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.
Colonized artists struggled to imagine a future—nationalist or communist—and record it in their mother tongue, a language on the verge of extinction.
Despite the darkness of the period, or perhaps because of it, those who lived and wrote under colonial rule slyly thumbed their noses at Japanese officials and censors. During this period of hope, grief, and rage, extraordinary forms of writing under pressure began to emerge in Keijo/Gyeongseong—fragmented, cyclical, and episodic. As Imperial Japan introduced avant-garde literature and fiery political ideologies to the peninsula, colonized artists struggled to imagine a future—nationalist or communist—and record it in their mother tongue, a language on the verge of extinction.
The entrance of European ideas to the peninsula, which had been relatively untouched by foreign influence as compared to China or Japan, meant interplay in the literature, especially in the 1920s. The March 1, 1919 Uprising against Imperial Japan, famously led by young female students, allowed for a lively albeit short publishing boom. New literary magazines, such as Changjo and Sonyun, as well as newspapers like Chosun Ilbo and Dong A Ilbo, were founded during this period. European Dadaism, surrealism, and modernism in translation mingled with Korean pastoral, Japanese realism, and classical Chinese foundations. Imperial Japan also ironically brought Esperanto, the language of a more egalitarian utopia, to the peninsula, and the socialist cultural society Korea Artista Proletaria Federacio (KAPF) was founded in 1925. From Tagore to Baudelaire, Yeats to Tolstoy, new literatures influenced Korean writers living in the Japanese-appointed capital, and they, like many of their avant-garde European counterparts, questioned the ability of a mind to apprehend violence and the ability of language to represent that reality.
The following modernist, urban writers created a daring new literature that was an important influence on contemporary Korean writing.
1. Yi Sang (1910–37)
Fans of Borges will admire the Dada-inflected and elliptical work of avant-garde poet and writer Yi Sang (born Kim Haekyong). Start with short story Wings from the anthology Modern Korean Fiction, edited by Bruce Fulton and Youngmin Kwon. Translated by Walter K. Lew and Youngju Ryu, Wings is an absurd, stream-of-consciousness short story on urban alienation.
Yi Sang’s life itself begs a literary biography and collected works. Before his untimely death at the age of twenty-six, he worked as an architect and the geometrical constructions of his poems and stories reveal this training. He was a member of the notable “Circle of Nine”—or Guinhoe—a literary group devoted to “pure” aesthetics and introspection over pushing politics. He was best friends with modernist painter Gu Bonwoong. He lived with a young gisaeng (gisaengs were typically girls whose status lay somewhere between artist, courtesan, entertainer, and slave) in a house he constructed, which still stands today in the Seochon district of Keijo/Gyeongseong. He wrote mainly in Japanese. Today one of the most coveted literary prizes in South Korea is named after him.
2. Pak Taewon (1909–86)
A close friend of Yi Sang and fellow member of the Circle of Nine, writer Pak Taewon was educated in Tokyo and he translated short stories by Ernest Hemingway and Katherine Mansfield. Pak’s semiautobiographical novella, A Day in the Life of Kubo, the Novelist, sketches urban life in Gyeongseong, including its new department stores, Japanese- and Western-style architecture, and cafes, as the writer strolls through the colonial city. It owes much to James Joyce, who Pak read in Japanese translation, and the flaneur tradition. The novella was serialized in the newspaper Chosun Joongang Ilbo from August 1–September 19, 1934. Sensitive to the plight of the urban poor and women, Pak Taewon sought to depict life on the margins. After Korea became independent of colonial rule, he became a “Wolbuk writer,” meaning one who “crossed North,” in 1950 and worked there as a literary critic.
3. Im Hwa (1908–53)
The oldest of the three writers, Im Hwa had a clear influence on Yi Sang and Pak Taewon. He wrote poetry “of didactic intent” in the 1920s as one of the leaders of the socialist KAPF movement. Educated in Tokyo, he first fashioned himself as a Dadaist avant-garde poet and cineaste after Japanese poet Takahashi Shinkichi. Like Pak Taewon, he fled to the North in 1947, fearing the repressive military regime in the South and the dissolution of the Communist Party. He was later executed in the North on charges that he was a spy for both Imperial Japan and America.
Read his poems “Storm Cloud—1927” and “Maps,” translated by Kevin Michael Smith, in Volume 10 of Azalea: Journal of Korean Literature and Culture. In “Maps,” Im Hwa writes with great poignancy, reflecting on the peninsula’s past and future:
Even if the beautiful name of the youth will be buried in the earth
without ever once having been called clearly,
now henceforth we will become
young painters of this new map—
Isn’t it a joyous thing?
The reception of these writers in South Korea is still colored by their politics. Up until 1988, two of the three—Pak Taewon and Im Hwa—were personae non gratae in South Korea, their works banned for their proletarian content. While some of Pak Taewon, Im Hwa, and Yi Sang’s most famous short stories and poems are available in academic anthologies and journals, I believe they deserve to be published by translation-focused presses such as NYRB Classics or New Directions. That they still don’t have literary biographies or collected works in English is practically a crime. But perhaps they will soon receive the recognition that they deserve.