The Explorer’s History of Korean Fiction in Translation: Literature Under the Japanese Occupation

By Charles Montgomery

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

In 1915 Yi Kwang-Su, one of the fathers of modern Korean literature, laid out a manifesto intended to separate the literature to follow from the literature of the past. Its belief that “we are a new people, without ancestors, without parents, that came from Heaven in the present” became a part of Korean literary philosophy, expressed again in 1930 by Ch’oe Caeso who argued that, “in terms of contemporary culture, our attitudes are dominated by those of Western culture, and not by those from the Joseon period and before … This will and must continue in the future.”

Beginning in about 1910 with a broadside essay by Yi Kwang-su, a group of young Korean authors, often shockingly young, even in their teens, often living or educated in Japan, began a literature drastically divergent from that of the past. These authors utterly rejected classical styles, Chinese influences in general and the Chinese language in particular, including its clichés, sayings, and references. The new literature was to engage directly with Korea, through a Korean lens in the Korean language. The process of development of this change, in fits, starts and phases, took place between 1910 and 1936, a remarkably brief era of about a quarter-century (an idea to which we will return when discussing the challenges of Korean modern literature in the future).

It was, as Chung Chong-wha wrote in the introduction to Meetings and Farewells, “an age of revelations. Koreans discovered the English Romantic Poets, Zola, Flaubert, Tolstoy, and Turgenev, Shakespeare, Goethe, Baudelaire … all the literary wealth of the west which Japanese translation could provide.” Various authors explored various styles, cliques formed, fought, and fractured, and cross-pollination was inevitable.

Mujong (Heartless), the benchmark work of early modern fiction, was written by Yi Kwang-Su in 1917. A clearly didactic work, it focused on the necessity for Koreans to fix their broken and outdated social structures, and with it Yi broke from all previous conventions. Its protagonist Yi Hyong-sik is a grown orphan, a teacher who works to make education more modern and less Confucian. When his youthful crush Yongchae becomes an entertainer, he leaves her to marry Sonhyong, the daughter of a wealthy diplomat.

Yi Hyong-sik loves Sonhyong, but also harbors the suspicion that she has married him primarily at the will of her father. Yongchae, meanwhile, contemplates suicide but is dissuaded by a feminist, Pyongguk, who persuades her that her life is worth more than the wife’s life wished for her by her parents, and worth more than the wish for a husband. As the book ends, Yi Hyong-sik and Pyongguk persuade Yongchae and Sonhyong to work with them in the struggle for enlightenment, both personal enlightenment and that of the nation. Sound complicated? It was. Much of this book takes the form of exhortation, argument, and polemic, which can be trying at times, but it makes for a critical and often entertaining work.

In Soil, Yi explores many of the same themes, but in a more entertaining way, writing  in the style that would eventually overtake Korean dramas: texts full of doomed love, betrayals, unlikely coincidences, saintly heroes, and villains who do everything short of twirling their waxed moustache tips and tying young maidens to railroad tracks. As in Mujong, Yi addresses the need for change, in this case emphasizing the importance of the countryside in creating new life in Korea. This may seem too long a book with too noble a hero, but it is ultimately a light and refreshingly quick read.

Soil tells of a young man from the country named Heo Sung who leaves his hometown, and his first love, to become a lawyer. His employer in Seoul decides that he should marry his daughter, and so, in a way, it begins as not just a happy story but  the quintessential success story in Korea: move to the capital, marry well, and get rich. But not for Heo who, seeing the city as essentially corrupt, longs to go back to his simple village and, as part of the grand Korean nation-building project, restore it to economic and social health. After a series of scenes in which the moral corruption of Seoul and evils of foreign influence are revealed, Seo returns home to rebuild his village in a cooperative fashion, leaving Seoul behind to the Japanese collaborator Gap-Jin and the even more morally corrupt Dr. Lee, whose sin is to have been educated in the United States.

The shift between Mujong and Soil is bears noting as the point when Yi’s conception of the role of the city in modernization underwent a radical change, causing him to break almost completely of Western-style modernization. In Mujong he waxes rhapsodic about cities: “Sound of cities? That is the sound of civilization. The greater the sound grows, the better off the nation becomes,” a direct mimicking of the (perceived) Western model. But Soil finds Yi is humming another tune entirely, singing as it does the praises of the noble farmer and presenting the city as something like a treacherous spider’s web.

Another classic story of the era is Yom Sang-Sop’s On the Eve of the Uprising, one strongly influenced by the confessional, first-person Japanese writing style of the time. This relatively straightforward account of the Korean situation before the March First Movement comes narrated by a rather selfish Korean studying in Japan named Inwha who must return home when a telegram informs him his wife is on the verge of dying in childbirth.

Though he has adopted a philosophy of self-reliance that is actually more like a philosophy of “use everyone around you,” Inhwa’s the trip home makes him aware of his personal colonial position and that of his country, suffering as he does from constant racial discrimination, both in Japan and at home. To modern eyes, Inwha is a bit of a misogynist, and some readers might not enjoy his treatment of women, particularly his dying wife, for whose condition, and for the condition of Korea as a nation, Yom uses the recurring symbol of the tomb.

While these books were being written, the Japanese were tightening colonial control, shuttering private newspapers and converting the Korea Daily News, the largest newspaper before colonialism, into a mouthpiece for the state. Censorship was common, and the 1907 Newspaper Law and 1909 Publication Law severely restricted who could publish at all. Needless to say, this resulted in a great deal of social and political pressure that would soon come to a boil.

