Mao Badges — Red, Bright and Shiny (And Open to Every Form of Capitalist Speculation)

By Helen Wang and Paul Crook

In his new book, The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History 1962-1976, historian Frank Dikötter devotes almost two pages to Mao badges. “By 1968, the national output stood at more than 50 million badges per month,” he writes, but even that “was not enough, and a thriving black market emerged to compete with the state.” He notes that there were “illegal markets” that were in reality “hardly hidden from view, a few of them attracting crowds of over 10,000 punters, spilling over on to the streets and blocking the traffic.” Even though “(l)ocal officials decried these capitalist activities as ‘extremely disrespectful towards our great leader’… there was not much that they could do, since Red Guards and other revolutionary organisations policed the markets.”

I’m grateful to Dikötter for reminding readers of the importance of Mao badges and drawing attention to the economic activity associated with them. They are objects I’ve thought about a lot, especially since the early 2000s, when the British Museum was offered a donation of over 200 Mao badges (duplicates from a private collection in China) and my Head of Department, after agreeing to accept the gift, told me to write a catalogue. At the time, the most relevant English-language sources were Bill Bishop’s 1995 M.A. thesis “Badges of Chairman Mao Zedong (毛主席像章),” the first in-depth analysis of Mao badges ever written in English; and Melissa Schrift’s book, Biography of a Chairman Mao Badge (2001), an anthropological account of collecting Mao badges. I consulted various other sources, including catalogues of Chinese collections of Mao badges, but these tended to take a huge amount of background knowledge for granted. My catalogue, Chairman Mao Badges. Symbols and Slogans of the Cultural Revolution (2008), was designed along the lines of a traditional British Museum coin catalogue, i.e. an object-based work that could be used as a reference guide. When I sent a copy to a Mao badge expert in Beijing, he wrote back, confused as to why the British Museum collected such material, and why it would go to the trouble of producing a catalogue of a collection that was, frankly, not very impressive. I explained that the British Museum was a museum of history, that these were historical relics of the 20th century, and that the catalogue was written so that non-specialist English readers could access the history behind the objects.

The British Museum collection of Mao badges currently stands at about 350 pieces. It’s part of the UK’s national collection of badges from all over the world. Since the catalogue of Mao badges was published, every so often I receive emails from people who have their own Mao badge collections, often numbering in the hundreds or thousands. One such person is Clint Twist, who, with only a little encouragement a couple of years ago, set up what is probably the first English language website devoted to Mao badges — and tweets a Mao badge almost every day @clinttwist.

More recently, I discovered that one of the British Museum volunteers, Paul Crook, had been a teenage Mao badge dealer in Beijing in the 1960s! Paul — who was recently interviewed by the BBC for a segment on posters from the Mao era — kindly agreed to talk about that time, vividly confirming Dikötter’s statement that “badges were the most hotly traded pieces of private property during the first years of the Cultural Revolution, open to every form of capitalist speculation.”

Helen Wang


My parents were teachers at the Foreign Languages Institute in Beijing, and when the Cultural Revolution started in 1966, and all the schools were closed, they thought it would be a good idea to take us on a trip to England until it blew over. If nothing else, it would give my brothers and myself a chance to brush up on our English. But when we returned, the situation was even more chaotic than before.

I had just finished primary school and had yet to start middle school, so was “between schools.” Although drawn in to various activities, including a month’s work experience at the No 2 Machine Tool Plant (at the age of 13), I was often at a loose end for over a year, until schools started again for me at the beginning of 1968. So I just kind of hung around. I discovered a Mao badge market that was open a few afternoons a week. It was near the zoo, and the Russian Exhibition Centre it may even have been in the taxi yard opposite the zoo. There were about three or four places in Beijing which I frequented to trade Mao badges: there, Qianmen, and a couple of other places. Mostly I used to go the one near the zoo, and take my badges pinned to a piece of cloth. Some traders had their badges pinned to the insides of their Mao jackets, and would open out their jackets so people could see the badges.

The value of badges at these markets was never to my knowledge measured in money, but always in Xiao Maotou (literally: Little Mao Heads); a fairly plain larger badge might be worth 3 or 4, but at the top end some newly designed ones of good quality could easily go up to 20 or 30. The valuation fluctuated daily, so the shrewd dealer who could anticipate trends in the market could make quite a killing.

I never excelled in this, but engaged in a bit of “insider dealing” which brought advantage because, as a foreigner, I had access to the Friendship Store, which always had a supply of rather elegant badges that weren’t generally available. It began when a friend wanted me to buy some of those badges for him. I started out doing it as a good turn, but then got the idea of taking some advantage by asking a premium: to be given one badge I did not already have for every 10 badges I bought for people from the Friendship Store. This seemed a neat way to get round the handicap of my communist education, which had taught me I should not charge more for anything than I had paid myself. Still, when my father found out about my stealthy capitalist tendencies sometime in the summer of 1967, I had a stern lecture, and eased up. In any case, schools were starting up again soon after that, and the badge markets were clamped down on in ’68 or ’69.

The Friendship Store had a good stock of Mao badges, but here I had to pay for them in cash (7 to 8 fen for the plain Xiao Maotou; and 10 to 20 fen for fancier badges). My clients had a keen eye: they would distinguish between Beijing Maotou (Beijing-style Mao’s head, with softer lines) and Shanghai Maotou (Shanghai-style Mao’s head, with sharper lines). But what people really wanted to collect were the series of badges, and gather a full set, just like collecting sets of stamps. When young people set off to travel the country in search of new experiences and see places associated with Mao’s rise, they would collect badges wherever they went. Badges from the revolutionary sites of Yan’an, Gutian or Zunyi, had extra value, as they came from further away. It was a kind of revolutionary pilgrimage.

There were the army sets the basic one being the five-pointed-star badge above a bar badge reading Wei renmin fuwu (Serve the People). These were made in four batches, and it was desirable to get one from each batch. You could tell the batch by the number on the back of the badge.

Then the army, navy, and air force started issuing their own badges. And new stylistic variations crept in. And there were fakes of some of the particularly prized issues around that time too, in ’67-68, because of the margin they traded at: where one issue might trade at a mere 15 “small Mao heads,” another might fetch 20 or 30, or even more.

Then the ministries started competing on the badge front. And you got the nuclear works badges as well.

Sourcing was the key thing the geographical and political significance – things like the launch of the satellite in 1970, when they played the first lines of the music of the Maoist anthem Dongfang Hong (The East is Red).

The really big Mao badges I have are from 1969, and the time of the 9th Congress, when everyone made sure to wear nine badges. I think it was some time around then when Mao made his famous comment “Huan wo feiji!”(Give us back my airplanes!), having calculated that the amount of aluminum used to make badges could have made three planes!

I’ve still got about 400-500 badges, including a hundred from a US collector who wanted to swap his entire collection of badges for a chunky Korean War medal I had somehow acquired. He wanted it badly it may have been a precious metal one, and he may have got a good deal, but I can’t remember now.

Paul Crook


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

By Charles Montgomery

In my years in Korea, I never met an author humbler or nicer than Han Kang: she was always willing to answer emails, give an interview, or do a public appearance. Which is why it is pleasant to note that last week, in a “stop the presses” (or perhaps “restart the presses”) moment for Korean literature, she won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for her harrowing and brilliant The Vegetarian.

Mention should also be made of Kang’s excellent translator Deborah Smith, whose prose is both literary and readable, and who shared in the prize. Kang’s achievement immediately became the biggest “win” in Korean translated literature, surpassing that of Kyung-Sook Shin’s 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize winner Please Look After Mom. It comes at the same time in Korea that four of the last six winners of the prestigious Hyundai Munhak Award for Literature (2010-15) and four of the last six Yi Sang Awards (2010-15) were given to female writers.

These victories are the tangible residue of a surprising change in the world of hanguk munhak, or Korean literature, in which female authors have become dominant in Korea, and doubly so outside Korea in translation. This might seem an unlikely outcome from a country that, just 50 years ago, still referred to female writers as yeoryu jakka, or woman authors, while the men were simply referred to as jakkanim — authors, honorifically.

To understand the magnitude of this change, we need to take a quick ride in the Wayback Machine. Historically, Korean women were essentially barred from being authors. First, there was the problem of language: classical Korean literature was written in Chinese, a language women were not taught. Second, there was the problem of the social order. To become a writer one almost necessarily had to be a yangban (a word that implies scholarly aristocracy as well as administrative and military service), an option not open to women as it was either passed down hereditarily along the male line or awarded by test score to successful, and always male, applicants.

During this period, virtually the only literary work by women was produced by gisaeng (something like geisha) and they tended to produce formulaic laments about not being able to be with the yangban they loved. This began to change, ever so slightly, during the Joseon Dynasty when, officially in 1443 (though it actually took a few years), King Sejong decided to create a native Korean alphabet called hangul, which slowly became the language of literature. (Very slowly, in fact: even today, some Chinese characters, or hanja, remain in use in South Korea.)

Unhappy with the effective illiteracy of Koreans uneducated in the Chinese language, King Sejong pushed to make it easier for “normal” Koreans to read and write, by imagining a new set of letters: natively Korean, easy to learn, based on the position of the speech organs used to pronounce them, and formed by two- and three-letter syllables. “Being of foreign origin, Chinese characters are incapable of capturing uniquely Korean meanings,” declared the ruler himself. “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.”

Because hangul could be quickly learned and was suited to the Korean language, it could be taught to all: even to the poor, and particularly to women. In fact, Hangul was sometimes known as the “language of the inner rooms” (a dismissive description used partly by yangban in an effort to marginalize the alphabet), or the language of the domain of women. Hangul entered use humbly enough, primarily in diaries. Many Confucian scholars and some kings were not proponents of hangul, considering hanja the proper language of literature, and its official usage and acceptance varied over the centuries. It did, however, give a textual voice to all those who could never before write their thoughts down.

As the Joseon Dynasty waned in the late-19th century, Korean literature went through a brief period of so-called “enlightenment” before falling to colonial Japan. At the start of this era, there was a window for female authors, due in part to a “modern” emphasis on “free love” (not “free love” as we’ve known it since the 60s, but the right to choose your spouse) and education for women. After Japan’s defeat in World War II closed the colonial era, literature reverted almost wholly to an all-male endeavor. Then, of course, came the defining issue for the remainder of the century: the Korean War, which dominated the country’s discourse in most fields, literature being no exception.

