Issues and Trends in Korean Eco-Literature

  • onOctober 23, 2015
  • Vol.29 Autumn 2015
  • byOh Hyung-yup

Korean Eco-criticism took off with the publication of “Toward a Literary Ecology,” an article by Kim Seong-Kon in the winter issue of Foreign Literature in 1990. Subsequently, the discussion about eco-literature in Korea branched into Green Literature, Life Literature, and Environmental Literature. Academics have written several in-depth papers on eco-literature and have compiled the results of their research as books, notable among which are Lee Nam-ho’s Green Literature (Minumsa, 1998), Kim Wook Dong’s Toward a Literary Ecology: Green Theory and Literature (Minumsa, 1998), Kim Yong-min’s Ecological Literature: Toward an Alternative Society (Book World, 2003), Kim U-chang’s A Heartfelt Study of Ecology: Moving Beyond Anthropocentricism (Gimm-Young Publishers, 2014); and compilations like Path to a Green Life (Poetry and People, 1997) and Path to a Green Life II (Poetry and People, 2001), both edited by Shin Duk-Ryong. Researchers of eco-literature founded the “Association for the Study of Literature & Environment” in 2001, and have continuously published articles in its journal, Literature and Environment, ever since. Their writings were compiled and published as the first volume of a scholarly series, The Environmental Crisis and Literature (Hakgobang, 2015).

As I look at the discussions carried out in eco-writing in Korea, let us first look at Green Literature. Lee Nam-ho defines Green Literature as “literature that pursues, realizes, and promotes in its own way the values and aesthetics of Green Ideology” (Green Literature, Minumsa, 1998). Here, Green Ideology refers to literature that can “surmount the destruction wreaked by humans on nature and help us to live in harmony with nature through a political, economic, social, and cultural revolution,” and “aim for a life that respects and follows the values, order, and aesthetics inherent in nature.” Lee says that “humans and nature are one, and literature is inherently green because at the root of all writing is a respect for nature’s innate value and hidden order.” In Toward a Literary Ecology: Green Theory and Green Literature (Minumsa, 1998), Kim Wook Dong defines Green Literature as literature that contributes to overcoming the ecological crisis by awakening our ecological consciousness. Kim considers both Green Literature and Ecological Literature to be the same and uses the terms Ecological Literature and Literary Ecology interchangeably. He says, “If Deep Ecology is the application of ecological theory to philosophy, and Social Ecology is its application to sociology, then Literary Ecology is the application of ecological theory to literature,” and that Literary Ecology is an “acceptance of the basic spirit of ecological studies and giving it shape in literature.”

Next, let us examine the discourse on Life Literature. Life Literature grew out of the perception that we need to face these dehumanizing times where the culture of killing rules supreme and human life is marred by the destruction of the natural ecology. It developed chiefly from the ideas and literature of Kim Ji-ha. In “Toward Life Poetics” from Path to a Green Life (Ed. Shin Duk-Ryong, 1997), Nam Song-woo urges us to formulate a life poetics that is oriented toward “seeking the essence and meaning of life and its value through the song of life” and “overcome elements that pose a threat to life or are anti-life.” He categorizes Life Poetry into “poetry that deals with life,” “poetry that talks about awareness of life through green imagery,” and “poetry that enhances our awareness of life through the dream of new birth.” Nam’s ideas about overcoming the culture of dehumanization and destruction through an awareness of life are in sync with ecological perspectives. In “The Character of Life Poetry and Poetic Imagination” from Path to a Green Life II (2001), Shin Duk-Ryong says that we need “a new world view that sees all life forms, including humans, and all inanimate objects as part of a whole” and counts the awareness of life as fundamental to life itself. He says that “the definition of life needs to be expanded into a concept that covers all organic and inorganic matter in our universe.” Based on this insight, Shin defines Life Poetry as “poetry that seeks the essence and value of life by singing of life itself, and at the same time studies, in relation to other beings, the value and status of life and the conditions that enrich it and sheds light on their importance through poetic imagination.” Shin’s idea of Life Poetry has much in common with Ecological Poetry in that it is based on “an ecological worldview that is oriented toward an organic relationship between humans and nature.”

Now, let’s move on to Environmental Literature. If we define Environmental Literature as literature that deals directly or indirectly with the destruction of the environment, leaving aside the fundamental perception underlying the text, then it differs from Ecological Literature, which has an ecological perspective at its core. In “The Current Status and Tasks of Environmental Poetry” in Path to a Green Life (Ed. Shin Duk-Ryong, 1997), Nam Song-woo places the environment above ecology, saying, “rather than clubbing them together as Ecological and Environmental Poetry, it is better to place Ecological Poetry within a general concept of Environmental Poetry.” However, in later writings, Nam uses the term Life Poetry instead of Environmental Poetry. Kim Yong-min writes in Ecological Literature: Toward an Alternative Society (Book World, 2003) that differentiating between Environmental Literature and Ecological Literature is pointless and the two should be combined to form a broader concept. Kim understands Ecological Literature as a blanket term that includes Environmental Literature, and uses the ecological issue as a concept that covers major problems from environmental pollution and the destruction of nature to materialism, industrial society, patriarchy, and human desire.

Finally, we come to discussions regarding ecological and environmental writing that include the categories of Green Literature, Life Literature, and Environmental Literature. In Ecological Literature: Toward an Alternative Society (Book World, 2003), Kim Yong-min uses Ecological Literature as a concept that covers Green Literature, Life Literature, and Environmental Literature. Kim says that “Ecological Literature means a literature that observes and criticizes the ecological problem with an ecological perspective and dreams of a new ecological society,” and proposes that “without fixating on the presence or absence of an ecological perspective, any literature that deals with the ecological issue or awakens an ecological consciousness in us should be considered as Ecological Literature, even if that perspective is rudimentary or insufficient.” The merit in Kim’s argument is that by establishing Ecological Literature as a wide-ranging concept that covers Green Literature, Life Literature, and Environmental Literature, we can study writings that deal with various ecological issues from different angles and perspectives through the common genre of Ecological Literature. On the other hand, in A Heartfelt Study of Ecology: Moving beyond Anthropocentricism (2014), Kim U-chang augments aesthetic ideas about reason with a heartfelt study of ecology on the basis of comprehensive knowledge, including the humanities, sociology, and the natural sciences. Kim uses ecological reasoning to explore the effects of the creation and progress of reason and attempts to overcome the limitations of anthropocentrism. Kim does not discuss ecological and environmental literature directly, but lays a philosophical groundwork for ecological and environmental writing by using ecological reasoning to reestablish our relationship with nature by moving beyond anthropocentrism, which is responsible for maintaining the status quo of Western ideas and thinking.

I have attempted here to present the reader with an overview of Korea’s ecological and environmental writing, including Green Literature, Life Literature and Environmental Literature, and have based this article on the poetry of Kim Ji-ha, Chong Hyon-jong, Lee Geon Cheong, Choi Seungho, Ko Hyeong-ryeol, Lee Moon-jae, Kim Ki-taek, Ra Heeduk, and the fiction of Kim Won il, Han seung-won, Cho Se-Hui, Hong Sung-won, Lee Mun Ku, Kim Jongseong, Choi Sung Kak, and Lee Nam-Hui. 


by Oh Hyung-yup
Professor of Korean Language and Literature
Korea University