Restoring Eastern Thought: The Eco-Poetry of Kim Ji-ha and Choi Seung-Ho

Traditionally, no dichotomy existed between humans and nature in East Asia. Even in literature from the Sinosphere, humans were understood to be part of nature within the general order and harmony of the cosmos. Naturally, this literary sensiblity considered society’s manmade regulations and the resultant desires as impure and sought to distance itself from them.

     This literary background and tradition led to the establishment of the unique custom popularly known as ganghogado in Korea. Korean literature has a long history of interest in ecology and nature. This attitude is retained in modern literature as well, especially in poetry, with pastoral and idyllic poems being created regularly to the enjoyment and affection of the public. The formation of the cheongnokpa school of writers can also be understood as an extension of this tradition.

     The traditional outlook of Korean literature, which perceived nature as a friend and strived to live in sync with it, started facing serious challenges in the seventies and eighties, a period when Korean society underwent rapid change. The damage caused by rapid industrialization became a burning issue in society. With the realization that environmental destruction could no longer be ignored, finding an advisable direction for social consciousness became a major new concern in Korean literature.

     The opportune introduction of Western ecological ideas and literary theories accelerated such efforts. Along with the realization that ecology needed to be explored anew in Korean literature, the awareness that this exploration should be from an independent perspective distinct from the West gained ground. Poetry being no exception, Korean poets made efforts after their own fashion to present sound perspectives and solutions to the ecological issue.

     Kim Ji-ha and Choi Seung-Ho are especially interesting in that they diagnose the internal crisis facing Korean society today from an ecological perspective, and point to the restoration of an Eastern way of thought as the solution to overcoming this crisis.

     As is well known, Kim Ji-ha was the epitome of resistance in the Korean literary world in the seventies and eighties. His spirit of resistance, represented by works such as Five Thieves, Canard, and Burning Thirst, created a stir in Korean society, which was groaning under the weight of the Yushin autocracy and the military regime at the time. Kim was imprisoned several times; the experiences he had in prison served to open his eyes to a world different than the one he knew. One day, he discovered a dandelion sprouting from beneath his prison’s dusty windowsill and was astounded by its tenacious resilience. He eventually gained the conviction that everything in life and nature should start from an infinite affirmation and affection for life itself.

     Kim started materializing this belief in his ideology and literature. Aerin (1986) is widely believed to be the first work in which this new change became evident, but it is more pronounced in his wor...