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  • Korean as Proletarian:Ethnicity and Identity in Chang Hyŏk-chu’s “Hell of the Starving”
  • Samuel Perry (bio)

"Land of bald mountains, land of red earth"—this is usually how people who have been to Korea describe it in their travel accounts. These descriptions, in other words, suggest its poverty and its degeneration. Seeing Korean farmers with long pipes in their mouths and working at a leisurely pace, they call the Koreans a lazy race.

—Chang Hyŏk-chu (1933)

Nothing is more stereotyped than the critique of the stereotype.

—Terry Eagleton (2001)

Chang Hyŏk-chu's 1932 story "Hell of the Starving" begins with a "Kaboom!"and the image of rock flying up into the air, threatening a group of farmers who barely escape the force of the blast.1 These men have dirty topknots and tattered white coats and appear to be taking a break from work. [End Page 279] Those with lunches are devouring cabbage leaves, radish tails, and yellow chestnuts with cold, lifeless hands; while others less fortunate simply squat on the ground and smoke, heads pressed between shoulders, hands tucked into sleeves, "wisps of blue smoke from their long pipes dissolving into the wind." And if there is any chance that these men be mistaken for Japanese, diacritical letters offer the ethnographic clarification, providing unnecessary Korean translations of familiar words like "lunchbox" and "coat."2 Indeed, this almost Edoesque opening might have lapsed into pure parody if not for that critical ambivalence—the initial explosion that turns the racial stereotype on its head, hinting at the violence of colonial capital that lurks behind the bitterly cold wind.

That the Japanese imperial imagination created an overdetermined figure of a dirty and degenerate, lazy and lawless, Korean is of course today a familiar story in the U.S. academy, as it always had been for so many educated Koreans who lived under Japanese rule. This discursive figuring worked for decades to justify the civilizing forces of Japanese colonial rule and imperial expansion, supported as it was by a mechanism of ideological control that only rarely permitted a direct assault on it to appear in print.3 Chang Hyŏk-chu was one of the few Koreans writing in Japanese who managed to skirt official censorship and publicly respond to this sort of bourgeois prejudice. In his essay "My Literature," quoted in the above epigraph and published a year after his "Hell of the Starving," Chang tackles the stereotype head-on and tries to correct Japanese misconceptions of the colony by examining the historical reasons for them.4 He sensibly responds to this Japanese way of looking at Koreans by pointing to the kernel of truth in such stereotypes, but by acknowledging, for example, that to see Korean farmers as lazy would naturally be the perspective of a "so-called civilized" society where people worked at such a dizzying pace. By showing how different historical conditions can lead to quite opposite ways of seeing, Chang was one of few Koreans addressing a Japanese readership who expressed this relation between power and perspective so dialectically.

I am compelled to begin with a discussion of colonial stereotypes and Chang's debunking of them, first, because Chang himself is better known for reproducing stereotypes than for countering them. He wrote in 1939, for example, at the height of fascism, that proletarian literature was "the coat in [End Page 280] which I dressed my literature . . . the psychological lie which quickly stifled my novels."5 This sort of tenkō (conversion) statement has worked to cast a shadow over Chang's oeuvre in the context of what, in reference to Japanese literature, Tomi Suzuki has called the historical reading practice of the "I-novel".6 But second, and more importantly, I am convinced, as indeed Chang Hyŏk-chu seems at one time to have been, that a critique of stereotypes is the point where any work on colonial writing might begin but certainly should not end. "The theme is as theoretically thin as it is politically pressing" is the way British cultural theorist Terry Eagleton puts it.7 "Nothing is more stereotyped than the critique of the stereotype."8 Eagleton's...


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