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  • After Reading Selected Short Stories of South Chosŏn
  • Mo Yan (bio)

There are seventeen short stories by sixteen authors in Selected Short Stories of South Chosŏn, a book composed of four hundred and seventy thousand characters. Published by the Shanghai Translation Publishing House in February 1983, this collection was probably the first large-scale introduction of Korean literature into China. According to the copyright page, thirty-nine thousand copies were printed, a large number even by today’s standards. We can also see an “inside publication” stamp on the copyright page, which means this book was not sold to the general public through Xinhua Bookstore, but distributed only among libraries of various agencies, readers with special social positions, and high officials through the so-called “Inside Bookstore.” This kind of inside publication went on for some time in China. Even during the Cultural Revolution, influential foreign literary works were translated and offered to a select few special personnel for their “critical reading” through the channel of “inside publication.” The true meaning of “critical” reading is clear when we consider that “inside” film viewing was regarded as a “privilege” at the time.

There is a lengthy “Afterword” as in all books published through “inside publication.” The real purpose of this “Afterword” is for the translator to prove that he has strictly followed official guidelines. Hidden behind the obvious intention of translator [End Page 209] and publisher to watchfully steer even the few privileged readers in the right direction was, naturally, their desire to protect themselves. At the time, China still called Korea “South Chosŏn.” This afterword begins with a brief overview of the modern history of the Chosŏn peninsula. It then goes on to describe the South Korean people’s suffering under the despotic rule of America and the South Chosŏn government, and expresses hope for the South Chosŏn people’s revolution with the phrase “Wherever there is oppression, there is also resistance,” as was usually the case with afterwords of this nature. Only after this does the translator offer an overview of South Chosŏn literature. Although the usual political slogans critical of South Chosŏn are found throughout this section, readers can still gain a general understanding of literary development in South Chosŏn.

I bought this book at a bookstore in 1990. There was a scarlet stamp of a library of a certain agency on its title page. I didn’t buy it because I was interested in South Chosŏn literature. I bought it because its cover was tastefully designed and it was cheap. After I brought it home, I began flipping through it idly. But pretty soon I found myself completely absorbed and I finished it in one sitting. This book taught me that Korean literature is rich, works by authors of older generations are full of vitality, and all the stories contained impressive critical attitudes toward life and reality. More recent stories published in the 1960s and 1970s by Korean writers of younger generations were already so avant-garde it was clear that they studied and referred to Western literature. This book let me know that Chinese authors in the 1980s were simply following in the footsteps of Korean writers of previous decades.

Kim Tong-in, the author of “Paettaragi,” the first story in the book, would be 108 years old if he were still alive. Although he has already passed away, he would be very happy to know that a Chinese author has read his story. This is probably a reason why a writer would be satisfied with his career. Good writing survives its author. In other words, a writer can extend his life through his [End Page 210] books. “Paettaragi” is a beautiful story beginning with descriptions of emotions and landscapes. Then, a gloomy, grief-stricken seaman appears, trailing a mournful song, and begins telling his sorrowful story. He is someone who plunged his own life into hell. He had a beautiful wife. They were rich and they loved each other. But love begets jealousy. He began to suspect a relationship between his wife and his younger brother, and became jealous of them, as if possessed, and...


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pp. 209-219
Launched on MUSE
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