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Before Han Kang: Three Korean Modernists you should know

Before K-pop or K-beauty, there was Korean literature. Before the vivid, strange writing in translation of contemporary South Korean writers (including Han Kang, Hwang Jungeun, and Bae Suah) and writers of the Korean-American diaspora (such as Min Jin Lee, Patty Park, and Alexander Chee), there was literature being produced in the the city of Keijō—or Gyeongseong—where Seoul now stands. Under the rule of Imperial Japan, Keijo/Gyeongseong developed into a capital. Urbanization and colonization shaped modern Korean writers until the end of the Second World War, when Japan retreated. Seoul’s painful history has been razed and the city does not readily divulge its previous incarnation.

With the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1894, Japan launched a policy of territorial expansion that claimed Taiwan and Korea, among other countries. This policy indelibly marked the Korean peninsula, which was under Japanese rule from 1910–45. During this period, a generation of writers established successful careers. As in Taiwan, these Koreans were educated, spoke and wrote in Japanese, and had little or no memory of precolonial life. Later generations caught in the tumult of twentieth-century politics would judge them mercilessly. Many of the young men attended university in Tokyo, an epicenter of the arts, and returned to Keijo/Gyeongseong to contribute to the budding literary scene. They wrote under increasingly fraught political circumstances, which came to a head in 1940 when the Imperial State cracked down, banning the use of Korean entirely and even rounding up and torturing the creators of a Korean-language dictionary.

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