In the second half of the 20th century, women remained on the periphery of Korean literature by nature of the subject matter considered appropriate. The division of the country, both physically and psychologically, became the primary issue, which meant that most fiction centered on political struggle, ideological separation, and national bifurcation. But as the Korean economy and society changed, often incredibly quickly, so did the national estimate of Korean “problems.” The war receded, Korea modernized, industrialized, and internationalized, and this brought women to the front and center of Korean society, with many of them finding themselves at writing desks.

Park Wansuh began by writing on themes that roughly fit into “division literature”: mothers and daughters left abandoned by husbands, fathers killed or disappeared during the ear. In Who Ate Up All the Shinga, perhaps her most representative work on these themes, she tells the semi-autobiographical story of deciding to become a writer. Later in her career, Park began to pivot to a new theme, one that would shortly become central to many female writers who arrive on the scene shortly after her: the alienation and spiritual dispossession of women in the newly industrialized and modernized Korea.

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This kind of fiction can be found in Park’s Identical Apartments (included in the recent collection The Future of Silence: Fiction By Korean Women) and Dalkey Archive’s book of her short works, Lonesome You. Once Park became popular — and she was one of Korea’s most beloved writers — the walls began to crumble, and a new woman’s fiction emerged from the pens of such writers as Eun Hee-kyung (Poor Man’s Wife), Ch’oe Yun (There a Petal Silently Falls), Shin Kyung-Sook, Bae Suah (Nowhere to Be Found), and others.

As this process occurred in Korea, important changes were taking place in the greater spheres of publishing and reading. A recent study, for instance, reveals that translated fiction sales have doubled in the United Kingdom since the turn of the century while general fiction sales have dropped. The numbers have been particularly impressive in Korean literature, which went from selling 88 copies in 2001 to 10,191 in 2015. Alongside this increase, and to some extent pushed by it, the nature of what was translated has changed from a tightly gate-kept “representational” literature to a wider range of stories which are much more accessible to non-Korean readers.

To put it rather bluntly, the older more traditional critics who used to control Korean literature have been to some extent pushed aside, and publishing, thankfully, has been moved to overseas locations. The Literary Translation Institute of Korea (LTI Korea) has been at the forefront of this effort, but it has also been spurred on by the efforts such individual translators working both alone and in concert with the LTI  as Deborah Smith, Sora Kim-Russell, and Kim Chi-Young — mostly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, women.

At least six elements converged to bring women to the forefront of Korean literature translated into English (or indeed French, Polish, Spanish, etc.). First, the creation of hangul made writing possible for women. Second, Korea’s modernization brought at least the idea of equality to the table. Third, industrialization created a new class of autonomous “economic woman” who theoretically has access to the same avenues of expression that men always had. This began during the colonial period but primarily took place during and after the economic boom under the military rule of president Park Chung-Hee. Fourth, internationalization raised awareness of new models from the overseas lands in which women were perceived to enjoy all forms of expression.

Fifth, as economic and social changes occurred across Korea in the late 20th century, women lost their traditional positions. Women felt a new and distinctive form of alienation, having lost the diminished but understood traditional role of eomma, or mother. Shin Kyung-Sook’s Please Look After Mom is one of the works that directly addresses this loss and the nostalgia it creates for the “good old days” while others focused on the anomie that resulted.

Finally, changes in the publishing market resulted in better books being chosen for translation, smoother language in the translations themselves, and an increased interest in Korean literature overseas at the same time female writers were coming to dominate the Korean domestic market. Taken all together, these historical trends have resulted in a riches of Korean fiction by women eager to dig into meaty, contemporary issues related to sexism, commodification, and the role (or non-role) of the individual in Korean society and the world at large.

Increasingly, these writers are focusing on individual, character-driven fiction that resonates with Western readers. This represents a strong break with mainstream Korean fiction, so often driven by vast historical and social forces beyond the control of its characters. These forces remain quite evident in the fiction mentioned here, but its focus has shifted to the psychological and practical responses of particular individuals in the face of these overwhelming influences.

Fortunately, much of this fiction seems to be finding a home in English. The happy result of this for readers looks like a new “Korean wave” of literature driven by women. It would be unfair to say male writers are not doing some of the work, but at this point in time it seems that the bulk of this work is being done by women.

And where to dip in to these newly open waters? Interested readers could profitably begin with any of the novelists named above, or collections like the aforementioned  The Future of Silence or Questioning Minds: Short Stories by Modern Korean Women Writers. These works, all quite literary and based on solid, comprehensible plots, even as they often veer into the surreal, may eventually lead you down a wormhole, but you’ll surely enjoy the ride.

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. He currently lives in Oregon. He can be found online at ktlit.com.

*Lede (photo source: LTI Korea Han Kang interview).


From Sichuan to Shanghai: A Q&A with Marketplace Correspondent and Street of Eternal Happiness Author Rob Schmitz

By Susan Blumberg-Kason

Rob Schmitz has witnessed enormous changes in China since he first lived in rural Sichuan twenty years ago. For the last six years, he has been based in Shanghai serving as a correspondent for Marketplace, a radio program produced by American Public Media that enjoys 12 million listeners each week, receiving multiple awards for his stellar reporting. His first book, Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road, was just released yesterday. Set along the shady street where he and his family live in Shanghai’s former French Concession, his book is one of the best I’ve read about China’s sweeping social and economic transformations. I recently caught up with him via email to ask the following series of questions.

Susan Blumberg-Kason: You served in the Peace Corps in Sichuan in the 1990s and returned to Chengdu for a year in 2000. A decade later you moved to Shanghai as the China correspondent for Marketplace. After you left in 2000, did you ever think you would live in China again?

Rob Schmitz: The Peace Corps planted the seed, and China has prominently figured in my work as a journalist ever since. During the decade following my service, I made numerous trips back to the country for a number of reasons. I shot documentaries in Beijing and Tibetan parts of the country for The Learning Channel and the CBC. I returned to report stories for NPR affiliates KPCC and KQED. I followed California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on his trade mission through the country. I led an educational tour of Yunnan province. When Marketplace posted their Shanghai Correspondent position in 2009, it seemed like a natural fit.

How well did you know Shanghai before you moved there with your family?

I’d visited Shanghai several times, but my stops were scattered over a 10-year period. Each time, the city looked and felt completely different. In retrospect, Shanghai was one of the world’s largest construction sites for the better part of that decade. When I moved there in 2010, I was accompanied by my wife and son, and the city was largely complete. Shanghai was hosting the World’s Fair, and I was starting a new life in China as a foreign correspondent.

In your reports for Marketplace, you have profiled the goings-on along the Street of Eternal Happiness. When did you decide you wanted to write a book and how did you choose to frame it as a profile of the people you’ve met on the street?

After you’ve reported on China for a while, you begin to show symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder. Things change so quickly on the ground, and the economy is growing so rapidly, that a correspondent’s job can become overwhelming. I struggled with how to capture the impact of all this change on everyday Chinese, and that became the inspiration for the Marketplace series. I’d take a year to focus on everyday people who work and live along a single street – the street I live on – to tell stories about the profound economic and social changes taking place in 21st century China.

The stories began as local snapshots, but soon I realized my characters exemplified universal narratives that apply to all Chinese. These stories were fascinating, at turns heartbreaking, and full of drama. For example, CK’s quest to become a sandwich shop entrepreneur on the Street eventually broadened into a search for spirituality as he learned that China’s material culture left him empty and wanting. The character Zhao Shilin worked her way from factory worker to a successful florist on the street to provide a better life for her sons, but their status as migrants have heartrending consequences on how their lives unfold. I was writing not just about a single street in a single city, but about everyday Chinese and their worries, doubts, hopes, and dreams.

It wasn’t so long ago that Chinese residents were hesitant to speak with foreigners. Was it awkward at first when you asked to interview your neighbors for the book? Which topics were the most difficult to bring up with them?

I’m not only a foreigner, but a foreigner with a very large microphone. If that didn’t scare them off, then little else did. I told people upfront I was interviewing them for a series, and later for a book. Some politely declined, but most people I approached thought my work sounded interesting, and they were open to answering questions about their lives. I soon became intertwined in the lives of a few, traveling back to their hometowns, joining a Buddhist pilgrimage, attending underground church services, and tagging along on pyramid-scheme investment meetings. The experiences reminded me of Bilbo Baggins’s line in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: “It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” I obviously didn’t keep my feet.

Throughout the pages of Street of Eternal Happiness, you discuss the government’s campaign to promote high suzhi, a word describing people’s “quality” or level of education. You also write about the great influx of migrants to Shanghai (and other large cities in China) over the past two decades. What prompted the government to encourage its citizens to achieve high suzhi?

Elevating the suzhi level — or quality — of its people remains an ongoing goal of the Chinese government. In Shanghai, the campaign peaked during the run-up to the 2010 World’s Fair, which attracted millions of tourists. To prepare its citizens for being on the world stage, the city government published an etiquette guide entitled “How to be a Lovely Shanghainese” and sent free copies to my neighbors along the street. I consult my office copy whenever I’m in need of a good laugh.

Shanghai’s behavioral engineers left no stone unturned. They devoted sections of the guidebook to minutiae such as “How to style your hair correctly” and “How to properly sit.” A section entitled “eating at a lunch buffet” was one of my favorites: “Don’t dash for food.” “Wait for the host to announce that the meal has started.” “Adopt the strategy of going to the buffet multiple times.”

Clear rules were needed. Over the past two decades, nearly 300 million people moved from China’s countryside to the city. In fact, roughly 40 percent of Shanghai’s population comes from other parts of China. This incredible mass movement from farm to city happened so quickly that local governments struggled to ensure everyone plays by the same etiquette rules.

You mention in the book that this time in Shanghai parallels America circa 1900.

