Where to start with Korean literature? That question can frustrate Western enthusiasts of modern Korean popular culture — music, television, film — who want to go deeper. When I began seriously watching Korean movies, I realized many of them were adaptations of novels or stories, but soon learned that reading those novels and stories myself wouldn’t be easy. Less Korean literature had been translated than I’d expected, and much of it was hardly distributed outside academia. Most of the Korean books I did find in English seemed obsessively focused on the various traumas of 20th-century history. Their awkward prose wasn’t helped by romanized Korean words whose apostrophes and unfamiliar diacritical marks made them look stranger than the actual Korean alphabet.
Blame for that last goes to the McCune-Reischauer romanization system, in use since the late 1930s. It was co-creator Edwin O. Reischauer, an Asia scholar and the United States Ambassador to Japan under John F. Kennedy, who called the Korean alphabet hangul “perhaps the most scientific system of writing in general use in any language,” a claim still repeated (usually out of context) in Korea today. Hangul is, at any rate, a logical and easy-to-learn system of writing, as I found out when I began self-studying the Korean language soon after my first encounters with Korean literature — having resigned myself to the idea that if I wanted to enjoy Korean books, I’d probably have to do it in Korean.
McCune-Reischauer was falling out of favor even then, challenged by a revised system introduced around the turn of the millennium by the National Academy of the Korean Language. Yet some prominent translators have held fast to it, including Bruce Fulton, who with his wife Ju-Chan Fulton has brought into English the work of many of the notable Korean writers of the past half-century. (Their translations of Kim Sagwa’s novel Mina and Yoon Tae-ho’s comic Moss have previously been featured here.) The experience placed him well to work in another Korean-Western partnership: in collaboration with Seoul National University literature professor Youngmin Kwon, he’s written the introductory text What Is Korean Literature?, newly published by UC Berkeley’s Institute of East Asian Studies.
Longtime readers of the Korea Blog will remember our running a series of excerpts from Charles Montgomery’s work-in-progress The Explorer’s Guide to Korean Fiction in Translation. (You can still find all of them at Charles’ LARB contributor page.) When complete, that book will make a fine companion to Kwon and Fulton’s, the former being a rollicking tour through Korean literature as it’s been translated into English and the latter a comparatively sober (though certainly not pedantic) overview of, within practical limits, Korean literature in its entirety. Each section of What Is Korean Literature? also includes translations (some by the Fultons themselves) of selected poems, stories, novels, and plays, both long excerpts and complete works.
The past decade has offered English-readers an unprecedented number of well-publicized points of entry into the once-obscure literature of Korea. When I profiled the work of Kim Young-ha in 2013, major US publishers had recently put out translations of his novels Your Republic Is Calling You (빛의 제국), which follows a North Korean sleeper agent through day in Seoul, and Black Flower (검은 꽃), based on the little-known history of Korean agricultural laborers in early 20th-century Mexico. Not long before that, the English version of Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom (엄마를 부탁해) had received a nod from no less a popular-fiction queenmaker than Oprah Winfrey.
Nothing has raised the profile of Korean literature in the West more than the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, which went to Han Kang, author of The Vegetarian (채식주의자), and her English translator Deborah Smith. That book figures into What Is Korean Literature? only once, in an aside on works that deal with mental illness, a phenomenon “rarely described explicitly in modern Korean fiction.” The brevity of the mention is representative of the way in which Kwon and Fulton, in a project of outwardly textbookish straightforwardness and objectivity, manage to embed a kind of critical perspective, or at least a countervailing force against the biases of recency, publicity, and controversy.
Neither does What Is Korean Literature? display any interest in the sexual misconduct accusations that over the past few years have brought low such Korean writers as the novelist Hailji and the poet Ko Un. Once Korea’s best hope for a Nobel Prize in Literature, Ko has become persona non grata in Korean public life (though not abroad, where he remains a celebrated figure). Kwon and Fulton examine not his fall but his rise, from a writer of “nihilistic” and “overly abstruse” verse in the 1960s to the author of the ongoing Maninbo (or “Ten Thousand Lives”), which by “thematizing the diversity of lives and experiences” of the Korean people “well nigh becomes the language of Korean life itself.”
Such an implicitly praiseful description is a rarity in the book, concerned as it primarily is with telling, as inclusively as possible, the whole story of Korean literature. Apart from Ko, all the writers mentioned here thus far come up only in the final chapter, which covers the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Arranging the book chronologically, Kwon and Fulton dedicate its first half to “classical literature,” defined as “literary works produced from ancient times into the mid-nineteenth century,” at which point commenced what they call Korea’s “Enlightenment period.” Only then did hangul, despite having been invented in the mid-15th century, become the dominant writing system, unifying at last the written and spoken Korean language.
Since the period of the Three Kingdoms, which lasted from the first century BC to the seventh century AD, Korean literature had been written in Chinese; or rather, written Korean literature had been written in Chinese. The small and elevated class of Korean literati “adopted the Chinese writing system together with many other aspects of Chinese culture, greatly enriching their native literature.” But for the mostly illiterate commoners there was a parallel Korean literature, the traditions oral storytelling typically sung rather than spoken. The best-known of these forms, pansori, dates to the early 18th century, and in the 1990s it received a new wave of interest after its portrayal in Im Kwon-taek’s art-house hit Seopyeonje (서편제).
