The notion of a Korean novel (Han'guk sosŏl) is today a highly contested concept whose boundaries of genre, language, and geographical location are open to interpretation. The Korean word sosŏl (literally “small talk,” from the Chinese xiaoshuo) is not an exact equivalent of “the novel” in English. In premodern times, the word referred to a wide range of fiction and nonfiction, including fantasies, folktales, biographies, and miscellaneous essays, and today Koreans would call fictional works of any length sosŏl. In addition, classical Chinese was the official literary language in Korea from antiquity until the early twentieth century. Although han'gl, the Korean vernacular script introduced in 1443, played a major role in the development of the novel in modern times, many Korean novels in the premodern era were written in Chinese. Finally, since the late nineteenth century an intensifying Korean diaspora has created large Korean communities around the world. As a result, many works relevant to the Korean tradition are today written in foreign languages such as Japanese, Chinese, Russian, and English.
While its roots lie in medieval fantastic biographies as well as fifteenth-century tales of wonder, the genre of the novel took hold in Chŏson Korea only around the beginning of the seventeenth century. It was then that advancements in commerce as well as agricultural technology led to the development of a thriving market for prints, calligraphies, and books in Seoul. Originally circulated as manuscripts among a very limited number of readers, classical novels came to be increasingly reproduced for broader circulation by lending libraries and publishers using woodblock printing (see LIBRARIES, PUBLISHING). Most of these novels were left anonymous, reflecting the unwillingness of Confucian scholarly writers to be associated with a commercial enterprise. But anonymity also sheltered writers from possible reprisals from royal authorities (see COPYRIGHT), and it allowed book lenders to freely change plots and characters according to the tastes and requests of their customers.
Hŏ Kyun's Hong Kiltong chŏn (sixteenth century, The Tale of Hong Kiltong) is widely regarded as the first novel to have been written in the han'gl vernacular script. Hong Kiltong is an aristocrat's illegitimate son who, barred from high office because of his birth, becomes the leader of a group of bandits dedicated to the defense of the poor and the weak. The vicissitudes of his adventures culminate with his founding of a utopian kingdom on the imaginary island of Ldao. Hŏ's epic novel exhibits a prevalence of elements more properly belonging to fantasy and myth—the bandit hero possesses magic powers and fights supernatural creatures (see MYTHOLOGY). Yet behind these unrealistic props, Hong Kiltong chŏn also hides a pointed, subversive critique of the discriminatory treatment of illegitimate sons as well as the corruption of the aristocratic class. Likely inspired by the Chinese classic Shuihu zhuan (fourteenth century, The Water Margin) as well as by the legend of a fifteeenth-century bandit, Hŏ's novel sets a precedent for later military hero fictions such as Imjinnok (ca. 1800, Record of the Black Dragon Year), set during the Japanese invasion of 1592, and Pak ssi chŏn (ca. 1700, The Tale of Lady Park), which features a female heroine valiantly resisting the Manchu invasions of 1627 and 1637.
In addition to the military hero EPIC, two further genres characterized Korean classical literature ROMANCE, best exemplified by Kim Manjung's seventeenth-century masterpiece Kuunmong (1689, The Cloud Dream of Nine), and the family or clan saga, a highly productive genre that includes works of extraordinary length such as the 180-volume Wanwŏl hoemaengyŏn (seventeenth—nineteenth centuries, The Promise at the Wanwŏl Pavilion). Both genres catered especially to the literary tastes of women readers. In Kuunmong, a dream tale set in an imaginary Tang China (618—907 CE), a Buddhist monk is reborn into the human world as a form of punishment for an act of hubris: he has daydreamed of living the life of a successful Confucian gentleman surrounded by eight courtesan fairies. The monk child grows up to live a full life, journeying from humble origins to the high rank of Prime Minister. Over time he meets eight women, all reincarnates of the fairies, and he falls in love with and marries all of them. At the end of his adventures and romances, however, the man is struck with a feeling of emptiness, which leads to his awakening from what turns out to have been another dream—or daydream. A refined narrative with a characteristic cyclical structure, Kuunmong inspired later romances, such as Unyŏng chŏn (seventeenth century, The Tale of Unyŏng) and Ongnumong (nineteenth century, Dream of Jade Tears), that inherited its dream theme as well as its luxurious romantic plot richly woven with a series of poems.