That’s right. Millions of immigrants from impoverished parts of Europe were streaming into Ellis Island, and, as it happens, etiquette guides were the most popular literary genre in America around that time, meeting a demand to fit in and to master the behavioral rules of their adopted homeland. The same phenomenon is repeating itself today in 21st century Shanghai, as millions of Chinese arrive straight from the farm, mingling with one another and with their urban countrymen in a big melting pot at the mouth of the Yangtze.

Circling back to your Peace Corps experience, you are one of a handful of former Peace Corps Volunteers in China to write books that introduce Americans to contemporary China. Was there something in the water back then that produced so many insightful writers?

I think it was a case of being in the right place at the right time and doing the right thing. Most foreigners in China in the 1990s lived either in Beijing or Shanghai, and had come to study Chinese, report on the country, or make money – sometimes all three. Those of us in the Peace Corps had come as volunteer teachers, we were sent to the countryside, and we spent the next two years in isolation, teaching – and learning from – our students and Chinese colleagues. This was before the Internet was available in that part of China, and calls back home were prohibitively expensive, so there were very few distractions in the way of soaking up the language and culture, and if you didn’t want to do that, you were going to have a pretty miserable two years, because the places we were sent to were remote and undeveloped. It was a sink or swim type of situation, and I think many of us dove in headfirst.


Two Poems by Bruce Bond

By Bruce Bond

Wind Machine

I do not know her, the woman caught
in the passions of the wind machine
as the cameras work their angles,

her hair blown back to imitate the spirit
of youth and whatever they are selling
I do not know her, but I love her hair,

the way it moves about in the stillness
of the photo, the bedroom tangle just so.
Must be something in the look of speed,

the illusion of approach, that keeps
hands flipping the pages to feel the breeze.
But we know better.  If winds could pass

out or wither from exhaustion, it’s here,
in fashion pages glazed as cakes and fast
cars that men afford when they are old.

We know the wind is not the paper it blows
any more than breath is flesh, flesh a wind
machine we take apart and reassemble.

I do not know the woman or her product,
though I like to think she is paying off
her student loans, and the gaze she wears

she has borrowed from a man, a stranger
with a long lens, who whispers, yes, yes.
What I do know is the wind is real wind,

sweeping back and forth from some machine
that says, no, to the camera’s little death,
the blades of the shutter, the capture of souls.

Who has not had a troubled love affair
with stillness and walked the galleries filled
with dead and beautiful things and felt renewed.

You hear a lot when the world goes still.
Just you and the portrait of the woman
with her sick child who, if lucky, died old,

possessed by spirits such as yours.  And then,
you are that child.  You are the wind
in the lungs of the child and ask your mother,

is she afraid of death, and she whispers,
no. Her hand is in your hair. It’s nothing,
she says.  And then, more softly, nothing, nothing.


The Progress

If you sit still, you can hear it, the thrum
of the power cables that puzzle a sky

grown intricate with satellites, doors,
hands that write the checks to make them open.

It was always this way, not the cables
but how a puzzle loves a harder puzzle,

the cell an animal, the beast a town.
Long ago my mother taught me to be

hungry, to pry the shutter on our piano
that carried the tune she always longed to play.

If you sit still, you can hear it, the clock
among the millions who grow old with us,

who sit beside radios and gold frames,
snapshots of the kids when towns were small.

Long ago progress was a river
fed by snows that never ceased to fall.

The bombs we invented we would invent
into extinction.  So said the music

in my teacher’s voice.  I loved her.  I listened.
I hid beneath my desk from history’s

strange devices and the will to use them.
But the sky is different when we are small.

A bolder, more manic blue.  Long ago
I laid my hands down, ambitious to play

a piece to fill the emptiness of ambition.
Always a city inside the city, rising,

complicating its traffic like a tax code
or circuit board that makes hands obsolete.

I met a man once who feeds the homeless
of Los Angeles.  It’s complicated, he said.

They break the law to live now, they must,
In other words, the law is broken, shattered

into the numberless financial concerns
that move their eyesores further into hiding.

Which says, I live in many cities.  In one,
the smoke of factories and oil drums.

In another, a mother’s love that tells me
how to hide, to hunker in the basement

when the missiles fall.  So simple then,
we thought our sunglasses would make a difference.

Or that hope might repossess the anthem
in our hands.  If you sit still, the room goes dark,

the world more articulate with stars,
with the flashlights of phones that screen our calls.

Music is everywhere we aren’t these days.
And yet it touches us, we cannot help it,

the child’s hope that feels a little hopeless.
It moves to move us, snowing in elevators,

spilling through the windows we cannot open,
in fallen light of which, we will, we will.


Bruce Bond is the author of fifteen books including, most recently, For the Lost Cathedral (LSU, 2015), The Other Sky (Etruscan, 2015), and Immanent Distance: Poetry and the Metaphysics of the Near at Hand (University of Michigan Press, 2015).  Four of his books are forthcoming:  Black Anthem (Tampa Review Prize, University of Tampa Press), Gold Bee (Crab Orchard Open Competition Award, Southern Illinois University Press), Sacrum (Four Way Books), and Blackout Starlight: New and Selected Poems (L. E. Phillabaum Award, LSU).  Presently he is Regents Professor at University of North Texas. 


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

By Colin Marshall 

Robert J. Fouser first lived in Korea in the mid-1980s, going on to become a professor at Seoul National University and a high-profile commentator on Korean society, culture, and urban issues, especially the preservation of traditional the Korean houses known as hanok, one of which he purchased and restored himself. Later he lived in Japan, teaching the Korean language to Japanese university students.

Now based again in his American hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan, Fouser has returned to Korea for a few months to promote two newly published books he wrote in Korean: Conditions for Citizenship in the Future: A Manual of Democracy for Koreans (미래 시민의 조건) and Seochon-holic (서촌홀릭). I previously wrote about him on the Korea Blog when he led the Royal Asiatic Society on a deep Seoul walk. We sat town to talk about Korea today at Cafemoon, my coffee spot of choice by Seoul Station.

How do you describe these two books to someone unfamiliar with Korea?

Conditions for Citizenship in the Future is basically, “What is democracy? What is citizenship? How does that relate to what’s going on in Korea today?” The younger generation in Korea has lots of complaints about society. They think society is stagnant, not changing in the way they want. What the book argues they should do is participate in the democratic process, to stand up as citizens. It’s a call for younger people in Korea to take a more proactive stance in their politics. Seochon-holic is a collection of essays on things I’ve felt in Korea, my perspective on Korea. About half of it is related to urban issues, mainly preservation versus development, because I was involved in hanok preservation.

How much do you credit the younger generation’s idea of Korea as “Hell Joseon?” Is it a legitimate complaint?

From an objective perspective, it might not be, because no society can guarantee people a job, happiness, or anything like that. If you look at how younger Koreans perceive the world — that they have to be perfect, that they have to have all these accomplishments, they have to look a certain way, this pressure to promote yourself, to package yourself, to market yourself — it’s very real. That’s what’s driving the complaint: they’re expected to have all these things, but some of them take money, and there’s a feeling of not being able to get ahead.

But the Korean War left the country in a state of total material want. How did it go from that to such high material expectations?

In the ’50s, right after the war, there was stagnation, but in the ’60s, [South Korean president from 1961-1979] Park Chung-hee created the concept of “the Korean dream”: focus on industrialization and turn Korea modern, in a way into a semi-Japan. Park was familiar with the Japanese mass-scale development model because he had been a military officer in Manchuria. So he created this idea that “we all work hard, the country grows, and you get a piece of the growing pie.” For most Koreans, that turned out to be true. It actually worked. The standard of living rose dramatically as the economy developed.

You had this 30-year boom — the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, all the way to the ’90s — when the Korean dream was working for the mass of Koreans. When I first taught in 1986 in a military school, I met people my age who would tell me they didn’t have electricity at home until they were thirteen — or plumbing, heating, all these material things. So there was a hope life would improve, which started to fade after the “IMF crisis.” The country recovered after that, but the world economy didn’t really recover after 9/11, and Japan was already in the dumps. The problem now is that the older generation still has an expectation of continuous improvement, but that’s not happening. They have to come to terms with that.

KB - Robert Fouser book cover

We’ve also seen news story after news story about the end of the American dream. You’re from Michigan, one of the states often written about as particularly hard-hit. Do you see a similarity in the situations there and here?

The difference, of course, is that the US is still a much bigger country. The cost of housing is cheaper — outside the coasts. But yes, in essence, it’s a similar problem. To go to college you now have to take out a loan, so there’s this same perception in the U.S. that it’s hard to get ahead — not just to get ahead, but even to establish yourself. That’s driving Bernie Sanders. The young people support him. A Korean Bernie Sanders would be very possible, but who that would be, I don’t know. He came from “left field,” so to speak.

You first came to a pre-democratic Korea in the ’80s. What was it like?

It was booming at the time because of the preparation for Seoul’s 1988 Olympics. I had been to Korea for a week in 1982, but then I came for a year in 1983 and 1984, and that was when it really started to boom. Subway line number two opened while I was here, and then three and four opened. The mood of the country was “build, build, build” — but they had a dictatorship. The idea of a “good country” was not just wealth or economics, but also democracy. What is an advanced country? To a lot of Koreans in the eighties, that was a wealthy democratic society. They were on track to become wealthy, but they were dissatisfied with a lack of democracy, and that drove the democracy movement in the eighties.

South Korea has a tradition of looking for and then imitating what they consider “good countries.” It sounds a little like the South Pacific island “cargo cults” who supposedly built their own wooden imitations of runways and air traffic control towers in the hopes of bringing back the American airplanes that delivered supplies during World War II. But to an extent, it worked?

Still, the definition of a “good country” is a wealthy democratic society, that’s clear, but wealthy democratic societies also have problems. Europe has its share: the aging society thing is common there and Japan and even in the US. How do these countries deal with that? How do you make a social welfare system for an aging population? Korea is having trouble finding its own solution to these issues, whereas before the route to becoming a “good country” was very clear: instead of an appointed president, for instance, you have an election. Now they have to maintain that status and deal with other issues, which Japan is having trouble doing because of its long economic slump.

Why would Koreans want to hear a foreigner such as yourself talk about their politics and economics?

