Dignity in the Face of History

  • onNovember 5, 2014
  • Vol.22 Winter 2013
  • byPark Wansuh

In contemporary Korean fiction, the place of the father is seriously at risk. In a work by Hwang Jung-eun, a father suddenly turns into a hat while lying in one corner of the room; in one of Son Honggyu’s tales, the father becomes the subject of a game called "invisible man" that the rest of the family invents on a whim, a role that he gradually resigns himself to. It has already been quite a while since not only the father who devotes himself to nation seeking or discovering an ideal new world, but also the emblematic father who boldly occupies a position as domineering patriarch, have become hard to find in Korean fiction. At present I am inclined to think that the so-called embodiment of fatherhood in life and in literature has become a matter for archeological excavation.

Even though we might say that the trend in the Korean fiction of previous decades—obliged as it was to focus on such weighty social and historical topics as the division of Korea, ideological conflicts, or democracy—inclined to highlight the role of the father, in actuality tales about the absent father (very often those wonderful fathers were guerilla fighters or in prison or roaming the world or had died early) were at the same time tales of the mother who stayed home and ran the family. Much as earlier modern Korean fiction faithfully told tales of ideology and history through the father, equally it did not forget the tale of the mother who, in the father’s shadow, confronted suffering with a maternal heart and the devotion of Mother Courage. However, Korean fiction did not rush to construct a myth of long-suffering, self-sacrificing motherhood out of such stories about mothers. Instead it seems to have begun to ask questions: what was the inner strength that sustained Korea’s mothers amidst the double ordeal they were obliged to endure, both the oppressions of a deeply-rooted patriarchal culture that did not easily abate, and the pressures of poverty in real life? It might be thought that Korean fiction answered this question in the shape of the mother who was obsessed with family and blood relations, and demonstrated virtually blind love to her children. But on closer examination, within that blind, instinctive love, Korea’s mothers discovered a wider ethical dimension which we may term dignity and grace. In a masterpiece of Korean fiction, we find the highest example of such a mother. If the discovery of such a model was so extremely valuable, it may be because modern Korean history has treated its mothers so harshly.

In Korea, the pain caused by war and division is an ongoing reality. Inspired by her true family history, Park Wansuh’s trilogy Mother’s Stake (part 1, 1980; part 2, 1981; part 3, 1991) tells the story of a mother and daughter who were obliged to lose their only son and brother, who reached maturity during the Korean War. With a uniquely skillful style, the author tells of the sad times when, in order to provide her son and daughter with an education after her husband dies early, the mother takes them from their home in Gaepung, Gyeonggi Province, which lies to the north of the 38th parallel. She stakes out a new home in a poor hillside neighborhood in Hyeonjeo-dong, in the unfamiliar city Seoul. Despite experiencing poverty, scraping a living together by sewing, and maintaining her self-respect as a member of a high-class Gaeseong family while providing her children with a decent education, the mother looks strong and tenacious enough to overcome the storms of history. But when the madness of an ideological war snatches away her young son, she is found to be nothing but a helpless woman. The son’s body is buried temporarily in the fields beyond Muakjae pass, then after Seoul is liberated again, his remains are cremated at her insistence and scattered in the sea off Ganghwa Island, from where their former home now in North Korea is visible. Parts 2 and 3 of Park's trilogy evoke scenes prior to the death of the mother who has spent her whole life mourning her lost son.

Having broken her pelvis in a fall, the 80-year-old mother asks her daughter: “If I die, you must do for me what we did for your brother.” To her daughter, her mother seems to be “a handful of dust and wind attempting to fight something huge.” It seems as though, as her son had said when he was brimming with vitality, this wish to be reduced to a handful of dust and scattered in the sea off Ganghwa Island was “the only way of opposing the monster called division, which had trampled over mother, robbed her of everything, that she could absolutely not understand.” At that point, the mother attains the dignity of a human being standing up to the tyranny of history.

In part three of Mother’s Stake, the mother lives another seven years while confined to the home because of her ill health, before dying. When the nephew who was head of the family insisted that they could not hold a funeral to satisfy her longing, she was buried in a cemetery in Paju. Forty years had passed since the war. When they return to the grave on the third day after the funeral, instead of a proper gravestone they find a wooden stake inscribed with the mother’s name marking the grave. As she is reading the Chinese characters of her mother’s name, the daughter who is the narrator of the story seems to hear her mother’s voice whispering, “Daughter, it’s alright, it’s alright. What difference does it make where a body like mine is laid? Whatever place you prepare will do for me to sleep in.” Her mother’s name is Gi-suk (己宿). The character for “suk,” one rarely used in women’s names, means “sleep,” and combines with the “gi” meaning “body,” to yield the sense of “the place where the body sleeps.” This scene may be the moment when peace and happiness come at last to the Korean mother who lived through the years of war and division, and may be the most dramatic and sincere lament for that mother’s generation in Korean literature. There is no monument to the mother that shines with a dignity that any hero’s monument can equal.

