Restoring Eastern Thought: The Eco-Poetry of Kim Ji-ha and Choi Seung-Ho

  • onOctober 23, 2015
  • Vol.29 Autumn 2015
  • byKim You-Joong

Traditionally, no dichotomy existed between humans and nature in East Asia. Even in literature from the Sinosphere, humans were understood to be part of nature within the general order and harmony of the cosmos. Naturally, this literary sensiblity considered society’s manmade regulations and the resultant desires as impure and sought to distance itself from them.

This literary background and tradition led to the establishment of the unique custom popularly known as ganghogado in Korea. Korean literature has a long history of interest in ecology and nature. This attitude is retained in modern literature as well, especially in poetry, with pastoral and idyllic poems being created regularly to the enjoyment and affection of the public. The formation of the cheongnokpa school of writers can also be understood as an extension of this tradition.

The traditional outlook of Korean literature, which perceived nature as a friend and strived to live in sync with it, started facing serious challenges in the seventies and eighties, a period when Korean society underwent rapid change. The damage caused by rapid industrialization became a burning issue in society. With the realization that environmental destruction could no longer be ignored, finding an advisable direction for social consciousness became a major new concern in Korean literature.

The opportune introduction of Western ecological ideas and literary theories accelerated such efforts. Along with the realization that ecology needed to be explored anew in Korean literature, the awareness that this exploration should be from an independent perspective distinct from the West gained ground. Poetry being no exception, Korean poets made efforts after their own fashion to present sound perspectives and solutions to the ecological issue.

Kim Ji-ha and Choi Seung-Ho are especially interesting in that they diagnose the internal crisis facing Korean society today from an ecological perspective, and point to the restoration of an Eastern way of thought as the solution to overcoming this crisis.

As is well known, Kim Ji-ha was the epitome of resistance in the Korean literary world in the seventies and eighties. His spirit of resistance, represented by works such as Five ThievesCanard, and Burning Thirst, created a stir in Korean society, which was groaning under the weight of the Yushin autocracy and the military regime at the time. Kim was imprisoned several times; the experiences he had in prison served to open his eyes to a world different than the one he knew. One day, he discovered a dandelion sprouting from beneath his prison’s dusty windowsill and was astounded by its tenacious resilience. He eventually gained the conviction that everything in life and nature should start from an infinite affirmation and affection for life itself.

Kim started materializing this belief in his ideology and literature. Aerin (1986) is widely believed to be the first work in which this new change became evident, but it is more pronounced in his works starting with Hwagae (2002). Kim stresses that our perception of the world needs to be humble, and argues that everything in the universe is closely connected. In other words, he emphasizes a relational perspective in which life/ death, beginning/end, filling/emptying are not simply antagonisms but also rely upon and are connected with each other. Through such explanations, he asks us to leave behind our subject-oriented reasoning and look at the world from a perceptual framework within a macroscopic and fundamental context.

Kim has tried to present his thoughts, based on Eastern philosophy, in a systematic manner. From an aesthetic viewpoint, one of his greatest achievements is the aesthetics of “white shade.” Here, white shade extends beyond the dichotomy of brightness/darkness and light/shadow, instead implying that they rely upon each other, and lay the foundation of coexistence through changes based on such mutual dependency. Through his poetry, Kim emphasizes that the essence of the life process can be explained only through such duality, that is, through the interdependent relationship and the changes that it undergoes.

Choi Seung-Ho’s poetry presents an astute diagnosis of modern society’s structural ills and contradictions. He draws attention to the self-contradictory results confronting our civilization as it put forth the recovery of humaneness and the emancipation of humanity as superlative ideals. His poetic reasoning began in earnest with Riding the Muddy Cow (1987) and Pleasures of the Secular City (1990). Choi estimates that the worldview that places humans and nature in a standardized dichotomy emphasizing competition and efficiency has finally revealed its limits.

Choi looks for alternatives in Taoist philosopher Laozi’s concept of wu wei (literally non-action or non-doing). Nature has the power to restore and heal itself, but the damage being committed on it today is too excessive. Choi is of the opinion that this is the outcome of unbridled human desire. In order to address this situation fundamentally, we need to rid ourselves of the artificial and contrived control of capital and civilization, and return to a state of spontaneous and effortless oneness with nature as stipulated by wu wei.

Everything in this world has a reason to exist that is contingent upon its use, even things that may seem to be empty. In the image of modern humans struggling as prisoners of their own desires, Choi finds the crux of human folly and the tragedy facing our civilization. We must know how to empty ourselves and be willing to do so. Images of “holes” and “empty lots” that often appear in his poems reflect this thinking. The place where even seemingly useless things turn out to be valuable and where everything is created equal is not far away. Choi’s pet theory is that “the way” can be attained naturally when everything returns to its original station and finds harmony in the order of its natural progression. 



by Kim You-Joong
Literary Critic and Professor of Korean Literature, Seoul National University