I don’t know. My editor proposed the book, and I never really asked why. From 2008 to 2014 I was a professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University. I was very unhappy there, but I didn’t tell people until recently, but that’s a long story. During those six years, I was active in hanok preservation, talking about city issues. My basic point was that “preservation versus development” is really an issue where you need a consensus about public good and private purpose: preserving something like a historic site or neighborhood for future generations versus “I own the land and want to make money off it.”

Both should be respected, and there needs to be a compromise, but I felt during my work in preservation that things were skewed toward private purpose, not so much public good. It classified me a bit as a lefty, which wasn’t necessarily my intention. That led to writing the book about politics, because people thought my perspective not as a foreigner, but from having been involved in hanok preservation, might be interesting.

 KB - Robert Fouser interview 4

Seochon, the area of Seoul referenced in the title of Seochon-holic (courtesy Robert Fouser)

You’d think Koreans would be the ones preserving their old houses, and Westerners would be the ones coming in saying, “No, no, this is all backward. We’ve got to modernize this place.” But why is the reverse true, to an extent?

There are lots of Koreans who have renovated hanok; very few foreigners have renovated a house. But Koreans may feel uncomfortable speaking out. A lot of hanok are in what are called “redevelopment districts,” which are always sensitive to speak out about. Younger Koreans especially are interested in preservation, but they might not be comfortable talking about it. My activism started around 2009, and before that, very few Koreans were interested in hanok preservation, but after that it started to change.

What’s so good about hanok?

They’re impractical from an urban-planning point of view because they’re only one floor. It’s harder to have a city with layers of tile-roofed, one-floor houses. From that point of view, they’re inefficient. But most of the hanok have been destroyed already, so I’m talking about the few that are left. They need to be preserved because they are part of the historic fabric of Seoul. There are only around 3,500 left, and that’s a very small number of houses out of the total population, so I think those houses can be preserved without affecting the density or efficient use of urban land. Some hanok are in fairly good condition and some are in terrible condition. If you have one in fairly good condition you can just renovate it, but if you have one in bad condition — really bad condition — it’s best to knock it down and rebuild another hanok in its place.

I discovered I liked hanok while I lived in one from 1988 to 1989. I liked the scale: it’s kind of small and there are lots of rooms, so you can use one room as a bedroom, one as a study, one as a junk room. Each can be adapted to a purpose. I’m back in Ann Arbor now and I have this big living room; it just terrifies me. How do I fill this monstrous space? I put up a bookcase to divide the living room into two smaller spaces. It isn’t really that big a house, but it feels huge. And of course, hanok have the hot floors, which I like.

Hanok aside, how does Seoul interest you as a city, as opposed to a Tokyo or a Kyoto or a New York or an Ann Arbor?

It’s the hodgepodge, which creates a sense of urban discovery. You have this confusion, but inside the confusion you have urban discovery. Tokyo has a bit of that too — all cities do — but in Seoul that confusion makes the sense of urban discovery a little bit more exciting. Anybody into cities will like that, if they are into cities in that mindset. If they’re into cities as organized spaces, then I can recommend other cities: Washington D.C., Paris.

I was out last Saturday, and I decided I wanted to buy some film, because I take pictures. I went to the film place I would usually go to and they were closed because it was a holiday weekend, so I went to another camera supply shop. They had film, Agfa film: black and white, it’s hard to find, I’m like, wow! This sudden urban discovery made me very happy. In Seoul, you can be in a neighborhood that looks kind of run-down, you want to take a rest, you find a coffee shop, and they have a fabulous cappuccino.

With New York, you go the Met, you go to the MOMA, you go to these high monuments of culture that you consume. At the Met, there’s a room of Rembrandts, ten on the wall. It’s a different phenomenon than Seoul. The museums here for Korean art are very good, but if you want world culture, Seoul is not your city.

You came to Korea before many Westerners did. My only reservation about moving to Korea myself was that, because so many more do it now, many of them come without much investment or interest in the country of the kind that Westerners might have in Japan. You’ve lived in Japan; is it really that different?

It is, but it’s sort of a generational thing. I when I first came, foreigners were limited in what we could do here. You couldn’t buy a house. Park Chung-hee made it illegal for foreigners to own land, and that wasn’t lifted until 1998. The only way would have been to put it in your Korean spouse’s name. There were no foreign tenured professors. If you moved to Korea in the ’80s, you had very few role models of foreigners who spent their lives here, whereas Japan had this long history of Westerners discovering it: the whole zen Buddhist thing; after the war, the Beat people who went to Kyoto; even in the Meiji era they had foreign experts. Sapporo was laid out by an American civil engineer. The foreigner in Japan is part of Japanese history. It always felt easier to establish yourself there.

Nowadays foreigners can buy land here. There’s permanent residency. If somebody’s 29 years old and they compare the two countries, those issues are not there anymore, but when I was 29 years old, Korea really was uri nara [the Korean term often used to refer to Korea, meaning “our country”]. You were here provisionally. But Koreans have done a great job overcoming that. Give credit where credit is due. Now I would say Korea is more open than Japan.

But I still sense that, to a great many Koreans’ frustration, Westerners still like Japan better. Why?

Korea doesn’t feel as exotic. When I talk about national branding, I say to Koreans: architecture, art, music, and food. The four things are very Korean. The music isn’t like Japanese music. The architecture has things in common with other countries, but the floors are unique. There’s old Korean culture that could be appealing to a Westerners, but when you drop in from the airport, you don’t see it.

As you’ve spent more time in Korea, what aspect of the country has come to seem most distinctly non-Western?

The spontaneity of things. People are very spontaneous in Korea, whether meeting friends or anything else. Westerners don’t do that. Japanese don’t do that. You don’t, when you’re a working adult, call your friend and say, “Let’s meet for a beer right now.” I wouldn’t do it in Ann Arbor. It’s related to how people interact with each other; that is where you get Koreanness, a sense of difference.
KB - Robert Fouser interview 5
Seoul in 1983 (courtesy Robert Fouser)

You wrote these books in Korean. How does your writing change when you write in that language?

Because Korean’s a foreign language, it’s a bit like a fog. I focus on, “Is my message clear?” It’s actually something to focus on when writing in your native language too. In your native language, sometimes you want to play with a sentence, make it more colorful. You start to think about style issues, and there’s the idea of being judged. “Do I have a good hook? Is it exciting? Does it hold together? Is there momentum? Do I have enough quotes?” With Korean, it’s “Does this make sense?” I focus on getting my message across, clearly, which is really what writers should focus on anyway. I lose track of that in English.

Why is Korean an interesting language?

I first studied Japanese, so when I studied Korean, I had that comparison. Later, the other interesting things were, from a linguistic point of view, speech levels, different ways of saying things, that kind of thing. The real difficulty for non-native speakers is knowing how to manage the speech levels, and within the speech levels knowing how to manage the verbal endings.

I’ve noticed people falling into a rut, using verbal endings without understanding their meanings. I had a Japanese student who thought the Korean ending -했는데요 meant the Japanese ending -ですが — which it does, but it doesn’t. She once left a note to me when she wanted to meet but I was a little late for the appointment and wrote “기다렸는데요” [literally, “I waited, but…”], a very antagonistic message to a professor which a Korean student would never write. But she thought it was polite.

The rules of grammar only do so much for you. That’s where you get the sociolinguistic issues. In linguistics, there’s thing thing called “markedness,” meaning using a non-neutral form, but every sentence in Korean is, in a sense, marked. There are no neutral sentences. In even in the most basic sentence — “This is a cup,” for example — I’m making decisions about who you are and who I am. That’s where a lot of non-native speakers end up in trouble.

Having acted as a linguistic intermediary between Korean and Japan while teaching the Korean language to Japanese university students, what’s something you learned about both cultures?

That was a great experience; I always got a buzz after class, which I didn’t get when I was teaching English. One group of students heard Korean was easy and just wanted to get the credits. Another group was the sort of “Korean wave” culture group, and another was interested in something else about Korea — it could’ve been anything. All the issues between Korea and Japan weren’t a big problem. Nobody was mad about Dokdo. They don’t hate each other. I found the Japanese students I taught very open and receptive.

What did you think as that “Korean wave” of pop music and television drama started to wash across Asia, considering your long history with the country?

I was pleasantly surprised. In a way, I thought it might happen. From 1996 to 2002 I wrote a weekly column for the Korea Herald where I would present different topics about Korea, especially the efforts Korea was making to recover from the I.M.F. Information technology was one positive, interesting story, and the other was this pop culture stuff. A lot of K-pop was very visual, and also free; that’s where the technology comes in. Americans or Japanese would have trouble with the idea of giving something out for free. It’s not a factor here so much. Korea almost foreshadowed the rise of the sharing economy.

What would you say to a foreigner looking for a way to live in Korea and experience it to its fullest? How to engage with Korea today, in a real way?

Always remember that the pace of change in Korea is so fast. Understand that the older generation has a very different experience than the younger generation. I went back to the house where I was born in Ann Arbor, and it’s not much different from the house I live in now: the fan heating system is the same, the thermometer is the same, the layout of the kitchen is the same. The paradigm of my life is physically the same as when I grew up. It’s not the same here.

Separate the institution you are working with from Korea itself. I found that out when I was at Seoul National University and not so happy there; some of the unhappiness was Seoul National, not Korea. Your workplace is your workplace, not Korea. Koreans hate institutions too. Try not to make that jump, which is where a lot of foreigners get into trouble. And learn the language.

In many ways, Korea is what you would expect from the geography: a place between China and Japan. How is it most different from those neighbors?

Korea is Latin — it has a Latin character, a Latin feeling, whereas China does not. That’s related to the spontaneity, and maybe to the popularity of the K-pop and dramas, where emotions are high. Japanese women watched [the 2002 hit Korean drama] Winter Sonata (겨울연가) because it reminded them of Japan years ago, when people were more emotional, had more of a sense of community, that sort of thing.

What message do you want to make sure Korea hears from you?

Democratization is a long process. It reached a crescendo in 1987, and after that concentrated on establishing local autonomy. The push extended to greater openness, more acceptance of people. That has nothing to do with foreigners; that was a Korean desire. Do not view that in the past tense. Your accomplishment should be viewed in the present tense. This is related now to openness not just to foreigners but to other kinds of Koreans, and later to reunification, if that happens. How will this society accept the former North Koreans? The push toward democracy is still going on.