Some classical novels are particularly notable for their probable female authorship. While many historical women have been identified as the authors of poetry, essays, and memoirs in both Korean and Chinese, female novelists were long believed to be few and far between, partly because of the general anonymity of novels Ongnumong and partly because women in Chosŏn Korea rarely received a literary education. It was only recently that Korean scholars began to make use of textual criteria in their attribution of novels to women writers. They noted phenomena such as the portrayal of more autonomous female characters, the detailed depiction of gendered experiences such as housewifery and pregnancy, and a more critical attitude toward the patriarchal social order (see GENDER). Works that are now linked to female authors include romances such as Unyŏng chŏn, court fictions like Inhyŏn wanghu chŏn (eighteenth century, The Tale of Queen Inhyŏn), women hero fictions such as Pang Hallim chŏn (nineteenth century, The Tale of Pang Hallim), which depicts a marital bond between two women, and clan sagas such as Wanwŏl hoemaengyŏn and Ogwŏn chaehap kiyŏn (seventeenth century, Rare Reunion of a Couple). The length of some of these works also suggests a possible collective authorship. Research on female writers is still in its incipient stages, but the fact that women were the main consumers and, in some cases, the producers of classical novels is today a consensus among Korean critics and historians.
The end of the eighteenth century was a time of turmoil within Chŏson Kingdom. Increasing corruption among government officials, joined with the rise of a newly rich but underrepresented CLASS of commoners, led to a widespread demand for reforms among different constituencies of Korean society. One expression of such demand was the movement of Sirhak (literally, “practical learning”), which favored a pragmatic and rationalistic approach to the administration of public affairs. One of Sirhak's most prominent exponents, Pak Chiwŏn, wrote satirical fictions in Chinese that mercilessly exposed the failings of the yangban, the elite aristocratic class whose conservativism Pak held to pose a hurdle to Chŏson's development. If Sirhak was a typically scholarly response to the perceived social crisis, a more popular expression of protest was found in the performance art of p'ansori, a plaintive form of storysinging characterized by colorful folksiness and an intense emotional charge. Among the most representative examples is Ch'unhyangjŏn (eighteenth century, The Song of a Faithful Wife, Ch'unhyang), which was adapted into a novel and to this day remains one of Korea's most beloved fictional narratives. A love story of a magistrate's son and a lowly courtesan's daughter, Ch'unhyangjŏn chronicles the young couple's mistreatment at the hands of high officials, with the young man eventually rescuing Ch'unhyang from her subjection to a corrupt magistrate. The story is notable for its affirmation of love marriage across class divisions as well as its indictment of aristocratic abuses of power. For its mixing of subversive values and romantic pathos, the story has enjoyed an enduring popularity and has been reproduced in over 120 versions, including numerous theatrical and screen adaptations.
The advent of modernity in the late nineteenth century transformed Korean society and culture (see MODERNIS). As was the case elsewhere, modernity came to Korea in the form of an influx of primarily Western values—such as liberalism, capitalism, and scientism—in a variety of fields. For Korea, however, this time also brought an end of China's influence on the Korean peninsula and exposed the Chŏson Kingdom to the imperialistic ambitions of neighboring Japan. As Japan turned Korea into a protectorate in 1905, formally colonizing it in 1910, the question of national independence became the most central preoccupation of Korea's leaders and intellectuals. Nationalism became, as a consequence, the thematic mark of Korean modernity (see NATIONAL).
From an aesthetic point of view, modernity in Korean fiction produced an emphasis on realistic plots, a more exhaustive PSYCHOLOGICAL rendering of the characters, and the universal replacement of classical Chinese with Korean as a literary language. A slow and gradual process, the modernization of the Korean novel began with Yi Injik's Hyŏl i nu (1906, Tears of Blood), the tale of an orphaned girl growing into a modern woman through her education in Japan and the U.S. Yi serialized the novel in his newspaper Mansebo as a means to boost sales (see SERIALIZATION), and he created for it the advertising label of sin sosŏl (“the new novel”). But while the novel introduced the modern theme of the nation, it also adhered closely to the stylistic conventions of vernacular classical fiction. By contrast, Yi Kwangsu's Mujŏng (1917, The Heartless), generally regarded as the first modern novel, was written in a distinctly modern narrative style featuring characters endowed with unprecedented psychological complexity. Combining the confessional writing style of Japanese NATURALISM with the most familiar elements of popular MELODRAMAs, the novel details the sentimental journey of a young intellectual torn between his childhood love, a traditional girl raised in a Confucian manner, and a New Woman who is educated in Western arts and music. A poignant representation of the conflict between modern and traditional values, Mujŏng eventually resolves all personal tensions in a collective awakening to national responsibility as the protagonists choose to devote themselves to the cause of educating poor Korean people.
