Gwanchon Essays: A Search for Healing Among the Ruins

  • onNovember 3, 2014
  • Vol.23 Spring 2014
  • byKim Dongshik
Gwanchon Essays

Lee Mun Ku was born in 1941 into a yangban family, Korea’s traditional ruling class. But his family was ruined when his father, an activist in a socialist movement, wa skilled during the Korean War. Afterwards, Lee left his hometown and earned his living as a manual laborer and peddler in Seoul. He made his debut as a novelist in 1966 and attracted attention with his unique style, based on his use of dialect. Gwanchon Essays is a serialized novel comprised of eight stories written between 1972 and 1977. It is widely regarded as a classic Korean novel.

Gwanchon Essays is a record of the author’s hometown Gwanchon. To be more specific, it looks back on the changes his hometown underwent from 1945 to 1970. Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, became a divided country after the Korean War (1950-1953), and began full-scale industrialization in the late 1960s.

This novel portrays in detail how war and industrialization transformed a rural community and brought about the collapse of traditional order: the grandfather who represented Confucian values, the father who died in ideological conflict, the people who maintained humanistic values even amidst hardship, the hometown that has changed through industrialization, and the farmers’ animosity toward modern rule.

Gwanchon Essays is where the memories are kept of the subalterns who could not record their history during the process of war and industrialization. The Korean War and industrialization were violent episodes that broke up a rural community; everything in one's hometown was changed. However, history does not remember the changes that took place in that hometown and the lives of people who lived there. History only records and understands such changes in rural communities as a normal part of the process of industrialization.

Against these circumstances, Lee recreates the story of his hometown, in the language of his hometown. Thus, Gwanchon Essays is not written in standard Korean, but in the dialect from the southernmost part of the peninsula. The changes of the hometown and the lives of its people are narrated through the rough yet lively voices of farmers. Lee's use of dialect captures the language that embodies farmers’ tears and laughter, as well as satirizes authority.

Everything in his hometown has changed due to war and industrialization, but Lee explores the question of what should remain unchanged, despite dramatic social changes. Lee depicts characters who maintain human dignity in the midst of historical tragedy, and describes the values of a community that simply cannot change, even when society itself rapidly changes. “A truly good-hearted, admirable, and everlasting image of a human being who could sacrifice himself for others is deeply rooted in my mind,” he writes.

Hometown is a space where the evils of war and industrialization have been greatly felt. The hometown Lee remembers has disappeared. However, respect for humanity and the values of community still live on in his memory of Gwanchon. Although it has been 27 years since Gwanchon Essays was first published, it still leads us to reflect on the ethical behavior of humans. 

Author's Profile

Lee Mun Ku (1941–2003) was born in Boryeong, South Chungcheong Province. Lee lost his father and brothers in the Korean War. Based on his own experiences with farmers and their villages, he turned their issues into literary works, thereby pioneering a new chapter for the agrarian novel. His many works include Gwangchon EssaysOur Town, and I Have Stood or Worked for Too Long.