In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • On "The Value of Literature" and "What Is Literature?"
  • Jooyeon Rhee

Yi Kwang-su's (1892-1950) fictions are underrepresented in translation, and his essays and articles are even more conspicuous by their absence. As is well known, throughout his writing career, Yi produced vast quantities of critical essays (nonmun), which dealt with a wide range of social issues including education and the marriage and family systems. He even stated once that his experimentation with fiction was an extension of his nonmun, identifying himself primarily as an essayist. This does not mean, however, that he prioritized one genre over another; rather, in his willingly assumed role as a leading public intellectual, he seems to have been convinced that the critical essay was more effective in addressing pressing public issues.

"The Value of Literature" (Munhak ŭi kach'i, 1910) was written shortly after Yi came back to Korea from Japan after studying at Meiji Gakuin, where he was exposed to and influenced by European literature. In this essay he defines literature as "written compositions that embody human emotions (chŏng)," and refutes the emphasis on knowledge (chi) and will (ŭi) that had long been prioritized in Confucian societies like China and Chosŭn. Apart from his attempt to redefine literature (the term munhak had been used broadly in Chosŭn), he parallels literary development with the "civilizing process." Here, literature and [End Page 283] civilization are synonymous insofar as they provide the conditions for the expression of human emotions and individual character or individuality (kaesŭng).

Yi's theory was elaborated further in "What Is Literature?" (Munhak iran hao, 1916), which pays a great deal of attention to the cultural meanings of literature. Written during his stay at Waseda University, this essay severely criticizes the rigidity of the Confucian moral code and Korea's "reliance" on Chinese culture as barriers preventing Korea from "progressing." Yi's desire to "renew" Korean society by using cultural traditions of the West as a model is evident when he stresses that the term munhak must be understood as a translation of the English word "literature," whose humanistic orientation had "enriched" Western civilization since the Renaissance. His subsequent emphasis on the use of the Korean vernacular in translating Western and Japanese literature embodies his belief that the practice of translation would contribute to the development of national culture and identity.1

Over the course of his writing career, Yi developed, revised, and to some extent, overturned his initial ideas on social issues. Nonetheless, his moralist position remained firm until he left the scene. Take his idea of genius (ch'ŭnjae), for example, which he considered a basic condition for becoming a writer. He had already mentioned that genius alone does not make one a great writer; one must never cease to seek moral and intellectual training. A few years after the publication of "What Is Literature?" Yi clarified his moralist position in more concrete language by saying that writing [End Page 284] is a "sacred profession" (sŭngjik) and that writers (munsa) have a moral duty to lead people to the right place.2 He believed that a morally flawed writer could "poison" his society while a "properly trained" writer would bring benefit to his/her nation and the people. Whether he lived up to his beliefs or not is less important than the ways in which he viewed literature in light of modernity in the 1910s, a rich field of study that intersects with many facets of Korean colonial culture. These essays show how Yi responded to the social reality of his times and how he rationalized his position in speaking of the nation; many of his later ideas on literature and culture evolved from the arguments developed here. [End Page 285]


* I would like to thank Ted Goossen and Doris H. L. Sung at York University, Canada, and Yi Kyŏnghun at Yŏnsei University, South Korea, for their helpful advice and comments.

1. An in-depth analysis of Yi's theorization of literature as translation and its application to his fiction, Mujŏng (The Heartless), in particular, as a process of discovering minjok (nation) in the colonial situation has been made by...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 283-285
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.