Industrialization and Democratization; A Tumultuous Era - The Literature of Melancholy and Passion

  • onOctober 28, 2014
  • Vol.2 Winter 2008
  • byLee Mun Ku

The 1970s was the most prolific period for novels in modern Korean history, as evidenced by the increase in the volume of publications, the emergence of problematic bestsellers, the revitalization of the literary media, and the high prestige of liter-ature during the decade. Above all, prominent writers like Park Wansuh, Hwang Sok-yong, Lee Mun Ku, Cho Se-Hui, and Choi Inho either entered the literary scene or published exceptional works. If the novel were a flower, this was a time when it was no longer a bud but reached full bloom. However, the 1970s was, in fact, also a strange, painful, and unfortunate period. Modernization was pursued under a mass mobilization system. While the country was able to step out of the shadow of extreme poverty, it failed to form a rational labor structure or lifestyle suitable for the ensuing economic changes. As a result of the rapid development under Park Chung-hee’s political leadership, state fetishism surged and the everyday world fell into ruin.

Moreover, the Park Chung-hee administration’s project of national modernization was promoted in a totalitarian and paternalistic way after the emergence of the Yushin system (revitalizing reforms), and therefore ushered in a dark age of politics that utterly stifled modern liberation ideals like freedom, democracy, and benevolence. Owing to the anti-communist, authoritarian, growth-driven ideology at the time, combined with the “October Yushin,” the protagonists of the 1970s novels expressed an oppression and powerlessness akin to the sense of being crushed by monsters. However, the 1970s was also a time cohabitated by sorrow and hope, as well as depression and passion. Squirming behind the feelings of hysterical depression was a desire for freedom as well as a critical spirit resisting oppression and injustice. In the words of Kojin Karatani, “The novel was an expression standing in for political action in a time that rendered the latter impossible.” The novel was not the exclusive domain of literary youth but also a handbook of consciousness and a space of contemporary public dialogue for intellectuals.

Novels from the 1970s provided a sharp illumination of condensed modernization. In particular, Gwanchon Essays and Our Town by the late Lee Mun Ku illustrate the destructive power of modernization through the sorrows of a displaced man. Lee’s works are based on his personal life. Born into an aristocratic family in Chungcheong-do (province), he lost his leftist father during the Korean War. Then after losing both his siblings and his mother, he left his hometown as a war orphan, only to descend into the lowest urban class and return back to the countryside. Thus, through a process of exile and return, the writer experienced the violence of a modernity that eventually destroyed everything. Gwanchon Essays embodies the process by which Lee’s father, an aristocratic Chinese classics scholar of a bygone age, and the good-hearted neighbors of his youth, are damaged and trampled in the rough sea of modern history. The writer Kim Joo-young, a contemporary of Lee, praised Lee’s novel as a masterpiece that every Korean novelist wished to write but few were capable of doing, for the novel depicts the depths of Korean modernization through an astonishingly beautiful and melancholy evocation of language. On the other hand, Our Town exposes the reality of farming villages, which were exploited by cities and oppressed by the tyranny of government authorities. That is to say, the novel articulates a critical voice against government-driven modernization. Lee’s characters, who protest against the unjust world in their own ways, differ from the powerless and naïve farmers and fishermen from the Korean literature of the enlightenment; the local color has nothing to do with reactionary tastes.



1 Our Town
Lee Mun Ku, Minumsa, 2005, 435pp., ISBN 89-374-2006-6 04810
2 The Land of Strangers
Hwang Sok-yong, Changbi Publishers, Inc., 2000, 436pp., ISBN 89-364-1003-2 03810
3 Gwanchon Essays
Lee Mun Ku, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd., 2006, 399pp., ISBN 89-320-0814-0
4 A Bad Harvest in the City
Park Wansuh, Segyesa Publishing Co., Ltd., 2002, 438pp., ISBN 89-338-0027-1 03810
5 Hometown of the Stars
Choi Inho, Samtoh Co., Ltd, 1973, 310pp., ISBN 200-17-8300035-3
6 A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball
Cho Se-Hui, Iseonggwa Him, 2008, 351pp., ISBN 89-951512-0-X 03810


Lee portrays the melancholy of the modern man in the third world. His characters have been banished from the kingdom of freedom, but they wander restlessly because they can neither fully acknowledge their loss nor return to the past.

In contrast, Park Wansuh brings to light the dark side of growth by using precise language. Her primary works include the novels A Faltering Afternoon and A Bad Harvest in the City; and the short stories “The Camera and Walkers,” “Teaching Humiliation,” “Near Buddha,” “The Cries of an Earthworm,” and “Similar-looking Rooms.” Through detailed and keen observations of the every day, these works depict the philistine tendency unique to Korean society – a uniform lifestyle and a hollow spirit – and the colonized aspects of a life that has lost its vitality. In particular, Park focuses on the fact that public support for the national modernization project overlapped with envy for the sweet home and women of the materially affluent middle class. The middle-class home becomes the principal location of her fiction, and middle-class women emerge as critical narrators. The Korean War generation tried to compensate for their wounds by achieving a prosperous life. As a result, fantasies about the family and maternal ideology were reinforced. Park was a full-time homemaker until she published her first work at age 40. Based on her experiences as a housewife, she deconstructed the convention of positing the middle-class home and woman as a sanctum. The home is portrayed as a place that conceals falsehoods, while female protagonists are anxious like mental patients on the verge of hysterics, hardly warm-hearted or docile.

