Yi Kwangsu

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Yi Kwangsu

Yi Kwangsu (1892-ca. 1950) Korean modernist fiction writer, and poet

A suspect figure during the Japanese colonization of Korea, Yi Kwangsu teetered on the edge of betraying his country. Born in Pyongan Pukdo, in the northwestern area of today's North Korea, he studied Chinese literature until his parents died when he was 10 years old. He lived with various relatives and developed a liking for travel at an early age. In 1903, he joined the Tonghak (or Donghak) resistance group, a subversive organization countering the Japanese authorities in Korea. In 1904, when the Tonghak crumbled, he fled to Seoul.

In 1907, Yi attended the Meiji Gakuin academy in Tokyo, a Presbyterian mission school where he learned Japanese and English. He heard Christian teachings and read Lord Byron and LEO TOLSTOY, whom he greatly admired. He abandoned Confucianism and developed an admiration for the Japanese and their adoption of progressive Western methods. Toward the end of his school days, he published his first short story, “Sarangin' ga” (“Is It Love?,” 1909), an allegorical tale of a Korean student yearning for a handsome Japanese boy. For a Korean magazine, he wrote a narrative poem about a caged owl, a reflection of his views on being oppressed by an occupying power.

In 1910, the year that Japan formally annexed and occupied Korea, Yi returned home and took up a teaching post at a school in Osan, where he also married. In 1913, he superintended the school but soon realized it was beyond his capabilities. He left Osan to travel Shanghai and Manchuria. He went back to Osan in 1914 but left in 1915 to return to Tokyo, where he attended Waseda University. In 1917, he wrote the novel for which he is best remembered: Mujong (The heartless).

The first modern novel by a Korean, Mujong was serialized in Maeil sinbo (Daily news) and became a best seller. The book examines free love from the perspective of Yi Hyong-sik, a teacher of English in a Seoul middle school, who adores two women: Sonhyong, an obedient traditionalist girl, and Pyonguk, a modern woman influenced by Western feminist ideals. An attack on traditional betrothal arrangements, the novel reprises the idea of the caged owl of Yi's earlier poem by criticizing androcentric standards of chastity and marriage customs ignoring a young couple's true feelings. The text poses a Western view: “Was it not inhumane to knowingly sacrifice another's life just to satisfy one's own selfish desires?” (Yi 1990, 3).

Yi fell in love with another Korean student in Tokyo, Ho Yongsuk, later to become Korea's first female doctor. She nursed him through a bout of tuberculosis, which infected him for the rest of his life. Having divorced his wife, Yi followed Ho to Seoul and persuaded her to elope with him to Beijing in 1918. The elopement, then considered a major scandal by both families and the public, led to a major drop in his popularity as a writer, which worsened after he left his bride after three months and returned to Tokyo.

In Tokyo, Yi involved himself in politics and drafted a Korean declaration of independence by Korean students in February 1919. Before its public announcement, however, he traveled to Shanghai, the center for Korean exiles. In 1921, Ho Yongsuk joined him.

Yi earned regard as a Korean nationalist striving for his country's independence from Japan. His sudden return to Korea in 1921, however, raised suspicion of collaboration with the Japanese. Some believe the Japanese authorities admitted him to create a positive image; others believe he made a secret agreement with them. Whatever the reason, his writing assumed a pro-Japanese tone and, on occasion, was openly derogatory toward Korea, as expressed in his 1922 poem “Reform of the Korean People,” urging them to learn from more advanced nations.

From 1922 to 1931, though still in poor health from tuberculosis, Yi wrote stories and poems and became a convert to Buddhism. In 1929, he wrote The Tragic History of King Tanjong, a monarch who had died in 1457 at age 17, and in 1932, he published Yi Sun-sin, a biography of a heroic 16th- century Korean naval commander who helped defeat a Japanese invasion. In 1937, authorities imprisoned Yi but released him because of his deteriorating health.

In 1938, Yi became an even stronger apologist for the Japanese. He believed that the education of all Koreans was necessary before they could achieve parity with Japan. He embraced Japanese ideas, including the adoption of Japanese-style names. He wrote of Koreans: “They must become Japanese in flesh and blood” (quoted in Yu 1992, 98).

Yi supported the Japanese during World War II, although his novel Great Master Wonyo (1942) praised Korean spirit and victories. After the war, he and his wife divorced in order to save their property from confiscation. He retreated to a temple and wrote the poem “Stone Pillow,” a symbol of his desolation. He returned to Seoul, which he refused to leave when the North Korean army invaded. Arrested by the North Korean authorities, he for refusing to confess to sedition, he disappeared in prison.

A complex character, Yi left many volumes of writing. His novel Mujong is regarded as a premier work. Critics honor him as modern Korea's first humanist.


Chung, Chong-wha. Modern Korean Literature: An Anthology, 1908-65. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Lee, Ann Sung-Hi. Yi Kwang-su and Modern Korean Literature. New York: Columbia University East Asia Program, 2005.

Yi Kwangsu. Modern Korean Literature: An Anthology. Translated by Peter H. Lee. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990.

----- . Modern Korean Short Stories and Plays. Seoul: Korean Centre, 1970.

----- . The Silence of Love: Twentieth-Century Korean Poetry. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1981.

Yu, Beongcheon. Han Yong-un & Yi Kwang-Su: Two Pioneers of Modern Korean Literature. Detroit: Wayne University Press, 1992.