Why Does Korean Literature Use an Alphabet?

By Charles Montgomery

The LARB Korea Blog is currently featuring selections from The Explorer’s History of Korean Fiction in Translation, Charles Montgomery’s book-in-progress that attempts to provide a concise history, and understanding, of Korean literature as represented in translation. You can find links to previous selections at the end of the post.

Perhaps the most important advancement for Korean literature in the Middle Ages was the development of the Korean alphabet, hangul. Chinese had historically been the language of the literati, but the development of a national literature required a writing system of Korea’s own.

During the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), King Sejong decided to create a Korean alphabet. Officially it was created in 1443, but it actually took a few years beyond that, and then it slowly became the language of literature (very slowly, in fact, as even today some Chinese characters, or hanja, are still used in South Korea). King Sejong had been unhappy with the idea that peasants, uneducated in hanja, were therefore essentially illiterate. In an effort to make it easier for “normal” Koreans to read and write, Sejong imagined a set of letters that were Korean, simple to learn, based on the position of the organs of speech when spoken, and formed by two- and three-letter syllables.

At the beginning of the hangul project, King Sejong clearly stated his reasons for creating the alphabet:

Being of foreign origin, Chinese characters are incapable of capturing uniquely Korean meanings. Therefore, many common people have no way to express their thoughts and feelings. Out of my sympathy for their difficulties, I have created a set of 28 letters. The letters are very easy to learn, and it is my fervent hope that they improve the quality of life of all people.

King Sejong also had a semi-philosophical goal in mind: the (mainly) three-letter syllables were constructed so the initial consonant represented the moving sky, the middle vowel the stationary earth, and the final consonant the human being, both still and in motion. Hangul is phonetic, so non-Koreans who understand the rules can read it and often pronounce it quite accurately. (King Sejong could not have foreseen it, but this also makes his alphabet, particularly among Asian alphabets, uniquely suited to computer keyboards and smartphones!)

Sejong preferred achievement to traditional position, and under Sejong’s guidance a national agricultural handbook was written, as were two important works on Korean medicine. King Sejong was also responsible for the creating of a fully “Korean” calendar, free of Chinese influence. Still, the creation of hangul remains his best-known accomplishment; October 9th, Hangul Day, is a national holiday.

Hangul originally used 28 letters, but over time that number has declined to 24, and the pronunciation of some of those letters, distinct in spelling but not in speaking, grows increasingly redundant still today. The alphabet was originally called by the depressingly bureaucratic name hunmin chong-um. King Sejong’s search for simplicity drove him to create a language that stacked consonants and vowels, rather than laying them out in a linear fashion, as in English. The result takes up less space and suits either horizontal or vertical writing. It can also lead to increased legibility, and reading speed. Here, for example, is how the National Hangul Museum renders that idea in both hangul and English:


In addition, at least in principle, the base consonants of hangul, ㄱ, ㄴ, ㅁ, ㅅ, and ㅇ, were composed according to observations of the movements of the speech organs forming those consonants. Consequently, the shapes of the basic consonants mirror those of the speech organs.

The alphabet uses an ingenious system in which strokes are added to the base forms of vowels and consonants to create new and similar sounding letters, all following consistent patterns. If you learned the stroke patterns for one vowel or consonant, you would essentially know all of them.


Hangul’s relative simplicity and small number of letters makes it surprisingly easy to learn (theoretically possible in less than a day) and read. Because of that ease, Korea is a nation with almost no illiteracy, and the clustered-letter syllabic nature of hangul makes the creation of new words near-instantaneously possible. When chicken-and-beer restaurants were first introduced to Korea, college students merely combined the first syllables of chicken (치킨) and beer (맥주) to create the now well-known portmanteau chi-maek (치맥).

The practical effects of hangul’s creation were at first slow but steady, and then revolutionary. Because the quickly learnable hangul fit naturally to the spoken language of Korea, it could be taught to the poor, and particularly to women. In fact, it was sometimes known as the “language of the inner rooms” (in other words, the domain of women), a dismissive term used partly by the scholar-aristocrat yangban class. It first saw wide use in diaries, while many Confucian scholars and kings refused to advocate it, considering only hanja the proper language of literature. Hangul did continue, however, to provide a written voice for the the country’s women as well as its poor and disenfranchised population.

According to the National Hangul Museum in Seoul, hangul also revitalized literature as a whole, allowing common people to share in a privilege that had once been the preserve of the upper classes. Traditional works, once transmitted only orally, could now be recorded by anyone who learned this simple new alphabet. This revitalized Korean poetry, particularly the forms of gasa and sijo (which remains popular to this day), and eventually helped Korea develop entirely national prose forms such as Korean-based novels and nationalist essays.

Thus Hangul came into use to create documents of classical lyrical songs (sijochang), musical storytelling (pansori), mask dance (most famous in Andong, a town famous for its an annual mask dance festival). Most of Joseon’s most famous plays and performances began to be written in hangul. King Sejong, in his time, fought back against early resistance by having the Joseon court translate important Confucian and Buddhist works into hangul and then distribute them. Practical texts, such as those on military strategy or medicine, received similar treatment. These projects, long though they took, were thorough, and eventually they did their part to make hangul the norm.

Only Japan’s humiliating defeat in World War II finally freed hangul, scotching the occupier’s demented colonial plan to make Japanese the official language of Korea and letting the real Korean alphabet come into common use. This, among other things, opened the gates for a deluge of female writers, beginning with a trickle in colonial times, and ending up at the state of Korean literature today, half of whose writers and poets might well be women.

Hangul changed everything: Korean literature not only became Korean in its alphabet, words, and sentences, but it also became open to all Koreans. King Sejong began his project with high hopes, and were he to visit Korea today, he would no doubt be amazed that not only at hangul’s success as a literary tool, but also to discover that its creation went on to have a strong hand in altering Korean society in ways that eventually lead to modernization. Only when hangul was in place could modern Korean literature come into being.

Related Korea Blog posts:

 How Did Korea Get Fiction in the First Place? 

Where is Korean Translated Literature?

What Shaped Translated Korean Literature?

The Triumph of Han Kang and the Rise of Women’s Writing in Korea

Charles Montgomery is an ex-resident of Seoul where he lived for seven years teaching in the English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University. You can read more from Charles Montgomery on translated Korean literature here, on Twitter @ktlit, or on Facebook.


Wish You Were Here: The Virtues of Banality

By Maximillian Alvarez

I. “Love in the Ruins”

When I begin to lose hope—when I sense that I am, in the most existentially sticky way, wasting time—I think of the things I’ll really miss about this place.

I love driving, for instance. Driving lets me think. But driving alone with certain playlists going can have the effect of running a hose from the tailpipe to my window: endlessly masochistic, even suicidally so. My eyes sink back like shriveling fruit and the car fills up with heavy, odorless thoughts.

Some playlists make me think about death. In the abstract, that is. Not about dying, per se. At times I get overwhelmed by a feeling I can only describe as pre-nostalgia. Close, I suppose, to what an exile or refugee must feel when they know in their bones they’re seeing their home for the last time. They’re not coming back.

The Greek breakdown of “nostalgia” is “homesickness,” or, literally, a painful longing to return home. In my car, what I feel is a kind of anticipated homesickness; a deep, rib-scraping sadness about the fact that I, like everyone else, will die and I’ll no longer get to see and touch and be a part of all this beautiful stuff. But, because I won’t have a chance to really miss it all — or anything — once I’m actually gone, my dumb brain tells my dumb heart to feel it all now, before it’s too late.

Even when I’m listening to the radio, the same kind of feeling can creep up. It’s easier to zone out between songs, though, because my petulant brain wants to believe it’s resisting advertisers’ attempts to talk it into caring about what they’re saying. It just stares forward stubbornly, uncomfortably, like when it tries not to make eye contact with a homeless person.

Yet the dopeyness of local ad spots, too, can make me pre-nostalgic. It forms a kind of background noise to your existence, at this time, in this place. Like it or not, it sizzles and pops with the sense that hundreds (thousands? millions?) of people in the broadcast area are also doing something this very minute, in the mist of this same noise. They’re listening in other cars, offices, garages, kitchens — or maybe they just hear it faintly wafting over from a neighbor’s window. You’re sharing something with them, even if that something is, at the most basic level, tacky and stupid and trying to get something out of you. There’s something in it that anchors you in the understanding that you are here. And, at some point, you won’t be. And you’ll miss it.

Anyway, I’m in my car. The radio’s on. Local ads are filling up time with stuff about mattresses, McDonalds, an upcoming fair, so on. My brain lets its guard down, probably out of boredom, and I start to listen more closely to what the voices are saying. An ad for an auto repair shop asks me if I’m “tired of paying an arm and a leg for” a bunch of car parts, the very names of which make me feel totally inadequate.

That question got stuck in me: “Tired of paying an arm and a leg for…?” It’s hard to explain, but it comforted me while also making me incredibly sad, in a pre-nostalgic way. My brain exhaust coughed up a whole bunch of stuff, filling up the cabin, and I started to clench up. The lady in the next lane looked over at me — maybe concerned, definitely confused — the way you look without trying to look at a couple breaking up in a restaurant. One half of the no-longer-couple starts breathing shallowly and looking around as if the room were sinking. That was me in the car. I had to crack the window.


II. Floating Particles

“Postmodernism” as a term (a movement, an era, a sensibility) describes both too much and too little. And rumors of its death may not be exaggerated. But these things, these terms, don’t just float away and get replaced by something entirely new. Their dust gets blown around, leaving some places, collecting in others.

As a teacher of literature, I have plenty of opportunities to gauge how much postmodern dust has settled on my students in their 18-19 years of life before walking into my classroom. I look for it in their thinking, writing, ways of talking. The concept of postmodernism is, of course, new to them, but some of its practical effects (you could call them “applications,” or dust) are so much a part of their common sense already that they end up feeling like the whole thing is pretty darn familiar. I am also acutely aware of how much dust they leave with as a direct result of my classes. And I feel kind of guilty about it.

