- Writing the Real: Modernism in Korean Literature
Defining literary modernism and modernity in Korea is a task that has dogged Korean literary scholars for decades. The circumstances under which Korea became “modern,” and the ways Korean writers engaged with the physical and metaphysical states of “being modern,” were deeply implicated in the colonial, postcolonial, and Cold War politics of the peninsula. The period of Japanese colonial rule (1910–45) was marked by dizzying transformations that took place both as a result of, and through resistance to, colonial policies. Following liberation, Korea became fully integrated into the Cold War system that split the peninsula into North and South (1948). This division was followed by [End Page 407] the Korean War (1950–53), which wreaked devastation and perpetuated a state of war buttressed by nuclear weapons that threaten, even as this essay is being written, to obliterate the region if not the entire globe.
Scholarship on Korean literary modernism has from the start had to contend with the country’s colonial history. Put simply, that demarcation called kǔndae, or the modern era, (which simultaneously marked off the preceding era as “premodern”), was traced disconcertingly close to Korea’s colonial experience, making an uncomfortable association between Korean modernization and colonial rule. The term “colonial modernity” was coined in the early 1990s and has since been refined as a framework for understanding Korea’s transformations of space, rituals, and habits, all of which were shot through with colonial power driven by capitalist development aimed at maximizing the productivity of the colony for the benefit of the Japanese mainland. The term colonial modernity—as opposed to the separate terms colonialism or modernity—has provided a coherent frame to understand the integral links binding these two concepts. In the field of literature, the concept of colonial modernity facilitated a better understanding of the circumstances under which writers came into contact with—and generated—experimental literary forms—and also made it possible to appreciate how writers understood their craft, how they operated under the constraints of censorship, and what it meant to write in a language under threat of extinction.
Modernism in Korea can emerged roughly in the early 1930s, an era “mired in crisis.”1 This period saw a convergence of several conditions: the darkening mood among intellectuals following the failure of the 1919 March First Independence Movement; the 1935 ban of the Korean leftist cultural movement, which silenced the anticapitalist voices critical of the colonial regime; and the rise of a new generation of writers who were trained both at home and abroad (mostly in Japan) in departments of literature (Russian, French, English), where they were exposed to literary trends from around the globe. Writers such as Ch’oe Chaesǒ, Chǒng Chiyong, Kim Kirim, Yi T’aejun, Pak T’aewǒn, Yi Hyosǒk, Yi Sang, and Kim Yujǒng experimented with form and content, and pushed the boundaries of language, morality, and genre.2 They wrote poetry and fiction, but also redefined the role of art and literature in society through critical essays. They banded together to create literary groups (the most famous of which was called the Group of Nine) and they published coterie journals, such as Poetry Literature (Si Munhak, 1930), 34 Literature (Samsa Munhak, 1934), Morning Light (Chogwang, 1935–44), and Poetry and Fiction (Si wa Sosǒl, 1936).3 Such journals put forth the modernist repertoire that, written during the most repressive years of Japanese colonial rule, is today viewed as some of Korea’s boldest...