The short story “The Snowy Road” by Yi Chong-Jun that was published in 1977 tells of a woman whose poverty prevented her from functioning fully as a mother. Yet when that mother reveals a secret that had remained hidden through years of destitution and contempt, and remorse and self-blame, we realize that within her remains a world of self-respect and dignity that the years of poverty had been unable to subdue. The widespread poverty that reigned in Korea in the later 1950s after the war, when the country was struggling to rise again, is a familiar topic.

The narrator of “The Snowy Road” lives with relatives in town while he attends high school and the sole remaining building of the family home in his native village passes into other hands. But his mother, uncertain when her son might come back home, goes every day to clean the now empty house where she has left bedding and a chest for clothes in the main room. When the narrator returns to the village during winter vacation, his mother makes him sleep in their old home that now belongs to someone else. The next morning she accompanies her son to the bus stop at the marketplace on his way back to town. All of this remains clear in the memories of the son, who narrates the story. But he could not know anything about the anguish of his mother, who was obliged to walk back along the snowy road to the village where she had no house to live in.

“The Snowy Road” tells how the son, now grown-up and settled in Seoul, belatedly hears the tale in his mother’s single-roomed hut when he comes with his wife to visit her. As his mother walked back to the village where she no longer had a house, she could not help crying freely at the sight of her son’s footprints still remaining clearly in the fresh snow. When she reached the top of the hill above the hamlet, she says, she was forced to sit down for a while. Why? The end of the story reports her explanation: “Why I was unable to go straight back down the hill to the village? It wasn’t that I had nowhere to go. So long as I was alive, even in those times, I would surely be able to find somewhere to lodge, even if it was just a tiny outer room in a building. (. . .) But my eyes were sore and I wanted to avoid the sunlight, so how could I go on down among the houses? Since the bright sunlight made me feel ashamed, I never so much as gave it a thought.” Indeed so. Her shame, which she cannot bring to the light of day, was her last trace of self-respect. Fighting off her looming sorrow, she is determined to remain her son’s proud mother. This lofty-minded living can be seen as a synonym for human dignity. Yi Chong-Jun’s “The Snowy Road” testifies to the purity attained by the mother.

Shin Kyung-sook's novel Please Look After Mom has done much to raise the reputation of Korean literature in the countries where it has been published. Shin does not forget the dignity and grace of the mother found in Park Wansuh and Yi Chong-Jun’s works, but attempts to discover a mother's private existence and desires from a more modern point of view. The sudden disappearance of the elderly mother forces her family to endure pain as they reconsider the existence of the mother they had forgotten. Daughter, son, and husband recall memories of the mother they now address as “you,” and reach the miserable conclusion that before her disappearance they had forgotten her. During that time, instead of being an individual named “Bak So-nyeo,” behind the title “Mom” she had been nothing but someone consigned to oblivion like a shadow.

Yet she had not been born as “Mom.” She was not solely a homemaker nor an unfailing source of love for the family. Born in 1938 in a village near the unidentified Korean city “J,” she lost her father when she was only three, and in order to survive the chaos following the end of the Korean War, she had become some man’s wife. She was just 17 at the time. Never finding time to learn to read and write, she had lived in a dark world, but this Bak So-nyeo had taken exceptional care of her husband and children, staying in the kitchen and preparing food for the six ancestral rites they celebrated every year. The yard around the house had always been bright thanks to her labors; she would raise and care for every kind of living thing. She had to endure her husband’s indifference, his affairs and desertions, and keep buried in her heart grief for a stillborn child and the death of the brother-in-law she was so fond of. Living as an emblem of silent devotion and endless affection, her real name, Bak So-nyeo, was erased, and she was left with the sole title of “Mom.”

Yet at times she experienced anger at her fate and resisted it. And above all she found love. Not that she crossed certain lines, but there had been a man she had cared about and with whom she had experienced shared desires. Shin calls the narrator of the fourth chapter, where this lifelong secret is revealed from the mother’s point of view, “Another Woman,” a title that should rightly be restored to and accepted by all the Korean mothers of the past. And above all, all those mothers must have longed throughout their lives for their own “mom.” In the last scene of chapter four, her spirit visits the house in which she was born and grew up. There she sees herself as a baby mother in her mom’s arms. Her mother is bandaging her wounded feet. “Did Mother realize? That all my life I had needed a mother?” Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom is a belated but ardent lament for all those many mothers who, in the course of Korea’s turbulent recent history, have had to bury their own existence.


1. Mother’s Stake
Park Wansuh, Segyesa Publishing Co., Ltd.
2012, 596p, ISBN 9788933801840
2. The Snowy Road
Yi Chong-Jun, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2012, 421p, ISBN 9788932020938
3. Please Look After Mom
Shin Kyung-sook, Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2008, 299p, ISBN 9788936433673