Centennial Celebration of Three Korean Literary Greats

  • onDecember 22, 2015
  • Vol.30 Winter 2015
  • byKim Jonghoi

Art Extending Beyond the Finitude of Life


This year we are observing the centennial anniversary of an unusually large number of writers in the field of modern Korean literature: poets Pak Mogwol and Seo Jeong-ju; novelists Hwang Sun- Won, Lim Ok-in, and Lim Sun-deuk; playwright Ham Se-deok; children’s writer Kang So-cheon; and critic Kwak Jong-won. A hundred years ago, it was 1915, a time of unrelenting cruelty, five years into the annexation of Korea by Japan. These writers celebrated national liberation when they turned thirty, after passing their childhood and youth under Japanese occupation. They went on to endure the Korean War and the following times of great privation, and had to find a place for themselves and settle down within a new social system. Perhaps they were shackled to their fate—writing literature while surviving the course of such a hard life.

At the same time, however, their writing is the reason their names are remembered today. Because the contemporary historical background formed the basis of their lives and literature, the national character and the events of modern history could not but appear naturally in their work. As “the people’s teachers,” they wrote literature that commanded respect in a way that is difficult to imagine under today’s conditions. If literature could have been made to appear especially bright and luminous when reality meant crossing over a steep and ragged hill, then the line from an old poem has not led us wrong: “A country’s misfortune is a fortune for poets.”

The three representative figures from the group being honored are Pak Mogwol, Seo Jeong-ju, and Hwang Sun-Won. Pak Mogwol was a poet who never lost his abiding love and affection for humanity. He and his fellow poets from the “Green Deer Group” (Cheongnokpa) attended to the purity and beauty of their mother tongue when it was threatened by erasure. The emotional core of the people was given expression through Pak’s concise combinations of words. Meanwhile, Seo Jeong-ju was a poet who sublimated human lack within his literary aesthetic, and it was through his efforts that traditional emotions could be expressed in modern form. Among the writers discussed here, he is the shining star and eternal legend. Finally, there is Hwang Sun-Won, who was respected for his upstanding character to the same degree as he achieved fame as a writer. Following in the space created by the synergy of his character with the literary value of his fiction there have been many students and successors. Even as he wrote for sixty years and embraced the twists and turns of modern Korean history in his fictional world, his aesthetic was one of literary moderation and plenitude.

These three writers enjoyed the honor of being respected artists during their lifetime. While it is true that their lives were filled with long periods of suffering and want, the garden at the end of the road of thorns was relatively bountiful. After the fighting ended, as the majority of well-known writers either defected or were kidnapped to the North, these three took on the roles of being authorities and senior figures when they were in their late thirties. Not to be complacent, they kept developing and maturing in their literary achievements. In recognition of their efforts, today we are shining a light on these giants of Korean literary history.

Emily Brontëe (Wuthering Heights) and Herman Melville (Moby Dick) have established their places in the canon of modern English literature, but as authors, they were not rewarded in their lifetime. Brontëe suffered from negative reviews and Melville died without receiving compensation for his works. For Moby Dick, a work that is now considered timeless, Melville received payment of only $556.37. Scholars say that it was initially placed in the fishing section of bookstores. Similarly, Vincent van Gogh did not receive any financial remuneration for his masterpieces while he was still living. Compared to these examples, the Korean writers enjoyed a much kinder fate.

A century is not simple from any angle. It is difficult to extend our lives beyond a century, however hard we might try. Flowers may bloom perennially, but once a person is gone, he does not return. In the field of literature, the strongest link between the past hundred years and the next hundred years is not the writers themselves, but the works they leave behind. Writers transcend death through their works. Looking at these writers a century after their birth and the works they produced, we see the train of art extending beyond the finitude of life.

We evaluate writers’ lives according to the times in which they live and the works they leave behind, and stop there for ordinary writers. But if texts that transcend their times and take on the force of life are called “classics,” then obviously the writers responsible for the classics transcend their times as well, exerting literary influence. Their work is linked to the next generation, but not only that, they maintain a literary lineage or a circle of literary relations. In view of the special character of Korean society, in most cases, the next generation of writers is made up of these writers’ younger associates and students. That is the reason we have covered this aspect in our issue featuring Pak Mogwol, Seo Jeong-ju, and Hwang Sun-Won.