Hwang Sok-yong should be included on any list of prominent writers from the 1970s. He has been an unparalleled talent who declared his resistance against the abuses of industrialization and the political repression of the dictatorial government. By leading the emergence of the politically awakened ordinary subject, he aims to employ literature as a tool of political resistance. In particular, he depicts the excessively masculine laborer as a positive protagonist for the subject of resistance. Dong-yeop in The Land of Strangers, which depicts striking workers on reclaimed land, is an ideal rotagonist of Hwang’s novels. Behind the desire for masculinity lies the frustration of being oppressed by the dictator Park Chunghee, who advocated a powerful masculine and patriarchal leadership. For Hwang, the government-driven industrialization was a time of the emasculated male who wanders aimlessly after being banished from paradise. The short story “The Road to Sampo” expresses the disillusionment with industrialization and the sense of a hopeless future by portraying the sorrow of drifting as the emotional structure of the time period. The two men who wander the roads are diasporic; they were exiled from their hometown Sampo, a traditional community known for its fertile soil and waters, after it became a tourist site. The loss and industrialization of Sampo becomes synonymous with the damage to masculinity. On the other hand, a series of novels set in Vietnam, like The Bird of Molgaewoel, melodramatically portrays the victim’s consciousness of the troops deployed in Vietnam. Men suffer from physical and psychological symptoms because of their sense of injustice and victim mentality of having been caught up in the foul whirlpool of history. As if to combat the ultra-masculine nation, Hwang’s male characters all desire masculinity, an aspiration symbolic of a resistant subjectivity.

Unlike Hwang, Choi Inho rejects the ideology of production and progress by depicting young people who covet decadence and idleness. Hometown of the Stars (1973) is a representative bestseller of the industrialization period. The protagonist Mun-oh leads a decadent, meaningless life of alcohol, sleep, and sex. His decadent life is evidence of his discord and tension with the times. The portrait of Seoul is highly suggestive. For instance while the movie theater billboard shows the actor Alain Delon kissing a beautiful woman, Mun-oh wonders why “there is no such scene in the film.” In another example there is a sign in the middle of the intersection that reads, “We build as we fight.” The novel presents a melancholy young man whose individuality and freedom have been mortgaged. After vacillating between his maladjustment to reality and his anxiety about the weeding out process, Mun-oh at last undergoes initiation. The death of his lover Gyeong-ah, who – as a bar hostess – is also the lover of all men, serves as his opportunity to enter society. However, this move is a far step from reaching genuine maturity. In essence, he has given up resisting. Gyeong-ah is a woman who enchanted the youth of the 1970s. A tragic character that is abandoned after being passed from man to man, she is the equivalent of both our lost freedom and innocence damaged by power. Choi’s sensuous prose paints a sorrowful portrait of the youth trampled by the omnipotent father under the banner of national modernization; therefore, he captures the desire for democracy and freedom. The prostitute becomes a metaphor for alienation in Korean literature.

On the one hand, the literature of the 1970s uses the injustices arising from industrialization as a metaphor for a diminished subjectivity. On the other hand, it also exposes the desire for democratization. It resists the reality in which individuals are relegated to mere parts in an industrialized society where freedom is suppressed. As shown in “A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball” by Cho Se-Hui, Koreans during industrialization were no different from the midget father who loses his home to an urban development project. Like the diminutive stature of the midget father, subjectivity is utterly smothered. However, as with his pride, his life-risking resistance against decadent values, and his spirit of disobedience and intransigence, literature from the 1970s likewise paints the portrait of a giant in the ordinary citizens, masses, workers, and urban paupers. 


  Lee Mun Ku
  1941 – 2003
  Born in Boryeong, Chungcheongnam-do (province), Lee lost his father and brothers in the Korean War. Based on his own experiences with farmers and their villages, he turned their issues into literary works, thereby pioneering a new chapter for the agrarian novel. His many works include Gwangchon Essays, Our Town, and I Have Stood or Worked for too Long.

  Hwang Sok-yong
  1943 –
Born in Jangchun, Manchuria, Hwang came to Korea after the end of the Korean War and was raised in Seoul. After publishing The Land of Strangers, A Chronology of Mr. Han, and The Road to Sampo in succession, he emerged as a leading writer of popular literature in the 1970s. Along with his historical novel Jangkilsan, An Old Garden, The Guest, and The Shadow of Arms have been translated into English, French, German, Spanish, Swedish, and Chinese.

  Choi Inho
  1945 –
Born in Seoul. The most popular novelist on the industrialization of the 1970s, he is recognized for both his popular novels and more serious works. He also turned many of his own novels, including Hometown of the Stars, The March of the Fools, and Whale Hunt, into screenplays, and made a unique contribution to the field.
  Cho Se-Hui
  1942 –
Born in Gapyeong, Gyeonggi-do (province), Cho is the author of "A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball," which is the most famous of his connected stories about a midget. His other works include Time Travel and Roots of Silence. A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball has also been published in English, French, German, Russian, Japanese, and Chinese.

  Park Wansuh
  1931 –
Born in Gaepoong, Gyeonggi-do (province). In 1970, she entered the literary scene in her forties. Based on her experiences during the Korean War, she has inveterately dealt with the tragedy of national division and portrayed the life of the lower middle class. Her works include Delusion, Mom’s Stake, A Very Old Joke, and Kindhearted Bokhee.