The LARB Korea Blog is currently featuring selections from The Explorer’s History of Korean Fiction in Translation, Charles Montgomery’s book-in-progress that attempts to provide a concise history and understanding of Korean literature as represented in translation. You can read the first selection here.
Korea’s long-standing literary tradition has always occupied a position of high cultural importance. In all its forms, its history is thoroughly represented, often in order to make arguments about that history. Korean literature is normally intended to mean something, and so to be taken quite seriously.
According to Kim Hunggyu, “more than 6,000 collections of writings by individual writers from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century are extant,” and Korea is number one per capita internationally in poetry publications per capita. This massive literary production has occurred despite the relative recency, only really emerging after World War II, of Korean literary history as an object of formal study and concern. Modern literature is also constrained by the “official” process that actively limits who can be considered an “author.”
Still, there is plenty of Korean literature about, and it is broadly divided into two eras: classical and modern. Classical literature lasted, roughly speaking, until the end of the 19th century, and modern literature began around the beginning of the 20th. Across these eras, Korean literature has had five major philosophical influences: Shamanism/Animism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.
Shamanism is expressed in emotionalism and ties to nature. Confucianism laid primary cultural importance on reading and writing, and thus has also had a profound impact on how seriously Koreans still take education and literature. At the same time Confucianism valued order and contemplation, and these two influences are also strong in Korean literature. Buddhism has had an influence that led to a certain kind of cyclicality, and sometimes passivity, that one often finds in Korean literature. Taoism also had some hand in this. In addition, Koreans were very deeply tied to nature and their land, and though not a formal philosophy, this is deeply reflected in Korean literature. In the modern era, Christianity has also had a strong influence.
These produced an oral literature portraying a love of and relationship to nature, within which an individual man was just one part of a much larger picture, an often quite mannered literature with evil deeds punished and good deeds (eventually) rewarded in a world of relationships structured by loyalty – to the King, to parents, to elders, to friends and to “proper” sexual relations (entailing chastity and male domination).
One interesting aspect of classical Korean literature is the question of the two “alphabets” used in Korean literature. For centuries in Korea, to use Chinese characters, to read, write and study was the mark of a cultured man, written Chinese being to the Korean intelligentsia exactly as Latin and Greek once was to the educated man of the West. Consequently, much early literature in Korea was heavily influenced by Chinese thought. There has been critical controversy over whether Korean literature written in classical Chinese counts as part of Korean literature, narrowly defined. For the purposes of this book, however, all literature written by Koreans, in any language, is considered “Korean literature.”
Its geographical location between the historical superpowers of China and Japan has made Korea fiercely independent, and though the country does have a history of internal strife, it has also fought to maintain its autonomy. This gives impetus to certain literary, including a strong internal definition and focus as well as a fear of separation and alienation. At the end of the classical period (roughly the turn of the 20th century), Korean literature began to struggle towards modernity, strongly influenced by “Western” ideas not directly imported from the West, but rather introduced through Japan and China.
The onset of Japanese colonial rule had effects that sped up the economic development of Korea in areas that supported Japanese expansionist desires, while crushing and distorting native development (particularly cultural and social development) in ways both predictable and unpredictable. The literary themes and approaches resulting from Korean philosophical and political history are multiple and, as in most societies, sometimes contradictory.
In order to better understand this, it might be best to first list these themes and approaches, then attempt to group them into logical categories. Here are some of the most important themes in Korean literature, most of which proceed from the philosophical bases of the society at the times, Animism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Shamanism, and far later, Christianity:
- Fear of alienation
- Fear of separation
These themes result from the relationship between a society based on a predetermined and fixed social structure (primarily developed from Confucian and Buddhist beliefs) and one constantly subject to the threat threat of dissolution or invasion, and one that from the three dynasties, until today has always been divided or threatened by division. Korean literature explores these themes repeatedly, resulting in another emergent theme: resentment at all of the above, despite the fact the culture embraces it.
Some resentment in Korean literature stems from the idea that a fixed social structure such as Confucianism is not flexible enough to deal with the alienation and separations it creates within its social structure. The Korean classic The Story Of Hong Gildong tightly concentrates on these inequities, and it is not alone: that theme resounds through literary history, finding different social inequities and different political and geographical schisms to focus on from era to era.
Over time these historical circumstances have included oppression by Japanese in the colonial era; a lack of opportunities for educated Koreans of both sexes in the colonial and post-war periods; the North-South and Communist-capitalist split in the postwar and industrial periods; the emerging schism between the classes, the countryside and city, and men and women as development took place; and during the postmodern ara, the removal of what reassurance fixed social structures once offered. This laundry list of unfortunate circumstances has in turn led to certain ideas that, it is generally fair to say, continue to affect Korean literature today, even as that literature turns, controversially, toward things more international and less specifically Korean. These ideas include those of xenophobia, natural literature, and han.
Xenophobia results, of course, from the kind of international-relations history Korea has experienced: essentially, other nations have rarely had good intentions with respect to Korea, and Korea has internalized this as defensive tactic. Koreans often refer to the nation as uri nara, or “our country,” and all non-Koreans, whether in Korea or in their homelands are known as waegukin, or “foreigners.” Given this attitude towards outsiders, and the historical difficulties Korea has faced, it comes as no surprise that Korean literature has largely been an explicitly national one, based on, and often didactically approaching, the issues that have confronted the nation.