There are many moving parts in the historical machine that help explain this, but one of the most basic, philosophy-101 characteristics of postmodernism is the feeling that everything has been done and felt and said before. Which can lead to anxiety, boredom, apathy, etc. Everything that happens now just seems like a rearrangement of elements that have already existed: all stories fit into one of a handful of archetypal plots, new fashion trends are just recycling old ones, every new movie is a remake of another goddamn movie, etc. In sum, there’s nothing new under the sun.

Now, of course, that’s a pretty big generalization. And it’s not entirely true. Again, these things are not total; they’re like dust. But the fact remains that, in our neck of the developed world, many sectors of society can’t shake that nagging feeling. There’s dust in our lungs. Here’s how I see literature courses, like mine, adding to that dust…

Pretty much always, no matter your major, you have to take a first-year college writing course, and that course is pretty much always in a literature department. As lords of these writing classes, it’s essentially our job to teach students to think and write in a way that will prepare them for the big assignments they’ll have to do for their majors and upper-level courses, whatever those may be.

In high school, students get overwhelmingly bad training in writing analytical essays, which is bound up with their bad training in reading literature, since they work on this writing in literature courses. Literature is taught as a kind of puzzle, the answer to which has been cleverly hidden by a tricksy know-it-all author who plants symbols to lead you to the right interpretation, which you’re expected to squeeze into a five-paragraph essay. This has a double-whammy effect: it teaches students that literature is just some kind of symbolic anagram (“the house represents society!”) and that the goal of writing is to present the “right answer.”

I remember taking shop class in junior high. The goal of every assignment was to follow directions and use tools that would help you turn your lump of wood into something that looked exactly like the teacher’s (or, if you were like me, to just make the wood look like something). We are essentially using the same model to teach literature and essay writing.

For the most part, even at an upper-level writing course at an elite university, the majority of students who come into my classroom have only been given a boilerplate understanding of literature and how to write about it. And it’s not their fault. Everyone knows high school English classes have to prepare students for the AP test. And the AP test is crap. Even the essay portions feel like multiple-choice questions. It’s understood that there’s a “right” way to answer them, that there are basic features every essay requires, and when test graders look for signs of a nebulous thing called “creativity” this ultimately means that students must, absurdly, master prepackaged tricks that will make them appear creative (“throw in a fanciful metaphor three sentences into your second body paragraph [see ‘fanciful metaphor’ section in study guide appendix D]”).

Then these students show up to their first-year writing class at a fancy college and things change. Drastically. Teachers like me spend a good deal of time getting them to unlearn most of the stuff they had to master just to get here in the first place. Silly, and frustrating for everybody, but necessary. It’s a lot like the plot to The Matrix (the first one, obviously — don’t be stupid). Our bright-eyed freshmen are unplugged from the worlds they knew, some big needly thing is un-drilled from the backs of their heads, and they’re flushed into a cold, goopy blackness where they flop around and thrash until they find their legs enough to stand, with their own arguments, in “the desert of the real.” Most of them tap into critical thinking and communicating skills they didn’t know they had. Seeing this keeps us teachers loyal to the cause, till death. Some of them resist, though. Like the ratty bald guy in the movie, the saboteur, who just wants things to go back to the way they were.

We teachers stress things like: writing about specialized topics; doing legitimate research into ongoing debates about those topics and setting up their papers as contributions to those debates; treating counterarguments with real empathy and doing the gritty work of understanding the logic, mindset, and lifeworlds of those who think differently; crafting analytical arguments that matter. This last one is exceptionally tricky. It is actually written into many university-mandated requirements for first-year writing classes. But what does it actually mean?

Students go from the staleness of the shop-class method — interpreting something in a vacuum the way their teachers want — to the brutality of the intellectual free market. They’re now asked to craft clear arguments about stuff that can be presented to an imaginary audience, which (a) needs to be convinced that the subject is worth their attention and who (b) will often judge the argument by harsher standards. It has to “matter.”

It makes sense for a university to push this mindset on its students. Doubly so for a major research university. Because, as we’re often told, the whole point of our collective brainwork is to “advance” our fields, to “produce” new kinds of knowledge, and to haul our asses up the jangly, wheezing pile of our predecessors — to stand “on the shoulders of giants.” This is ultimately what directs the hazy calculus of which arguments “matter” and which don’t.

But here’s the thing: there’s something terribly harmful in using this directive to structure the way students read and write about literature. I’ll never forget the one time — once was enough — I felt that harm while discussing a paper I had written with an advisor. Something had clicked for me while reading a certain 19th-century Russian short story. Something I personally hadn’t ever grasped before. Then my advisor bluntly delivered the news that this interpretation was not “new,” that the takeaway point was “rather banal.” I was devastated.

Listen. I’ve devoted my life to studying, teaching, and writing about literature. What my advisor told me was essential. I had to hear it. To this day, his words are a nagging popcorn kernel lodged in my brain. They make my work better, because, in the end, I want it to “advance the field.” And I can’t do that by saying banal things everyone already knows.

Still, something died in me the moment the words “not new” rolled across my advisor’s desk. I’ve lost it for good. And I wish I had appreciated it more. From that point on, no matter what I read, even if I’m really, really, childishly excited about it, I simply can’t read un-professionally. By that I mean: there is always someone else in the room. Every thought, reaction, and scribbled note that comes from my reading is always filtered through a consideration of what other people might think of it, whether or not they would think it “matters.”

As teachers and researchers, as the people college students pretty much have to get past before moving onto whatever degree they end up pursuing, we are in a sticky situation. What we do involves something Derrida called a pharmakon — something that both poisons you and acts as the only antidote to that poison. There is something in what we teach that harms our students. That same thing also becomes, at least as far as we know, the only thing that can save them.

Students are introduced to an almost sickening sense of how un-original their thoughts and arguments are. They’re taught to avoid being banal and move beyond “the obvious.” This involves a real mental workout, which trains them to figure out, on their own, how to see harder, more clearly, to interpret the hidden details, to consider the “bigger picture.” But it also requires that students be introduced to hardcore research methods, which push them to understand what has already been done and said about a topic before they even think about trying to add something to the discussion themselves.

The pharmakon: the more conscious students become of the inadequacy of their ideas (the poison), the more they seek, through research and re-drafting, to make them “matter” in the world (the antidote). And the cycle never stops. Every idea is cranked through the meat-grinder that compares it to what’s already “out there,” and the only way to combat the crushing sense of banality and shame is to keep scrambling back to the top of the pile. Or to give up.

To explain to students what all this is for, to justify introducing them to the painful pharmakon of higher research, many faculty members and administrators seem almost creepily obsessed with using the term “knowledge production.” It’s, frankly, a little weird when the ways we teach writing, and the language we use to describe it, are tinged with the I-love-the-smell-of-assembly-lines-in-the-morning lingo of capitalism. At a time when universities are increasingly following the corporate model, it feels like students are being taught to “produce” for a knowledge economy that has very specific ideas about what kind of work “matters.” This undoubtedly affects how we underlings down in the trenches of university writing courses are supposed to answer our students when they ask what they’re reading and writing for.

Back to dust… The most characteristic feeling that settles on people in so-called postmodern times is, well, whatever we want to call this concrete-in-your-lungs heaviness — a more pervasive, more existential expansion of that feeling you get when your instructor tells you your interpretation of something is “not new.” Your soul is turned inside out. You are perpetually exposed. There’s always someone else in the room.

Your very personalized reactions to stuff, which may be so incredibly and beautifully new to you, are weighed up against the record of all those who have come before. All of history. You can’t help but subject your unique collision with life and love and literature to the scrutiny of a real or imagined audience that can tell you flatly whether or not you have anything “new” to say on the matter. And by “new” they mean new to them, not to you. And you probably don’t. The odds are against you here. And you start subjecting everything you do to this imagined scrutiny: what you wear, what you talk about at parties, what you allow yourself to feel. You even do it inside your head: “is what I’m thinking ‘new’?” Probably not. But does that mean it doesn’t “matter”?

Listen. The fact that college writing classes are taught in literature departments isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s one of the few things literature departments have that universities still want. But when we, the teachers of literature, are tasked with showing students how to make their writing “matter” in the game of “knowledge production,” we may end up killing the transformative soul of literature.

Students must know that, even if it’s old news to everyone but them, there’s something in their individual encounters with texts (old and new) that glows with the same beauty and kinship and random fortune that creates whole new worlds when un-special particles floating in the galaxy collide. Students have enough postmodern dust all over them, causing them to second-guess whether what they do and say and think and feel “matters,” whether it’s “new.” They don’t need to, and shouldn’t, participate in this second-guessing when it comes to literature. Literature is where the stickiest parts of what it means to be human can stay as shamelessly old as time itself and be infinitely new when someone else touches them.

We can do things differently.


III. ________ Was Here

What is it? Am I dying? I mean, Jesus, I feel like I’m being pulled apart. Like every atom is making a break for it, floating off.

“Tired of paying an arm and a leg for…?”

You are here. In your car. You probably look like a nut. A woman in the next car over looks like she’s about to call 911. Is that…? Yup. You’re actually crying a little. You’re overcome with a pre-nostalgia for something entirely banal, cheesy. You’re really, really going to miss this when you’re gone.

You’ve grown up, like everyone, wanting to be special, to do something special. To bring something “new” to the world. And it is very easy to get disheartened by the slow, stubborn dumbness of things. You may spend a lifetime pushing without ever getting to see a budge. And, yeah, people are disappointing. And life is very rarely fair. Even if you have something to offer, chances are slim you’ll get noticed.

But there are so many things that you yourself are a part of — so much history you yourself carry. Already, always. Think, for instance, of one of those old truisms you just happen to know. Maybe you’ve never actually used them yourself, but you’ve heard them so much they’re practically stitched onto you. Maybe only your mom and grandma used them, and maybe they won’t actually come out of your own mouth, taking you totally by surprise, until you have a kid. If you have a kid. Something like “a rolling stone gathers no moss,” “the grass is always greener on the other side.” Or “kick the bucket,” “elephant in the room,” “shoot the breeze.” “An arm and a leg.”

