The Saga of the Korean People: Taebaek Mountain Range by Jo Jung-Rae

  • onNovember 8, 2014
  • Vol.4 Summer 2009
  • byGeorges Ziegelmeyer
Taebaek Mountain Range (Vol. 1-10)

Who is Jo Jung-Rae? According to Yves Vargas, an expert on the works of Rousseau and the history of the people, “We may think of him as a living symbol of Korean history, an author who devoted his life to recording the people’s history. Jo’s works stand for Korean history but they are universal at the same time.” In an August 2007 issue of La Croix, a major daily in France, Claude Colombo wrote of Jo Jung-Rae, “Jo is one of Korea’s great thinkers who, in spite of his ceaseless inquiry and skepticism, did not lose his courage and conscience […] Whether in Seoul or in Gwangju, Busan or in Jeju, Koreans are aware of Taebaek Mountain Range’s significance, and are very attached to it. As a result, the book went through its record 200th printing this year.” Jo’s other roman-fleuve Arirang narrated the tragic history of the Korean people who were ruthlessly trampled upon during the Japanese occupation. The novel’s final section reveals the Korean people’s heartfelt yearning for peace and does not shy from confronting how the country was cleaved in half by the Soviet Union and the United States.

After Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945, the euphoric echoes of “Independent Korea, manse!” and the joy of liberation lasted only briefly. People lost all hope after learning that Korea would be ruled, the North, by the Soviets, and the South, by the Americans. Professor Jean Yves Calvez, a priest and a world-renown scholar on Marx, wrote in the May 2008 issue of the French progressive and academic magazine, Etudes, “Koreans were swept along by capitalism and communism, brought in, respectively by the United States and the Soviet Union. Taebaek Mountain Range portrays the tragedy of ‘liberation lost’; upon examining this tragedy closely, we see a common problem towards the end of feudalism — namely, the persecution of the peasantry at the hands of the land-owning class." Jo provides a compelling portrayal of life in South Korea immediately after liberation.

Taebaek Mountain Range has had an enormous influence on its Korean readers. The work demonstrates the power of imaginative writing; Jo’s words have the power to move the hearts of his readers and have them look back on history to confront the realities of the hidden past. The narrative inspires with its anti-war message. The text overflows with humor and playfulness even when describing tragic situations. The central characters never give up their optimism, their belief that they will ultimately prevail, even while suffering through the misery of war.

Jo provides a meticulous analysis of human behavior. He uses his honesty and awareness of reality as weapons, but he never tries to push forward his own judgment. He portrays mid-twentieth century Korean society using sensual and sometimes even extreme language. His work is rich with both satire and poetry. Professor Calvez says, “Some of the expressions are coarse and crude but there’s also much profoundness. The parts portraying Korea’s shamanist faith and traditional rites leave particularly lasting impressions on the Western reader.” Jo shows the shortcomings of the Korean people, as well as their joy and optimism, and their upright mentality. These are some of the reasons why this work is considered one of the greatest works of Korean literature.

Taebaek Mountain Range also shows how human beings can prevail over external circumstances to become subjects that control the fermenting social tensions; it shows how the weak can survive by helping each other and sticking together. Jo allows the voices of the persecuted to be heard. The main characters of the novel are enlightened about the problems of history and society. These aspects of the novel are a testament to Jo’s belief that human beings have dignity and that their lives are noble. Jo’s work is characterized by sincerity. Some of the ideas expressed in Taebaek Mountain Range overlap with those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but we needn’t go that far back; Simone Weil, one of the greatest French intellectuals, social philosophers, and activists, suffered alongside factory laborers and peasants exploited and oppressed during the period covered in Jo’s work. This is the hundred year anniversary of Weil’s birth. Beginning with the rights of factory workers, Weil fought to have the dignity of all human beings recognized. In this way, Jo and Weil’s work coexist with the work of other thinkers who defended the greatness of all humanity.

A reader might notice the book’s formidable size and think it will be a tedious read. But once you begin, you will become absorbed in the book and discover a new world and history. You will feel astonishing emotions during your reading and before you know it, you will have finished the book.

Passionate characters emerge in Taebaek Mountain Range, men and women who have conviction, will, and a firm belief in the importance of justice. The author levels a powerful indictment against a few members of the landed class by revealing their plundering and unjust practices, thereby awakening the people’s conscience so that everyone might dream of achieving equal rights and responsibility in a new society.

