Hwang Sun-Won: Among His Peers and Pupils

  • onDecember 22, 2015
  • Vol.30 Winter 2015
  • byHwang Sun-Won


Archive of “the people’s memories”

Hwang Sun-Won’s writing encompasses sixty years of history, spanning events such as the occupation of Korea by Japan, liberation, and national division. Even if we were to discuss his works alone, from his debut in 1931 with the poem “My Dream” to his short story “Rain Shower” (1953), extending through to his last novel Dice of the Gods (1982) and his return to poetry with “On Death” (1992), his writing spans over sixty years. As a result, his writing is an archive of “the people’s memories,” (Yu Jongho) and constitutes such an enormous body of work that it approaches being what Kwon Youngmin has described as “the entire history of Korean literature after liberation.”

Born in 1915 in Taedong, South Pyongan Province, Hwang began his literary career with the publication of “My Dream” in the journal Eastern Light (Donggwang) in July 1931. After that, he graduated from Osan Middle School in 1934, and left for Tokyo to attend Waseda High School. In the same year, together with Lee Haerang, Kim Dongwon, and others, he established a performing arts collective called the Tokyo Student Arts Group. Hwang’s first poetry collection, Wayward Songs (Bangga, 1934), included “My Dream” and twenty-six other poems. In particular, he writes about the wild romantic passion of the teenage years in a fiery and resolute tone, just as Yang Ju-dong (writing under the penname Mu-ae) had done in Seomun.


Tokyo Student Arts Group

When performing a survey of Hwang Sun-Won’s literary relationships, the first group that must be considered is the Tokyo Student Arts Group. This was a theater collective established in Tokyo in 1934 for Korean students studying there, and it launched a theatrical reform movement. Students majoring in literature, drama, and film contemplated their concerns, and eventually, Park Dong-geun, Hwang Sun-Won, and thirteen others developed a new arts movement that had as its goals sound theatrical development and the stirring of the people’s spirit. They published the first bulletin in the history of Korean university theater, titled Act (Mak). Under the slogan, “the new theater of Joseon will begin with original scripts,” their first performance was held in June 1935 at the Tsukiji Small Theatre, where the Japanese theater reform movement had begun. The theater company grew and matured while staging Ju Yeongseop’s one-act play, Naru, and Yu Chijin’s three-act play, The Ox, but was disbanded in 1940 due to a crackdown by the Japanese government.


Surrealist leanings: Three Four Literature club

The second group Hwang was involved in was the “Three Four Literature” club. Three Four Literature was a literary magazine that published six consecutive issues from September 1934 until December 1935. It was published and edited by Shin Baeksu, with a first issue that ran up to 200 copies. Apparently the title Three Four Literature was chosen in order to emphasize that it was published in 1934. Jung Hyunwoong and ten others were the founding members of the club, and Hwang Sun-Won participated after the third issue. The published works generally demonstrated surrealist tendencies, and were modernist in character.


Towards imagism: Creative Writing club

The third literary group was the “Creative Writing” club. Creative Writing was a literary magazine published from November 1935 until July 1937, for a total of three issues. The editor and publisher of the first issue was Han Jeokseon, the second was Han Cheon, and the third was Shin Baeksu. Ju Yeongseop contributed five poems for the first issue, Jeong Byeongho five,

Shin Baeksu two, Han Cheon three, Jang Yeonggi three, and Hwang Sun-Won three. It was during this time, in May 1936, that Hwang Sun-Won published his second collection of poetry, Antiques. In it he demonstrated a modernist orientation, with poems that were constructed using images or short single phrases, generally about his immediate impressions of an inanimate object.


Towards the psychological: Dislocation club

The fourth group was the “Dislocation” club. A total of three issues of Dislocation were released, from April 1937 until February 1938. Park Yongdeok was both editor and publisher, and it was published in Pyongyang. A distinguishing feature was that its first publication was referred to as “book one” rather than “the first issue.” The main writers featured in the magazine—novelist Kim Iseok, Kim Jogyu, and Hwang Sun-Won—published Dislocation as a friendly, collaborative effort. Critics have described the writing as psychological in approach.


