- Remembering Deadly Emotions: The Filial and the Colonial in Kim Chŏng-han’s Surado
Filial piety is the root of virtue and the basis of philosophy.— Xiaojing (The Classic of Filial Piety), fourth century B.C.
Modern Korea has undergone several iterations of what Raymond Williams would call “change from the outside, the big movements”: forced entry into modernity via Japanese colonialism (1910 – 45); a civil war (1950 – 53) that resulted in the lasting division of the peninsula along the fault line of cold war ideology (1953 – present); and the irreconcilable political alignments and economic developments of the two post – civil war nation states, North Korea and South Korea.1 Given the turbulence of modern Korean history, Williams’s notion of the structure of feeling is helpful in articulating the dialectic movements between Korea’s historical changes and people’s interactions with those changes. The structure of feeling can be broadly understood, [End Page 305] in Paul Filmer’s words, as “a central and sensitizing concept” that recognizes a hitherto unarticulated need to recognize the process of nascent collective experience and its ordering structure.2 I share Williams’s view of art and literature as privileged sites for deciphering the structure of feeling, and focus in this study on one example of modern Korean literature: the novel Surado (The Realm of Ashura, 1969) by Kim Chŏng-han (1908 – 96).
Williams seeks to elucidate, through his notion of the structure of feeling, the relation between the hegemonic social order and emergent sociocultural formations. With the “might of the pen,” Kim Chŏng-han reveals the relation between the hegemonic political order and the formation of the everyday life of the weak, marginal, and dispossessed. Since his debut novel Sahach’on (A Farming Village beneath a Buddhist Temple, 1936), Kim has been associated with the so-called nongmin munhak (peasant literature) that emerged in the 1930s, and later with the minjung munhak (mass literature) of the 1970s. His oeuvre, with its strong realism, is a major component of what has come to be established as Korea’s national literature (minjok munhak).
The main objective of this study is to delineate the structure of feeling embedded in Surado, a novel set (for the most part) in the colonial era. It is one of the first works that Kim Chŏng-han produced after more than two decades of silence between 1940 and1966.3 He ended his hiatus expressly to craft reminders of Korea’s colonial past — a past that he knew through personal experience, a past that had been officially normalized when the Republic of Korea’s National Assembly ratified the so-called Korea-Japan Treaty (Han-Il Hyŏpchŏng) in 1965, and a past that returned under the guise of a newly forged economic alliance between South Korea and Japan to support Major General Park Chung-hee’s (Pak Chŏng-hŭi) full-scale modernization of the nation (1961 – 79).4 In short, the object of Kim’s renewed literary pursuit was, to use Williams’s expression, “the felt-sense of the quality of life” in colonial Korea.5 This was a past that stood in danger of oblivion amid the nation’s rapid economic and political changes.6
Surado is, however, more than an exposé of previously unrecorded brutal colonialism under Japanese rule. Written a quarter century after the colonial era, the novel articulates Korea’s colonial experience at a time when the country was still living out what JaHyun Kim Haboush calls the “narratives of han” (suffering, sorrow, pain).7 According to Haboush, narratives [End Page 306] of han did not have closure until the coming to power of the democratic government in South Korea in 1992, a moment she regards as a watershed in Korean history. For South Koreans, this moment signified “at long last leaving behind victimhood, claiming subjectivity and parity with other economically and politically mature nations.”8 The trajectory of South Korea’s modern history as perceived by Haboush comes to bear on my framing of Kim Chŏng-han’s Surado. Given the Korea of 1969, with no hint of what it would become by 1992, I seek...