Scholar and translator Brother Anthony of Taizé (An Sonjae) explains why Korea's recent history has played such an important part in shaping its literature. The Korea Cultural Programme is at the London Book Fair this coming April.
The greatest challenge facing anyone trying to introduce Korean writing to the outside world is the world’s general lack of knowledge regarding Korea’s recent history, which has had such a deep influence on its literature.
Until the end of the 19th century, Korean poetry and fiction were mostly written in imitation of (Classical) Chinese models. There was no drama. The very simple 'Hangeul' alphabet, which had been invented in the 15th century to transcribe the polysyllabic grammatical structures of Korean and the sounds of Chinese words, was hardly used - despised by male aristocrats as 'women’s writing'.
The Meiji Reform that began in Japan in the 1860s, opening that country to the modern western world, was marked by a vast programme of translation of European classical and modern writing. Korea remained closed to the outside world until forced to sign treaties in the 1870s and 80s and was then dragged into modernity, in part by the work of Christian missionaries who founded schools and hospitals, and in part by the advance of Japanese influence. The missionaries strongly favoured the use of Hangeul, which even the uneducated could read. Japan’s imperialistic project culminated in 1910, when the independent kingdom of Korea ('the Daehan Empire') was forced without a shot being fired to become a province or colony of Japan. From then until 1945, the official language of Korea, for administration and education, was Japanese. At times the use of Korean in publishing was prohibited.
For educated Koreans, the Japanese annexation brought contact with the wide range of world literature and philosophy existing in Japanese translation. At the same time, Korean society was being challenged to abandon its patriarchal, hierarchical, authoritarian Neo-Confucianism. Therefore, when Koreans began to write and publish modern fiction using the Korean language - printed using Hangeul - their main themes were individual freedom and the tensions between older and younger generations. In particular, the advent of education for women radically transformed their own self-perception. Novels written by both men and women depicted the often tragic struggles of the 'New Woman', whose greatest aspiration in life was to be allowed to marry the man she loved. Until that time, the general practice was for parents to select husbands for their daughters from among their acquaintances, without allowing the daughter any say in the matter. More generally, the female characters in these first modern novels aspire to a life lived on their own terms, and often they fail to find it.
The one feature common to all Korean writing from 1910 until the later 1980s was censorship. The Japanese authorities allowed a certain degree of publication in Korean, but no criticism of their rule was permitted. Later, the successive dictators likewise wished to ensure that nothing was published that challenged their power. The longing for independence from Japan occasionally resulted in coded texts, alluding indirectly to Korea’s colonised status. The Pacific War from 1941 was marked by a strengthened promotion of works written in support of Japan’s war effort, and a demand that Koreans should stop publishing in Korean.
It must be stressed that for most educated Koreans, modernity came through Japan. Those with some money went to study at universities in Japan. Those without money went to work in factories and mines in Japan. One part of the city of Seoul was mainly settled by Japanese and Koreans came to marvel at modern shops, department stores, cafés and bars, frequented by people wearing western dress or kimonos. The United States was the destination for some others, especially those belonging to Protestant churches. Europe was the goal of only a few.
When the war ended in August 1945, Korea did not regain freedom. Instead, the wartime allies decided, without asking the Koreans, that the peninsula should become a divided protectorate prior to the holding of 'free, democratic elections'. The portion to the north of the 38th parallel would be under the control of the USSR while the southern regions would be controlled by the US. This was the start of the great Korean tragedy. For 36 years, Korean writers had struggled to write in a language that was taught in no school and was overshadowed by the prestige of Japanese. The joy of recovering the right to write and publish more or less freely in their national language was accompanied by questions about what writers should be writing about, and about what constituted 'good Korean style'.
The young intellectuals of Japan, Korea and China had long been inclined to prefer socialism, with its vision of an egalitarian society, in their dreams of a new world. Anarchists and bohemians were the prophets of a new social order, freed from the control of the traditional, wealthy elite. It was only natural that many of them rejoiced to see the USSR support those who, in the northern regions, sought to establish a Communist, revolutionary society, where the pro-Japanese collaborators and the traditional landlords would have no place. The geographical division between North and South did not correspond to the distribution of radical and conservative political opinions. Writers too were divided, all aspiring to a New Korea, but disagreeing deeply about what it should be. The result was, ultimately, the Korean War, by which time many of the finest writers and thinkers had opted for the Northern side.
By 1953, when the war was stopped and the Korean peninsula was sealed across its waist so that nothing could pass in either direction, a very large number of the best writers were dead or, alas, about to discover that North Korea was not going to be their dreamed-of paradise. From the end of the war, 'Korea' meant 'South Korea' and its surviving writers, like everyone else, had to come to terms with the tragedy of division. The violence of the war had been ghastly; millions had died in a fratricidal conflict; many families were unsure if their relatives in the North were still alive. There had been no victory to celebrate. The best that the writers of fiction of South Korea could do was celebrate human dignity and little acts of human kindness that served as moments of a kind of redemption, during the war and amidst ongoing hardship and poverty.
The decades of dictatorship that followed the war saw an enormous, unexpected transformation of South Korea into an urban, industrial, capitalist state. The rural villages that had been the deep heartland were emptied of their youth, who were needed to work as construction workers and cheap labour in factories. The fiction of the 60s and 70s focuses mainly on this uprooting, the loss of rural innocence amidst urban violence and corruption, the little acts of human love and kindness that, again, offered hope of a redemption in a harsh social reality. Absolutely forbidden topics included anything that smacked of 'Communism', which was identified with support for North Korea. The portrayal of so much poverty and loss explains why the outside world is often unsure how to read the fiction written in Korea in those decades. It is mostly felt to be 'depressing', and the triumphs of the human heart are often not recognised as such. After so much trauma, there was little space for fantasy and romance -- 'realism and high seriousness' were demanded by the critics.
It was only when Korean cities began to be dominated by high-rise apartment blocks, the streets full of private cars, the stores overflowing with consumer goods, that a transformation came. Works of contemporary Korean fiction could finally begin to depict the comedies, fantasies and frustrations of the modern world. Yet there can be little doubt that Korean cinema and television drama are better equipped to do this than the printed page, and Koreans are notorious for reading, on average, less than one book a year. Amidst a very great deal of suffering, Korean writers have produced works which reflect the challenges facing the Korea of their time. Those works are now being brought to the world by an increasing army of translators. Korean writing is not only written in Korean, it is about Korea’s unique experience of life. It has to be read and understood as such. Korean history is very unlike that of other countries in many ways.
As part of the Korea Cultural Programme this April, Brother Anthony will be speaking about Korean literature at the British Library on Tuesday, 8 April. You can book tickets through the British Library site.