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Realism and Modernism in Korean Literature

Korean Literature

The literature of colonial Korea appeared as a result of a set of major factors. One of these factors is the direct influence of Japanese dominance on Korea. Thus, the Japanese government pursued a specific colonial policy that presupposed economic modernization and subsequent westernization of Korea, unification of Korean culture under Japanese rule, alienation of the Koreans from their own social, political and cultural reality, etc. Other factors related to a broader sphere such as the development of Western literature, its relationships with Japanese culture and its subsequent influence on the Korean one. In its turn, the Western influence could take at least two major forms: modernism and realism. Both mentioned directions became the major trends in the colonial Korean literature. They served as a means for the Korean peopleВ’s literary reconsideration of those changes that were caused by the Japanese invasion and annexation of Korea, with the subsequent transformations in the spheres of politics, society, culture, etc. In fact, the Japanese occupation became a stimulus that replaced Korean intellectuals and fiction writers into the liminal space of their own national culture and thus made them seek some new expressive means, which were mostly borrowed from the West. In this way, the response of Korean writers took two major forms in accordance with the mentioned trends. Thus, writers who oriented on socialist and communist ideas chose realism as the best way to express class contradictions and exploitation within colonial Korea. By contrast, writers who suffered Japanese occupation but had no political program applied to modernism as the best way to express the contradictory character of KoreaВ’s modernization through a wide use of symbols, metaphors and attention to the experience of alienation. Realism and modernism in Korea express socialist and aesthetically-oriented positions of Korean writers.

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The main factor that impacted the appearance and development of modern Korean literature is the occupation of Korea by Japan, including the subsequent implementation of colonial policies. Mortuza Khaled underlines that the cultural and educational policies of the Japanese government oriented on the oppression of the Korean identity and culture (5-6). As a result, Japanese culture became dominant in Korea, thus depriving people of their cultural heritage. Besides, while the Western way of thinking largely embraced В“a linear, progressive view of historyВ” (Ryu 48), self-identification of Korean intellectuals was very contradictory. Thus, on the one hand, they could interpret westernization as a positive phenomenon that would lead them to development. On the other hand, westernization could be considered as a part of the Japanese colonial policies. As En Young Ahn claims in the analysis of KoreaВ’s modernization, В“many of the Western style terms that are used in Korean art historical writings are actually derived from their prior Japanese translationsВ” (24). She states that Korean intellectuals were affected by Western culture indirectly, being mostly influenced by Japanese dominant culture, which was already westernized during the Meiji Revolution. This detail is very representative for the understanding of the Japanese influence on the modern Korean literature. It is also important that Korean modernization was influenced by the socialist ideology, which was successfully implemented in the USSR and was emerging in China during the first half of XX century.

In the profound analysis of the colonial KoreaВ’s westernization and modernization, Ryu underlines that modernization is an ambiguous phenomenon that mostly presupposes two major trends: rationalist and anti-rationalist approaches to the reality (50). As Ryu claims, the same feature was characteristic for the colonial Korean culture, where socialist rationalism and В‘bourgeoisВ’ modernism became the major trends of literature. Additionally, Sunyoung Park defines realism as В“a rationalist movement that rejected the established conventions of classical literary language in favor of a new scientific mode of representationВ” (166). The provided characteristics of modernism and realism appear to correspond to the historical context of KoreaВ’s modernization, which was based on the two major trends as well. Thus, while modernism as an anti-rationalist side of Western literature became oriented on the quest for new expressive means, realism as a rationalist side of the Western literary tradition became a common style of socialists, whose understanding of social reality was strictly rationalist.

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The development of Korean literature during the Japanese occupation was determined by two major Western trends of literature: realism, which is oriented on the description of the reality, and modernism, which focuses on aesthetical experiments with textual forms, expressive means, etc. Thus, under this influence, Korean literature became divided into two main movements В– modernism and realism. Korean modernists tried to express their perception of life, especially in conditions of KoreaВ’s modernization realized by Japan. By contrast, Korean realists were mostly socialists, who tried to demonstrate in their writings the contradictions and specific features of the Korean class society, including the theme of class exploitation and class self-consciousness. In brief, it is possible to define Korean realists as content-oriented writers whose ideological presuppositions predominated in their literary works. By contrast, Korean modernists can be identified as form-oriented writers who had no ideological position to express in their fiction and whose main aim was to elaborate some new ways to write prose and poetry. The brightest examples of Korean modernists are Yi Sang and Pak Taewon, and Yi Ki-yong is the most renowned representative of Korean realists.