The March First Independence Movement of 1919, although not technically a success as it did not lead to independence, did lead to changes in both Korean and Japanese outlook, with themselves produced to substantive changes later. It revealed to Japan the depth of resentment Koreans felt towards their rule, and so the Japanese attempted to ease the animus felt toward them (as always, primarily with an aim to securing their colony). 1920’s Cultural Policy rolled back some of the restrictions on publishing, to immediate results: in the first year afterward some 409 permits were given for journals and magazines, representing an increase of nearly 400 permits over the number given in the entire decade previous. Perhaps more importantly, after the Independence Movement of 1919 the Korean alphabet hangeul became the full-time language of modern literature while the importance of Chinese-based literature quickly receded.

After the shocks of the collapse of the Joseon Dynasty and the Japanese invasion, the influence of the March First Movement led to increased emphasis on themes of individuality and self-discovery. The literary magazines Ch’angjo (Creation, 1919), P’yeho (The Ruins, 1920), and Paekcho (White Tide, 1922) gave authors places to publish, and literary groups began to cohere. Ruins and White Tide were consciously anti-didactic, focusing on “pure” literature, and it was at this time that a split began to develop between those two kinds of literature, albeit one by no means complete: authors like Yom Sang-seop and Kim Dong-in combined biting social commentary with realistic portrayals of life.

At the same time, national newspapers evolved (including the Chosun llbo and Dong-a Ilbo, both of which exist today) to provide sites for the serialization of new Korean fiction. The new novels took some of the aspects of the previous sinsosol, particularly a focus on real life and the problems thereof, melding them to conceptual concerns of the new Colonial Era and that of the subjugated Korea, which included the real and perceived failures of Confucianism, modern education, and political sovereignty.

Stylistically, the new novel was not revolutionary, incorporating approaches that had gradually evolved in the enlightenment, specifically involvinf realistic prose and description. The issues of the day became the plots for the novels of the day, as description replaced narrative and analysis replaced chronology. These novels were still overwhelmingly didactic, almost universally following “the reproval of vice and promotion of virtue,” failing to feature individually realized characters in favor of clichés (evil stepmothers, murderous villains, etc.) and ending in contrived happiness. Typically rendered in common speech and printed in Hangeul, they examined on modern education and, for the first time, sexual equality (though in a preliminary enough manner that it would be scoffed at today).

Other writers, including some who were not as didactic, quickly followed the model Yi Kwang-su helped to develop. Kim Tong-in, paramount among the “art for art’s sake” writers, co-founded Creation, which published his debut story “The Sorrows of the Weak.” Kim rejected the argument that literature must be didactic at the same time the he rejected the idea that art must precisely reflect reality. Despite his “literary” approach, Kim was not immune to the temptation of clear didactic messages. In 1925 he published Potatoes, one of his most famous works and a breakthrough in Korean “realist” fiction, but also a scathing portrayal of the harm a social system can inflict on the individual. In it a young girl from a moral family, one step removed from scholars but still described as a “gentleman-scholar’s house,” is sold into marriage to an older, lazy widower in decline who drags her into the sewer of sexual depravity, and ultimately to her death.

Korean literature of this period was also split between national and class literature, with the latter expanding in the mid-1920s to focus on class consciousness and the creation of “farmer literature” and “labor literature.” The national literature of the first half of the decade often focused on romantic representations of an individual and his or her hopeless position in colonial society. Hyun Jin-geon’s A Society That Drives You to Drink (1921) offers a prime example of this kind of work (as does Na Hye-Seok’s Kyonghui).

In 1925, the Korean Artists Proletarian Federation (KAPF) was founded with the intent of class liberation by using socialist realism to increase class consciousness and to demonstrate the plight of the working classes. This was obviously problematic to the Japanese occupiers, who regularly harassed KAPF but allowed it to exist, partly because it represented a schism within Korean literature between activists and naturalists. A Tale of Rats by Yi Ki-Kyeong (who eventually disappeared into North Korea) is an example of this kind of class fiction, exploring society and particularly its unbalanced economic structure from the perspective of Thunder Giant, an enormous rat with an unusually developed sense of philosophy and irony. This amusingly wise creature notes the differences between the lives of rich landlord Kim and penurious tenant farmer Su-dol in a wonderfully deadpan tone.

The new fiction that developed during this period often focused on individuals out of step with social reality, including intellectuals unmoored from reality and the horrific existences of the lower classes. Over the decade of the 1920s, Korean literature moved from romantic descriptions of individuals trapped in melancholy toward greater realism. Hyun Jin-geon’s grimly ironic Lucky Day uses very precise detail to explore the kind of Issue that Yi Sang did with expressionism in the 1930s: the daily problems people faced amid the horror of their daily lives.

In 1937, Kim Yu-jeong wrote a similar story called “The Scorching Heat” about a sick wife and her husband’s doomed efforts to get her treatment. Both it and Lucky Day are simultaneously love stories and tragedies. About the fiction of their era I will let the estimable translator and scholar Bruce Fulton have the last word: “Proletarian literature was tolerated by the Japanese colonial authorities from the mid-1920s to 1935. This literature is cited today more for its historical interest than its literary value.”


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


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