There’s something especially comforting about them that makes you feel the opposite of loneliness. They’re not new. They’re cliché. And that, in its own way, is what makes them glow. They’ve survived, changed, and been passed down so much that they’ve ended up here. And you’re here. It’s pretty amazing that they’ve actually hung around long enough to still mean something to you. Because plenty of other things didn’t. There are so many older idioms that have, at best, been preserved in a book somewhere. They meant something once. And I bet the people they meant something to miss them.

There’s something in these kinds of phrases that catches us directly between community — a historical we — and individuality — the I, here, now, nowhere else. Every time you hear them and understand them, you’re embodying a cultural history of meaning that has, for some reason, seen it necessary to preserve the custom of saying “an arm and a leg” to mean “too much.” You are the living mark of a community that’s immeasurably bigger than you (you learned the phrase from somewhere, right?). At the same time, as a member of this community, it is entirely up to you to decide whether and how to keep these things alive. There may come a time when they no longer mean anything to anyone. They’ll be dead, and so will you. And you’ll miss them.

Even if you only do it once, even if you have to explain what it means to a curious kid, when you repeat an old idiom you give it new life. More than that, you affirm that you have life to give. No one will ever come up and thank you for it, nor should they. It’s both yours and not — like your copy of a book written by someone else who used language and idioms she herself didn’t invent. There’s something old, unoriginal and communal about it, which is also unpredictably new and personal. It’s less like carving “______ was here” into a tree than being part of the uncountable number who have rested in its shade, who have made love under it. Who kept that tree from getting chopped down. And who planted so many others.


Maximillian Alvarez is a dual-PhD candidate and graduate student instructor in the departments of History and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan.


Looking for Ghosts in the Quietest Place in Beijing

By Jonathan Chatwin

On my first visit to Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery – China’s national cemetery, and resting place of the founding fathers of the Chinese Communist Party – I had been refused entry at the gate by a zealous teenage guard, who, somewhat incredulous at my pressing for an explanation, had simply observed “Ni shi waiguoren” – “You’re a foreigner” – and walked back to his hut. I thus decided, for my return attempt, to enlist my Chinese friend Christy, who, experience had taught me, could generally talk her way into most places, and out of most situations.

Christy was not keen, however. She had heard stories about Babaoshan. “My friend knows a girl who was possessed there,” she told me matter-of-factly. The girl had worked in a mall beauty salon near to the cemetery.  Early one evening, the story went, she was sent by her manager to distribute some promotional leaflets on the streets nearby with a male colleague. The two were gone for hours, finally returning at around 11.30pm, to the consternation of their coworkers. Their colleagues noticed that they were both behaving secretively and strangely, and overheard the girl instructing her companion that he was not to tell anyone about their visit to Babaoshan cemetery. Both the boy and the girl refused to leave the salon to go home, even though the mall was now long closed, telling their coworkers that they were waiting for someone.

“So the manager called the girl’s aunt, who wasn’t surprised by how she was behaving at all,” Christy told me. “She said her niece had been possessed a few times before – she was skinny and weak, and an easy target for a ghost.” The aunt came to collect the girl, and everyone eventually returned home. The next day, both the boy and girl were unable to recall anything that had happened the previous evening.

“Isn’t that scary?” Christy asked, wide-eyed. Christy is herself rather skinny. I asked her, if she was to be possessed by a Communist leader, whom would she least like it to be? “Lin Biao,” she replied without hesitation. Lin Biao had once been Mao’s heir apparent; a PLA general who had done a great to popularize the Little Red Book, and who, after losing his patron’s favor, had died in a mysterious plane crash that many assume was a politically motivated assassination. She said the name with a look of real fear on her face.

We agreed that we would visit in the middle of the day, and I promised to do my best to protect Christy from malevolent spirits – and to buy her a coffee afterwards. We prepared a cover story – she was visiting the grave of an uncle, and I was a sympathetic boyfriend – but my young acquaintance was not on duty, and we passed through the gates without attracting any notice. We were the only visitors. As we walked down the drive through the sweltering August heat, Christy whispered to me: “This must be the quietest place in Beijing.”

The grounds of Babaoshan extend across a large hillside about fourteen kilometres west of Tiananmen Square, and just north of Chang’An Jie, the long thoroughfare that cuts through the center of Beijing. Only a small section of the whole site is given over to the revolutionary cemetery; there is also a public crematorium and a large burial ground for native and overseas Chinese. Altogether, there are now around 60,000 graves at Babaoshan.

The site was, for centuries, a Daoist temple, occupied mainly by retired eunuchs. It was repurposed by the CCP in 1951, following a proposition by Zhou Enlai; government guidelines instructed that the site was to be dedicated to those “revolutionary soldiers or personnel who had made distinguished contribution to the revolution and had been killed in some form of revolutionary activity or passed away later as a result of illness.”

The revolutionary cemetery is organized into hierarchical zones, with the ashes of the highest ranking figures interred in grand, private vaults or under imposing headstones at the top of the hill. These include Bo Yibo, one of the “Eight Immortals” of Chinese communism (an octet of revered revolutionary leaders), and father of disgraced former Politburo member, Bo Xilai; Zhu De, founder of the People’s Liberation Army; and even Peng Dehuai, the former Defense Minister purged by Mao and persecuted to death, who had his ashes reinterred at Babaoshan after his eventual rehabilitation in 1978. Space at the revolutionary cemetery remains in high demand; the cemetery receives around 1,000 applications each year, and has had to expand a number of times, despite some longer term residents having been disinterred and returned to their hometowns. The most celebrated figures of the Communist movement are, of course, not at Babaoshan; Mao’s body continues to reside in his mausoleum at Tiananmen Square – providing something of a headache for China’s modern leaders who will, at some point, be faced with a decision as to what happens to his remains in perpetuity – whilst Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping both had their ashes scattered elsewhere; Zhou’s were dispersed at various locations across China, whilst Deng, ever outward-looking, preferred to have his cast into the sea.

We walked amongst the graves. Cypress trees shaded the dusty path through the headstones; only the oscillating noise of crickets disturbed the peace. The air was utterly still. From the top of the hill, where the grandest memorials sit, neat rows of gravestones cascaded down the incline. “It isn’t scary at all,” Christy said.

It wasn’t. It was orderly, and human, and tastefully grand in a manner I was unused to in China. The largest gravestones were almost monuments, bespoke carved marble edifices which must have cost enormous sums. “Which do you think is better,” Christy asked me as we looked at one particularly elaborate memorial, “Communism or capitalism?” I said I thought that communism was a good idea that had never worked very well in practice. “I don’t think everybody wants to be the same,” she commented. I agreed, and we stood silently in the heat for a moment.

“Let’s go and get a Starbucks,” she said.

Dr. Jonathan Chatwin is a British writer who has lived in, and written on, China. He is the author of Anywhere Out of the World, a literary biography of travel writer Bruce Chatwin. He is currently working on a travelogue based on a journey across Beijing.


Wangsimni, My Hometown: a Gangster (and a Filmmaker’s) Pledge of Devotion to Korea

By Colin Marshall

This is one in a series of essays on important pieces of Korean cinema freely available on the Korean Film Archive’s Youtube channel. You can watch this month’s movie here and find links to previously featured movies below.

If you want to go see a movie in Seoul, you might well go to Wangsimni. Right above the neighborhood’s station on the central circular subway line stands a high-rise shopping complex whose multiplex theater boasts the largest IMAX screen in the country. It went up less than a decade ago, in 2008, but Seoul changes quickly. This has held true at least since the end of the devastating Korean War, when the capital of the new state of South Korea had nothing to do but develop. Still, Seoul remained in fairly rough shape a decade later, in the early 1960s, the time in which the protagonist of 1976’s Wangsimni, My Hometown (왕십리) last saw his homeland.

The disoriented but stylishly dressed Joon-tae first appears onscreen in a once deeply familiar Seoul, made strange in just fourteen years. As he struggles to place himself through the window of a cab, the driver asks what he’s looking for. “I don’t see the trolley,” says Joon-tae. “It’s been at least ten years since they got rid of the trolley,” the driver tells him. Joon-tae asks about another railcar he used to ride in his youth. “Trolley, railcar… that’s all history.” An Angeleno in the same era and in the same situation would have had the same conversation. Where did all the streetcars of the far-reaching Pacific Electric and Los Angeles Railways go?

Their disappearance looked dramatic enough to convince some of a conspiracy, but larger processes had converged to turn the city into something other than it had been before. Just as Los Angeles discarded the trappings of the late 19th and early 20th century it spent as a booming, barely-tamed settlement (and, to an extent, giant real-estate hustle) on the edge of the continent, Seoul discarded the trappings of the late 19th and early 20th century it spent as a subject of the Japanese empire. But that  mid-1970s Angeleno riding back into town might also wonder about something else: where did all these Koreans come from?

Though immigration from South Korea to Los Angeles began around 1900, it didn’t start happening in enough force to affect the character of the city until the exodus resulting from the Korean War and, a little over a decade later, the passage of the restriction-loosening Hart-Cellar act of 1965. The Koreans who came to America up until that time left a homeland still partially in ruins, and many never updated their mental image of the place. In her story collection Drifting House, Krys Lee writes of one such immigrant, who “had watched Korean news clips of the developing country’s daily disasters — student demonstrators attacked by pepper-spray bombs in 1986, the Sampoong Department Store collapse that killed generations of families in 1995 — and convinced himself that he had been right to leave.”


Of those former Seoulites who convinced themselves of their rightness in leaving — even, as Lee puts it, “after the country flourished and began giving academic scholarships to the brightest from Guatemala to Mongolia, and setting trends in film and technology” — the ones who return today, even just to visit, find the city utterly transformed. The trolley and railcar never came back, but Seoul, safe to say, doesn’t need them now that it has perhaps the world’s finest subway system, while even Los Angeles still struggles to build out its own.