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

koreablog_short stories

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

By Charles Montgomery

Literature has always occupied a position of high cultural importance in Korea. The country’s history is thoroughly represented in its literature, and its literature is often centered on representations of that history. According to Understanding Korean Literature author Kim Hunggyu, “more than 6,000 collections of writings by individual writers from the 13th to the 19th century are extant,” and Korea is number one per capita internationally in poetry publications per person. This massive literary production occurs despite the fact that Korean literary history emerged as an object of formal literary study and concern relatively recently, beginning in earnest in the post-World War II era.

Fiction writing, especially short stories, has long been regarded in Korea as a mark of sophistication. Korean classical fiction was once written only by the yangban class (something like scholarly royalty), and, for most of the 5th-century Joseon Dynasty, entirely in Chinese. In order to be an author, therefore, one had to be highly educated, and possess the leisure time to write. This meant that Korea’s classical period tended to produce abstract, philosophical, and didactic works. The modern era follows the classical’s lead: writers must still undergo a formal vetting process before being awarded the title of “author.”

Korean literature entered the modern era as Japan colonized the country, responding either by turning pastoral, or toward the question of “what should be done?” Modern Korean literature was arguably created by a handful of Koreans such as Yi Kwang-su, who in the 1910s wrote two essays precisely defining what it should be — focused on modernity and modernization of the country — as well as writing the heavy-handed, didactic, cardboard character-populated novels Heartless (Mujong) and The Soil. Throughout the colonial period, from approximately 1910 to 1945, Korean fiction often could be characterized as either escapist or direly political and prescriptionist.

All of which makes Modern Short Stories from Korea, though originally published in 1958, still a breath of fresh air now. The book comprises 20 short stories (one an excerpt of a longer work) translated by In-Sŏb Zŏng, Dean of the Graduate School of Chungang University, the President of the Committee of College and University Counselor for Study Abroad, a one-time lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, and a President of the Korean Center of the International PEN Club.

It is probably because of that last title that he translated this work. At the outset of literary translation from Korean into English, Korea’s PEN was, for good or ill, the primary player. In his introduction, Zŏng touches lightly on the much-discussed Korean emotional concept of han (without naming it, instead calling Korean writing full of “gloominess, indefatigability, and humor”) and calls Korean modern literature “the Literature of Resistance against Imperialism and Communism.”

The tales in Modern Short Stories from Korea are interesting partly because they show a side of Korean literature that was seldom translated after 1958. These stories originally appeared largely in collections done by PEN with its preference at that time for “representative” fiction. In this context, “representative” had two meanings: first, that the works chosen were all highly serious or pastoral, which was intended to demonstrate the solemn nature of Korean literature. (This led to multiple translations of stories like Lee Hyo-seok’s The Buckwheat Season, even though the nature of these stories’ content barely survives in English.)

The second problematic meaning of “representative” Korean fiction focuses on themes that are of intense interest within the culture but little interest outside it. As a result, many works seem vetted to show only the side of Korean literature that reflected on then-contemporary political problems. The genre of pundan munhak (division literature) meets both of these representative criteria, and, after 1958, crowded out the kind of entertaining stories with character depth showcased in Modern Short Stories from Korea. The literature of division probably makes up half of the short stories published during the 20th century in English, even though a quick trip to Amazon reveals that it simply does not sell.

Translator An Sonjae (also known as Brother Anthony of Taizé) recounts a remarkable example of this representational gatekeeping. An’s Eerie Tales from Old Korea compiles stories collected by missionaries Homer B. Hulbert and James S. Gale, both of them fond of ghost stories, which at the start of the 20th century were quite popular in English. They spent years fruitlessly chasing down Korean ghost stories, even as Korean scholars insisted that such stories simply did not exist, presumably because they were associated with folk beliefs and therefore not “serious” enough to consider. (These intellectuals were some of the first “gatekeepers” of Korean culture, deciding what was “representative” and “proper” to disseminate.)

Which brings us back to Modern Short Stories from Korea, which, according to An, is the first collection of Korean modern fiction translated into English. Ten of its 20 stories focus on “love and marriage,” and the rest are characterized as “social stories.” Most demonstrate a kind of depth and lack of didacticism that would soon almost vanish from translated Korean fiction. For that reason alone, this book is an interesting one for fans of Korean literature, since the truly character-driven and non-hortatory remain rare in translated Korean literature even today.

Three of the romance stories are character sketches, with Hyŏn Sin-Gŏn’s “The Dormitory Inspector and the Love-Letter,”The Bridle” by Yŏm Sang-Sŏb (far better known in Korea for his epic, and tedious, Three Generations) and “Penance” by Gim Mal-Bong providing short but amusing depictions of characters for whom things have gone quite pear-shaped. Several of the others delve into related social issues: “The Green Chrysanthemum” by An Su-Gil is the tragic tale of a girl forced into a marriage far too young, and it might remind knowledgeable readers of Lee Hyo-Seok’s better-known “Bunnyeo.” “The Wedding Night that Might Have Been” by Bang In-Gŏn, “Thirty Years” by Zang Dŏg-Zo, and “Repentance” by Bag Yŏng-Zun all tell complicated love stories that unspool across time.

Each of these stories also contains a telling representation of a social issue of the post-Joseon and colonial eras, but these issues are subsumed to the need for telling a good story with characters of depth. “When the Moon Rises” by Gim Song is similar, although marred by a rather shallow representation of the virtuous-and-therefore-chaste woman. The most overtly message-oriented stories of romance are “The Soil” by Yi Gwang-Su and “A Bad Night” by Gim Gwang-Zu. The former is an excerpt from the longer novel of the same name, and as much a love story between a man and the Korean land as between a man and a woman.

The excerpt is not nearly as fun as the novel itself, which, though quite hortatory, is also a predecessor to the Korean dramas of today, with their innocents in danger, mind-stretching coincidences, and villains who all but twirl their mustaches and tie damsels to train tracks. “A Bad Night” examines the plight of women who “dated” foreign soldiers after the war. It performs that examination in the context of a complete, satisfying, often grimly amusing story whose characters have clear, understandable motivations.

The social stories run a wide gamut, from the end of the imperial era to the life of lowly stock in captivity. Bag Zong Hwa’s “The Death of Yun Sssi, Mrs. Sin” is a short meditation on the steely determination of a married woman, her somewhat weaker husband, and the political machinations of a dying empire. “Sonata Appassionata” by Gim Dong-In is an entirely modern meditation on the nature of genius, which features a nearly post-modern narrative structure with an omniscient narrator sitting above two “lesser” narrators, as well as an additional epistolary narrative interjection.

Three stories focus on traditional social structures and how they affect the individuals within them. “A Mother and Her Sons” by Gim Dŏng-ni tells the sad story of a woman cursed with sons who do not respect their elders, and how in her declining year she is ushered between them. “The Pack Horse” by Gye Yong-Mug, whose narrator is a horse driver with a stammer and an unfortunately trusting nature, also explores a traditional relationship, that of homeowner to servant. “The Memorial Service on the Mountain” by Choe Zŏng-Hûi, thematically similar to “The Green Chrysanthemum,” features the horrific central proposition that imprisonment is preferable to arranged marriage, and its opening image of a rape will likely stay with readers for an uncomfortably long time.

Four of the other five stories inch toward the didactic tendencies that characterize the bulk of 20th-century translation, but only one crosses the line. Zôn Yông-Têg’s “Cattle,” among the best of these, has the lightest touch. By tracing the arc of a family, its cows, and the other cows of the village, Zôn deftly uses these animals as a symbol of stability, community, and planning. Although the ending is depressing and clearly meant to issue a moral warning, it doesn’t come unearned. Along similar lines,A Puppet” by Czoe Sang-Dông uses ducks to represent the dangers of collaboration and ends with a happy moment reminiscent of the key symbolic moment in Hwang Sun-won’s “Cranes.” “The Former Sports-Master” by Ham Dê-Hun, the most ham-fisted of this group, uses a transparently ironic motif and a plot that grinds obviously to its conclusion. Ham tries to warn against factionalism and moral decay, but his heavy-handedness undermines him.

Yi Mun-Yông’s “The Mind of an Ox” is an often amusing outlier in this collection, and in translated Korean fiction in general. This tale, of a self-aware ox and his traveling life, comments on mans’ inhumanity to animals as well as to man. The ox moves from owner to owner, family to family, interpreting his and their lots in life with a bemused, philosophical nature that is shocked to its very core at a sudden, horrible revelation. This is a nearly singular work, the only other example of its kind of which I am aware being Yi Ki-Kyeong’s “Tale of Rats,” a slightly more political story well worth tracking down.

The collection ends with Yu Zin-O’s overtly and intentionally nostalgic “The Story of Czangnang.” The narrator longs for his own past, but that past itself includes characters who themselves are nostalgic for an even earlier past that can never return. This clever doubly nostalgic structure ends with a vision of the terrifying roar of a black airplane flying into an unknown world “in the time it takes to draw a breath,” an entirely suitable conclusion to a book that has taken pains to consider Korean social history and where it has led the country, leaving open the question of what its future will hold.

In line with Korean literary history prior to the late 20th century, only three female authors appear in this book, helpfully (or condescendingly?) identified as “(woman writer)” in the table of contents. On the other hand, some of the works here feature rational depictions of international influences and almost cosmopolitan attitudes, all of which would shortly be erased by Korea’s civil war and its aftermath.

“Korean writers are expected to be cognizant of the modern tragedy of Korean history,” says noted translator Bruce Fulton. “Until recently, if you wrote out of imagination, with a sense of humor or playfulness, you were considered a lightweight, not to be taken seriously.” This has often made Korean fiction difficult for foreign readers to appreciate. The beauty of Modern Short Stories from Korea is that, while it is aware of modern Korean history, it also manages to be uniformly imaginative and often inflected with humor and playfulness even when addressing the direst topics.

