Enlightenment Fiction and the Birth of the “Modern” Korean Novel

By Charles Montgomery

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

By the 19th century the Joseon Dynasty was collapsing, the Japanese empire was rising, and Western literary influences had begun to seep into the Korean language and affect Korean writers. China fell into less repute as intellectuals attempted to reconstruct Korea as an independent nation. This led to, among other things, a strong repudiation of Chinese as the language of Korean literature and a turn towards King Sejong’s alphabet, hangul. Against this history Korea began its first foray into modern literature during its own enlightenment era.

The Korean enlightenment period was confused and brief. Worse, it was halted by Japanese colonialism. The massive, self-conscious efforts made during this era does demonstrate, however, that Korea was trying to figure out a way towards literary modernization as well, and it gives some tantalizing hints of where that modernization might have gone. This literary shift was greatly bolstered by the Gabo Reforms of 1894-6, which introduced Western-style schools, based appointment of government positions on merit, and theoretically eliminated Korea’s class system, removing the social privileges of the aristocratic yangban. They also decreed that all official documents were to be written in hangul, not the Chinese characters known as hanja.

As newspapers routinely printed literature, the idea of the commercial writer emerged and new styles were imported from abroad. At the same time, publishing technology itself was changing: newspapers became increasingly important, providing the first lighting rod for the literature of the enlightenment era. Serial novels, common in most newspapers of the era, became a critical part of Korean literature and its development. Prior to 1945, in fact, serialization the standard way for novels to first get into print, and it remains a publication strategy today both in print and online.

Post-World War II authors such as Cho Se-hui (The Dwarf) and Yang Kwi-ja (A Distant and Beautiful Place) continued to publish this way. Some authors now serialize both in newspapers and on the internet: Gong Ji-young published her influential but untranslated work The Crucible on the Korean portal site Daum, and Lee Ki-ho used the same serial approach for his amusing modern novel At Least We Can Apologize. This model is not unknown in the West, as many Victorian novels were first published serially in magazines or newspapers, Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers (1836) being one of the most famous examples.

The first Korean newspaper, the Hansong Sunbo, began publishing 1883. The government then put out, initially in Chinese but eventually in hangul, the Pak Mun-guk, with a mission was to proliferate new ideas but it a lifespan of only five years five years. In 1896, the even shorter-lived The Independent was published in hangul, then shut down by the government. In quick succession multiple newspapers bloomed, most of them going out of business with the complete advent of Japanese colonization.

Newspapers filled some of their pages with serialized novels, as well a sijo and kasa. The development of modern printing techniques made mercantile publishing possible, which allowed the possibility of the professional author, as opposed to the troubadour, scholar, or “didact” of the classical era. These new authors created a new form of literature call the sinsosol, or “new novel,” and readers flocked to read it their treatments of issues of popular control and the importance of education, as well as their attacks on arranged marriage and  the evil of “old” beliefs, including superstition. Subjects tended toward the contemporary, approaching them with descriptive and analytical styles different from the narrative and chronological style of classical literature.

Moral didacticism still filled these works, punishing evil and rewarding good. Characters still tended to be archetypes rather than individuals, as at this point literature was almost entirely focused on issues of modernization more than on any the details of any particular character’s life. Happy endings also tended to predominate. These works dealt with large problems in daily contexts, drawing a readership while at the same time giving rise to a second generation of authors.

One of the first works of Korean enlightenment fiction was published in 1906: Yi In-jik’s Tears of Blood, serialized in The Independence News, which told the story of a family in Pyongyang suffering during the Sino-Japanese War. Using a young female protagonist to question the Joseson-era notions of women as property and not “citizens,” the story offers her as a symbol of a modern Korean nation, putting her in opposition to her more traditional mother. Here was one of the first stories of the culture clashes to come between traditionalists and those who wanted to create a new, modern nation.

After Yi In-jik came Yi Kwang-su, who would come to be considered the father of Korean modern literature, an advocate for such shockingly modern beliefs as the scientific approach and romantic love, and an incredibly controversial figure for political and philosophical reasons. Other authors followed, and sinsosol, which were uniformly written in Hangul, continued to become more popular across this period. While these works still tended to be preachy — although now most always in the service of espousing Enlightenment ideals — they broke with the abstractly contemplative and highly artificial novels of the classical period.

Their stories made use of new narrative techniques (“out of time” narratives, for instance) and more prosaic voices. In breaking from the philosophical nature of previous works, the sinsosol also increasingly became political, focusing on broader social concerns. While their basic moral-tale nature of the plots, incredible coincidences, and unified structure were partially consistent with previous Korean fiction, this turn away from traditional plot-lines and toward quotidian description set them well apart. Biographical works were popular, albeit tailored to suit the emerging tastes of the Korean audience with calls to the emerging national consciousness and to nationalism itself. Jang Ji-yeon’s Tale of the Patriotic Lady (1907), a good example of this, demonstrates several aspects of the Korean enlightenment by re-writing the story of Joan of Arc in the Korean language, making her a symbolic of Korean national ambition in so doing.

The influence of the West had previously come first through China and Japan, but with time it took more direct routs. In 1895 Yu Kiljun (pictured in the illustration above), the first Korean to study in both the United States and Japan, published his Things Seen and Heard on a Journey to the West. That same year John Scarth Gale, translated John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and many other religious works into Korean, accounting for part of the process by which Christianity was introduced into the country. From then on, Gale was busy producing translations of parts of the Bible, and in 1910 a complete edition was finally translated and published in Korea. By the 21st century, nearly 30% of the Korean population subscribes to some form of of Christianity, well outnumbering Korea’s Buddhists.

Not only was Korea attempting to shrug of centuries of Joseon Dynasty torpor, it was increasingly looking outside of itself for suggestions on how to accomplish that task. The Korean enlightenment, however, and the tentative start of a new and modern Korean literature, was to be swiftly and utterly altered by the course of history: as these changes began to gather momentum, the much greater momentum of Japanese colonialism would soon impact it and alter Korean society and literature in ways then scarcely imaginable.

 

Related Korea Blog posts:
Where is Korean Translated Literature?
What Shaped Translated Korean Literature?
Why Does Korean Literature Use an Alphabet?
How Did Korea Get Fiction in the First Place?
Heroes, Fantasies, and Families: What Went Into the First Korean Novels?

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