- The Birth of Korean Identity – The evolution of the modern Korean wrested from history by Choe Jeongun
Hangugin ui tansaeng attempts to explain how Koreans became who they are today by examining a number of modern novels written against different historical backdrops. In doing so, Choe Jeongun contends that the stories each have distinct ways of portraying the protagonists, which if put together in a chronological order reflect the transformation of the Koreans, from a people [End Page 334] once utterly lost in the face of the changing political landscape in fin-de-siècle East Asia to fierce warriors able to struggle and stand up for themselves. In other words, the making of the contemporary Korean identity was the product of the people’s reactions to the turbulent history.
Choe develops his argument by first examining how the protagonists were depicted in the novels from the Joseon era, later contrasting them with those from the novels written in the first half of the twentieth century. In chapter 2, he analyzes Hong Gildong jeon and Chunhyang jeon, and explains how the protagonists seek social acceptance by becoming champions of Confucian virtue. He contends that this reflects the general mentality of the time these novels were written, in which Confucianism was an established norm and people sought ways to adhere to the Confucian teachings.
Chapter 3 examines the novels written by Yi Injik and Yi Haejo that portray schizophrenic human relations, in which neighbors and family members turn against one another. Caught in such a chaos are the protagonists, who are usually women and depicted as helpless victims. Choe contends that this was a depiction of how everything considered traditional—especially the sense of community—was disintegrating as the result of the changing world order and the concomitant sense of disappointment towards the existing norms. In this Hobbesian “state of nature,” Korea found itself utterly lost.
Chapter 4 analyzes novels written after the annexation and before the outbreak of the March 1st movement, specifically the works of Yi Gwangsu and Sin Chaeho, which show two contrasting forms of nationalism. Yi’s Mujeong (The Heartless), portrayed one type of nationalism, which deemed it necessary for Koreans to open oneself and learn from the West, even if this meant discomfort. Meanwhile, in this paradigm, the teachers, once highly esteemed when Confucianism was still the ruling ideology, became but intermediaries, whose role was to pass on Western knowledge to his students. Sin’s Kkum haneul (Dream Heaven) depicted a militant nationalism that sought to fight, yet without fully comprehending the purpose of the struggle.
Chapter 5 analyzes the novels written after the March 1st Movement, especially the works of Kim Dongin. In his novel, Kim advances the idea that the root of mankind’s problem was weakness, and the champions of this paradigm, the strong, were neither those educated in the West nor those driven by Western rationalism. Koreans with strength were driven by an inner impetus that could not be logically explained.
Chapter 6 examines Pak Taewon’s Gubo ssi ui ilgi (One Day in the Life of Mr. Gubo) and Yi Sang’s Nalgae (Wings), both of which were written in the 1930s. The protagonists of these novels reflect how difficult life had become for [End Page 335] intellectuals, who found themselves poor and isolated from the rest of society, as Korea was becoming an urbanized society driven by self-interest. The novels also reflect how intellectuals struggled to go against the currents of materialism, rejecting the comforts of capitalism and seeking to define themselves as pioneers of creativity.
Chapter 7 addresses Yi Gwangsu’s Yujeong (The Kindhearted), which was also written in the 1930s. This was the story of forbidden love, in which the protagonist confronts both internal and external struggles. Up until his death, the protagonist does not allow himself to succumb to his inner desire for a woman nor to be defeated by the slanderous remarks from outsiders when a...