This book is no longer in print, so it can only be found online. Readers interested in purchasing a copy should be aware that its price fluctuates wildly. I purchased my own for $20.00, but a search yesterday revealed an asking price of $250.00, which has unaccountably dropped to $125.00 today. This is one of those books worth owning (pick it up when the price drops).


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. He currently lives in Oregon, where he appreciates all job offers. He can be found online at ktlit.com.


The Great American (in China) Novel

By Robert Foyle Hunwick

Fiction by foreigners in China has lost its sheen considerably since the days of André Malraux’s Shanghai classic La Condition Humaine (Man’s Fate), which won the Prix Goncourt in 1933 despite being, frankly, turgid. (It also later emerged that Malraux had concocted many things relating to his claims and his research.)

Modern spy novels, such as Adam Brookes’ Night Heron, still make for great reading, but a surfeit of homegrown Chinese writing and, perhaps, fear of “cultural appropriation” has diminished an appetite for serious fiction-writing by foreigners, with some notable exceptions: Susan Barker’s The Incarnations and Jack Livings’ short–story collection The Dog.

Over in China, the “expat novel” is considered a punchline among old hands; last year’s publication of one particularly hopeless memoir prompted a friend, and fellow LARB contributor, to sarcastically wonder if, somewhere in Beijing “a nondescript borderline-alcoholic English teacher might be polishing off the manuscript of the China equivalent to The Sun Also Rises.”

While I can’t speak to author Quincy Carroll’s current drinking habits — for all I know, he might be a perfectly reasonable dipsomaniac — his debut Up the Mountains, Down the Countryside is probably as close to that novel as we’re likely to get, or want. (Carroll is an MFA graduate who’s worked for an NGO teaching in Hunan; the title is an elegiac reference to the dispatch of Red Guards to provincial farming communities during the Cultural Revolution.)

In this assured, if occasionally florid debut, the author deftly skewers two symbolic opposites who wind up teaching together at a no-mark suburban school in the equally dreary Hunan city of Ningyuan.

Thomas, the elder, is a 60-year-old Minnesotan deadbeat whose charmless cynicism might be his only (vaguely) redeeming quality; enthusiastic Sinophile Daniel, meanwhile, is a bright-eyed youth with stretched earlobe piercings and bright-red hair, whose fondness for strumming the guitar, while crooning folk songs to his adoring students, marks him out as an irritant of an altogether different calibre.

While idle Thomas, “arrogant, lewd and racist,” regards the didactic enterprise with little more than a rapacious, occasionally salacious eye, Daniel prepares lesson plans from scratch, tries to institute a library (it gets taken over by a divorced faculty member as a crash pad), and hikes the outer hills of Ningyuan like it’s the Lake District, viewing even the most mundane details of rural Chinese existence with the keen-eyed interest of the amateur anthropologist.

If that sounds familiar to some readers, it’s fair to say that Daniel’s sections — the plot is divided into chapters alternating between viewpoints –occasionally evoke a fictionalized version of Peter Hessler’s Peace Corps memoir River Town (2001), albeit with erotic dimensions missing from that famous work: one of the novel’s less-imaginative chapters involves a boozy boys’ night out in Changsha and Daniel’s eager encounter with a prostitute.

Clearly, the novel’s two male leads are set for some form of explosive collision, the catalyst for which proves to be Bella, a naïve and overfamiliar student whose urgent wish to ingratiate herself, and enjoy the full “Western” experience by studying abroad, is almost as wearying as Thomas’ studied surliness. While Daniel is likeable, even charming by comparison, Carroll takes care to salt the conflict with some yin to his yang. He’s prone to mildly absurd gestures, such as handcrafting an Aeolian harp out of reclaimed wood, and his excessive idealism is punctuated by a needy self-regard (“his students appeared to love him, and Daniel had no idea why, over the course of a year, the two of them had not become better friends”).

The denouement to this near–allegorical clash of the totems comes over a Spring Festival meal at Bella’s family home, which includes a divisive and revolting braised dog’s paw — the ensuing fallout is contrived yet satisfying: At just over 200 pages, Up the Mountains doesn’t outstay its welcome.

If the idea of two teachers feuding in Asia sounds as hackneyed as a tell–all Shanghai sex memoir, consider that, in another era, this could just have easily centered on the rivalry between a noble missionary and a foreign mercenary in war-torn Qing times. The supporting Chinese cast, moreover, is certainly more deeply drawn than Thomas and Daniel, who sometimes feel like vehicles for Carroll’s deeper point.

Via email, Carrol explained he “felt like there wasn’t a lot of honest fiction out there about foreigners in China,” and the book was a reaction to his own self-doubts about those who seemed “either complete failures or totally lost in life.”

Examining the inclination for Westerners to gravitate toward (or occasionally repel) each other overseas, Carroll deconstructs the belief that waiguoren, foreigners, are imbued with some mutual heritage — a fallacy not unlike Beijing’s presumption that “all Chinese” (all Han, at least) are obligated toward an ancient, mystic kinship that transcends nationality or upbringing. Meanwhile, back on Earth, here’s to the renewed quest for the Great American (in China) Novel.

Robert Foyle Hunwick is a media consultant and editor at large for BeijingCream.com. Up to the Mountains, Down to the Countryside (Inkshares, 224 pp, $15.95 rrp) is available at Barnes & Noble, independent bookshops, and Amazon.


It’s Time to Get Over QWERTY — A Q&A with Tom Mullaney on Alphabets, Chinese Characters, and Computing

Jeffrey Wasserstrom inverviews Tom Mullaney

Last month, I was one of two speakers at a lunchtime event on China held at Microsoft’s main campus outside of Seattle. The audience seemed to like my talk on censorship and other issues just fine, but another presenter, Tom Mullaney, set the room buzzing with what he had to say about Chinese characters and typewriters, telegraph codes and computing.

Afterwards, I asked him to do this Q&A with me to share some of his ideas with a wider audience. Mullaney is a professor of history at Stanford University who wrote a widely praised first book on ethnic minorities in China. For the past decade, he has been conducting pioneering research on Chinese interactions with information technologies that depend on characters instead of alphabets. His research will be showcased in two books that will be published by MIT Press. The first will focus on the Chinese typewriter, a topic he has published on in venues ranging from leading academic journals such as Technology and Culture to blogs including the China Beat. The following book will be about computing, a topic that obviously had special interest for the Microsoft crowd.

An exhibition on Chinese typewriters he curated is running now at Stanford, and he has organized a conference on global computing that will take place on his campus this weekend.


JEFF WASSERSTROM: When we spoke at Microsoft, you stressed that many things about China’s current place in the IT world fly in the face of past conventional wisdom about characters and alphabets. What exactly did you have in mind?

TOM MULLANEY: When it comes to technologies of communication and the Chinese language, we live in a time that hardly anyone could have anticipated at the dawn of the 20th century. Not only are Chinese characters still with us — they are one of the fastest, most widespread, and successful languages of the digital age. More than ever before, Chinese is a world script, and China is an IT giant. This would shock the many people who, for the past two centuries, assumed that such an outcome was conceivable only if China got rid of character-based writing and went the route of wholesale alphabetization — which it did not. This outcome was not supposed to have been possible — and yet here we are. What did we miss?

You argued at Microsoft that once we get to computers, any notion that using Chinese characters rather than letters is a disadvantage gets exploded. Would you elaborate on this — and, for those who haven’t followed these issues, say a little about the long history of claims that using characters inevitably impedes adopting new technologies ?

This is a really important question, and one that comes up a lot when I give lectures and do consultations at tech companies like Google and Microsoft. In the Q&A to my Google Tech talk back in 2011 — “A Chinese Typewriter in Silicon Valley” — we spent a good two hours on this, in fact. This is also a major inspiration for the computing and conference this weekend at Stanford (Shift CTRL: New Perspectives on Computing and New Media).

Ever since the mass manufacture of typewriters began in the U.S. in the 19th century, engineers and entrepreneurs imagined a day when this new technology would conquer the Chinese language and open up a vast new market to Remington, Underwood, Olivetti, and more — just the way it had other languages and markets in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere.

It never did (for reasons I explain in my new book coming out soon from MIT Press), and yet the fantasy didn’t die. It was renewed in the age of computing and, by the 1990s, seemed to many to have come true: computers throughout China began to look “just like ours,” even including the familiar QWERTY keyboard, which today is ubiquitous in the Chinese-speaking world.

In the Western world, people began to assume that the Latin alphabet had finally “conquered” Chinese — just like they assumed it always would. But nothing could be further from the truth.

What actually did happen?

If anything, Chinese conquered the alphabet, not the other way around.

Let’s look closely at the QWERTY keyboard in China. When we do, we find that it’s not at all how one might expect. In the Western world — or really in the “Alphabetic World” — we use the computer keyboard in a dumb, what-you-type-is-what-you-get kind of way. In all but rare instances, we assume a one-to-one correspondence between the symbols on the keys we strike and the symbols that we want to appear on the screen. Press the button marked ‘Q’ and ‘Q’ appears. It’s just that simple.

And that’s not what happens with Chinese?

No. Chinese “input” uses the QWERTY keyboard in an entirely different manner. In China, the QWERTY keyboard is “smart,” in the sense that it makes full use of modern-day computer power to augment and accelerate the input process. First of all, the letters of the Latin alphabet are not used in the same limited way that we use them in the alphabetic world. In China, “Q” (the button) doesn’t necessarily equal “Q” (the letter). Instead, to press the buttons marked Q, W, E, R, T, Y (or otherwise) is, strictly speaking, a way to give instructions to a piece of software known as an “Input Method Editor” (IME), which runs quietly in the background on your computer, intercepts all your keystrokes, and uses them as guidelines to try and figure out which Chinese characters the user wants. Using the most popular IME around today — Sougou Pinyin — the moment I strike the letter Q, the system is off and running, trying to figure out what I want. With the first clue, the IME immediately starts showing me options or “candidates” in a pop-up menu that follows me along on screen — in this case, Chinese characters, names, or phrases whose phonetic value begins with Q, such as Qingdao or Qigong.