Memorial projects in honor of the life and work of these writers are planned and implemented in order that contemporary society might receive maximum benefits from their literary legacy and teaching. Literary houses and theme parks adorned with the names of poets and writers exist in every region of Korea, pointing to the fact that societal interest is very strong in this sector. Moreover, regional governments are gaining autonomy, and because building literature-related infrastructure for local residents and instilling pride in literature are important administrative indices, it looks as though the number of projects in this sector will continue to increase.

The principal groups sponsoring projects in honor of Pak Mogwol were the Mogwol Literature Forum, the Tong-ni Mogwol Memorial Project Association, and Hanyang University, where the poet served as a professor for many years. Commemorating the centennial of his birth this year, they held events of various kinds, including a memorial ceremony, the dedication of a poetr y collection, and an academic conference. Events were organized by the association that regularly runs events and projects in remembrance of the poet, the Tong-ni Mogwol Literary Memorial House, located in Gyeongju, Pak’s birthplace. The House honors two great writers from Gyeongju: Kim Tong-ni and Pak Mogwol. Every year the House administers the Tong-ni Literature Prize and the Mogwol Literature Prize, awarding 70 million won to the winner of each.

Seo Jeong-ju’s penname is Midang. This means, “the house is not complete,” and expresses the mind of a boy who is waiting to change and develop over the course of his life. The Midang Memorial Project Association, which honors Seo’s memory, together with Dongguk University, where the poet spent years teaching the next generation of scholars, participated in centennial memorial projects for the poet. Midang House is established in the poet’s hometown of Gochang, and the Midang Literature Festival is held there every fall when the chrysanthemums are in full bloom, in homage to one of his representative poems, “Beside a Chrysanthemum.” This year a variety of events were held, including the disclosure of unpublished works, a memorial concert, and the publication of a collected edition of his poetry. Every year the Joongang Ilbo offers the Midang Literature Prize, with prize money totaling 50 million won.

The Hwang Sun-Won Memorial Project Association is the group responsible for novelist Hwang Sun- Won’s memorial projects. In honor of the centennial of his birth this year, the group organized an academic conference and the publication of a story collection, as well as some events that featured his short story “Sonagi” (“Rain Shower”) as their underlying theme. Events were also organized through the Hwang Sun- Won Literature Festival held every autumn: writing and drawing contests for elementary, middle school, and high school students brought together from all over the country; the awarding of the Sonagi Village Literature Prize; and literary excursions to the village, taken in the company of writers. The prizes given in Hwang’s name are the Sonagi Village Literature Prize, worth 20 million won, and the Hwang Sun-Won Literary Award, administrated by the Joongang Ilbo and worth 50 million won. The local government of Yangpyeong-gun partnered with Kyung Hee University to build Sonagi Village, the Hwang Sun-Won literary theme park in Yangpyeong, Gyeonggi Province. Hwang settled in South Korea after the war, and was unable to return to his hometown in the North. The theme park is located in Yangpyeong-gun owing to a reference in “Rain Shower”: “He’d overheard that the girl’s family was moving to Yangpyeong the next day.” Kyung Hee University participated in the construction of the park because Hwang wrote four out of seven novels and two thirds of his hundred-plus short stories during the twenty-three and a half years he served as a professor there. Today, Sonagi Village attracts the most paying visitors of any place in Korea, with hundreds of visitors coming on weekdays and almost two thousand visitors a day on weekends.

This issue of _list magazine has devoted intensive coverage to three writers exclusively—Pak Mogwol, Seo Jeong-ju, and Hwang Sun-Won—owing to their unusual weight and importance in Korean literary history. In fact, had space allowed, the literary figure that should have been highlighted with the others is children’s writer Kang So-cheon. Kang was responsible for the lyrics to many songs that Koreans sing in early childhood and as they grow up, writing over 240 children’s songs and poems of a very high caliber. In the same year that so many giants of literature were born in Korea, writers such as Saul Bellow and Arthur Miller were born in the West. This year, exactly a century has passed since that time. 


by Kim Jonghoi
Literary Critic and Professor of Korean Literature
Kyung Hee University