Jo didn’t see communists when he portrayed peasants without land. He saw hungry human beings who were exploited and persecuted. Even when dealing with the aristocrats, intellectuals, and the rich, he saw figures who deserved respect, people who were artless and noble beings. For this author, class-based bias did not exist.

Jo provides a frank portrayal of the peasants’ fight for life their lives and the attitudes of the rich and the landlords who only sought profit — sometimes with a dash of mockery along the way. The author uses characters, like peasants tilling the earth, as examples to uncover a true Korean history, showing the history of struggle and its bondage before and after the breakout of the Korean War. Jo is like a defender of humanity, one who speaks for those who must live with society’s injustice, a society in which some are always wealthy, and some poor. By leveling sharp criticism against oppressors and making an appeal to the conscience, he acts as a protector for the persecuted and defends the rights of the impoverished and the exploited. In this way, Taebaek Mountain Range brings the universality of humanity to light, and touches the conscience of the wealthy oppressors who exploit the weak.

Taebaek Mountain Range reveals the lives of tenant farmers who are landless and those who are out there still suffering. It reveals a society in which the laborers are reduced to the status of slaves under the persecution of landowners, who have no intention of sharing their land. The laborers have just enough not to die of starvation. Jo realistically portrays those who believe they will emerge victorious in their fight against the oppressors. The faith of victory in this struggle (as well as the belief that it is just) is so strong that they are willing to give up their lives for it.

Taebaek Mountain Range is a roman-fleuve that makes an appeal for those wronged in the ideological struggle before, during, and after the Korean War. Professor Yves Vargas writes in La Pensée, “Through the character of Professor Kim Beom-u, the author opens the eyes of the readers to the fact that Koreans are one people, and it is of utmost importance that they are unified again.” He goes on to say, “Today, when the sovereignty and oneness of the nation is in jeopardy, the lessons of Taebaek Mountain Range are vivid. The novel is not just a work that foreign readers can discover Koreans by, it reveals a universal problem of humanity.” (October-December Issue, 2008)

APFA (Actions Pour Promouvoir le Français des Affaires) praised Taebaek Mountain Range as a monumental work, and the judges were unanimous in selecting it for Les Mots d’Or (Golden Language Prize for Translation) in the category of “Discovering History.” Now, Korean literature and history will be accessible to all Frenchspeaking nations. The awarding of this prize, sponsored by the OIF (Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie), which consists of 56 nations, will allow the strength and indomitable will of Koreans, who have overcome every imaginable adversity to become an economic powerhouse, to become more widely known.

From France, I would like to thank The Korea Literature Translation Institute, which has allowed me to translate Jo’s work and to speak my mind about the author and his work. Through Jo’s writing, Korea and France will now become closer and Korean history and culture will be better understood. Taebaek Mountain Range is yet another bridge that connects the East and the West. As the French writer Romain Rolland said, “Europe and Asia are the left and right hemispheres of human intelligence”; there are many ways for them to supplement each other; there’s much to share and sympathize with.

I will conclude with something I said in an interview with Arirang TV in December 2008 about translating Jo Jung-Rae’s book. “In order to produce a good translation, you must love the country where the literature takes place as well as its countrymen.” Owing to the book’s content and volume, it took a long time for me to finish translating this important work, Taebaek Mountain Range. But there was so much to learn. Because if you want to learn about Korea, you must learn by reading what must be one of humanity’s great masterpieces. 



* Georges Ziegelmeyer translated Taebaek Mountain Range into French with Byeon Jeong-won.

Author's Profile

Jo Jung-Rae (b.1948) made his literary debut in 1970 with the short story “False Charge,” which appeared in the monthly magazine Hyundae Munhak. His childhood experiences of the Korean War and Yeosu-Suncheon Rebellion inspired numerous literary works like Taebaek Mountain Range (10 vols.) and Arirang (12 vols.). The Great Jungle (3 vols.) is Jo’s most recent publication. His works have been translated into English, French, German, Japanese, Chinese, and Swedish, and adapted into movies, manhwa, TV dramas, and musicals. He received the Hyundae Literary Award and Korea Literary Award.