A distinctive and powerful literary movement gained momentum in 1920s Korea under the influence of socialism and the Russian Revolution. Socialism inspired many Korean intellectuals to reconceive colonization as a process of exploitation rather than civilization, and to accordingly envision an alternative path to modernity through a social revolution. Leftist writers, who organized around the KAPF (Korea Artista Proleta Federatio, 1925—35), replaced the elite bourgeois protagonists of previous novels with the characters of potential revolutionaries such as peasants, laborers, and impoverished intellectuals. Their novels focused on representing the material and economic aspects of social reality, and they correspondingly played down the previous emphasis on the introspective analysis of an individual's psychological conflicts. The proletarian literary movement yielded novels such as Yi Kiyŏng's Kohyang (1934, Hometown), a vivid portrayal of the changing life in a rural village under colonial rule, and Kang Kyŏngae's In'gan munje (1934, The Wŏnso Pond), a woman writer's BILDUNGSROMAN of a proletarian couple who mature from their initial innocence into class-conscious revolutionaries. The colonial leftist writers adopted the term “REALISM” as a label for their literary aesthetics, and the concept has ever since carried a strong ideological connotation in Korean literary discourse.
The industrial development of Korea in the 1930s, which accelerated with the expansion of the Japanese empire into Manchuria, was accompanied by two rather antithetical literary responses: modernism and nativism. Modernist writers gave representation to the disorienting life experiences of urban dwellers by introducing experimental narrative techniques such as stream of consciousness, flashback, and montage. Representative of this trend are Pak T'aewŏn's Joycean novella Sosŏlga kubossi i iril (1934, A Day in the Life of Kubo the Novelist), which depicts in a fragmented narrative the writer's parodied self aimlessly wandering the streets of colonial Seoul; and Yi Sang's story “Nalgae” (1936, “Wings”), which features the infantilized, socially withdrawn character of an intellectual who spends his days lost in surreal reverie. At the other end of the spectrum, nativist writers such as Hong Myŏnghi and Kim Tongni tried to reaffirm the fast-vanishing Korean traditional culture through the nostalgic portrayal of a historical past or a rural life (see REGIONAL). In Hong's Im Kkŏkchŏng (1928—39; The Tale of Im Kkŏkchŏng), for example, the story of a legendary sixteenth-century bandit hero is told against the background of a carefully reconstructed Korean past. The prevailing mood in the novel is one of nostalgic recollection. And yet, for all its celebration of traditional culture, Hong's saga is thoroughly modern in its infusion of nationalist as well as socialist themes in the depiction of the rural poor rising against foreign armies and the Korean aristocracy.
The colonial history of the Korean novel faded away in the early 1940s, when Japan banned the use of Korean language in print as part of its wartime assimilation policy. During these last colonial years, many Korean writers continued to write in Japanese, producing both strident propaganda and more subdued works of political ambiguity. Long excluded from both Japanese and Korean literary history, critical studies of these novels have begun to appear in recent years, with scholars paying overdue attention to their multiple textual layers.
A traumatic new beginning was imposed on Korean culture by the 1945 liberation from Japan, the 1948 national division, and the subsequent Korean War (1950—53). Fictions with existentialist themes became prevalent in the South during the postwar period. Choe Inhun's Kwangjang (1960, The Square), for instance, is narrated by a meditative and introspective protagonist who fails to feel at ease either in the corrupt South or the totalitarian North. In the end the character leaves for a new country, but he commits suicide before reaching his destination. The angst-ridden voices of Choe and other writers turned into a rallying cry for political reform during the 1970s and 1980s, a time when Korean intellectuals played a significant role in the struggles that would eventually democratize South Korea in 1987. Among the period's most important novels are Cho Sehi's Nanjangi ka ssoa olin chagn kong (1978, The Dwarf), a poetic testimony to the human costs of developmental dictatorship, and Cho Chŏngrae's roman-fleuve, T'aebaek sanmaek (1986, The T'aebaek Mountains), a revisionary account of the Korean War told from the perspective of a group of downtrodden leftist partisans. Aside from these, works by writers such as Hwang Sŏggyŏng, Yun Hnggil, Yi Ch'ŏngjun, Yi Mun'gu, and Yi Hoch'ŏl addressed a variety of social and political problems such as national division, the uneven development of rural and urban Korea, the fading of a Korean cultural identity, and South Korea's dependence on the U.S.
