Dignity in the Face of History

Korean mothers demonstrate strength despite harsh treatment throughout Korea's modern history.


In contemporary Korean fiction, the place of the father is seriously at risk. In a work by Hwang Jung-eun, a father suddenly turns into a hat while lying in one corner of the room; in one of Son Honggyu’s tales, the father becomes the subject of a game called "invisible man" that the rest of the family invents on a whim, a role that he gradually resigns himself to. It has already been quite a while since not only the father who devotes himself to nation seeking or discovering an ideal new world, but also the emblematic father who boldly occupies a position as domineering patriarch, have become hard to find in Korean fiction. At present I am inclined to think that the so-called embodiment of fatherhood in life and in literature has become a matter for archeological excavation.

Even though we might say that the trend in the Korean fiction of previous decades—obliged as it was to focus on such weighty social and historical topics as the division of Korea, ideological conflicts, or democracy—inclined to highlight the role of the father, in actuality tales about the absent father (very often those wonderful fathers were guerilla fighters or in prison or roaming the world or had died early) were at the same time tales of the mother who stayed home and ran the family. Much as earlier modern Korean fiction faithfully told tales of ideology and history through the father, equally it did not forget the tale of the mother who, in the father’s shadow, confronted suffering with a maternal heart and the devotion of Mother Courage. However, Korean fiction did not rush to construct a myth of long-suffering, self-sacrificing motherhood out of such stories about mothers. Instead it seems to have begun to ask questions: what was the inner strength that sustained Korea’s mothers amidst the double ordeal they were obliged to endure, both the oppressions of a deeply-rooted patriarchal culture that did not easily abate, and the pressures of poverty in real life? It might be thought that Korean fiction answered this question in the shape of the mother who was obsessed with family and blood relations, and demonstrated virtually blind love to her children. But on closer examination, within that blind, instinctive love, Korea’s mothers discovered a wider ethical dimension which we may term dignity and grace. In a masterpiece of Korean fiction, we find the highest example of such a mother. If the discovery of such a model was so extremely valuable, it may be because modern Korean history has treated its mothers so harshly.

In Korea, the pain caused by war and division is an ongoing reality. Inspired by her true family history, Park Wansuh’s trilogy Mother’s Stake (part 1, 1980; part 2, 1981; part 3, 1991) tells the story of a mother and daughter who were obliged to lose their only son and brother, who reached maturity during the Korean War. With a uniquely skillful style, the author tells of the sad times when, in order to provide her son and daughter with an education after her husband dies early, the mother takes them from their home in Gaepung, Gyeonggi Province, which lies to the north of the 38th parallel. She stakes out a new home in a poor hillside neighborhood in Hyeonjeo-dong, in the unfamiliar city Seoul. Despite experiencing poverty, scraping a living together by sewing, and maintaining her self-respect as a member of a high-class Gaeseong family while providing her children with a decent education, the mother looks strong and tenacious enough to overcome the storms of history. But when the madness of an ideological war snatches away her young son, she is found to be nothing but a helpless woman. The son’s body is buried temporarily in the fields beyond Muakjae pass, then after Seoul is liberated again, his remains are cremated at her insistence and scattered in the sea off Ganghwa Island, from where their former home now in North Korea is visible. Parts 2 and 3 of Park's trilogy evoke scenes prior to the death of the mother who has spent her whole life mourning her lost son.

Having broken her pelvis in a fall, the 80-year-old mother asks her daughter: “If I die, you must do for me what we did for your brother.” To her daughter, her mother seems to be “a handful of dust and wind attempting to fight something huge.” It seems as though, as her son had said when he was brimming with vitality, this wish to be reduced to a handful of dust and scattered in the sea off Ganghwa Island was “the only way of opposing the monster called division, which had trampled over mother, robbed her of everything, that she could absolutely not understand.” At that point, the mother attains the dignity of a human being standing up to the tyranny of history.

In part three of Mother’s Stake, the mother lives another seven years while confined to the home because of her ill health, before dying. When the nephew who was head of the family insisted that they could not hold a funeral to satisfy her longing, she was buried in a cemetery in Paju. Forty years had passed since the war. When they return to the grave on the third day after the funeral, instead of a proper gravestone they find a wooden stake inscribed with the mother’s name marking the grave. As she is reading the Chinese characters of her mother’s name, the daughter who is the narrator of the story seems to hear her mother’s voice whispering, “Daughter, it’s alright, it’s alright. What difference does it make where a body like mine is laid? Whatever place you prepare will do for me to sleep in.” Her mother’s name is Gi-suk (己宿). The character for “suk,” one rarely used in women’s names, means “sleep,” and combines with the “gi” meaning “body,” to yield the sense of “the place where the body sleeps.” This scene may be the moment when peace and happiness come at last to the Korean mother who lived through the years of war and division, and may be the most dramatic and sincere lament for that mother’s generation in Korean literature. There is no monument to the mother...