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From Wŏnso Pond by Kang Kyŏng-ae (review)

From: Journal of Korean Studies
Volume 18, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 158-160 | 10.1353/jks.2013.0003

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From Wŏnso Pond is a timely and important addition to the expanding body of translated literary works from colonial Korea (1910–45). The novel is a major work by Kang Kyŏngae, a leftist writer who lived most of her adult life in 1930s Manchuria, then the state of Manchukuo, and is one of only a few full-length novels from the colonial period that were written by a woman. Since its rediscovery in the 1990s, the title has become a classic of modern Korean literature and is today widely regarded as an indispensable read for anyone interested in Korean proletarian literature or the history of Korean women and women’s literature. The translation is based on the original colonial newspaper serial, instead of the later, revised versions that currently circulate in the two Koreas as well as in the Korean ethnic community in Manchuria. By making this critical work available in English, Samuel Perry, assistant professor of Japanese literature at Brown University, did the great service of filling a major gap in the existing translations of colonial Korean literary works, which have scarcely included products of the proletarian literary movement. The book is also a welcome addition to the translations of colonial women’s literature which have been limited so far to short stories.

The novel presents the tragic life story of Sŏnbi, who is a peasant’s daughter like the writer herself. After her parents’ premature death, Sŏnbi is taken into the landlord’s household, where she is exploited as a kitchen maid and also suffers from the landlord’s sexual abuse. A glimmer of hope comes when Sinch’ŏl, a university student of leftist persuasion, visits the house as a guest of the landlord’s daughter, Okchŏm, and takes romantic interest in Sŏnbi. The indecisive intellectual, however, departs for Seoul without making any promises. Sŏnbi finally escapes on her own and joins Kannan, her childhood friend and another victim of the landlord’s sexual exploits, in Seoul. Kannan introduces Sŏnbi to the ways of urban life, helps her find a job at a modern textile factory in Inch’ŏn, and initiates her into a labor union movement. Sŏnbi gradually acquires a proletarian consciousness, but before she can enact her newfound will to subversion, she dies of consumption, an occupational disease. Her death is mourned by Kannan and Chŏtche, a village lad who had secretly loved Sŏnbi all along and also had become an urban laborer and activist. Partly based on the writer’s own life experiences, the narrative has a quality of testimonial reportage in parts and provides a rare, refreshing look at the colonial modernity of Korea from a working-class woman’s perspective.

Within the socialist literary convention, From Wŏnso Pond reads as a proletarian bildungsroman with a feminist twist. By appropriating the male-oriented genre, which would typically depict a working-class hero’s growth into a self-conscious revolutionary subject, Kang produced a proletarian bildungsroman with a pair of protagonists, Sŏnbi and Chŏtche, whose respective processes of ideological growth are followed in parallel, with a greater emphasis on Sŏnbi’s storyline. A tense but fertile relationship between socialism and feminism marks Kang’s proletarian narrative as the two ideological interests conflict with each other on the surface level while also being mutually beneficial. On the one hand, a class-based critique of both traditional society and modern capitalism informs Kang’s sympathetic portrayal of working-class women’s plight. On the other hand, however, Wŏnso Pond’s heroine’s gender-specific life experiences are subsumed under the gender-neutral, male-oriented rhetoric of class revolution. At the end of the novel, for instance, it is Chŏtche who takes the center stage, pledging before Sŏnbi’s corpse to carry on their collective fight against “the very essence of all human problems” (p. 269). Kang’s narrative avoids directly criticizing the patriarchal bias of the socialist doctrine, but it advances a sharp criticism of its everyday manifestation through a pejorative depiction of Sinch’ŏl, a male leftist intellectual, as a chauvinist and unfaithful lover. Such...



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