A realist tradition of social engagement remains strong in South Korea today. Its themes have multiplied, however, to include many of the identity struggles that characterize modern democratic debates. Most prominently, women writers moved into the literary mainstream from the early 1990s on, after having been relegated to the gendered institutional category of women's literature for much of the twentieth century. Amid the rising tides of FEMINIST activism, older generations of women writers are today enjoying renewed critical and popular appreciation. Pak Kyungni is widely celebrated for her ambitious multi-volume roman-fleuve, T'oji (1969—94, Land), while Pak Wansŏ, perhaps the most popular woman writer, is best known for autobiographical stories such as the trilogy of Ǒmma i malttuk (1980—91, Mother's Stake), and for her sharp-witted critical depictions of middle-class family life. Feminist critics have also rediscovered O Chŏnghi, whose dark portrayals of lower-class women suffering from DOMESTIC confinement and sexual repression offer a dark perspective on the postwar decades of developmental dictatorship (see SEXUALITY). The thematic range of women's novels is further diversified by younger writers such as Kong Chiyŏng, n Higyŏng, Kim Aeran, and Ch'ŏn Unyŏng, who extend their interest to issues such as the labor movement, illegal migrants, and the problems of an aging society, while at the same time delving deeper into gendered everyday experiences such as love, sexuality, marriage, and domesticity.
The contemporary literary scene in Korea is also enriched by a new generation of experimental writers who, departing from tradition and conventional genre boundaries, are creating a body of literature marked by play, PARODY, irony, and fantastic imaginations. Exemplary are Kim Yŏngha's twisted, dark, surreal fantasies of computer-generation youth such as K'wiz syo (2010, Quiz Show) and Pak Min'gyu's absurdist satires of Koreans lost in globalization, such as Chigu yŏngung chŏnsŏl (2003, The Legend of Superheroes), in which a Korean teenager hallucinates joining heroes such as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman by transforming into “Bananaman.” These and other contemporary writers have developed innovative writing styles by actively deploying the narrative strategies of popular literary genres such as DETECTIVE or SCIENCE FICTION, as well as those of other cultural fields such as film, comics, hip-hop songs, and online blogs. Once threatened by a fast-growing media culture—the cinema and the internet in particular—South Korean novelists thrive today by writing in ever more versatile forms for both the domestic market and a growing readership overseas.
Much has become known about North Korean literature with the recent increase in inter-Korean cultural exchanges. Until 1967, socialist realism was upheld as the official cultural doctrine, generating labor and peasant literature that projected an optimistic vision of socialist national reconstruction (see RUSSIA 20TH C.). Ch'ŏn Sebong's Taeha nn hrnda (1962, The river flows), for instance, chronicles the revolutionary land reform in the North following Korea's liberation from Japan. Upon the death of founding leader Kim Ilsung in 1967, the new mainstream became HISTORICAL epics of anticolonial resistance featuring Kim. The most representative work of this genre is Pulmyŏl i yŏksa (1972—, Immortal History), an anthology of collectively authored novels about Kim's heroic life as an anti-Japanese guerilla leader. New trends of recent years include Han Ungbin's portraits of ordinary laborers as “hidden heroes,” who strive against the challenges of everyday life in contemporary North Korea. When approached with an inquisitive eye, North Korean novels, all written under heavy state CENSORSHIP, often yield unexpected insights into the changing social reality within an otherwise officially secretive state.
Ever since the colonial era, with the growth of Korean emigrants throughout the world, many writers of Korean descent have established their names on overseas literary scenes. A representative and not exhaustive list would include Younghill Kang, Teresa Hakkyung Cha, Leonard Chang, and Chang-rae Lee in the U.S.; Kim Saryang, Kim Talsu, Yi Yangji, and Yu Miri in Japan; Kim Hakch'ŏl, Lim Wŏnch'ŏl, and Hŏ Ryŏnsun in China; and Anatoli Kim and Mikhail Pak in Russia. These writers have for long been excluded from the Korean canon, mainly owing to a narrowly ethnocentrist and “purist” attitude among Korean critics. And yet their themes—including the alienating experience of migration and assimilation, ethnic and cultural hybridity, and the difficulties of cross-cultural translation—bear an increasing relevance to the life experiences of Koreans in the new millennium, as the ever-rising number of migrant laborers and the growing phenomenon of international marriage are turning Korea itself into a multicultural society. With that said, not all of these writers would feel comfortable with their absorption into the ethno-national category of a “Korean” literature. Some of them would prefer to assert their autonomous status as minority writers, whose very existence challenges the ethnic and linguistic integrity of any national literature, Korean or otherwise.
For the challenge of diasporic writers, as well as its medieval and colonial history of dual languages, the notion of a “Korean novel” can be invoked today only with a sense of self-irony. It is a concept that, in a way, deconstructs itself as soon as we try to define it. But it is also a category that preserves its utility as the marker of a distinctive and recognizable literary tradition.
SEE ALSO: Life Writing.
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