Close
Lee O Young
interviews Kim Do-eon

An exceptionally eminent scholar, writer, and critic, Lee O Young has lived through Korea’s tumultuous changes throughout his 80 years. Lee takes a look at his career and the cultural contributions he has made to understanding Korea and her neighboring countries, China and Japan.

 

Kim Do-eon: You have devoted your life to varied creative pursuits, starting with your career as a literary critic, then novelist, poet, playwright, contemporary literature scholar, semiologist, Japanese culture scholar, opening and closing ceremonies director for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, as well as the first Minister of Culture, instrumental in implementing cultural policies. But your starting point was literature. I find this to be very meaningful. How did it come to be that literature was your introduction to your creative career?

Lee O Young: Literature is an art form that has language as its medium. I’ve worked in many different fields, but they all required imaginative work with language as their foundation. Also, I was in elementary school during the Japanese occupation when the Korean language was banned from schools, on top of which we had to change our names into Japanese ones. I lost the Korean I learned from my mother as a three-year-old. I think this encouraged a strong awareness of my native language. It wasn’t until middle school that I learned to read and write Korean. There are many writers in the world, but you’ll rarely come across writers like me who are writing in the native language they lost and then managed to learn again at the age of 13.

Others may take it for granted, but even now, I believe the ability to write freely in Korean has been the greatest blessing of my life, and I am grateful for it. People think that I’ve had many jobs in many fields, but that is a misunderstanding. I’ve had only one occupation: as a miner of language.

 

Literary critic Lee O Young and novelist Kim Do-eon

 

Kim: In This Earth and In That Wind is your most well-known work. It’s one of very few books in the history of Korean publishing that has never gone out of print in the 50 years since it was first published, and it has sold over 2.5 million copies. What was your intention in writing this book, and what do you believe is the reason for its widespread popularity?

Lee: In This Earth and In That Wind is a steady seller, and amongst my works it has also been translated into the greatest number of foreign languages. It’s been translated into English, Japanese, Chinese, and Russian. I believe there was a great interest in this book because it dealt with Korean culture. Considering the publishing climate in 1960s Korea, when getting a book published was itself a challenge, it was almost miraculous that my book was published in so many languages. I was surprised. This was a time when even educated foreigners couldn’t have given you a confident answer if you’d asked them whether the Korean language had its own alphabet.

It was first translated and published as a volume in the Royal Asiatic Society series, but after that, commercial publishers took an interest and picked it up. I think the book owes its domestic and foreign success to its frank portrayal of Korean culture. Generally speaking, when a Korean writes a book about Korea, they tend to take a patriotic or masochistically self-critical angle. But my depiction of Korea in this book is as frank and true to life as looking into a shaving mirror.

There was actually an incident that inspired this book. We were driving through the countryside in a jeep when the driver urgently honked at an old couple on the dirt road ahead of us. The startled old couple grabbed each other’s hands and ran straight ahead like chicken or ducks. They had never come across a jeep in their lives, and did not know how to make way for one on a dirt road where they’d only ever seen carriages. That image was burned into my memory. So I thought I should write about the surprised expression, the way Koreans are chased ahead like animals, and how desperately they cling to each other’s hands.

1. The Semiotics of Space

Lee O Young, Minumsa Publishing Group

2000, 508p, ISBN 8937411423

 

2. In This Earth and In That Wind

Lee O Young, Munaksasang Co., Ltd.

2008, 290p, ISBN 9788970128201

 

3. Smaller Is Better: Japan’s Mastery of the Miniature

Lee O Young, Munhaksasang Co., Ltd.

2008, 437p, ISBN 9788970128252

 

Kim: Your other well-known work Smaller Is Better: Japan’s Mastery of the Miniature, is critically acclaimed as a masterpiece in the field of Japanese culture theory. I’ve read articles written by many Japanese readers including critics such as Karatani Kojin, who revisited this book nearly 30 years later. Your interest in Japan and China has encouraged you to establish the Korea-China-Japan Comparative Culture Research Center. Was it the geographical proximity, or were there other aspects that drew you to this field?

Lee: I wrote that book in Japanese and the manuscript was published by a Japanese publisher. It’s not a translation, so the down-to-earth voice comes alive in the text. As I have mentioned earlier, I’d learned Japanese before Korean, and so this ability is also a scar that history left on me. The upside, however, was that I was able to look at Japanese culture from an unbiased, childlike point of view, much like the child from the fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Hans Christian Anderson.

For instance, we had a folk painting at home depicting munbangsau (writing materials such as paper, brushes, and inkstone), but at my Japanese friend’s house, I would see Japanese swords in the tokonoma (alcove where objects of value are displayed). When my mother saw a kitchen knife around the house in any room other than the kitchen, she would quickly remove it, saying it was bulsangjimul, or an “inauspicious object.” This is a pretty significant cultural difference. Of course, in the West, people eat holding knives.