Kwon and Fulton call pansori “the supreme art form of the Chosŏn period,” Joseon in revised romanization, which began in the late 14th century and lasted until the late 19th century. By that time its works “were enjoyed not only by commoners but also by the yangban,” that class of aristocratic scholars who spent their days writing poetry in classical Chinese rather than laboring on the farm. Drawing their subject matter from the lives of commoners, they delivered “positive and affirming messages about life, and always with a profound sense of the characters’ humanity” — all the while “satirizing and criticizing corruption and injustices perpetrated by the dominant bureaucrat class and lambasting the outmoded social system and its practices.”
The term outmoded appears a conspicuous eleven times in the text of What Is Korean Literature?, mostly in reference not to literary styles but social orders. As the modernity of the 20th century approached, “Chinese lost its authority in all fields — politics, culture, and education — becoming instead a symbol of an outmoded society.” From then on “revolutionary changes appeared in all areas of society as Koreans strove to overcome the limitations and contradictions of the outmoded social structure.” For decades thereafter, fictions like Park Kyong-ni’s Land (토지), published in sixteen volumes over a quarter-century between the 1960s and the 90s, retained “the deconstruction of outmoded family and class systems” as a major theme.
Changes in Korean literary fashions reflect changes in the structure of Korean society, themselves often catalyzed by ideological fashions. Each new societal structure has given rise to a literature criticizing it, as pansori did late in the Joseon dynasty. Under the subsequent period of Japanese colonial rule, which continued until Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, Korean writers found much to criticize, burdened though they were by the need not to draw the wrath of the authorities. During this time their subject matter “progressed from discovery of the self to problems inherent in colonial society,” paying particular attention to “the Korean intellectual frustrated by his inability to rise” and “the painful lives of farmers and laborers languishing in poverty.”
Kwon and Fulton label all Korean literature since the end of the Japanese colonial period as belonging to the “period of national division” that continues today. The separation of North Korea from South is another historical wound that, to a newcomer, Korean writers seem unable to stop prodding. As an exception to the general run of “division literature” the authors hold up the novels of Kim Won-il, which at least envision the possibility of that wound’s eventual healing: “While confirming that the pain of the national division still resides deep in the hearts of Koreans,” they write of Evening Glow (노을), “it emphasizes that a fully human life cannot be led without a cure for that pain.”
The “era of authoritarian rule” gave way in 1987 to the “era of democratization,” and few writers have observed both as incisively as Park Wan-suh, with her “diverting critiques and satires of various aspects of an emerging middle-class lifestyle.” In novels like A Staggering Afternoon (휘청거리는 오후, or in its horrifying McCune-Reischauer rendering, Hwich’ŏnggŏrinŭn ohu) and Delusions (미망) Park shows “how the ethics and values of the Korean family have been overturned by the experiences of the Colonial period, the national division, and war,” depicting “not so much the suffering arising from colonialism and the tragedy of national division as the history-wrought dissolution of the culture’s distinctive customs and values.”
Korea’s loss of distinctiveness makes for a tempting lament, but a survey like What Is Korean Literature? shows just how long this society has been shaping and reshaping itself — sometimes voluntarily and sometimes involuntarily, with mixtures of both not unknown — in accordance with real or perceived foreign standards. The current era of English cancer, as I call it, doesn’t seem so extreme compared with the times when Korea had no written language but classical Chinese, or when its schools conducted instruction solely in Japanese. In fact it was the era of colonial rule that also saw Korean literature begin to show the influence of the West, absorbed by the Korean writers who studied abroad in relatively cosmopolitan Japan.
Kwon and Fulton write of one such student, the poet Choe Nam-seon, who warned against “indiscriminate absorption of Western versification.” A patriot in his youth, Choe advocated the reading of Korean literature and was imprisoned by the Japanese for drafting a Korean Declaration of Independence. Then, in a middle-age about face, he publicly wrote in support of Japan’s imperial expansion, suggesting that Korea was lucky to have been colonized. (A self-styled historian, he also argued that, as an island originally peopled by migrants from Korea, Japan in fact represented Korean culture in a purer form.) Choe’s life, which began in the Joseon dynasty and ended not long after the Korean War, gives a sense of that period’s ideological whiplash.
Modern Korean history is characterized by discontinuity — as, on a much longer time scale, is pre-modern Korean history, with all the rising and falling of the kingdoms that ruled all or part of the peninsula. As a result, new things here always turn out not to be quite as new as they seem, and old things not quite as old. By some measures, Korean literature is venerable indeed: the first known attempts to write it date from the Three Kingdoms Period of 57 BC to 668 AD. But Korean literature recognizably antecedent to the kind published here today — the short story being a colonial-era import, and the novel having arrived later still — is “scarcely a century old.”
The history of Korean literature thus underscores a recommendation I often make to fellow foreigners hoping to understanding South Korea. While here they should periodically ask themselves to what extent this is a 5,000-year-old society (as one often hears), and to what extent it’s a 70-year-old society trying to connect directly to the distant past; to what extent is this an Asian society, and to what extent it’s a society in Asia trying to connect directly to the West. Readers approaching Korea through its novels, stories, poetry, or drama could do well to bear similar questions in mind. They too will find that, though the proportions vary at different times and in different situations, all four descriptions are ultimately true.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall hosts the Korean-language podcast 콜린의 한국 (Colin’s Korea) and is at work on a book called The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles. You can follow him at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.