To be fair, the Seoul Metro had a bit of a head start on the Los Angeles Metro, opening its first line in 1974 rather than 1990. Two years later, it hadn’t yet reached Wangsimni, which thus remained in enough of an urban isolation to qualify more as a true “hometown” (고향) than as just the old neighborhood. It also retained its now long-gone rough-and-tumble image, exhibited — and insisted upon — by the remains of Joon-tae’s old crew. Checking into a cheap hotel, he begins seeking them out by heading straight to the local pool hall, the hangout of choice for every Korean man of a certain generation, finding both the establishment and its owner in a diminished state.

The hall has shrunk from two floors to one, and the man, Choi, rendered nearly unintelligible (at least to my foreign ears) by ancient slang and drink, bursts every so often into intense despondency about his lack of progress in life. Joon-tae, too, sees himself as having stood shamefully still for the last fourteen years. He left Korea suddenly in order to avoid an epic inheritance dispute, his tearful fiancée chasing futilely after his departing taxi. Though the intervening time apparently saw him make quite a name for himself, as well as a small fortune, as some kind of valuable operative in the Japanese underworld, he returned just as suddenly, bringing his cashed-out savings with him and claiming to have come for one reason only: to see Jeong-hui, the girl he left behind, one last time.

But before he can get to Jeong-hui, another woman comes his way: Yoon-ae, a prostitute sent to his room by Choi and the rest of his buddies. Instantly enamored by Joon-tae’s distance, disinterest, and apparent inability to take care of himself, she goes from washing his clothes (for which he reprimands her) to inviting him over and cooking dinner (an appointment he forgets, or simply disregards) to proposing marriage, all in a matter of days. And as the whore tries to turn Madonna, the Madonna seems to have endured deeper reversals of fortune: while Joon-tae at first hears, and hopes, that Jeong-hui has married well and now lives comfortably, he comes to find out that she’s actually fallen to the status of “the biggest floozy in Wangsimni.”


Joon-tae nevertheless feels honor-bound to do right by Jeong-hui, going so far as to take out an ad in the newspaper to find her and, when he does, to buy her a new, Western-style house in cash. He does so in front of an infuriated Yoon-ae, who’d taken him for a fellow lost soul but now, having found out about his money, demands a few gifts of her own. Later, sitting amid the almost parodically 1970s décor of one of the many coffee shops that proliferated in Seoul in that era, she rejects the finery he’s just bought her and, before storming out, tells him off: “You made me think a girl like me can get married. You made me have hope. Do you know how? You looked like someone who could need me.”

But our laconic antihero has bigger problems: all throughout the film, a minder name Sasaki has tailed him through the city, trying to hasten his return in order to secure his participation in a mob war about to erupt back in Japan. Despite at first having vowed to make this trip the last time he would ever set foot in Korea, his resolve seems to waver as the complications of his situation mount. The more he learns of Jeong-hui’s current situation, the less she seems like an innocent victim of circumstances — and the more appealing Yoon-ae’s proposition becomes. Maybe, he starts to think, he can take her back to Japan with him.

Korean stories, though, have never let their characters execute their plans or satisfy their desires as simply as that. He catches Yoon-ae already on her way back to the farm village she calls her own home town, planning — doomedly, one senses — to lie her way into marriage to a childhood friend. The movie ends on New Year’s Day, with Joon-tae chased through a lumber yard by a team of enforcers assembled to bring him back at any cost. “I decided to stay,” he explains to Sasaki and his glowering, advancing henchmen. “I just realized that this is where I belong.” Just then, Choi and the rest of the fellows with whom he presumably belongs with rush up to defend their friend. The Japanese gangsters fell them easily, but Joon-tae, turned into a fighting machine by a presumable burst of hometown pride, in turn fells the distracted Japanese gangsters even more easily.

“I’ve been living all these years not caring about anything,” Joon-tae admits to Choi as they stand on a stone bridge overlooking some watery land surely soon to be developed and redeveloped. His closing monologue convinces them both to finally “lay down some roots” in the Korea that threatens to pass them even further by. “Everyone’s busy living their lives, while the two of us circle around the same spot not knowing what to do. We’re the only two who haven’t been able to really live our lives. Let’s on our lives from now on. This is our home. Why do we live like we’re just passing through? We’ve got to find our lost fourteen years and make up for lost time. Let’s make wings. With those wings, let’s fly in the sky.” The two old friends then nearly double up in non-ironic laughter.


A free-floating modern Westerner could find this stirring indeed, revealing as it does parts of the  Korean sensibility that entices many expatriates to stay: the refreshingly unquestioned emotion, the nigh-unbreakable bonds of friendship, the sense of a country and culture as collective enterprise. But that sort of thing also puts off its fair share of Koreans — including, for a time, director Im Kwon-taek. A teenager at the time of the Korean War and later vilified as the son of a communist, he saw firsthand how a society can tear itself apart. He effectively turned his back on his homeland, becoming a self-described thoughtless journeyman filmmaker known in the industry for his ability to near-continuously crank out cheap, commercial genre pictures.

The effects of Im’s awakening manifest gradually over the course of his work in the mid-1970s. Wangshimni came out in a year when he made at least three other pictures, none of which contain the kind of declaration of self he put into the mouth of Joon-tae. Over the following decades, Im would transform from a pure hack into a maker of art-house films — and sometimes blockbuster-successful art-house films — that examine the Korean condition past and present. Revivre (화장), a dreamy drama of a tormented middle-aged cosmetics executive (played by Ahn Sungki, Man-su of Chil-su and Mansu) debuted in 2014 promoted as Im’s 102nd film, though given all the losses and rediscoveries made since he began his directorial career in 1962, nobody can be quite sure of the number.

None of us would want to subject ourselves to the societal forces that freighted Joon-tae and Choi, or indeed Im, with such apparent despair in the first place, but more recent generations of Koreans seem to have positioned themselves relative to Korea, whether inside or outside it, with less agony. When Tokyo-based American friend of mine recently visited Seoul, he caught up with some of the Koreans with whom he’d studied in Japan, all as international students, years ago. He expressed great admiration for their sentiments that, though they’d spent significant amounts of time living, working, and studying in other countries, they’d returned to Korea confident that they would, in the long term — or could, in the long term — make their homes nowhere else.

Declarations of that kind can, of course, smack as much of complacency as devotion. For all the fuss made here about producing “global challengers,” fewer Koreans have a genuine interest in hammering down stakes outside Korea than the nation’s image of internationalist dynamism make make it seem. (This goes especially for Korean men, with their notorious resistance to embrace things foreign in comparison with the country’s more xenophilic women.) And as much sincerity as Im’s more personal films of the Wangshimni period and after evince, he also made his artistic shift with a certain degree of strategy. The blockbuster era having just begun over in Hollywood, he knew the homegrown genre pictures of the day couldn’t compete with imported multimillion-dollar spectacles. Now, of course, Korea makes its own multimillion-dollar (or rather, multibillion won) spectacles of its own, which screen right alongside the American ones. If you don’t believe me, catch a train to Wangsimni and see for yourself.


Related Korea Blog Posts:

Watching Madame Freedom, the Movie that Scandalized Postwar Korea

The Unbearable Preposterousness of Westernization: Park Kwang-su’s Chil-su and Man-su

Between Boring Heaven and Exciting Hell: Kim Soo-yong’s Night Journey

You can read more of the Korea Blog here and follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.


From Vancouver to Tiananmen — A Review of Madeleine Thien’s Latest Book

By Michael Rank

The extraordinary upheavals that China has undergone over the past fifty years call for an epic novel depicting great suffering as well as hope and joy.  Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which focuses on the experiences of a family of musicians from the time of the Anti-rightist Campaign of the late 1950s to the Tiananmen Square protests and June 4th Massacre of 1989, attempts to be that novel.

The book, which is short listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize, starts off in modern-day Vancouver, the hometown of the author, who is the daughter of Chinese-Malaysian parents. The novel begins arrestingly: “In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life.” The narrator, Marie Jiang, or Jiang Li-ling, is like the author a Canadian born to Chinese parents, but in the novel they are from China itself rather than from the overseas community. Marie was a small child when her father killed himself in Hong Kong and for many years she knew little about him, but by the time the book opens she has discovered that he was born in a small village outside Changsha and against all odds became a renowned concert pianist.

But before finding out much more about the narrator’s father we are introduced to Ai-ming, the wise and beautiful daughter of his best friend and sometime lover, the composer Sparrow. She has fled to Canada after the June 4th massacre, staying with Marie and her mother. But Ai-ming then leaves for the United States where she disappears without trace, and we hear little more of her until a final Coda in which the story backtracks to tell how she managed to escape from China through central Asia and eventually make it to Vancouver.

But Ai-ming and her flight do not form the focus of the novel. The book centres on Marie’s father, Jiang Kai, and Sparrow, who both attend the Shanghai Conservatoire, together with their friends and relatives in the late 1950s and early 60s. They play and listen to a wide range of western music from Bach – they have a special love of Glenn Gould’s recordings – to Shostakovich, but as the Cultural Revolution sets in all such music is banned, Sparrow’s female cousin Zhuli commits suicide and the rest of the group are sent to factories and “re-education” camps. The novel mixes social and political realism with a heavy dose of symbolism, much of which hangs on a mysterious document called the Book of History that is sent chapter by chapter to Swirl, a widowed former singer in teahouses. “On the surface,” we are told, “the story was a simple epic chronicling the fall of empire, but the people inside the book reminded [Swirl] of people she tried not to remember: her brothers and parents, her lost husband and son. People who, against their will, had been pushed by war to the cliff’s edge.” This “simple epic” – whatever that is supposed to mean – keeps recurring throughout the novel, and we are told at one point that its aim is to “populate this fictional world with true names and true deeds. They would live on, as dangerous as revolutionaries but as intangible as ghosts.” This seems to suggest that the Book of History is intended at least partly to correct the Communist Party’s disgraceful distortion of recent Chinese history, if this is so the point becomes lost as references to the epic become increasingly obscure.

