The Korean Diasporic Literature: "An Example of an Effort To Understand Humanity In Its Extending and Changing Context of Human Existence"
The following are excerpts from a paper, "Korean Diasporic Literature," lectured by Prof. Hong Ki-sam, President of Dongguk University, Seoul, Korea, at the Yenching Institute at Harvard University on Dec. 8, 2005. - Ed.
Korean literature has a long history. For the oldest Korean literature, we can trace back to 2,000 years ago in accordance with confirmation with written records. Of course, Chinese characters were borrowed to express Korean sentiments at that time, and the aboriginal Korean alphabets were not created. Since the 15th Century, when the Korean alphabet was first created, Korean literature written in Korean language appeared in various modes and genres, although the tradition of using Chinese characters remained persistently until the 19th Century. The authentic Korean literature written in Korean language did not flourish in full bloom until the 20th Century. Koreans have inherited the literary legacy from the past on the one hand and have established Korean literature as the major medium of self-expression under the influence of western and Japanese literatures on the other hand. In fact, the formal spectrum of Korean literatures spans from the struggle for obtaining the political right to selfdetermination to the experience, memory, and thoughts which will provide significant contributions to the collective communal lives of Koreans in the 20th Century. I am afraid I have to express my pity that Korean diasporic literature has not arrested critical attention from the Korean literary critics despite its global presence in the six different continents. Whenever there is a chance, I have been proposing to understand Korean diasporic literature in relation to modern Korean literature at large. Today, I wish my proposal on Korean diasporic literature makes sense and proves verified in practice. The history of Korean diaspora stems from the historical fact that Korean peasants in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula crossed the border and entered into the Northeast area of mainland China in the early 18th Century. However, there is a theory that the formal history of emigration of Koreans is shorter than most of the other countries: only one century year old. According to this theory, the time of the first formal emigration was the year 1902 when a group of 121 Korean Christians departed the Inchon Harbor for Hawaii. According to official statistics of the year 2,000, a total of 5.5 million ethnic Koreans are living abroad: 2 million in China and the U.S.A.; 700,000 in Japan; 500,000 in Russia; 100,000 in Canada and South America; and 70,000 in Europe. The total number of 5.5 million amounts to 8% of 70 million, which is the number of the whole population of the combined South and North Korea. Ethnic Koreans living overseas rank fourth in the number of worldwide ethnic overseas residents, after China, Israel and Italy. Besides, the ratio of overseas Korean residents to Korean residents in the motherland is 12%, ranking number one in the world-wide ranking. It is not proper to say that the reason for this increasing number of Korean diaspora in the 20th Century is irrelevant to the fact that Koreans during this period had suffered from multi-level tribulations including the Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula. During this period, Koreans left their fatherland in attempts: 1) to be relieved of economic poverty and political oppression; 2) to commit themselves to the cause of liberating their motherland and indepen-dent movement; and 3) to leave the legacies of better living environments for their posterity.