As modernists, Pak Taewon and Yi Sang tried to achieve the same aim in their writings: they sought new ways of literary expression. Both writers describe their personal experience of life that concerns their self-perception, self-identification, relationships with other people, especially with women, etc. To make such experience understandable for their readers, both writers try to reproduce in their texts some kind of flow of consciousness interrelated with the В‘externalВ’ activity of their characters, thus achieving correspondence between the linear structure of the text and the linear structure of reasoning and perception. Yi SangВ’s, for example, tends to use a confessional mode in his prose. His short story В“The WingsВ” begins with the confession: В“I am a spiritual straggler who has been, so to speak, after a momentary peep at crystalized intellectualism, alienated from the strategies of loveВ” (7).

This confessional mode of the first-person narratives is the major feature of his fiction in general, which is represented in В“The WingsВ”, В“Encounters and DeparturesВ” and В“Deathly Child.В” Through his specific writing strategy, Yi Sang develops an intimate relationship with the reader, who discovers the inner life of the narrator instead of his external activity. The same strategy is used by Pak Taewon, who, apart from the confessional mode, uses other expressive means for this purpose. Thus, there is no confessional mode in his third-person narration В“A Day in the Life of Kubo the Novelist.В” Instead, Pak Taewon describes the inner life of his character Kubo, who attends different companies of people and thus discovers both himself and the society from which he is psychologically alienated. As Pak Taewon writes, В“Kubo feels a strong impulse to regard all kinds of people as mental patients… Then, Kubo realizes that he himself, who takes interest in such a topic, must make a psychotic case, if only for that particular interest, and laughs cheerfullyВ” (189). The most remarkable writing technique of Pak Taewon at this point is the narration constructed from dialogues intermingled with the descriptions of outer and inner reality of Kubo. This technique allows the writer to describe the psychical state of his main character and in this way to express his individual perception of life and reality. At the same time, both writers pay specific attention to such themes as Korean females in the modern society, the unstable state of the society, which survives modernization and colonial dominance of Japan, and other topics that underline their alienation from the mainstream culture determined by the colonial policy. Therefore, Yi Sang and Pak Taewon may serve as characteristic modernist writers of colonial Korea due to their specific formal approaches and topics of writings.

In contrast to Korean modernists, realists try to describe social reality objectively, not paying attention to feelings, internal life, psychological problems and other forms of subjective evaluation of the reality. Thus, Yi Ki-yong, a representative of Korean realism, describes the problem of class self-consciousness and contradictions caused by class exploitation in his story В“A Tale of Rats.В” Although the writer uses many pieces of Korean folklore and describes his characters metaphorically as rats, the underlying aim of this short story is to reflect social problems characteristic of Korea as a society based on class exploitation (according to socialist ideology). Thus, in the form of a tale Yi Ki-yong propagates redistribution of resources between poor and rich people, who are represented in the tale by the families of Su-dol and Rich Man Kim respectively, and establishment of social equality. The Thunder Giant (a great rat who is the main character of the tale) proclaims these socialist ideas from his animal perspective: В“poor folks like Su-dol В– theyВ’re people too, so why should that have to put up with it? Rich Man Kim, that worthless creature, he ought to be torn in halfВ” (Ki-yong 29). In contrast to modernists, Yi Ki-yong does not seek any new expressive means as the main point of his text is the proclamation of the socialist ideological position as well as criticism of economic inequality in colonial Korea.

Thus, through the analysis of the historical context of colonial Korea and the most representative literary works of Korean writers of the colonial period, it is possible to conclude that both modernism and realism in Korean literature appear as a result of Western influences. On the one hand, westernization caused transformation of the traditional feudal Korean society and thus made writers seek some new expressive means. On the other hand, westernization provided Korean writers with all the needed expressive means in the form of realism and modernism. Those writers who believed in socialist ideas opted for realism for the most adequate description of all class contradictions in the Korean society (for instance, Yi Ki-yong in В“A Tale of RatsВ”). By contrast, writers whose feelings of melancholy and disappointment caused by the modernization of their native culture predominated over any political program chose modernism to express their individual experience of life in the new colonial Korea (as Yi Sang in В“The WingsВ” and Pak Taewon in В“A Day in the Life of Kubo the NovelistВ”). Thus, the emergence of both approaches in Korean literature was caused by the same processes of modernization which were realized by different factors.


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