The main body of the novel ends in realist mode with a vivid description of the events leading up to the 1989 massacre, in which Sparrow is killed just as he is planning to emigrate to Canada to be reunited with Jiang Kai. The students are full of hope as they begin their sit-in, but their hopes are soon shattered as their ideals drown in bloodshed.

Thien sometimes comes up with vivid similes, as at the very beginning when Marie recalls her father wearing “glasses that have no frames and the lenses give the impression of hovering just before him, the thinnest or curtains.” And another character is described as having “gotten plump in the belly but not in the legs and he resembled a pear on toothpicks” (although “and he resembled” rather than “making him resemble” is rather clumsy, see below).

At her best Thien convincingly melds the personal and the political, as when Sparrow wants to write a symphony that reflects the way “Time itself, the hours, minutes and seconds, the things they counted and the way they counted them, had sped up in the New China. He wanted to express this change, to write a symphony that inhabited both the modern and the old: the not yet and the nearly gone.” But his efforts are not appreciated. The Union of Composers declares that the symphony “suffered from formalism and useless experimentation; the solemnity of the third movement did nothing to elevate the People; and the meaning, overall, was not immediately clear.” This kind of Stalinist condemnation sounds all too likely, and incidents like this make the novel utterly believable. But much of the time I felt that the author was being over-ambitious, weighing it down with obscure symbolism, and I got lost in the welter of characters with names such as Big Mother Knife, the Old Cat and Biscuit whose role was unclear to me.

The book also contains some inaccuracies, most seriously several times referring to Deng Xiaoping as Mao’s successor as Party Chairman. In fact Deng never assumed this title even though he was China’s paramount leader from 1978 until he retired in 1989. And on a musical note, I seriously doubt whether a concert shortly after Mao’s death in 1976 would have featured Mahler, Beethoven and Aaron Copland (Beethoven alone would have been pretty daring so soon after the downfall of the Gang of Four).

The author has done her homework, and the book has seven pages of endnotes, quoting sources ranging from biographies of Bach and Brahms to the works of Mao and eyewitness accounts of the June 4th massacre. She has also read books on the fate of Western music under Mao, and two real-life musicians, the head of the Shanghai Conservatoire, He Luting, and the best-known conductor of the Mao era, Li Delun, have walk-on parts in the novel. Both suffered badly in the Cultural Revolution, and He is widely remembered for having on live television defied the Red Guards who beat him, denying that he was a counter-revolutionary or traitor.

Thien sometimes cites Chinese characters in the text, but these seem mainly based on dictionary knowledge of the language rather than familiarity with Chinese as it is actually used. To quote just one example, Big Mother Knife misunderstands someone saying xíng lù “executed like criminals” as meaning “travelling – like criminals”, as the words for “executed” and “travel” are said by Thien to be homophonous, xíng lù, written 刑戮 and 行路 respectively. But the word xíng lù “execution” is highly literary and rarely if ever used in speech, and xíng lù 行路 “travel/walk” is also literary and is not used in modern spoken Mandarin. In context, this misunderstanding makes even less sense, with Big Mother thinking she “had mistakenly heard” one for the other – if she was aware of having misunderstood something, then surely she hadn’t misunderstood it in the first place?

Not only is Thien’s Chinese often askew, but so sometimes is her English. She several times refers to “writing” rather than “taking” an exam, and she occasionally uses odd phrases, as when she tells of a character who kneels down “to reach her [a child’s] height.” I find this puzzling, and think she could have done with a better editor.

Some readers may find such criticism nitpicking, but I found these errors distracting and rather irritating. This novel — the first chapter of which can be found here – has garnered enthusiastic reviews, for example in the Guardian, Financial Times and Toronto Globe and Mail.  Yet, in my opinion, it tries too hard and often seems to be grasping at something which I could only guess at. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a novel of enormous scope that movingly portrays the bravery and suffering of musicians during the Cultural Revolution, but it is hampered by a rather diffuse plot that veers uneasily between realism and a vaguely mythical epic quality.

Oh, and the book’s title: it’s said to a line from the Internationale, but it’s not in any version I can find (see here for a number of English translations). Another puzzle in a rather puzzling book.


Michael Rank graduated from Cambridge University in Chinese Studies in 1972, studied in Beijing and Shanghai during the last years of the Cultural Revolution decade, was a Reuters correspondent in China in the early 1980s, and is now retired. Deeply interested in linguistics and in the relationship between George Orwell and China, his recent writings on these and other subjects, as well as his book reviews, can be found at his blog.  


How Did Korea Get Fiction in the First Place?

By Charles Montgomery

The LARB Korea Blog is currently featuring selections from The Explorer’s History of Korean Fiction in Translation, Charles Montgomery’s book-in-progress that attempts to provide a concise history, and understanding, of Korean literature as represented in translation. You can read the first selection here and the second here.

Korea’s literary preferences have historically leaned toward poetry and song, a common condition in pre-print cultures as rhythm and rhyme make them easy to memorize. Even when reliable tools for writing were perfected, the survival of written materials remained quite uncertain. Unless inscribed in rock, writing is very fragile, especially when contained in bamboo books in an age when Korea often suffered invasions and had its cities looted. Consequently poetry, including poetry sung and chanted, came down from memory to memory as first form of Korean literature, just like Homer’s Odyssey in the West.

Chinese dynastic histories including the Bamboo Annals (prior to 296 BC), History of the Later Han Dynasty (compiled in the 5th century), and History of Wei (compiled 551 to 554) mention the recitation of religious oral literature by the Korean people, as well as the performance of origin myths and histories at early state meetings and in early shamanist-type rituals. These Chinese documents even describe the northern tribes as “the people who enjoy singing and dancing.” Poetry and singing were seen as a way to communicate to and build relationships between Nature, Heaven and Earth, and in this the influences of Animism and Shamanism can certainly be seen.

Korean literature began orally and in the vernacular, but slowly slid into Chinese when it moved to print. Eventually Korea’s literati, known as yangban, practiced literature solely in Chinese, while the rest of society — i.e., the lower classes and women — simply used the Korean language. As Chinese-characters were introduced, narrative folk poetry was replaced by the lyric and didactic variety known as hyangga. Simple, polished, quite lyrical or philosophical, and often short, these poems were initially recorded in Chinese characters that reproduced the sound of Korean words (hyangch’al), creating the first bridge between the two languages.

The creative process still happened in the Korean language, but when hyangch’al disappeared, the schism widened and literature became almost exclusively composed in Chinese, leaving the remainder in the hands of the singers and poets. After hyangga emerged sijo (don’t worry too much about these names; we’ll be explaining them soon), which lived alongside kasa. While sijo continued in the lyrical spirit of hyangga, kasa was didactic and entirely composed in Chinese. This split between the lyric and didactic was exacerbated by the introduction of hangeul, the Korean alphabet, which finally gave the vernacular or “common” literature an outlet in which to be recorded.

Korean poetry has had a handful of predominant forms, all partially associated with the empires under which they flourished, all of which help draw a broad outline of the development of classical Korean fiction. It is a bit artificial to use western poetic conventions to explain Korean poetry, partly because what we think of as “rhyming” is often an inconsequential achievement in modern Korean, a language whose verb forms inherently sound similar similar.

In the classical era’s “mid-rhyming,” for example, the writer of a poem arranged in five-word line would make the first, third word and fifth word play in alliteration, mid-rhyme, and final rhyme. This was possible because the poems were written with Chinese characters — and thus disappeared as hangeul gained dominance. But the idea of syllables is not sufficient to explain Korean poetry. “Korean verses allow a different number of phonemes within a metric unit and the rules of versification metamorphosize freely,” writes the scholar Cho Dong-il — which is a complicated way of saying, listen not to Korean poetry’s syllables, but to the flow of its sound.

Not much remains of the literature of the Silla dynasty, which lasted from 57 BC to 935 AD. What does survive takes the form of hyangga poetry, written in hyangch’al. The word “hyangga,” which means “rural village song” derives from what the Silla people called their empire. A total of fourteen poems were passed down in the Samguk Yusa: Legends And History Of The Three Kingdoms Of Ancient Korea (c.1285), and eleven more survived in the Tales of Kyunyo.

The first of these, recorded in the Samguk Yusa, also informs us that the poem was sung by members of the Karak state during the third moon in the year 42. This is the Seodong-yo (The Ballad of Seodong), an uncomplicated four-line lyric by a commoner named Seodong, who wrote the poem to persuade the king that the king’s daughter has slept with he, Seodong. As it happens, his poetic ruse succeeds: the princess, banished for her fabricated lack of chastity, eventually marries the author.

Hyangga forms vary, including four-line, eight-line, and ten-line poems. In ten-line hyangga, the first section introduces the idea of the poem; the second either distills or distorts feelings related to the topic; in the third, which runs for only two lines, a declaration comes to a strong conclusion. This general form of construction is quite similar to that of the sijo, which we shall discuss shortly. The Buddhist monk Weolmyeong’s Requiem for My Sister, until its rather traditional and predictable religious end, exemplifies the structure quite beautifully:

The road to life and death
Stands fearfully before us.
Without saying good-bye,
Have you left me?

The early morning wind in autumn
Scatters leaves here and there.
Though from the same branch
They know not where they’ve gone.

Oh my dear sister, to see you again in Amitabha’s Paradise,
I shall wait, perfecting Buddha’s way.

