How the Politics of Invasions Affects Literature: The Case of Korea


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Japanese troops land in Korea, 16th century

“ In 1915, one of the fathers of modern Korean literature, Yi Kwang-su, laid out his modern manifesto. ‘We are a new people, without ancestors, without parents, that came from Heaven in the present.’ (Kim Hunggyu, 194.) This belief was amplified in 1930 by Ch’oe Caeso, who argued, ‘In terms of contemporary culture, our attitudes are dominated by those of Western culture, and not by those from the Choson period and before,'” wrote Charles Montgomery , who taught English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University, Seoul.

Choson, also known as Choseon or Joseon,  was the dynasty that ruled Korea for the longest period — five hundred years — before the Japanese invasion in 1910. Though Japan had tried to invade Korea earlier in 1592 and 1597-98, their impact at that time was minimal.  

Was that Mountain Really ThereHowever, in the twentieth century, the Japanese invasion lasted longer —  for four decades — till Japan was defeated in 1945 at the end of the Second World War by the dropping of an atom bomb. Subsequently Korea was split along the 38th parallell, one part being allied to the American and the other to Soviet Union. The pain of this partition was projected  beautifully by Park Wan Suh in her classic novel, Was The Mountain Really There? .

Despite the American influence that Charles Montgomery wrote of and Park Wan Suh’s lovely retelling, in an interview, Professor Han Ki-hyung, the head of the Academy of East Asian Studies at Sungkyunkwan University, Seoul, traces the “blandness” of Korean literature to the Japanese regime. 

He said, “Japanese people were subject to post-censorship, while Koreans suffered from pre-censorship…Such discrimination caused profound differences in the freedom of expression‎ and possibilities.” Professor Han has published a book on the impact of ‘colonialism’ in Korea called, History of Korean Colonial Literature.

Read more on his views in this article on The Dong- A Ilbo, a Korean newspaper .

 

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