Now I want to turn to the literary achievements of ethnic Korean overseas country by country to get the whole picture of Korean diasporic literature for your information. First of all, the case of China. The emigration of Koreans into China started in the early 18th Century. In the early 21st Century, the emigration of Koreans into China began on a substantial scale on account of Japanese Colonial Rule. The debacle of the Yi Dynasty and its subsequent economic catastrophe produced displaced peasants, political and belligerent militarists, and exiles on a huge scale. The locus where they settled down and were active was China. As a result, the modes of literary writings of Korean diasporic literature are tinted strikingly with nationalistic tones. Moreover, it is worth noting that Korean diasporic writers in China tended to write not in Chinese but in Korean language. Among the early writers in Korean diasporic literature in China, Kim Taekyoung (1850-1927) and Shin Jeong (1879- 1922) were both exiles and they are regarded as the trailblazers of Korean diasporic literature in China. Kim Taekyoung was well versed in the modes and styles of classical Chinese, and Shin Jeong has been compared to Sun Yat-Sen who was a national hero of China against Japanese colonialism. Shin Chae-Ho (1880- 1936) inherited the high culture and sense of nationalism from Kim and Shin, and many more writers moved to the Northeast area of China and joined the literary activities. One of the most distinctive characteristics of this Korean diasporic literature in China is anti-Japanese struggle, and "The Song of Bloody Sea" in 1937, a representative masterpiece of drama. This drama which consists of two acts and three scenes is a joint creative work by the anti- Japanese writers, and demonstrates a victory story of Korean guerillas against the Japanese colonial soldiers. This play is similar in contents to "Pi-ba-da" (Bloody Sea), one of the three revolutionary masterpieces of North Korea, and has been known as the origin of the latter. For the last century, the Korean diasporic literature in China reflected in a very sharp manner the rapid political change and ideological struggle in the area of Northeast Asia. Above all, the extraliterary, political circumstances of the age have contributed significantly to the formation of the Korean diasporic literature in China. In comparison, Korean diasporic literature in China has more distinctive characteristics than Korean diasporic literature in Japan. China respected the language and culture of the Korean residents in China (the so-called Jo-seonjok) in accordance with the minority race policy, thereby contributing to the geographical extension of Korean literature proper.
In contrast, Japan assumed a double policy in dealing with Korean residents in Japan. The Japanese government resorted to an extreme social policy of dis-crimination, although they did not inflict political restrictions upon Korean residents. As a result, most Korean residents in Japan had to suffer from the difficulty in maintaining the mother tongue in their ordinary daily lives. It has been understood that Korean diasporic literature in Japan originates from the appearance of two Korean writers in the 1930s: Jang Hyuk-joo and Kim Saryang. Both Jang and Kim had been recognized among Japanese literary circles as distinguished writers because of their outstanding Japanese language proficiency and creative talents. As the intellectuals in "The Age of the Japanese Colonial Rule," both Jang and Kim were said to be different from other writers. Jang accepted the humiliation and was naturalized as a Japanese citizen, while Kim resisted against Japanese rule, thereby becoming the exemplar of the Korean diasporic literature in Japan. However, there is a theory that Korean diasporic literature in Japan emerged from the Korean society in Japan after Japan's defeat in the World War II. In this regard, the first achievement of Korean diasporic literature can be discovered from Kim Dalsoo. Kim's works deal with Koreans' agony and resistance during Japanese Colonial Rule, and Kim brought the indictment of the discrimination against Korean residents in Japan to a focus. Besides, Kim's works arrested critical attention in the literary world by presenting the report on the real life situations of Korean residents in Japan as well as the historical research concerning Korean cultural heritage. Memorable works of Kim Dal-soo are "Taebaek Sanmaek" (The Taebaek Mountains) and "Ilbon Sokeui Joseon Munhwa" (The Korean Culture in Japan). The Taebaek Mountains objectively delineates the social and political circumstances of Korea after the liberation from Japanese colonial rule, while the Korean culture in Japan presents a positivist investigation of how Korean culture was introduced into Japan. So far, critics have failed to deal seriously with Korean diasporic literature in Japan because most of the works were written in Japanese. Nevertheless, these literary works share many common themes with Korean literature written in Korean language, sometimes revealing deeper insights in their investigations of the themes under consideration than the Korean literature proper.
