Introduction to Yi T'aejun's Travels in China
Yi T'aejun refashioned himself many times during the half century of his recorded life. He was born in the Korean empire before the Japanese empire absorbed it, an event that took place when he was five. A leading novelist and essayist of the 1930s, this self-made petit bourgeois left Seoul for North Korea within a year of liberation. Although he was a founder of Kuinhoe, which espoused art for art's sake as opposed to the more socially engaged literature of KAPF (Korean Artist Proletarian Federation), he subordinated his art to politics after moving north. His two travel essays about the Soviet Union, published in 1947 and 1950, and his 1952 essay Travels in China, subtitled A New Great China, are works from the last phase of a versatile writer whose genius could not outwit the vicissitudes of modern Korean history.
Born in 1904 in Ch'ŏrwŏn of Kangwŏn Province, Yi followed his destitute yet educated reformer father to exile in Vladivostok at the age of four. His father died that year, and Yi became an orphan in 1912 when his mother also passed away. When he was fourteen, Yi left his relatives' home and roamed Korea for two years. Although he eventually enrolled at a high school in Seoul, he was expelled in the fourth year of the five-year program for organizing a strike. He still finagled his way to [End Page 291] Sophia University in Tokyo, financing his studies by delivering milk and newspapers. Within a year, however, he dropped out and returned to Korea.
During his sojourn in Japan, he published his first short story, "Omongnyŏ." This debut piece was a romance, which was turned into a successful film a dozen years later. Yi became a journalist in Seoul at the age of twenty-four, and married the following year. His wife was a graduate of Ewha Women's College, where Yi taught writing. He had two sons and three daughters with her.
Despite colonial constraints, Yi had a prolific writing career until Japan's total mobilization in 1941. He served as the cultural editor of major publications, including Chosun Choong-ang Ilbo, and serialized over sixty short stories and a dozen novels in newspapers and magazines. Yi also founded the journal Munjang with modernist poet Chŏng Chiyong and sijo poet Yi Pyŏnggi, and published avantgarde writers, including Yi Sang.
One of Yi's most read works from the colonial period to this day has been Murŏrok (Records of wandering thoughts), which Janet Poole translated as Eastern Sentiments. Published in 1941, these anecdotal essays sought refuge from the tides of colonialism and commodification in traditionalism, extolling antiques, orchids, and classical poetry. Yi concluded his anthology with a travel essay about Manchuria, where he lamented the plight of Korean farmers and located the future of Korea in its diaspora. Although Japanese authorities approved Musŏrok, Korean language publications were banned in the early 1940s, and Yi retreated to his rural hometown to devote himself to fishing.
Despite Yi's disdain for the excesses of capitalism, few predicted that a dilettante accused by a contemporary of indulging in "feudal nostalgia" and being more concerned with form and style than content and politics would metamorphose into a full-fledged socialist. Yi's convictions were solidified after his two-month journey to the Soviet Union in 1946. He wrote in the preface to his travelogue that after flying to Moscow, "I was like a bird [End Page 292] soaring through the sky for the first time, having been freed from a cage. Those few months were truly enchanting."
Yi's 1951 trip to commemorate the second anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China took place during the Korean War, and he describes driving to China at night to avoid American air raids. Yi was part of the six-member delegation from North Korea, and received a dignitary's welcome from Mao Zedong at Tiananmen along with other delegates from thirteen socialist nations. Yi toured metropolises such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Nanjing, as well as some of the adjoining countryside. He published an account of his two-month journey in thirteen chronological chapters.
Yi's journey begins in Andong, Manchuria, where he recalls his visit there some three decades before. He reminisces about the brutal humiliation the Japanese inflicted on the Chinese then, and writes effusively about the improvements in various spheres of society, a recurring theme of his travelogue. He meets the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in Beijing, and lionizes Lu Xun, whose old home he visits in Shanghai, as his literary hero. Yi asserts that literature should be nationalist and people-focused and should combat conservatism and cosmopolitanism.
Although Yi depicts himself as an archetypical member of the Confucian literati in Musŏrok and remains fond of traditional Chinese arts, architecture, and literature, in Travels in China, he condemns Confucianism for shackling East Asian people for three millennia. His conversion to communism was part of a local and global trend among post-war intellectuals: Im Hwa, John-Paul Sartre, and W. E. B. DuBois were also fervent communists at the time. Stalinist horrors had not been exposed, and catastrophic Maoist reforms were yet to be imposed.
Yi also delivered a speech on the eve of the first anniversary of Chinese involvement in the Korean War. He spoke to an audience of 2,000 gathered at the People's Assembly Hall in Nanjing, and expressed gratitude for the Chinese support of North Korea, as he [End Page 293] does throughout his writing. Yi wrapped up his Travels in China by giving the last word to Kim Ilsŏng, quoting from Kim's essay "The October Revolution and the National Liberation Struggle of the Korean People."
In 1956, however, Yi fell out of Kim's favor when the Soviet faction was purged in Pyongyang. The official pretext for Yi's disgrace was his affiliation with Kuinhoe some two decades earlier. Yi was exiled to work at a newspaper in Hamhung in 1957, and consigned to manual labor at a concrete factory there the following year. What transpired after remains veiled, and the study of Yi was restricted in South Korea until 1988. Although Yi survived colonialism and war, socialism proved to be fatal. [End Page 294]
Jun Youb (J.Y.) Lee has written two travel essays in Korean including Paran nal eul dalida, published by Sigongsa, and has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, OZY, and The Korea Times. He is translating Shin Gi Wook's Superficial Korea and has translated a Korean history book and samples of Korean fiction. He will start at Harvard Divinity School in fall 2018.