(Translation: Robert Fouser)

During the Goryeo dynasty of  918 to 1392 AD, the use of hyangch’al disappeared as conventional Chinese characters came to dominate Korean literature. Hyangga itself did not entirely disappear, but turned from a literary form into a religious one, leaving the so-called Goryeo Songs as a legacy. The elimination of hyangch’al meant that no even approximate way to write down “native” Korean poetry remained, so it continued primarily to be expressed orally. As Chinese characters became the de facto written language of Korean literature, and the Goryeo dynasty become increasingly mannered, Korea’s literati began to look down their nose at poetry composed in hyangch’al, refusing to record and reproduce it. In its place, they developed a new form of poetry, the kasa.

Although primarily oral, kasa lived long enough to be recorded in hangeul during the later Joseon dynasty. Unfortunately, for political and linguistic reasons, the new dynasty was not particularly interested in saving the literature of the previous one. Through conscious destruction and indifference, much literature was lost, though the popularity of kasa itself continued to grow, achieving its greatest heights toward the end of the Joseon era. As the Goryeo dynasty declined, this loss of literature overtook much of the Goryeo works as well. When the Joseon succeeded the Goryeo, it adopted a policy similar to that the Goryeo’s of expunging the “inappropriate” and “obscene” poetry of the recent past — and so barely sixty works of Goryeo poetry survive.

The kasa had two forms: shorter, with one stanza, and longer, with up to thirteen. Each stanza includes a refrain in the middle or at the end intended to establish the mood of the piece or tie the stanzas together. More loosely structured than its predecessors, and took on far bolder topics, even love. It often discussed such subjects rather bluntly, though often also didactically, a quality that over over time saw the kasa lose popularity to the more lyrical sijo. Kisaeng, the officially recognized Korean female courtesans, often performed the kasa, which may give some clue as to the reason behind their directness and sexuality relative to their predecessors. Although kisaeng technically ranked among the lowest in the Korean caste system, they were also entertainers of great skill who sometimes worked for yangban or the court.

Relatively unimportant during the Goryeo period, the kasa became more robust and well-known in the Joseon dynasty in the form of works like the Manjeoncheun, an anonymous love poem likely from the mouth of a kisaeng. Most readers will note a narrator shift towards the end:

Were I to build a bamboo hut on the ice
Were I to die of cold with him on the ice,
O night, run slow, till our love is spent.
When I lie alone, restless, vigilant,
Only peach blossoms wave over the west window.
You have no grief, welcome the spring breeze.
I have believed those who vowed to each other;
“My soul will follow yours forever.”
Who, who persuaded me this was true?
“O duck, beautiful duck, why do you come
To the swamp, instead of the shoal?”
“If the swamp freezes, the shoal will do.
A bed on Mount South, jade pillow, gold brocade.
And beside me a girl sweeter than musk,
Let us press our hearts together, our magic hearts.

Non-kisaeng female writers were generally not published during either the Goryeo or Joseon dynasties, but the record hints that yangban women did write thousands — probably hundreds of thousands — of kasa in hangeul. This was mainly anonymous, and is today known as kyubang kasa, or “inner-room kasa,” so named because the women’s rooms in a traditional hanok house were located toward its center. Mostly instructional in nature and typically given to a younger woman on the occasion of her marriage and departure to her husband’s house, these poems transmit advice and admonition from one generation of women to another:

Listen, my dear child,
Tomorrow is the day of your leave-taking.
Leaving your parents’ home,
You will be entering your husband’s.
As your heart must be,
So is mine, also uneasy.
Your things loaded on a white horse
And the gilt saddle firmly tied down.
As I send you off out the gate
I have much advice to give you…

Neither spellbinding as literature nor intended to be, these vessels of exemplary advice. But in many cases these kyubang kasa, passing from generation to generation,  came to include many other kinds of passages. In fact, while the most common form of kasa was admonitory, the kyubang kasa also included the “songs of lament” and the “songs of flower viewing” — the latter perhaps hinting at the rather philosophical or even effete tendencies sometimes evinced by poetry of the era.

During the Joseon period, from 1392 to 1897, Korean poetry shifted to the sijo. The original sijo poets were yangban who wrote poetry to pass the time and amuse their friends. There is an amusing split here: while “serious” literature was still supposed to still be composed in Chinese characters, or hanja, apparently Goryeo-era yangban had begum to “slum” in hangeul. This may help explain both the spread of hangeul itself and the continued popularity of the sijo form. Its themes, consequently, were often Confucian in nature and focused on loyalty. Sijo had three stanzas (often expressed in lines) of four feet each and can be compared, in some ways, to the Japanese haiku, though the sijo’s longer form allows for greater explication of themes and more syllabic flexibility.

The form of the sijo is semi-regular: three lines of fourteen to sixteen syllables each, with a total between 44 and 46. Readers often first encounter sijo in an “idealized” western structure based on syllable count, but this ideal is complicated and often inaccurate. A more natural way to explain the sijo is that its topic is introduced in the first line, explored in the second line, given a surprise twist at the outset of the third line, and then concluded by the end of that line, a structure intended to create an aesthetically “complete” poem that unfolds in a brief space, but without hurry.

Sijo originated with the yangban’s expression of philosophical or religious concerns, but in the eighteenth century its popularity quickly spread among common people. With this new mass popularity, the form also began to change, ultimately splitting into the p’yong (flat) and changhyong (long) sijo. The new sijo also tended to be less rarified, often focusing on commonplace emotions and satire. The first sijo compilation, the Cheonggu Yeongon, was not printed until 1728, but many individual works remain scattered in the private collections of the families of the yangban who wrote them.

The sijo below was composed by the famed Admiral Yi Sun-sin in 1599, on the eve of a battle with the Japanese — a battle he won, but in which he was unfortunately slain:

At Hansan Island Fortress
Moon-bright night on Hansan Isle, and I sit alone atop the lookout.
I hold my great sword by my side, and as my worries deepen.
From somewhere comes the single note of the Mongol flute, piercing to the very bowels.

Interested readers can find it translated in Richard Butt’s The Bamboo Grove: An Introduction to Sijo.

Pansori, or “story-in-song,” is still enjoyed today. Believed to have developed from the shamanist chants of southeastern Korea in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, pansori differs from those in not being based on religion, and in fact often focusing on more tangible subjects including the yangban and issues of social structure. It began in the second half of the Joseon era (during the reign of King Succhong, or Kim Yeongjo, between so 1674 and 1776) and was most likely — though there is no definitive proof — an outgrowth of shamanic practice in Jeolla-do. But pansori subverts shamanism, and in fact often mocks. To western eyes, pansori may seem less like literature and more like song-and-dance, but Korea considers it a literary form (and recognized, of course, as song and dance as well).

Presented as an up to eight-hour-long narrative musical performance with two performers, a drummer and a singer, it consists of two internal musical forms, the main song called ch’ang and rhythmic spoken passages called aniri, with the latter serving as kind of thread running through and connecting the former. Pansori emerged from a primarily oral tradition, and one that revolved around superhuman characters, myths, and the like, but by the late Joseon period it had evolved into a set of stories based on more typical events using human characters. The plots, therefore, became increasingly “true to life.” Pansori mixed prose and verse as well as vernacular language, including slang, sarcasm and jokes, with the more traditional classical language of the past.

In terms of literary “quality,” pansori was a kind of pastiche that included well-known truisms, a surprising amount of earthy humor, and a mixture of high- and low-level speech (the Korean language has formal registers for communication between equals and those who are not equal, for various reasons including age, education, and sex). As time went by, this latter set of opposites caused pansori, initially the literature of the common man, to split into two schools: a common version representing entertainment for the masses, and another that continued to depict the lives of the royal court.

Pansori began in the oral tradition, but passed down from generation to generation, they became increasingly memorialized in print as well. There were two different stylistic strands:the sung (indicated by the Korean word ka) and the written (cheon). According to Kim Hyunggu, the three most popular pansori novels were Tales of Shim Cheong, The Tale of Chunghyang, and The Tale of Heungbu, the last of which remains popular as a children’s tale.

As the popularity of these and similar works grew, and as they were transmitted in first oral and, from eighteenth century on, written form, novels that appealed to common tastes were increasingly prevalent, partly due to the fact that they were also now available in hangeul. Over time, pansori moved away from relentless focus on one main character, and so-called “family novels” became more popular. This period represents the first mercantilization of Korean literature, when we can first see the focus of the works themselves move away from the self-expression and meditations of the yangban to material crafter for success in the emerging fiction market.

The length and breadth of pansori, as well as the general appreciation for the form, lead to its becoming, in a sense, the first “common” literature of Korea. As it began to spread in printed form, it gave first form to the Korean “classic” novel. Peaking in the nineteenth century, pansori entered a slow, apparenly inevitable decline thereafter. Performances of it can still be seen in Korea, usually in extremely truncated forms, and only in locations of formal cultural presentation such as the National Theater at Mt. Namsan.

Before we can continue to the creation of the “classic” novel and the invention of literature as we know it now, we must take a short detour next time to discuss perhaps the most important development in the emergence of a common Korean literature: the unprecedented creation of a national alphabet, hangeul.

Related Korea Blog posts: 

Where is Korean Translated Literature?

What Shaped Translated Korean Literature?

Looking Back at Modern Short Stories from Korea, the Very First Collection of Korean Fiction in English

The Triumph of Han Kang and the Rise of Women’s Writing in Korea

Bright Lies, Big City: Korean Authors and Seoul

Charles Montgomery is an ex-resident of Seoul where he lived for seven years teaching in the English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University. You can read more from Charles Montgomery on translated Korean literature here, on Twitter @ktlit, or on Facebook.


A Look Into East City Bookshop

Located a block from Capitol Hill, East City Bookshop is a fresh face in the world of Washington D.C. bookstores. The two-story bookshop is tucked in the same retail building as a game shop and a photography store, but with its neon green sign, it’s hard to miss. Painted in bright colors and sporting a welcoming spirit, the shop has excited many, especially those on the eastern side of the city.


