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  • Selections from Yi Kwang-su's Early Writings, 1909-1922
  • Ellie Choi (bio)

"Ch'unwŏn" Yi Kwang-su's (1892-1950) prominence in modern Korean intellectual and literary history is beyond dispute, but the writer himself continues to be the subject of controversy and debate. Yi Kwang-su is triply famous, first for penning Mujŏng (The Heartless), 1917, remembered as modern Korea's first mature novel; second, for being one of the student drafters of the February 8th Student Declaration of Independence which sparked the March 1st Movement; and third, for becoming a Japanese collaborator from 1939.

Like many colonial intellectuals around the world at the turn of the twentieth century, Yi Kwang-su was educated in the imperial metropole and returned to his homeland to promote cultural and nationalist activities with intellectual ideas and advancements borrowed from the colonizer. The controversy surrounding Yi Kwang-su's story is not necessarily exceptional, but illustrates the difficult situation of the colonial elite whose "location of culture" was the imperial metropole. It can be argued that Yi's collaboration was not a betrayal so much as a succumbing to colonial desire, namely, the lure of capitalist modernity itself and the promise of full participation in a modern society. One can only imagine how wondrous Tokyo seemed to the many colonial students who flocked there, not just from Korea, but from all over Asia. In many ways, Yi [End Page 277] Kwang-su's exhilaration upon arriving in Tokyo in 1905 was typical of any foreign student marveling at how advanced the imperial metropole was. Colonial subjects were also made aware of their otherness, which changed their relationship with their home country and often led them to rediscover it. The many writings by Korean foreign students in Tokyo around the turn of the century testify to their predicament, for every Japanese advance they admired was a sore reminder of the backwardness of their native Chosŏn.1

The post 1905 period was a remarkable era punctuated by the earlier Japanese victory over Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), the First World War (1914-1918), and the Bolshevik Revolution (1917). Even while capitalist modernity was transforming East Asia, the emergent Marxist challenge from Russia captivated Asian intellectuals and became a growing concern for the hegemonic Japanese state. The Taishō era (1912-1926) saw the rise of liberal ideas in Japan but underneath it all the state sought ways of maintaining control over the masses that "acted out" in events like the previous Hibiya Riots (1905), the "Taishō Incident" (1912), and the Rice Riots (1918).2 Yi Kwang-su was in Tokyo for much of this period and witnessed these political upheavals. Taishō ideologues who tried to translate Western political thought to the Japanese situation were often professors at Waseda and Tokyo Imperial Universities where many Korean students like Yi were studying. Professors like Kuwaki Genyoku (1874-1946) and Ukita Kazutami (1860-1946) taught topics ranging from universal humanism, pragmatism, and mass psychology to culturalism and these lessons were invariably adopted and translated into the Korean context by young colonial students when they returned home. [End Page 278]

For example, it was during his study abroad at the Meiji Gakuin that Yi Kwang-su began to be interested in political ideas that could be used to help Korea strengthen itself and avoid destruction in a social Darwinist world, whether it was the "Diabolism" in Lord Byron's literature or Thomas Carlyle's writings on the hero's role in history.3 Yi Kwang-su's 1915-1918 years at Waseda during the period leading up to his involvement with the 1919 March 1st Movement as the author of the February 8th Student Declaration of Independence were especially important, since the books he read there as well as the discussions he participated in became the underpinnings of his key intellectual ideas of "preparatism" and gradualism.

During the first decade of Japanese rule in Korea, very different social and political systems operated in Japan and Korea despite the promise of assimilation heralded in metropole newspapers and policy papers like Chūō kōron (Central Review), Taiyō (The Sun), Chōsen kōron (Korea Review...


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