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  • Korea's Eyes
  • Yu Hua (bio)
    Translated by John Kim (bio)

Some years ago, in just the past century, an ordinary man unknown to anyone-a worker (), to be exact-set himself on fire in a bustling area of Seoul. In his final moments, he expressed a profoundly poignant regret. He had not achieved a higher level of education for himself; he had hoped so much to have befriended a college student, one who had studied law, so that he could have helped them, the workers, somehow use the law to protect their own rights.

The fire that this plain and simple man had lit in self immolation would never again be extinguished. The intellectuals and college students of Korea had all been living comfortably on the fairly good wages provided by the government, but because of this ordinary worker's death, they began to examine their consciences: what ultimately were the rights of the people? what was the future of the nation? The raging flames of this worker's self-immolation extended into the hearts of countless Koreans and ignited their sense of self-respect and indignation. Then, this nation of song-and dance lovers began to reveal their strong and steadfast character. From the Kwangju Uprising to the various student movements that swept across the whole of the 1980s, the people began to take back, little by little, their own fate from the hands of the politicians. It was precisely in these times that I was an adolescent in China, [End Page 377] piecing all of this together bit by bit from the newspapers and the black-and-white television sets. One after another, Korean youths who were more or less my age-dying either by self-immolation or by throwing themselves off of buildings-destroyed their own bodies of flesh and blood in order to protest against a despotic regime. Time and again, I experienced what is called "shock," and thought about my own age. I thought about the road of life I had been walking, and the endless experience ahead of me. I thought about the illusion of growing up every day; this kind of illusion described for me a beautiful future. I knew that those Korean peers of mine who had rushed to their deaths were also like me, but their own lives, which they had ended without the slightest hesitation, were, furthermore, taken for the sake of valuable life lessons and countless hopes and dreams. By dying in such sensational ways, they expressed their deep hopelessness toward the present reality; at the same time, their deaths also became a long and powerful cry. Their voices reverberated in the ears of their compatriots, calling them to be forever awakened and not fall asleep.

After I had reached the age of thirty, Korea began coming to China via another kind of image: as one of the four "Little Dragons" of Asia, and as the wealth generated by rapid economic development. Although the interim had been filled with the shadows of the collapses of shopping centers as well as the Han River Bridge, these shadows left a mark only on the minds of Korean people. For the Chinese, this just seemed like a few freckles on a pretty face-it certainly did not affect Korea's fine image. After frequent experiences of political turmoil in China at this time, people began to be weary of politics and began to express unprecedented fervor for economic development. Already by this stage, China did not want to see the Korea of the Kwangju Uprising or the Korea of the student movements. The vision of an era is often the vision of a shopper: only when one needs something can one take notice of that thing. The China of this period wanted to see a Korea that had emerged as an economic miracle and thought that it [End Page 379] saw in Korea's development an experience that would benefit itself. Many of China's entrepreneurs were fascinated by the management models of Korean corporations; they thought that expansion constituted development, so they hurriedly boarded planes to Korea-as tourists and as students.

Korea's next image was that of frailty...