Literary colleagues Kim Tong-ni, Son So-Hui, Kim Malbong, Kang So-cheon, and Seo Jeong-ju

After migrating from North Korea to the South, Hwang developed close relations with fellow writers Kim Tong-ni, Son So-Hui, Kim Malbong, Kang So-cheon, and Seo Jeong-ju. Hwang’s personal friendship with Kim Tong-ni (1913-1995), whose novels exemplified “pure literature,” was so deep that Kim could joke about his good moral character saying, “Hwang could pass through the ‘Rain Shower’ without getting wet.” Hwang also closely communicated with other literary figures that were taking refuge in Busan during the Korean War in the early 1950s, including Kim Tong-ni’s wife, leading female novelist Son So-Hui (1917- 1986), and Kim Malbong (1901-1962), a writer who made his name writing popular fiction. Hwang is also known to have grown close to children’s writer Kang So-cheon (1915-1963), with whom he shared a sense of belonging as a writer who had migrated from the North.

Hwang had a faithful confidant in his childhood friend, literary translator Won Eung-seo (1914-1973), upon whose advice he rewrote the final passage of “Rain Shower.” Hwang had an established reputation as a drinker, and after Won died in 1973, wherever Hwang was drinking, he was known for pouring out the final glass of soju into the air as a tribute to his old friend. Hwang was also known to be friends with fellow writer and contemporary Seo Jeong-ju (1915-2000), and this relationship was close enough for Hwang to dedicate his poem “The Meaning in the Void: For Seo Jeong-ju” to him.


Nurturing literary talent

While serving as a professor at Kyung Hee University from 1957-1980, Hwang helped form the Kyung Hee Literary Circle together with other writers working at the same school, including Kim Kwang-seop (1905- 1977), best known for the poem “Seongbuk-dong Pigeon,” Chu Yo-sup (1902-1972), who wrote the short story “Mama and the Boarder,” and the prolific poet, Cho Byeonghwa (1921-2003). In a famous anecdote, whenever Hwang was a judge of the fiction category of a daily newspaper’s annual spring literary contest he would leave the decision to other committee members if his own students’ work reached the final round. Students who became writers under his tutelage include novelists Jeon Sang-guk, Cho Se-Hui, Cho Haeil, Kim Yongseong, Han Su-san, Ko Wonjeong, Park Deok-gyu, Kim Hyoung Kyoung, Lee Hye-gyeong, and Seo Hajin; poets Park Edo, Lee SungBoo, Cho Taeil, Jeong Ho-seung, Lee Young-chun, Park Nam-cheol, Ha Jaebong, Lee Moon-jae, and Park Jutaek; critics Kim Jonghoi, Shin Deok-ryong, Ha Eung-baek, and Mun Heungsul; children’s writer Kim Yongheui; television and radio writers Shin Bongseung, Park Jinsuk, and Kim Jeongsu; and essayists Seo Jeongbeom and Lee Jeongwon. Lee Ho-cheol, Suh Ki-Won, Choi Inho, Kim Jiwon, and Kim Chae-Won were writers who debuted on the basis of his recommendation and went on to become active in the literary scene.

Kyung Hee University offered Hwang a doctorate in literature, but he showed great integrity in refusing it, observing, “I have enough degrees for a novelist.” Cho Haeil expressed his admiration in the following statement: “The most striking aspect about Professor Hwang, both in the world of literature and as a human being, is his integrity.” Reminiscing about his former professor, poet Jeong Ho-seung stated, “He kept himself unstained from the world, and by showing pride and grace in his life and work he demonstrated the true spirit of a writer.” Hwang’s oldest son Hwang Tong-gyu (b. 1938), a poet and scholar of English literature, is Professor Emeritus at Seoul National University. He debuted in the journal Hyundae Munhak, courtesy of Seo Jeong-ju’s recommendation, and has won great renown as a poet.

Hwang Sun-Won’s love of his country and native language is shown in the following anecdote. During his early childhood under the Japanese occupation, his son Hwang Tong-gyu once asked him why they weren’t taught Japanese in their family; grief-stricken, the elder Hwang responded that he must have gone wrong somewhere in raising his son. Hwang’s conviction that “a writer speaks through his works” prevented him from writing miscellaneous essays and articles outside of the genres of poetry and fiction, and in this respect, his nickname Hwanggojip (very stubborn person, with a pun on the name Hwang) suited him well. He devoted his life to being a writer, and so outside of a writer’s duties of being a professor and member of the National Academy of Arts, he did not seek honors, titles, or government posts. Now, buried in the Sonagi Village graveyard together with his wife, Yang Jeong-gil, who died in 2014, Hwang is looking down upon the blue skies and beautiful mountain ridges of scenic Yangpyeong County. 


by Oh Taeho
Literary Critic