When lakes, fog, dakgalbi (a spicy chicken dish), mime festivals, the pop song “Soyang River Girl,” and the TV mini-series Winter Sonata are mentioned, the city of Chuncheon is the first place that comes to most Koreans’ minds. Chuncheon is also the birthplace of the writer Kim Yujung (1908-1937), who died prematurely of tuberculosis, leaving behind such classic folk works as Spring ∙ Spring and Dongbaekggot (Yellow Ginger Blossom)1 . His essay collection, A Mountain Valley in May, published one year before his death, was a dedication to his hometown.
left: The Academy Geumbyeong-uisuk where Kim Yujung taught students. right: Kim Yujung
Kim once wrote, “My hometown is in the mountains of Gangwon-do (province). If you go twenty li (eight kilometers) from the town of Chuncheon-eup and follow a winding path through the mountains, you’ll come upon a tiny village. The village is nestled cozily in the middle of steep mountains that surround it on all sides. Buried in the mountains like that, the village looks just like a siru (high-sided rice cake steamer), so it’s called Sille. The homes are mostly old straw-thatched houses on the verge of collapse, and even so, there are less than 50 of them. You could say it’s a very poor hamlet.” (From Chogwang, May 1936)
Kim was the youngest son of a wealthy family in Sille, but having grown up in Seoul, he didn’t get a proper look at Sille until his late twenties. After his love affair with the famous singer Park Rokju ended, Kim withdrew from school and returned to his poor hamlet in despair. His older brother had nearly squandered the family fortune with his prodigal ways. Kim established the private educational institute Geumbyeong-uisuk where he taught the children of Sille, a village that had become impoverished under colonialism, and explored the village’s treasure trove of stories about farm life. He carefully documented the mountains and fields of Sille, people’s speech and mannerisms, and the events that stirred up the town: the 19-year-old wandering prostitute, who ran away from a fake marriage to an old Chongro Intersection bachelor and returned to the village after hiding her ailing husband in a water mill (The Wanderer in the Valleys); Chunho, who made his wife sell her body in order to finance his gambling (The Summer Shower); the farmhand who worked himself to the bone in the hopes of getting married, then got into a big fight with his father-in-law because of his pent-up rage (Spring ∙ Spring); 17-year-old Jeomsun who tempted the tenant farmer’s son into having sex with her on the mountainside where yellow ginger flowers were blooming (Dongbaekggot); Yeongsik who ruined a perfectly good field of beans because he was fooled into thinking there was gold hidden underneath (Picking Gold in a Beanfield); and Mungtae, the biggest bum in the village.