Laurie Gillman, the owner of East City Bookshop, was not one who dreamed of owning a bookshop. “There are a lot of people I’ve met who say, ‘Oh, I’ve always dreamed of having a bookstore.’ I was not one of those people.” But while D.C. boasts several other bookstores, such as Kramerbooks & Afterwords and Politics and Prose, Laurie found the dearth of independent bookstores on the eastern side of the city disheartening. Watching independent bookstores close one after another for the past decade, Laurie decided something must be done. After researching the logistics of opening a bookstore and finding an affordable space, Laurie became convinced it was her new project. “Once I got a little into it, I couldn’t really let it go. I was a bit obsessed.”unknown-3

When East City Bookshop opened its doors a year and a half ago, Laurie wanted to create a community bookstore with a comprehensive collection. While literary fiction is the standout customer favorite, Gillman’s shelves are stocked with everything from political theory to graphic novels to children’s books. Laurie has even partnered with a local running store and created a joint running/book club.


East City Bookshop promotes local authors to the outside world, or at least to Washington D.C. At its beginning, East City Bookshop hosted a reading once a week on average. Laurie has now more than doubled the events with a minimum of two a week, and she is in communication with several publishers to plan future events. She wants more out of the bookstore: more author events, more community events, and more readers. While she has not preconceived notions of what might come out of the community, she is both excited about their prospect and willing to help make them happen.

Their overall mission is to make people feel welcome, so head on over to East City Bookshop if you’re in the D.C. area. If you’re a LARB member, there’s an extra incentive to popping into Gillman’s shop. Your Reckless Reader discount card—a coveted perk that comes with every membership level and offers deals at a growing number of independent bookstores nationwide— will score you 10 percent off any purchase. To learn more, take a look at our digital, print and book club membership programs.


Being Helen Foster Snow: A Q&A with Elyse Ribbons

By Paul French

As part of Chinese TV’s efforts to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Long March this year, a dramatized 30-hour version of Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China has just wrapped filming. The book, which recounts the months in 1936 that Snow spent with the Chinese Red Army, is well known in China. The personal lives of its author and his wife Helen Foster Snow, however, are little known beyond their relationship to the famous Chinese leader Mao,  who died forty years ago this week and whose record continues to be described as 70% good and only 30% bad, despite catastrophes like the Great Leap Famine. Red Star Over China is the first domestically produced series to star two non-ethnic Chinese actors. The series is also partly biographical, retracing the early days of Edgar and Helen’s romance in Shanghai in the early 1930s and following their adventures in China through to the early 1940s.

The enduring popularity of Red Star Over China (and the Communist Party’s official embrace of Edgar Snow as a “Friend of China”) has ensured that Edgar has remained well known. However, Helen (who also wrote under the pseudonym of Nym Wales), remains far less well known and their personal relationship and marriage quite obscure. Edgar and Helen met in Shanghai shortly after her arrival in the International Settlement in the early 1930s where they were both carving out journalistic careers. Helen agreed to marry Edgar after multiple proposals. They moved to Peking, where Helen wrote, modeled furs, and became part of the city’s social set. Helen later followed Edgar to the “Red Areas” to report on the Communists and wrote about her impressions of them separately.

Red Star Over China‘s initial success (followed by state promotion of the show) has rather obscured Helen’s own literary work, Inside Red China (1939). Together they founded the short-lived Democracy magazine in their Peking courtyard home and became involved in the INDUSCO co-operatives project (a left leaning movement in the 1930, involving various Western expatriates, to promote grass roots industrial and economic development in China). Helen and Edgar split in 1940 and finally divorced in 1949. After her return to America Helen’s literary output continued with, among other books, Red Dust (1952) and her excellent memoir My China Years (1984).

Elyse Ribbons is an American actress who’s been working in China for 14 years and is well known to Chinese TV audiences by her Chinese name Liu Suying (柳素英). She recently spent the first five months of 2016 starring as Helen in Red Star Over China. During filming she became an ardent fan and somewhat of an expert on Helen Foster Snow and has been keen to promote greater awareness of Helen’s life, experiences and writings.  I caught up with Elyse shortly after filming finished…

Red Star Over China and Edgar are still so well known in China, but Helen has rather slipped from history and her books are rarely republished these days. Did you come to the part with any prior knowledge of Helen?

Of course I had read Red Star Over China in college, and was sitting with some rather famous Old China Hands (and their children/grandchildren) many years later at an event in Beijing and heard stories about Helen Snow, though her impression in my mind was vague at best before beginning the production. Mostly I knew that my life had inadvertently echoed her own:  She had moved to China on her own in her early 20s, she dreamt of being a writer, worked at the US Consulate (while I wound up at the Embassy) and she fell in love with China.

Both in Shanghai in the early 1930s, and then in Peking, Helen and Edgar were really part of a fun expatriate set of journalists, writers and sojourners. They partied a lot in Shanghai and even owned a racehorse in Peking…is this, much less well-known in China, side of Helen’s China experience brought out in the series?

A little bit, there are several scenes of parties and hints at the excesses, but the series is a bit of a propaganda piece so there was a lot of fighting on my part to portray the vibrant, fun, life-of-the-party Helen that those on the social scene in Peking and Shanghai knew. Chinese audiences really only have the vision of Helen in Yanan, in a Red Army uniform, in their minds. I had to constantly refer to historical texts and photos to convince the directors to move in my direction.

Helen and Edgar’s relationship, and rather quick marriage after meeting, have always been fascinating. On one level they seem a very fun couple, very much in love and enjoying their shared China adventure. However they drifted apart. Everyone always says it was the war, the Japanese, Edgar’s commitment to the Left…did you get any sense of their actual personal dynamic?

Well, their relationship started out very much as a bit fangirl on Helen’s part, but then Edgar quickly became enamoured and proposed to her many, many times before she eventually agreed. I get the sense that if they had lived in this era she might have played the field a lot more (and she does hint at other lovers in her memoir). I think that their love and later marriage was fueled in large part by their career aspirations and the adrenaline-fueled rush of living it up in wartime China while the Great Depression raged at home. The true “third wheel” in their relationship came in the form of Mao Zedong, who certainly entranced Edgar to the point where he allowed himself to somewhat knowingly become a propagandist (even though he had railed against this earlier in his career). But their passion for each other, while not filmed (this is China, so the few times the actor playing Edgar – George Tronrsue – and I kissed or acted too romantic, the whole crew would start giggling and blushing) was definitely something that lasted. But I don’t think Edgar wanted the quiet American life that Helen craved by the end of the 30s, and he moved back only grudgingly, spending much time away covering the war in Europe. But I definitely got the sense from Helen’s writings, and mentions of her in other texts, that she was vivacious and much-admired by many men, and not as often by her husband as she would have liked.

Edgar is invariably shown as the more political of the two, very sympathetic to communism. Helen often portrayed as his loyal follower. Yet she wrote extensively on the communists, as well as Korean nationalists, and the role of women in China, among other subjects. In the series do we have a sense of her own politics, as distinct from Edgar?

I think that Helen was not a Communist so much as a practicalist. She saw that China needed better leadership than the KMT could offer, and better connectivity to the “People”. She was definitely inspired by what she observed in Yanan and the other Red areas during her trip. A good portion of the Founding Fathers of the PRC also felt that Communism was just a tool and Deng Xiaoping is a good example of that train of thought. She was mostly impressed with the efforts that the Communists were making to include and empower women – a smart move, she noted, as they made up so much of the populace. Certainly I feel that China’s economic rise (and its entire future) relies heavily if not entirely on its empowerment of women.

It was tough being in China and reporting in the 1930s and presumably even tougher for a woman. Aside from the cult of Edgar in China and the downplaying of Helen did you get a feel for her as a woman experiencing that time?

Admittedly part of the cult of Edgar is Helen’s own fault. Like many women, she put her husband’s career above her own and spent her time and energy managing him, typing his notes, organizing his writings, efforts and correspondence. She is also uncredited for much of her work on Red Star Over China. But despite this, and despite the era, she embraced her life and her role with more verve than many a modern American girl. Really the problem was that when the INDUSCO project failed, she believed that all her efforts over the years had come to naught – and that broke her heart. As an entrepreneur here in China myself I am all too familiar with this heartbreak, and in all honesty found much strength in embodying her over this past Spring. If she could do all that she did with her limited resources and societal assumptions, surely I can keep fighting on.

It’s fantastic that the producers of the TV series have included Helen as a major role, and sought to portray the Snows China experiences in their entirety, and not just meeting Mao. How do you think a modern audience in China will react to this new, more rounded, Helen? What reaction are you expecting to the show in general?

As the show is still suffering through the rounds of censorship at CCTV as we speak, it’s really hard to say what will even make it into the final cut. But certainly having a lead character who is a known Old Friend of China (this is an actual title that the government has bestowed on several lucky foreigners) be the embodiment of all that feminine energy and aspiration I think will ring very true with the young women of modern China. Really the show is a love story, and one with a not-so-Hollywood ending for the couple, but certainly their love for China and personal friendship endured long after their marriage ended.  I wish that it could have been filmed by a Netflix, BBC or HBO crew, there’s so much more to the story that was overlooked but which makes for very good TV, a mix of House of Cards, Newsroom and a BBC historical drama.


My First Afropunk Festival

By Imogen Teasley-Vlautin

At most punk shows, or any alternative music show, there are only a few other black people amidst a sea of white faces. But during one extraordinary weekend each year at Commodore Berry Park in Brooklyn, the Afropunk Festival brings all of these few black people from scenes all over to this one place. It is the only weekend where we get to see the evidence that, yes, all different kinds of beautiful black people exist, and here they celebrate their art and culture with love. It is a celebration of the freedom to be you — while also being black — and that is revolutionary.

