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  • Figuring Korean Futures: Children's Literature in Modern Korea by Dafna Zur
  • Sonya F. Zabala (bio)
Figuring Korean Futures: Children's Literature in Modern Korea by Dafna Zur. California: Stanford University Press, 2017. Digital ISBN: 9781503603110. 304 pages. $65.

Zur's Figuring Korean Futures is a study of the emergence and the development of children's literature in postmodern era of Korea, and it explores how notions of childhood became a symbolic meaning of Korean nationalism. The book begins with a central question: How did a specific, modern form of children's literature emerge in Korea and how did this emergence impact the consciousness of people who were negotiating contested spaces between a Japanese military occupation and a Western intellectual imperialism, and an independent national Korean identity.

In looking at the child as a symbol for Korean nationalism and childhood as a social construct, Zur discusses how the concept of the child moved from the periphery to the centrality of Korean culture, which captured a point in time when children became visible, and intellectually and affectively distinct from adults. From a critical perspective, Zur's work offers an analysis of the social, political, and ideological forces and structures that produce and constrain children's literature in postcolonial Korea.

Zur traces pre-European contact ideology and the literary artifacts of tongsim—the natural, unadulterated "child-heart," (pp. 48–98) to its first textual and visual production in children's periodicals in colonial Korea. Zur argues that children's literature written at the height of modernity emerged while under Japanese occupation beginning at the end of the Korean dynasty in 1910 and lasting until 1945 at the end of World War II. Adult authors during this time period celebrated the child as a protagonist for the future. This time period in Korea prompted the production of a children's literature, and transcribed visual and textual images that centered around past, present, and potential futures. Zur further argues that children's literature in modern Korea was affected by East and West intellectualism, and educational and psychological discourses more generally.

The first three chapters explore how notions of childhood in this genre became symbolic for Korean nationalism. Zur presents two frameworks of childhood: the politics and aesthetics of youth and the emergence of stylized text and images shaping the development of children's periodicals. First, the aesthetics of youth is explained as the child entering a different world from that of adults all together. The concept of tongsim (child-heart) was thought to be innocent and pure, a heart that was considered a space of "privilege" which was affectively closer to nature than "acculturated [End Page 204] adults" (p. 6). Second, the politically and ideologically motivated bond between child and nature as opposed to overt political messages and symbols represented a "discursive shift" (p. 49) in children's literature creating the conditions for tongsim. Here, the concept of tongsim positioned youth as central agents for nationalist and future identity against a Japanese military occupation, and alongside child-friendly text and images. For example, images of "playing soldier" captures a 6-year-old boy holding a rifle and at war with a chicken (p. 131). The image is followed by the words of its poem, "He comes after the chicken,/Toy rifle aimed high,/In hot pursuit of his enemy" (p. 132), reflecting an aspirational childhood toward adulthood and simultaneous wartime sentiment.

The following two chapters illustrate the use of literature to create a pro-Japanese imperial and assimilationist identity. Chapter 4 begins with an examination of a proletarian-styled thought and aesthetic sought to capture the imagination of the oppressed. Zur posits, however, that socialist magazines failed to capture the child-heart and the intellectual and emotional developmental capacities of children. Chapter 5 highlights the militaristic rhetoric at the height of Japanese imperial policies. This rhetoric celebrated war along with attempts to eradicate Korean language and culture. For example, Korean children were forced to assume Japanese names and Japanese was made the official language of instruction. Wartime rhetoric, illustrations, and poetry also predisposed Korean children to see themselves as part of the greater Japanese empire and a more modern Korea.

The final...


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pp. 204-206
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