Land : A Classic Korean Novel

  • onNovember 15, 2014
  • Vol.24 Summer 2014
  • byPark Kyung-Ri

The novel begins at the end of the 19th century during the autumn festival in 1897 when King Gojong was crowned emperor and the name of the country changed from Joseon to the Korean Empire; it ends on August 15, 1945, the day Korea was liberated from Japan. In other words, it is a historical novel that contains the 50 years of modern Korean history and at the same time a micro-history of the everyday lives of the people. It is similar to Balzac’s The Human Comedy or Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart in that many intellectuals and farmers appear, and the scale of Land is reminiscent of Martin du Gard’s Les Thibault and Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don.

In Pyeongsa-ri, Hadong-gun, Gyeongsangnam-do Province lives Deputy Minister Ch’oe who has been a wealthy landowner for five generations, his servants, and the villagers who are tenant farmers on his land. The only descendant of the Ch’oe family, a young girl named Sŏhui, is raised by her strict but loving grandmother and her father whom she fears. Kuch’ŏn, the new errand boy, seems troubled by secrets. Kuch’ŏn’s real name is Hwan, the son of Lady Yun who is the spiritual pillar of the Ch’oe family. Lady Yun lost her husband at a young age and gives birth to Hwan after a man rapes her. This man later goes on to incite a rebellion and is executed. Also involved in his father’s rebellion, Hwan assumes an alias and hides in the Ch’oe family house. Tormented by the secret of his birth and his love for Byeoldang Lady, the wife of his half-brother Ch’oe Ch’isu, Hwan elopes with her deep into the Jirisan Mountains.

The proud, coldhearted Ch’oe Ch’isu tries to reveal his mother’s secret. In the meantime, he leads a life of debauchery with his second cousin Cho Chun’gu and becomes impotent. He takes a gun that Cho Chun’gu lends him and searches Jirisan Mountain to find Hwan and Byeoldang Lady. The ailing Byeoldang Lady dies in Hwan’s arms.

Gwinyeo, a maid disgruntled by her place in the world, seduces Ch’oe Ch’isu in her effort to have his child and gain status, but her plans are foiled. She then schemes with Kim Pyeong-san, a nobleman whose family has fallen, and deliberately gets pregnant by giving her body to Chilseong and Rifleman Kang. Unaware that Ch’oe Ch’isu cannot father children, Gwinyeo plots to make Kim Pyeong-san murder Ch’oe Ch’isu so that she may claim that her offspring is Ch’oe Ch’isu’s heir, and have the child inherit the Ch’oe family fortune. But Lady Yun finds something suspicious about her son Ch’isu’s death, and gets Gwinyeo’s confession thanks to the information from the chambermaid Bongsun. Kim Pyeong-san and Chilseong pay for their crime with their lives. As a result of this scheme, Kim Pyeong-san’s wife commits suicide and Chilseong’s wife leaves the village.

Cho Chun’gu comes to the Ch’oe family estate with his wife and his son, Byeongsu. With the Ch’oe family fortune in his sights, Cho Chun’gu had secretly encouraged Kim Pyeong-san to murder Ch’oe Ch’isu. In the meantime, cholera and famine sweep through the village, killing many including Lady Yun, Mr. Kim, and Bongsun. Cho Chun’gu’s family survives and takes over the Ch’oe family estate.

Now an orphan, Lady Yun’s granddaughter Sŏhui becomes a strong, selfish person. Things go in the favor of pro-Japanese Cho Chun’gu as the Russo-Japanese War breaks out and the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1910 is signed, but the villagers can no longer stand Cho Chun’gu’s abuse and storm the Ch’oe family estate with Carpenter Yunbo as the leader of their uprising. They plan to plunder the property and kill Jo’s family, but they cannot find them.

Meanwhile, Sŏhui finds the land documents through Gilsang who served her father, but when the villagers fail to kill Jo, she realizes she can no longer stay in her hometown. Sŏhui packs up the inheritance Lady Yun left for her and leaves for Jiandao, China along with the villagers who were involved in the uprising.

It wasn’t just property and people that Sŏhui left behind. In Jiandao, she finally understands the sorrow of losing one’s country. She uses Lady Yun’s jewels as capital to invest in real estate and grocery stores, and becomes wealthy. Also, by marrying the manservant Gilsang, and having two children together, she breaks down class barriers. Sŏhui becomes very rich through brilliant means in China, leaves her independence fighter husband in Manchuria, and returns to Korea to reclaim her father’s land. That brings us to the end of Part One. In the heart and periphery of these stories are characters that represent every social class.

In Part Three of Land, the children of the main characters are studying abroad in Japan, expanding the scope of the story beyond Hadong, China, and East Asia at large. The author takes a close look at the relationship between China, Korea, and Japan toward the end of the novel. 


by Lee Seungha
Literary Critic