for some extra money, Professor Jang Tae-yeon grants his wife Seon-yeong the freedom to take a job behind the counter at a boutique, a choice that before long leads her into the arms of other men — the collegiate playboy next door, the husband of the boutique’s owner — as well as complicity in the smuggling operation run by a member of her alumni club.

Where Ozu might look on all this with a sigh of resignation at the bittersweetness of inevitable change, Madame Freedom slaps Seon-yeong down hard, ending with her denied passage through the gate of her own home, tearfully begging her husband and young son for forgiveness out on the street. (Things end even more grimly for her old college friend.) “If you were Professor Jang Tae-yeon, what decision would you make regarding your wife?” asked the movie posters at the time. Though, perhaps under modernity’s sway himself, Professor Jang Tae-yeon does get awfully close to one of his former students who asks him to teach grammar to her and several other young ladies, all of them employed as typists at the local office of a Western company. But whether out of morality or cowardice, he rejects her advances; his wife, by contrast, goes so far as to kiss a potential paramour — the first act of its kind ever shown on a Korean screen.

This shock of the new has, despite what many modern viewers will see as an unsubtle dramatic style and implicit endorsement of patriarchal assumptions, kept the film fresh. It routinely screens in retrospectives of and courses on Korean cinema, and DJ Spooky once even re-scored the film live, drawing samples from music old and new, Korean and American. He once described Madame Freedom as Korea’s first postwar jazz movie, a category it might fall into, among other reasons, for its dancehall set piece in which a jazz orchestra plays a mambo while a dancer writhes in front of them, surely a scandalously brazen display by the standards of the time — the standards prevailing in movie theaters, anyway, if not in such cutting-edge (and police raid-subject) venues themselves.

Everyone in that scene wears Western attire, from the dancer in her comparatively revealing dress, of course, to the jazz men with their matching suits to that boy next door, whom Seon-yeong has surreptitiously met there, his patter inflated with Western loanwords (such as the “Madame” of the English title, which he calls Seon-yeong) and, in a manner not entirely dissimilar from the hopeless Chil-su of Chil-su and Man-su, talks of his plans to go to America. Everyone, that is, but Seon-yeong herself, who still wears a traditional Korean dress. But that soon changes; from then on, her Westernization of her appearance indicates the extent of her downfall.

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Some of the film’s morality-play qualities owe to an appeasement of the strict censorship then in force. As Han explained, “If the audience saw any scenes of deviation, they will accept it as a lesson, which means this film could be a good, enlightening film.” The question of whether the wife of a professor ought to work no longer occasions so much hand-wringing, and rightfully so, but some of the other concerns the films raises remain concerns today: to what extent, for instance, must modernization mean Westernization? To the extent that this movie issued a warning about how the uncritical embrace of things foreign can turn into a deforming fetish, Korea — a land now continually swept by consumer fads for Norwegian strollers, Birkenstock sandals, churros, and so on — arguably didn’t heed it.

But this Westernization-wary substance comes packaged in a distinctly Western cinematic form. Madame Freedom made Korean cinema history with not just what it dared to depict, but the techniques used to depict it: along with Korea’s first on-screen kiss came its first domestic use of such filmmaking tools as the crane and dolly (Han used his industrial connections to get them custom-built) as well as sound design elements essential for a story in which music plays such an important role but heretofore unheard, or at least underused, in domestic films. The combination of envelope-pushing content, lavish production, and an adaptation of foreign storytelling to Korean concerns continues today, especially in the work of Park Chan-wook, whose grim, transgressive, and Japanese comic book-based Oldboy kicked Korean cinema up to a new level of international recognition in the early 2000s.

Just this year, Park drew much acclaim, and no small volume of tut-tutting, with The Handmaiden, a transposition of Sarah Waters’ novel The Fingersmith from Victorian England into colonial-era Korea. Its wince-inducing torture scenes, and even more so its frank and enthusiastic depictions of lesbian love, have understandably drawn most of the attention. But look deeper and you find it deals with some of the very same issues as Madame Freedom: deception, female empowerment, the fraught engagement of Korea with the world outside it. The lovers at the center of The Handmaiden (아가씨), a wealthy heiress and the young thief who takes the titular role at first to swindle her, also attempt to break away from the societal structures that bind them — but unlike the hapless Seon-yeong in her movie of half a century earlier, they get away with it.

Related Korea Blog Posts:

The Unbearable Preposterousness of Westernization: Park Kwang-su’s Chil-su and Man-su

Between Boring Heaven and Exciting Hell: Kim Soo-yong’s Night Journey

You can read more of the Korea Blog here and follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.