Let me now turn to Korean diasporic literature in the U.S.A. For convenience's sake, we can simply classify it into "Korean Diasporic Literature" written in English and in Korean. Kang Young-hill, Kim Yong-ik, Hyun Woong, Kim Eun-kook, and Lee Chang-rae belong to the first category, while Ko Won, Hwang Kap-ju, Ma Jongki, Song Sang-ok belong to the second. It is my contention that Kang Younghill's (1898-1972) autobiographical novel, entitled "The Grass Root" (Chodang, 1931), should hold a high position both in Korean-American literature and in Korean diasporic literature at large. Kang Younghill fled Japanese-occupied Korea in 1921 because he had participated in demonstrations for Korean independence. He came to the United States, via Canada, to study first at Boston University and then earned a graduate degree in English and American literature from Harvard University. Kang's novel which has won wide readership in and out of the Korea has become an unprecedented success by depicting the world of ordinary Korean daily lives from the multi-perspectives of anti-colonialism, national consciousness, and nostalgia. Kim Young-ik (1920-1995) is the author who was exceptionally fluent and competent in both Korean and English. He made his debut with a short story, entitled "Wedding Shoes" (Kkotzshin, 1956), and his subsequent novel, entitled "The Sea Girl" (Hae Nyeo) was included in "People Focus on Literature," the American secondary school textbook. Both fictions have arrested critical attention from the critics who set a high value on Kim's superb grasp of Korean sentiments, manners and customs. One can provide an extensive list of the most distinctive literary qualities of Kim Youngik as follows: succinct writing style without superfluity, the sharp seizure of Korean moral life and the pure, empathetic perception of natural landscape. Kim Eun-wook (Richard E. Kim, 1932)'s three novels, "Lost Name, "The Martyred" and "The Innocent," published a uniquely combined autobiographical and historiographical picture of the author and his nation. On the one hand, the trilogy traces the author's developmental stages from childhood to adulthood. On the other hand, the trilogy picks up the three turning points in the history of Korea, and derives his main themes from the following three reference points: 1) The Age of Colonial Rule; 2) The Korean War (which broke out on June 25, 1950); 3) The Military Coup (May 16, 1961). In each turning point, Kim deals with the themes of 1) self-esteem of the nation and culture as its background; 2) faith and conviction in an extreme situation; and 3) moral conflicts. These themes are closely related to the historical, political and philosophical issues of modern Korean history in Moebius strip-like interrelations.
Nevertheless, despite their differences in geography, history, and language, Korean diasporic literatures share a strikingly noticeable concern in common. It is an issue of importance for Korean literature as well: "What does it mean to be a Korean in the contemporary international world of global village?" This question has been raised for several purposes: first, to narrate the stories about the experience and destiny common to Korean people; second, to identify certain moral and aesthetic values of Korean culture; and third and last, to grapple with the demand of newly forming Korean identity across cultures. However, whatever the purposes are, Korean diasporic writers have a unique characteristic of devoting themselves to searching for the meaning of their identities in wider historical and cultural contexts than their ethnic origin or belonging. In this respect, their works have something deeper in common with the effort of Korea-based writers to make sense of the Korean experience of modernity. It has been a great mistake to regard Korean diasporic literature as irrelevant to the academic field of Korean literature. Many Korean literary critics and historians have been overlooking the literary achievements of Korean diasporic literature, by asserting that Korean literature should be found within the scope of the verbal artifacts made in the Korean language. However, this definition of Korean literature sounds unproductive. If Korean literature is defined only in terms of linguistic differentiations, that definition will lead to an absurd assertion that Korean literature written in classical Chinese characters in the pre-modern Korea does not belong to Korean literature. Linguistic nationalism has been taken for granted as a consequence of the establishment of modern nation-states, but this assumption prevents the comprehensive understanding of the literary self-expressions of Koreans who are share common historical experience, cultural representations and collective memories. I would argue that Korean diasporic literature should be read, studied, and educated within the contextual scope of Korean literature. Korean diasporic literature has such significant values as the literary self-representation of Koreans, as the exploration into the experience and culture common to Koreans beyond the boundaries of language and region and culture, and as the in-depth complex understanding of the historically evolving Korean identity. I have been finding in Korean diasporic literature an example of an effort to understand humanity in its extending and changing context of human existence. I look forward to the time when the research activities concerning Korean diasporic literature throw off the yoke of linguistic nationalism, and also when reading and research activities of Korean literature at large can flourish and be promoted in this rather open and transnational intellectual environment of America.