The Korean word han carries a mixture of meanings, but it might be summed up as the sadness and resignation one feels knowing that few things will go as well as they could or should — that life is often externally dictated (by social status, religion, political exigencies, and so on), and that it contains deep-seated, unresolvable problems. In balance, the concept of jeong has to do with the relationship and feelings amongst people; it reflects, to put it perhaps too simply, a Korean desire for harmonious relationships even when things may not be completely harmonious themselves. It contains elements of affection, empathy, sympathy, and unspoken community.
Korean literature strongly reflects both han and jeong, and a fuller understanding of those concepts makes understanding the literature much easier. Even so, Korean translated literature can present difficulty to international readers, who run into obstacles like a lack of character agency in comparison to Western fiction; the prominence of relationships over plots; sometimes-flat characters; no requirement for conclusions, and genres based on a different set of social conventions and shared understanding.
Lack of agency, or the reduced role of the individual or hero, was until recently one of the signal qualities of modern Korean literature. Even for heroes like Hong Gildong (something like Korean equivalent of Robin Hood), “heroism” is essentially forced on them. The notion of an anti-hero has been nearly impossible. Korean characters put up with situations and conditions that would cause a Western character to snap because social situations are so strongly determined and han is so deeply embedded. Korean characters often let social expectations determine their actions, which can be difficult for English-language readers to understand.
Similarly, plots can be perfunctory or even absent, foregrounding instead the relationships between the characters. When Buckwheat Flowers Bloom, written in 1936 by Lee Hyo-seok, might be the best example. Two men, one old and one young, traveling the rural salesman circuit of that era, meet a third “greenhorn” peddler. It becomes obvious that the latter two men are father and son, but by the story’s end this reality has never been admitted. The point is the relationship between them and — nature almost constituting the fourth character — the inevitable turning of the seasons.
Similarly, Hwang Sun-won’s 1954 The Descendants of Cain ends with the decision of the protagonists to attempt an escape from their village, but the reader never sees the attempt itself, even after scores of pages of the two main characters ignoring their own love and the possibility of escape itself. Korean literature doesn’t insist upon a formal plot or climactic ending, but in some cases, to Korean readers they may indeed have clear endings, ones based on a cultural and social understanding not always clear to non-Korean readers. From a Western perspective, flat characters can result from these influences, particularly under didactic authors. Acceding to the wishes of larger society or manipulated to further the authorial aims, they can seem much less than fleshed out, their individual motivations unclear.
Some genres do not match. When Buckwheat Flowers Bloom represents something like a pastoral reverie, a genre that retains some importance in Korea, though primarily as a historical vestige. It has largely not existed in English literature since the time of Thoreau, if even then. The same can be said, to a great extent, of the Korean literature of separation (pundan munhak), which has no direct equivalent in English-language literature and a history unknown to most English-language readers.
Korea’s is nonetheless a remarkable literature produced from a remarkable history. In its particularly interesting modern form, it reflects the raw speed at which Korea has catapulted itself into the modern world. In less than eighty years, Korean literature has attempted to reprise a process that took the West’s at least three centuries. Fortunately, merely by knowing a very broad and simple outline of Korean history and society, this opacity can turn transparent, and translated Korean literature can open to a wide range of readers while at the same time introducing them to an immensely entertaining intersection of history, society, and culture.
Even better, publishers have in recent decades includes useful forewords, authorial comments and essays, afterwords, biographies, and critical commentaries in their books. All of this “external” text helps make the fiction more accessible to readers not intimately familiar with Korea and its culture. At the same time, more accessible books are being chosen for translation, and the translators themselves have grown increasingly adept at rendering their stories in easily readable English prose. That last is particularly relevant and amusing in its effect on what has been translated: the original absence of comedy and folk tales in translation is tied to the notion of the national nature of Korean literature, but in an unusual way.
Comedy is not absent in everything written the Korean language, but it usually has been absent from the works chosen for translation. This is for two reasons: first, that comedy is the hardest kind of writing to effectively translate, and second, that the importance of a “national” literature to Korea has favored certain kinds of mainly serious works for translation. Humor, most often broad or satirical, can be found in translation: the collection A Ready Made Life, for instance, while focusing on the effects of colonization, manages to include stories that both broadly humorous and genuinely witty.
A kind of “gatekeeping” has also gone on, primarily performed by educated Koreans who decided what should be represented in translation. The renowned translator Brother Anthony of Taizé has assembled Eerie Tales from Old Korea, a compilation of stories collected by 19th-century missionaries Homer B. Hulbert and James S. Gale. Hulbert and Gale’s fondness for ghost stories had them spending many years fruitlessly chasing down the Korean varieties, but local scholars at first insisted that such stories did not exist, presumably because of their association with folk beliefs, and therefore their insufficient “seriousness” to count as literature.
Thankfully, Hulbert and Gale persevered, eventually collecting a selection of yadam, short stories particularly popular in the Joseon period between the 14th and 19th centuries. To be fair, this kind of artificial gate-keeping has declined as translators, publishers, and organizations such as the Korean Literature Translation Institute have begun to widen the breadth of what is considered appropriate for translation. It seems fair to predict that, in the years to come, English-language readers will see more translations of Korean romances, comedies, “low” fiction, and other genres ignored in the past.
This chapter may be mistakenly read as calling Korean literature difficult or inaccessible, but that is not the intended point. Like all translated literature, a little judicious choice about what to read is advisable, particularly at the outset. The rewards of the ending far outweigh any confusion at the beginning. Once a reader wets their feet wet in the river of Korean literature, and if that reader understands why some things may initially seem strange strange, that reader has a world of discovery ahead of them.
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Charles Montgomery is an ex-resident of Seoul where he lived for seven years teaching in the English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University. You can read more from Charles Montgomery on translated Korean literature here, on Twitter @ktlit, or on Facebook.