A Masterpiece that Combines Literature and History: Land by Park Kyung-Ri

  • onNovember 9, 2014
  • Vol.5 Autumn 2009
  • byNan Haixian

It would be no exaggeration to say that Chinese readers think of Korean literature as consisting entirely of Guiyeoni’s online novels, Kim Hain’s popular novels, and novels based on Korean soap operas. The works of some serious writers of modern Korean literary fiction have been translated and published in China, but they have failed to connect with readers, in contrast with Japanese literature, which has enjoyed much more popularity. The readership for serious Korean literature in China has been largely limited to Korean language learners and researchers of Korean literature. The Korean cultural craze that has engulfed China for the past few years has not been able to put Korean literature into the center of the action, and Korean literature in turn has not been up to the task of announcing its presence through systematic, focused translations and publications.

It was in this context that Land by Park Kyung-Ri, a master of modern Korean literature, was introduced. Volume one of part one has already been published, and the second volume is soon to hit the market. What has made this possible was Park Kyung-Ri’s unrivaled position in the history of modern Korean literature and the shared history of struggle and misfortune in China and Korea dating from the late 19th century to the mid 20th century. The incompetence of the feudal dynasty, occupation by the Japanese empire, the disillusionment of the common people—amidst these rough waves of history, both countries were faced with the crises of having to choose between survival and destruction, dignity and humiliation, and struggle and surrender. In the meantime, people’s lives continued as slowly and ponderously as ever, while countless small changes shook them from the roots up. Park Kyung-Ri’s touching and heartwarming narrative style and her tense and dramatic plot development, which depicts the lives and customs of the common people, and the changes in people and history that are both strangely familiar and unfamiliar, help narrow the gap between Chinese readers and traditional Korean literature, thus helping form emotional and psychological connections between the two groups of people.

Land is told in five parts over 16 volumes. First serialized in 1969, the majestic saga finally ended in August 1994, after 26 straight years. The novel is set during an era of cataclysmic changes, spanning from the 1890s to 1945, in the small village of Pyeongsari in southeast Korea. Centering on Sohi, the granddaughter of the wealthy landowning Choi Champan, and the people around her, the novel features a cast of over 700 characters, including illiterate farmers, shrewd wives, restaurant owners near the village fishing hole, people who are more frightening than animals, such as posoos (hunters), conservatives, radicals, monks and shamans, Donghak rebels, devoted patriots, murderers, and pro-Japanese collaborators. There are people who laugh, people who cry, people who bear grudges, people whose hearts ache from unrequited love, people who lose their sense of humanity because they are blinded by greed, and people who live their lives as humble tillers of the soil only to die suddenly of unforeseen contagious disease. Some fade into the background, leaving only a small rip ple, while others set off major changes in the lives of the protagonist and those around her. For all of these characters, sorrow is the common denominator. That sorrow is the grudge that takes root in the hearts of the common people who turn their backs on their homelands and embrace the fate of their ruined country, as well as an expression of that complex Korean emotional state of mind called hanHan, a mixture of sorrow and bitterness, and Park’s narrative style, run through each volume of Land, creating an exquisite harmony of grandiose scale and fine detail. The book’s power lies in its ability to cause the reader to set the book down, unable to bear the heart-rending events, only to immediately pick it back up again.

One of Park Kyung-Ri’s novels, The Curse of Kim’s Daughters, has already been translated and published in China. The publication of Land is believed to be an enormous help in terms of understanding Park Kyung-Ri’s literary ideas and philosophy of life and history. According to Korean literary critic Kang Jinho, “Park Kyung-Ri’s importance in modern Korean literature will probably be just as significant as the existence of the common people, who are as essential as air or water.” 



* Nan Haixian is editor of The Ethnic Publishing House.

Author's Profile

Park Kyung-Ri was born in Tongyeong, Gyeongsangnam-do Province in 1926 and died in Wonju, Gangwon-do Province in 2008. Park studied at Jinju Girls’ High School and went on to teach at many different schools. She was at Yeonan Girls’ Middle School in Hwanghae-do Province when the Korean War broke out in 1950. Her husband died in the war.

After the war, she devoted her life to her writing. She made her debut by publishing a short story in Hyundae Munhak at the recommendation of Kim Tong-ni, a prominent Korean writer.

Park Kyung-Ri’s representative work, Land, is an in-depth portrayal of the relationship between the fates of people from various classes and times as Korea went from a feudal monarchy to a Japanese colony. Land became part of the UNESCO Collection of Representative Works. Her novel has thus been critically acclaimed both in Korea and abroad.

The novel starts out in a small village called Pyeongsa-ri, then spans all over the Korean peninsula, and reaches out to Northern China and Japan, boasting a vast expanse. Land is a social drama and a family tragedy encompassing a series of events that involves several hundreds of characters.

Park also taught at Yonsei University as a visiting professor and an endowed chair. Her work contained criticism on the paradoxes and incongruities of society, but largely embodied the ideals of coexistence between living things, great mercy and compassion from Buddhism, freedom of existence, and equality. It shared philosophical grounds with her son-in-law Kim Ji-ha’s “Thoughts about Life,” which advocates for the importance of life and living things. A memorial park was built in her honor in Wonju where she lived for over 20 years, and there is a literary museum devoted to her in Tongyeong, the place she was born and is buried.