The moment I hit the second button — let’s say U — the IME immediately changes up its recommendations, now giving me only characters that have pronunciations starting with “Qu.” There is no set, standard way to manage this process, moreover. There are many IMEs on the market, and each IME has many customizable settings. Some IMEs don’t use phonetics at all, in fact, but instead use Latin letters to indicate certain shapes or structural properties of the Chinese characters you want. And on top of all of this, there are countless abbreviations and shortcuts you can use to speed up the process (e.g., typing “Beijing” will get you the capital of China, but so will “bjing,” “beij,” or simply “bj”). And then, of course, there is “predictive text,” which as I have shown elsewhere, was developed and popularized in China decades before it was in the West.

This is a history that really no one had looked at before, though I do see my research as in dialog with stimulating work that others have been doing on related subjects, such as China specialist Chris Reed and Japanese historian Raja Adal, in their cases on the history of Chinese publishing and of Japanese typewriters, respectively. It’s been quite exciting to introduce work on the Chinese typewriter to technologists, China scholars, and students alike. You mentioned the museum exhibit I curated and opened at Stanford — well, surprisingly, this is the first exhibit in history to be dedicated to modern Chinese information technology! That’s pretty amazing to think about, particularly when considering what an IT powerhouse China has become.

Is China then in a better position than most other countries when it comes to moving forward technologically in our information age? Or are there things that could lead to the advantages that characters can provide being squandered?

I think China is in a better position, yes. Chinese “Input” is arguably the future of IT — not only in China, but globally. As I put it just now, “input” takes far greater advantage of the QWERTY keyboard than conventional “typing” does in the alphabetic world, with our century-old what-you-type-is-what-you-get mentality. The QWERTY keyboard in China is a “smart keyboard”: a device used to oversee a rapid two-part process of finding and choosing characters from a database, using ever-faster and more sophisticated techniques. This “finding and choosing” aspect of modern Chinese IT is one of the most exciting and surprising discoveries I made in my research, in fact. Namely, modern-day Chinese computing owes a tremendous debt to the work of Chinese library scientists and others back in the 1920s through 1940s — figures like Du Dingyou, Chen Lifu, and others who never knew that the computer would be invented, of course, but who obsessed over the question of how to design faster and faster ways of organizing Chinese library card catalogs, phone books, and filing systems! Little could they have known that, decades later, major companies like IBM, Microsoft, Google, Apple, Sougou, and others would dust off their methods and turn them into the engine of China’s rise as an IT giant!

By contrast, the Latin alphabetic world has spent more than two centuries congratulating itself for “Our Glorious Alphabet,” and yet at the same time has done far less to explore and push the Latin alphabet to its fullest potential. In fact, Silicon Valley is having a really hard time now convincing average computer users in the West that the keyboard is in fact an obstacle — that it’s somehow broken and that average users need to start exploring more of the clever English-language input devices now available on the market — like the absolutely brilliant ShapeWriter system invented by my friend Shumin Zhai.

What do you see happening in the future where all this is concerned?

I keep wondering how the Valley expects Western computer users to react when they realize there’s so much more to the story than the myth our IT culture came of age believing: that the alphabet was the very pinnacle of human ingenuity, and that writing systems like Chinese paled by comparison. We are like children who grew up receiving trophies every day of our lives, being told by society that we are far more advanced than the neighbor kids — what kind of effect does that have after 200-plus years?

Sure, it might be possible for the Valley to convince “early adopters” of this need to experiment — technology enthusiasts who are always looking for the next thing, and scour Maker Fair and tech summits to try and find it — but for workaday computer users like you and me, Silicon Valley is now facing a major cultural problem — not with China, but actually with the “alphabetics” of the world. We are dismissing and resisting all kinds of technological possibilities that exist now for English, French, Russian, and other alphabetic languages, simply because we unconsciously subscribe to the powerful idea, “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”

“Input” is a slightly tricky thing for people to understand in the alphabetic world, and so let’s close with a metaphor from electronic music: MIDI, or the Musical Instrument Digital Interface. With the advent of computer music in the 1960s, it became possible for musicians to play instruments that looked and felt like guitars, keyboard, flutes, and so forth but that — thanks to digital computing — produced the sound of drum kits, cellos, bagpipes, and more. Just as one can play a cello with a MIDI piano, a drum kit with a MIDI woodwind, or a piano with a MIDI guitar, everyday computer users in China today use QWERTY and the Latin alphabet to “play” Chinese.


Following the Money with Ma Yinchu

By Austin Dean

Who pays for what? This is an eternal source of disagreement in public administration.

It’s the question behind recent debates in New York about how much money the state should allocate to the City University of New York (CUNY) system. Since the 1970s, the state of New York has paid the operating funds of CUNY’s “11 senior colleges, or four-year institutions, and at its six graduate and professional colleges,” just as it does for the State University of New York (SUNY). New York City has been the main funder of the CUNY’s seven community colleges. In January, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a state budget that would cut $485 million to the CUNY system. It was, he argued, time for the city to pay more. At the end of March, and after much opposition, Cuomo dropped his proposals to cut state funding to CUNY’s budget.

Cuomo’s decision would have been of interest to Chinese students studying in the United States a century ago. Many of these students were obsessed with the details of local and municipal finance in the United States — with good reason.

The finances of the late Qing dynasty and early Republican periods were constantly in flux. Which taxes belonged to the national government? To local governments? What should be taxed and how much? How should the system of budgeting work? Could waste and corruption be eliminated?

One person particularly preoccupied with the question of municipal finance in the United States was Ma Yinchu, later famous as the intellectual father of the one-child policy in the People’s Republic of China. Ma studied economics at Yale before getting his PhD from Columbia. Appropriately enough, he wrote his dissertation in 1914 on the public finances of New York City.

The topic had a practical purpose. As Ma wrote in the preface of the dissertation, “the finances of the Empire City of New York and those of the Empire and Republic of China have many points of resemblance.” Corruption was rampant; waste was all too common; debt levels skyrocketed.  He thought the “scientific methods” the city had recently adopted for budgeting and auditing could “afford a valuable lesson for China’s benefit.” In fact, he hoped the dissertation would be translated into Chinese.

Interestingly, in light of the current debate about funding for CUNY, Ma repeatedly returned to an example from higher education to show how things should not be done. Here is the text of the 1905 New York City appropriation for higher education:

For salaries of professors, tutors, and other in the Normal College and in the Training Department of the Normal College, for scientific apparatus, books, and all necessary supplies thereof; for repairing and altering the college building, and for the support, maintenance and general expenses of the same — $220,000.

Ma thought this type of lump-sum appropriation was egregious. With a scale “so comprehensive” and “indefinite,” the funds might be spent on anything. Take the term “supplies.” If the school spent $30,000 on educational supplies, no one would complain. But what if it spent the same amount on office supplies? Surely most people would think there was significant skullduggery at work. A general appropriation such as New York had been giving its higher-education institutions would be impossible to audit. Ma thought this old system of doing things mirrored the one in China.

Much better, Ma wrote, was the new system of budgeting in New York City that segregated expenses according to functionality. Instead of a lump-sum appropriation, the budget designated funds to be used for specific purposes: general salaries, equipment purchases, office supplies, etc. With this system in place, it was much easier to track and audit the use of funds.

But making the budget was only one step: it had to be funded by taxes. Ma devoted another part of his dissertation to this eternally complex topic.

Ma was particularly interested in the property tax. As he wrote approvingly of the system in the United States, the taxation of real estate “must be delegated to the county, city or town exclusively” because they are the “source from which the land value springs.” His own country had no such system.

The property tax remains one of the more controversial duties in contemporary China. The transaction of buying and selling property is taxed, but there is no recurring annual tax levied on individual owners of real estate. It regularly gets discussed and has been tried out in small pilot programs, but a nation-wide introduction always seems to be a few years away.

Ma also had a lot to say about debt. This was natural, as both China and New York City owed large amounts of money, albeit for different reasons. China had massive indemnities to pay off from the Boxer Rebellion. After the fall of the Qing dynasty, the new government under Yuan Shikai accumulated more debt by relying on loans from foreign creditors.

In New York City, Ma thought the debt burden arose from the “unsound financial practice of borrowing on long term for the acquisition and construction of improvements which shall entail no expense on the present taxpayer.” New Yorkers wanted a free lunch. He could see no reason why the city was in the habit “of selling 50-year bonds to pay for ten-year street paving, which last often for not more than five years!” It made no sense.

Ma Yinchu was an opinionated and prolific writer. His collected works span more than ten thick volumes; the dissertation on New York City finances was his first major undertaking. It’s hard to say which side of the recent debate about the CUNY system Ma would have taken. On the one hand, he was in favor of city expenses being covered by taxes under the control of the municipality. On the other, his own education benefited from funds allocated by the Qing government; sometimes a higher level of government has to provide funds for important purposes. Regardless of who supplied the funds, though, there’s no doubt that Ma would certainly want the money well accounted for.

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Korea’s English Fever, or English Cancer?

By Colin Marshall 

A young Korean lady walks down the street, textbooks in her arms and earbuds in her ears. Suddenly, a plaid-shirted, down-vested white guy walks up to her: “Hi, excuse me, I need directions to Gangnam Station?” Sweat streams down the girl’s face. A Korean fellow in a suit picks up a newspaper and takes his seat on an airplane. Suddenly, the middle-America-looking lady seated next to him reaches over and points at the page he’s opened: “Hey, I was reading that article, and…” Sweat sprays in all directions from the top of his head. In a school library, in a cafe, other Koreans mind their own business on their computers, and still more Westerners suddenly approach: “Hello? Excuse me? You speak English, right?” “Hi, I’m so sorry to interrupt…” Further torrents of sweat pour forth.

I chuckled at this series of television commercials for an English-assistance smartphone app called Speakingmax the first time they came on, but it’s fair to say they’d grown less funny by the twentieth. The repetition of these ads (and their strange jingle-adaptation of Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell”, of all songs) bothers me less than their underlying assumptions, more clearly visible with each viewing. Why on Earth do all these Westerners assume they can approach a stranger in a foreign country — a country with its own language — and simply begin yammering in English? And why do these Koreans feel so obligated to respond in English, and so unable to respond in English, as to induce such a violent endocrine reaction?

