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  • What Is Literature? (Munhak iran hao)1
  • Yi Kwang-su
    Translated by Jooyeon Rhee

The Difference between Old and New Literature

There are innumerable occasions where the meaning of a certain term is conceived differently across time and space. For instance, in ancient times words like "chim" (朕) and "kyŏng" (卿) were employed interchangeably with "o" (吾) and "i" (爾), which literally mean "I" and "you." Yet, in later years, chim and kyŏng were used only between kings and emperors and their vassals.2 In such ways does the usage of a term change over time. Similarly, in Chosŏn, the Chinese character "sa" (士) referred to literati, whereas in old Japan it referred to warriors. In other words, the character's meaning is understood differently from one place to another. It is easy for us to dismiss this difference because both countries used the same Chinese character for two different groups of people. This pattern means that in Korea today people are frequently confused by the meanings of many terms. To make the matter even more complicated, the changing nature of language is not subject to time and space alone; the meaning of a term is rendered differently according to the specialized area of study in which it is used. The term "pōmnyul," (法律) for instance, has been used for [End Page 293] many generations, yet its meaning is radically different in the field of jurisprudence. Although its usage differs somewhat from one country to another, generally speaking, pōmnyul means a set of coercive regulations established and enforced by state authority. However, within the juridical system, pōmnyul means a set of laws promulgated by the state after having been approved by members of the parliamentary cabinet who have incorporated reasonable opinions from sovereign subjects. In short, the meaning of the term differs depending on whether it is used in a specialized field or in everyday situations.

By the same token, the meaning of munhak (literature) also changes. The definition of munhak, as used today, is based on our understanding of the English term, "literature." In other words, we can accurately say that munhak is a direct translation of "literature." This fact leads us to inquire about the constitution of literature and how its definition differs from that of the past. As I have pointed out, we should be cautious about terms whose written forms remain the same throughout history but whose meanings may differ depending on the social and cultural context.

The Definition of Literature

Compared to the general sciences, literature is extremely difficult to define—its scope is vast and its boundaries are limitless. Indeed, it might be accurate to say that it is an almost impossible task. Certainly, literature is commonly called a field of study. Thus, some literary critics would generalize that literature is a mode of expression that embodies human emotions and thoughts in specific forms. In this generalized definition, "specific forms" can be divided in two. First, literature refers to written texts; thus, we cannot consider oral literature (kubi munhak) literature since it is not recorded in written language. Second, literature refers to already established literary genres such as poetry, fiction, playwriting, and literary criticism. If one scribbles something whose compositional structure does not fit into any of these genres, [End Page 294] we cannot call it literature. The content of literature is human emotions and thoughts; therefore, we cannot call the knowledge embedded in physics, natural history, geography, history, law, and ethics—even if they are recorded—"literature." In other words, only written expressions of human emotions and thoughts can be considered literature. It may be difficult to definitely distinguish science from literature. Yet, if we compare physics with poetry, the difference seems clearer. In science, we objectively examine the material aspect of things, but literature evokes feelings of beauty, ugliness, happiness, and sadness, all of which make us feel that we are reading the depths of our own minds. It is this range of feelings that characterizes literature.

In fact, literature is not a field of study. Objects of study can be certain events and animate and inanimate things, whose structure, characteristics, origin, and evolution are examined and investigated by observers or researchers...


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