It is the same with China. When we were young, we referred to the Chinese as “silk merchants.” The Korean word for merchant, sangin, comes from the Chinese word, shangren, which means “person from the Shang dynasty.” In the eyes of Koreans who scorned merchant activities, all Chinese immigrants must have seemed like merchants. Perhaps because I had this firsthand experience with the Chinese as a child, I was able to be free from the preconceived notion of China as an inherently Confucian culture. The Japanese and Chinese inside me helped me define the identity of Korean culture and also instinctively distinguish between Western and East Asian culture. This later led me to cultural theory and, further, 21st century civilization theory.

In This Earth and In That Wind and its translated versions

 

 

Kim: In your literary criticism, you have worked through 1950s existentialism and then moved on to semiotics and structuralism. How did you first become interested in structuralism? You also wrote The Semiotics of Space, a seminal work, as your focus shifted to littérature engagée, phenomenology, semiotics, and structuralism. Could you tell us a little bit about this book?

Lee: The culture of man tends to evolve, and I have always had a propensity for self-renewal. Until the April Revolution of 1960, my language was the language of engagement. To use an analogy, it was like an arrow shot at a target. Bamboo is used to make arrows, one of the most primitive weapons. But bamboo is also used to make brushes, the writing utensil of the East. To me, in the beginning, language was a bamboo arrow but later it turned into a brush. Language evolved from a tool to language for the sake of language. And in that transition, I became interested in semiotics. Mikhail Bakhtin, in his analysis of Dostoevsky, claimed that drama always happens on the threshold, and Roland Barthes also attempted to analyze Racine by utilizing the concept of space.

The Semiotics of Space was my analysis of the Korean poet Yu Chi-hwan’s works based on the idea that they are composed of architectural spaces. For instance, when I analyzed “Flag,” a poem by Yu Chi-hwan, I did not see it as an ideological symbol but saw it from a spatial point of view. It doesn’t embody the idea of rising up to the sky or plummeting to the ground. It is simply suspended, fluttering in between. And that is how the poetics of the flag as a space between the sky and earth, inside and outside, was born. I discovered that the language of literature carries new symbolic meaning depending on its spatial location.

Actually, semiotics and structuralism are at the heart of the school of Yin-Yang and the Five Elements or I Ching. This becomes self-evident when we see people influenced by these philosophical concepts choose sites for houses or graves based on geomancy and have specific places for specific food when setting the table for memorial rites. In Korea, even wailing is based on semiotics. When a person dies, the cries of the bereaved are different from other mourners. I believe that analyzing Korean things through its traditional symbols is a valid approach. In the end, this is connected to the act of finding the Korean identity.

Kim: You played a key role in founding Munhaksasang, a leading Korean literary magazine. You actively introduced internationally renowned literary figures such as Alain Robbe-Grillet, Eugène Ionesco, and Constantin Virgil Gheorghiu through special features. What did you hope to accomplish by introducing them to Korean readers?

Lee: I introduced these writers to Korea specifically because of their ideological standpoints, not just because they were popular and well-respected. They were handpicked in the spirit of overcoming the obstacles of modernity through intellectual solidarity among writers with a critical eye on contemporary material civilization. The East and West have great potential to benefit from one another through interaction. Japan developed the technology to mass produce the video player invented in the West, and Nam June Paik, a Korean artist, used it as his medium of artistic expression.

Kim: I understand you were invited to give a talk at the Tokyo International Book Fair opening event. What do you plan to discuss?

Lee: The key topic these days is whether books will continue to exist in the future. But I wonder if books are indeed predicated upon certain morphological conditions. Is a book text on paper? I don’t believe so. In Eastern tradition, we use terms like gyeongseo or wiseo to refer to books. Gyeongseo and wiseo mean “warp” and “weft” respectively, as in weaving. Books are the weft, and readers use the warp to weave fabric. This fabric is the text. Texts and books are phenomena that occur in the interface between writers and readers. Also, all texts are interwoven. Strictly speaking, all texts borrow from other texts. This is called the hypertext. The crisis we face today has less to do with medium and more to do with textuality. Whether books are made of paper is not the main issue. We must ponder on what we would share and how to fight against the decay of time. These days, non-linguistic signifiers, such as emoticons, have a greater ring than linguistic ones. I believe these things should be taken into consideration in discussing text-based books.

Kim: You are 80 this year, and yet you don’t seem old. You don’t feel old, do you?

Lee: I don’t. If you look at the number 8 sideways, it becomes the sign or infinity or the Möbius Strip. “8” disappears from “80” and becomes two zeros. In other words, “80” is three empty circles. In the end, whether you’re old or young is entirely up to your imagination.

 

by Kim Do-eon

Lee O Young
Lee O Young is a literary critic born in 1934, although this title alone is not enough to describe his illustrious career. An essayist who produced many bestselling books, he also writes novels and plays as well as reviews. He also founded the monthly Munhaksasang in 1972 and developed it into a leading magazine of Korean literature. Lee is a professor renowned at home and abroad and a researcher of Korean classical literature. He was the culture planner who organized the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1988 Seoul Olympics. When the Korean government launched the Ministry of Culture, he...