Yi Sang’s short story “Jongsaeng-gi” (Diary of a Lifetime)

  • onNovember 3, 2014
  • Vol.22 Winter 2013
  • byYi Sang


This is the opening of “Ogamdo (Crow’s Eye View) Poem No. I” which Yi Sang (1910-1937) published in 1934. Eighty years have passed since then and it is still not clear what the significance of the “13” is. He is the most abstruse writer in the history of early modern Korean literature. He is at the same time the most popular writer. Among Koreans with the slightest interest in literature, there is scarcely anyone who does not know two quotables from Yi Sang: the line about “13 children” from “Ogamdo” and the “genius turned into a stuffed specimen” from “Wings.” The fascination surrounding Yi Sang’s writings continues today.

Overlapping shadows of modernity and colonialism hang over Yi's life and work. He was born in 1910 in the city then known as Gyeongseong (Seoul). That was the year Korea became a Japanese colony. He grew up directly experiencing the transformation of Gyeongseong into a modern city; after entering Gyeongseong Technical High School he studied architecture. His urban sensitivity and architectural studies combine with texts referring to cinema, advertising, art, and music, as well as symbols and geometrical diagrams to form a freely used background to his works.

Generally his works are considered to be surrealistic. He certainly felt an affinity with the films of Jean Renoir and the paintings of Salvador Dalí. However, his works are not the result of studying and imitating Western Surrealism. Yi Sang’s works originate at the point where he found his fear of death in geometry and treated it by playing with symbols.

Yi Sang twice experienced being seized by death. The first time was when he was adopted by his uncle at the age of two. Like Salvador Dalí who was forced to take the name of his dead elder brother, He was deprived of his own identity without regard for his own wishes. The second was when he contracted tuberculosis at age 20. It was from that point that he began to write in earnest. The image of children running up a blind alley pale with dread can be seen as a literary self-portrait.

What options could allow him to escape from a life in the grasp of fear? One was to pursue love affairs as a kind of game; another was to transform the fear of death into symbols. Transforming a fear of death into symbols and into games is the fundamental basis of Yi Sang’s work. As a result, he found himself obliged to change his own death into a symbol. "Diary of a Lifetime" is written as a fictionalized account of his own death. Yi Sang died on April 17, 1937, in Tokyo. The story "Diary of a Lifetime" was completed one month prior. Thus it may be called the ghost of writing or the writing of a ghost:

“Aged twenty-six and thirty months, Master Yi Sang! Scarecrow! You are so old. You are a skeleton with knees higher than your ears. No, no. You are your distant ancestor.”

So far, the complete works of Yi Sang have undergone five updated revisions. Today, research on Yi is being undertaken not only by practitioners of traditional literary studies but by mathematicians, psychoanalysts, media studies scholars, and art historians among others. This is because the games played with the ghost of an endlessly fascinating body of work known as Yi Sang have not ended, and because they are so fascinating.