Each of these Speakingmax commercials carefully sets up a they-asked-for-it scenario, going to far as to spell out on the screen what flame they’d inadvertently held out to the foreign moth: he could see her English textbooks, she saw him reading an English-language newspaper, she saw him studying for some high-profile English exam like the TOEIC or TOEFL, he saw English-language news on her laptop screen. So sure, the Westerners all had some reason to believe that these particular Koreans could speak at least a little English, but not to at least try to open the conversation in Korean — much less to launch into it in full-speed English — strikes me as inexcusable. And given all the foreign actors’ bland accents, it also offers evidence that the “ugly American” stereotype (no matter how much more boorish other countries’ tourists have become) remains alive and well.

These spots also vividly dramatize the extent to which fear and even shame figure in to the culture of English in South Korea. Ads play on these emotions not just on the airwaves but also down in the subway: the text of poster below, just up and to the left of the terrorized-looking cartoon lady, offers English practice sessions for 1000 won each (a low enough price that it must involve outsourcing to a call center in the Philippines, the destination of choice for Koreans looking to study English abroad on a budget). I saw another one more recently that addressed itself to “you who studied English for ten years but cannot speak English for ten seconds,” tapping into the nation’s painfully wide gap between the huge amounts of time and money put into English education and the fluency so rarely achieved.

KB - English 2

Most young Korean adults really have had to study English for that long, and so it dismays them when they travel to an English-speaking country — or, in Speakingmax’s Korea, suffer a linguistic attack by a wayward American on their own soil — and find themselves understanding so little and able to say even less. But to me it makes perfect sense, as it would to any American who had to grind through French or Spanish requirements in high school: English is a foreign language, and you can’t actually learn a foreign language in a classroom, especially without any special inclination toward that language. I myself had to start Spanish classes from age nine and continue them until college, during which time I learned, and expected to learn, almost nothing of use in actual Spanish-language conversation. But when I discovered an interest in Spanish-speaking countries later, in my twenties, I taught (or re-taught) myself the basics I needed in hardly any time at all.

So why does every South Korean student have to spend so much of their time studying not just a foreign language, but specifically English, and why hasn’t it had the ostensibly desired results? “The whole time I’ve been here, Korea has continued to spend the most money on English education in the entire world,” says Michael Elliott, who runs the video and podcast enterprise English in Korean, which he started after years working as a translator. “The impetus for me to start venturing into education was when I was translating two articles: one was that Korea spends the most money on English education, and the next was that businesspeople who did business in Asia rated the ease of communication in all these different nations, and Korea was dead last. It was obvious that something wasn’t going well here.”

“I didn’t start studying Korean until I was an adult,” says Elliott. “I think expression, building a vocabulary in your own language, is much more important, and then you understand that there are these modes of expression, that this vocabulary exists, and then you use that. When you speak English with somebody who’s older in America, and they use a lot of idiomatic expressions, they use proverbs — it’s beautiful. First you have to know that that mode of expression exists, and then later you’ll have the desire to replicate that in a foreign language. But if you never even get that deep into your own language, everything is so rudimentary. A lot of Korean kids start learning English to the detriment of their Korean, and that’s topsy-turvy.”

The starting age of English classes in Korea, whether at public schools or private institutes, has fallen lower and lower with time. The currently fashion holds that if you don’t get your child studying English while still a toddler, they’ll never make it in this world. And not just studying English, but developing what passes for a native English speaker’s accent and manner. Speakingmax’s commercials may have made me laugh before they got me worrying, but those aired by English Egg, a producer of childhood English-study materials, chilled me from the first. “Mommy, look at me,” shouts a little girl, holding up her sketchbook, “I can paint a tree!” The mother smiles benevolently. Then daughter rises and scampers forth, arms waving: “I love bread and milk!” (The writers can hardly have chosen those characteristically Western foods by chance.) I turn in disbelief from this spectacle to Korean friends and ask, “This… this is weird, right?”

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But as students themselves, their own immediate goals had less to do with becoming bread-eating, milk-drinking, English-speaking quasi-Westerners than with scoring highly on the standardized English tests they perceived as deciding so much of their future. None looms quite so large as the English section of the College Scholastic Ability Test (대학수학능력시험), known as the Suneung, an exam that acts in most ways the Korean equivalent of the SAT, descended from old Confucian standardized-test culture, carries much more weight and thus does much more affect the shape of society. (To see that in grim action, watch the documentary Reach for the SKY.)

As the only subject that generates enough of a standard deviation in scores to sort students into the strict hierarchy of Korean universities, English has become the wall in front of a respectable Suneung result, and thus in front of a respectable university, and thus a respectable career, and ultimately a respectable life. Still, “if you learn English properly,” says Elliott, “the test comes naturally, but if you learn test English, you’re left with nothing.” Yet many Korean students gladly make that tradeoff, living as they do in a society where “English is perceived as tool, or a path, to making more money.”

“That’s why a lot of Koreans are perplexed when they see us studying Korean. I went to Thailand once: things were cheap, the people were friendly, the food there is really good. I came back here and wanted to try my hand at Thai. I asked Korean friends and they’d just say, ‘Oh, there’s not going to be any institutes that teach that.’ I asked why, and they said, ‘Well, because it’s a poor country.’” North Korea analyst Brian Reynolds Myers, who teaches in the department of international studies at Dongseo University, describes this phenomenon as “something that frustrates me,” since “we’re trying to make the students realize just how important China and India and Russia and Brazil are going to be to their own futures.”

“I’m constantly telling them to learn Indonesian, which I think is the ‘golden tip.’ Indonesian is a very easy language to learn: they don’t have a particularly developed past tense and they don’t make a big fuss about plurals and so on, which is right up the Koreans’ alley, you would think. And yet they all are learning English and Chinese in the hope that that’s going to distinguish them on the job market.” They do it because “they look at the outside world in terms of an economic hierarchy. If I have a student from the United States who gets up and talks about his hometown, they’re all ears. And yet when a Russian stands up and talks, or an Egyptian, or a Kyrgyz, I can tell that the attention level drops markedly, which is unfortunate and short-sighted.”

If I had my way, I’d remove English from the Suneung forever, replacing it with some other equally arbitrary and arduous task (memorizing the digits of pi, say) and leaving the study of foreign languages to the few students with genuine affinities for the cultures that produced them — whether Russia, Egypt, Kyrgyzstan, Indonesia, Thailand, or indeed England or America — and thus the only ones who can really excel at it. As the Wall Street Journal‘s Jasper Kim put it in his diagnosis of Korea’s “English fever,” perhaps the country “should focus on less (not more) English education for most of its students — continuing ‘extreme English’ only for those who will need it on a regular basis for their future global career trajectory. This would free up not just capital, but millions of South Korean young minds to learn the skill-sets that most interest and fit their individual talents.”

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On the whole and for a variety of reasons, I like Korea more than Japan. But whenever I cross the East Sea — or the Sea of Japan, or call it what you will — I feel a wave of relief upon entering a country where everyone speaks to you in the language of the country where you are. Japan has certainly enjoyed its flirtation with English: the country nearly converted to it wholesale as an official language at one point in its history, and longtime expats over there tell me that, 25 years ago, a Westerner couldn’t go out to a Tokyo bar without running into a tipsy salaryman aggressively eager for practice. But it appears that Japanese society has finally settled on just speaking Japanese, complemented by what David Sedaris, a frequent visitor to Japan and casual student of the Japanese language, tends to call “seventeen words of English.”

It’s not as if Japan expects foreigners to have perfect Japanese — far from it, and in fact the oft-satirized attitudes there suggest that many native speakers consider us, against all evidence, innately unable to learn it to a high level. But still, approach a Japanese person in Japan, and they’ll expect you, and I would say rightly expect you, to at least start off speaking in Japanese. Even if you do speak in English, they’ll like as not offer you Japanese in reply. Korea affords no such linguistic security: I still tense up, slightly, when I speak Korean even to just the barista at a coffee shop, not knowing whether to expect a response in Korean, in unbidden English (against which I’ll feign incomprehension and stonewall as long as it takes), or, worst of all, in a confusing mishmash of both, the Korean sentences mined with scattered, unrecognizable “English” terms.

Still, Korean English education as we know it has chugged along despite discomfiting side effects: for the Koreans, the impossibly widespread psychological burden of mastering a completely alien tongue, and for the Westerners, a community-discoloring preponderance of English teachers, many of whom arrive with scant interest or investment in Korea, much less in the Korean language — or, according to the not-entirely-false stereotype, in anything more than a few years of easy paychecks. (Half the time I introduce myself to a Korean, they ask not what I do, but whether I teach English.) One might argue that English’s standing as “the international language” justifies all this, but I don’t quite buy it, partly because of its inherent unsuitability to quick acquisition and unambiguous intercultural communication, but more so because I’d rather struggle with a foreign language myself than hear my native one get stripped of its nuance across the world.

That aside, the expectation that all Koreans should speak English, and that no non-Koreans speak Korean, does more than its part to discourage the study of an already difficult language. Ironically, foreigners might well have an easier time of it if Korea subjected us to a Japanese-style (or stiffer still, Chinese-style) expectation of, over time, at least a certain level of conversational proficiency. It would certainly better suit the kind of strong country South Korea has become, strong enough to attract outsiders willing to learn its language rather than fall all over itself to learn a language of the outsiders. In an article on Korea’s thus far unfilfilled aspiration for a Nobel Prize in Literature, the New Yorker‘s Mythli G. Rao quoted a Korean “literature enthusiast” as saying that “I think the Nobel committee needs to learn Korean first.” Some readers laughed at that, but I can’t say I totally disagree.

Japan’s English education industry has never really recovered from the 2007 collapse of Nova, the country’s largest private English education company, which fell under the weight of financial losses, lawsuits, strikes, and even deaths. Korea’s English education industry has recently shown its own signs of strain, from sketchy dealings in Seoul’s struggling “English villages” to the suicide of the CEO of the even more troubled Wall Street English, one of the country’s most visible chains of private English schools. Whether this will lead to a break in South Korea’s English fever remains to be seen, but for now I propose re-naming the malady so as to reflect its more malignant, invasive, and wasting nature — a deeper and more complicated disorder, in other words, that nobody can just sweat out.

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