As soon as I saw that Bad Brains was playing Afropunk Festival this year, I bought my flight to New York City from Oakland. Living Colour and Fishbone opened and sang for their heroes, a dream come true for us all. For so many, Bad Brains is the first black band they saw playing punk. When Living Colour hit the stage, an enormous mosh pit of black punks erupted with volcanic energy, and I immediately started sobbing. In the words of Flying Lotus, Tyler the Creator, and several other Afropunk artists: Never have I seen so many black people at a show! I felt so loved, so special, so at home, and so normal. I felt the freedom to live and express, and that was the most comfortable thing I’ve ever experienced in my twenty years.  For Bad Brains, growing up in segregated DC where the buildings were white and the people were black, it wasn’t about young black kids trying to play the music that white people played, but rather about them being fearlessly themselves. Black people invented rock and roll anyway — from Chuck Berry and Little Richard to the lesser known Big Mama Thornton, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.  Afropunk Festival celebrates the black legacy of music and demonstrates that we are free. It creates a unique environment where there is no fear in just being. It lures a crowd that wants to bask in the energy of a wide array of artists like the legendary George Clinton, superstar CeeLo Green, to powerful punk rock rap group Ho99o9, and incredible rapper Angel Haze, who captured my attention and imagination with the line: “I opened up my third eye and the view is amazing.”

Check out these photos of the festival from Essence and Teen Vogue.


KB - Nam June Paik Show 1

A Society of Screens: the Korea, and the World, Envisioned by Nam June Paik

 By Colin Marshall

Video monitors started appearing on Seoul’s subway trains long before I arrived here. More video monitors — or, to be precise, old televisions — started appearing on those video monitors a few months ago, announcing a big show of the work of video artist Nam June Paik. (Paik made his name in the West, literally, with not just unconventional Romanization but a Western-style re-ordering that put his given name first and family name second.) The straightforwardly titled Paik Nam June Show (백남준 쇼), which runs through October at Seoul’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza, commemorates the tenth anniversary of the death of the most creative old-television enthusiast ever to live, as well as, for a time, the most famous Korean artist — and quite possibly the most famous Korean — in the world.

“I start in 1960, first time television sets become cheap, become secondhand, like junk,” said Paik in a 1975 profile by New Yorker art critic Calvin Tomkins. “I buy thirteen secondhand sets in 1962. I didn’t have any preconceived idea. Nobody had put two frequencies into one place, so I just do that, horizontal and vertical, and this absolutely new thing comes out.” He refers to his discovery that manipulating the electronics television sets use — or then used, anyway — to produce an image could produce, in an unpredictable fashion, another, stranger image.

This led to his creation, with Japanese engineer Shyua Abe, of the more controllable Abe-Paik Video Synthesizer, and ultimately to his status as the father of video art, builder of television robots, television cellos, television-watching Buddhas, and television maps and flags of the United States of America. While other artists began to use video around the same time he did, when the gear came down in size, down in price, and out of the studio, none displayed quite the same intensely zealous interest of the early adopter.

Paik’s embrace of the moving image as displayed on consumer electronic devices now looks prescient, as do several of the futuristic ideas upon which he speculated. He even coined, in a 1974 proposal to the Rockefeller Foundation (a major source of funding for early video artists), the term “electronic superhighway,” imagining a time in which “we connect New York with Los Angeles by means of an electronic telecommunication network that operates in strong transmission ranges, as well as with continental satellites, wave guides, bundled coaxial cable, and later also via laser beam fiber optics.”

Tomkins, in the New Yorker profile, wrote of Paik’s vision for a familiar-sounding “’global university’ — a place where vast quantities of up-to-date information on every conceivable subject can be stored, with computers to provide instant retrieval, so that a student of any age can pursue his own education at his own pace.” And so it feels highly appropriate to see him celebrated in his homeland, a place whose high internet speeds and rates of connectivity get it routinely described, in the 21st century, as the most wired country on Earth.

KB - Nam June Paik Show 3

His countrymen tend to seize upon each new device as soon as it comes to market, and even among Koreans close to Paik’s own generation (he was born in 1932, with the end of the Japanese colonial era still nowhere in sight), one sees much less of the kind of technological foot-dragging common among older people in the West. American youth might just have got around to teaching their grandmothers how to use a smartphone; in Korea, grandma’s already in line for the next one. Those screens on the subway already seem superfluous; who can get bored enough to watch the advertisements they play between station announcements with a personal screen in the palm of their hand?

Often enough I’ve looked up on a subway ride to see literally every other passenger absorbed in what Koreans call their “handphone,” texting, gaming, and scrolling through page after page of one kind of information or another. Sometimes, on these occasions, I’ve looked up from my own, an iPhone so bashed and so many generations behind that, here, its ownership almost violates some sort of social taboo. Besides, for every (newer) iPhone user in Korea, several have a local model made by Samsung or LG instead — companies that also manufactured more than a few of the many screens glowing from within the works on display at the DDP.

Paik’s sculptures, made of not just wood-grained and dial-controlled sets of long-forgotten brand but paint, neon, cameras, and many kinds of non-televisual junk, present what museum professionals call a “preservation challenge.” Peer around the back of the hulking, friendly-looking robots that greet you as soon as you enter, and you see that someone has hollowed out the bulky, even-then-obsolete televisions that compose their bodies and mounted outward-facing flat-panel displays of various sizes up against the glass.

Paik could hardly have known, putting his television robots together in the 1980s when the Korean economy still grew itself — and with astonishing rapidity — through industries like shipbuilding, that flat-panels (surely a term soon to go the way of “computerized” and “portable”) would do much to make his homeland a global economic power. Had by that time spend a decades away from that homeland, in a kind of exile. “Because of South Korea’s stringent military-conscription law,” Tomkins wrote in 1975, “he could technically be arrested as a draft dodger if he ever returned.”

He’d left with his family in 1950, after their luck at home finally ran out — a luck that came in large part due to his merchant family’s open collaboration with the Japanese occupiers. They managed to retain their status for a time even after liberation, albeit not for long. “Growing up in a very corrupt family in a very confusing time,” he later said, “I learned how to survive, and survive well.” Paik’s family settled in Japan, where he graduated from the University of Tokyo before moving to Germany to study avant-garde music composition.

KB - Nam June Paik Show 4

The Japan connections continued throughout the rest of his career and life. He and Yoko Ono both once counted themselves as members of the Fluxus artistic movement (there exists a later photograph of Paik, Ono, Shuya Abe, and John Lennon standing in front of a wall of televisions). He married Shigeko Kubota, a Japanese colleague in video art. His work incorporated many pieces of Japanese technology, like Pioneer’s LaserDisc media and Sony’s Watchman handheld televisions, still flickering away after all these years.

Paik eventually made it back to Korea in 1984, writes scholar Robert Fouser in “Having Fun with New Toys: Nam June Paik and the Aesthetic of Jaemi.” This homecoming “started a broad shift in Paik’s work. Despite the immense change in Korea during the intervening 35 years, the jaemi of the streets of Korea brought back memories of the street jaemi that Paik had known as a youth.” The what? Fouser quotes the Minjungseorim’s Essence Korean-English Dictionary‘s definition of jaemi (재미) as “interest; amusement; enjoyment; fun.”

Artistically, it means that “a work or performance needs to entertain and stimulate an audience through amusement and fun. Humor, sarcasm, and visual stimulation all qualify as jaemi,” which also “contains the element of surprise and keeps audiences slightly off balance with jocular spontaneity.” According to Fouser, “jaemi best summarizes the dominant aesthetic of Korean modernism,” and to my mind also summarizes the enduring appeal of Paik’s art. His robots, grinning or raising a glowing arm in salute, exude, and possibly define, late-20th-century techno-whimsy.

Even his more austere pieces, such as those Buddhas staring eternally into their own motionless images reflected by television screens, draw chuckles from their viewers. As for the element of surprise and jocular spontaneity, Paik began using that well before he entered the secondary market for TV sets, driving nails into pianos on stage (one critic called him “the world’s most famous bad pianist,” a title in which he delighted), snipping ties and shirttails with scissors off of it, and, with the cellist Charlotte Moorman, staging topless or otherwise scandalous musical performances (some of which had her wear a “TV Bra” of Paik’s invention).

Despite his start in the avant-garde, his work has retained plenty of relevance in our time when the term “avant-garde” itself no longer means much of anything, and when new technology, especially new technology related to the display of images, no longer impresses on anything like as deep a level as it once did. But to the younger generations who’ve started to regard VHS cassettes as nostalgia objects, images out of a cathode ray tube look compellingly unusual and rich with imperfection. Twenty years ago, sheer availability had rendered the household electronics Paik made his signature materials almost invisible. In the 21st century, they’ve regained the something of the strangeness — now accompanied by echoes of the past instead of messages from the future — he must have sensed when first he discovered their artistic potential.

KB - Nam June Paik Show 2

Call it a kind of “authenticity,” an aesthetic quality much prized by the retromaniac hipsterism of the West, a movement that has so far shown few signs of penetration into the neophiliac un-irony of modern South Korea. Though possessed of a formidable sense of humor, Paik’s work has never exuded irony. In that, the Japanese-educated artist who spent most of his life in Europe and the United States — as well as the Buddhist who never drank, smoked, or drove — represents the sensibility of his people more than he might at first have appeared to.

Korea almost automatically celebrates its native sons and daughters who’ve won acclaim for themselves abroad, and thus acclaim for their country, no matter how aberrant their behavior or unfashionable their creations. Fouser sees Paik, who accomplished what no other Korean artist could by “influencing the West with a subverted view of its own culture,” as “a combination of Paik the inheritor of Korean modernism and Paik the inheritor of bourgeois careerism.” Having drawn his first feelings of “techno-jaemi” from listening to the radio, riding in the car, and playing the piano in his youth, he went on to observe his family “use its wealth and power to maintain the status quo after liberation,” learning that “systems have to be manipulated for self-protection, and that ideals matter less than practicality.”

Fouser credits Paik’s use of jaemi as having “helped to desanctify art and make it fun again.” Asked by Tomkins why he doesn’t make boring art, Paik himself replied: “I come from very poor country and I am poor. I have to entertain people every second.” Not that you’d know, strolling through Zaha Hadid-designed Dongdaemun Design Plaza and into the Paik Nam June Show, that either Paik or South Korea came from poverty. It even ends in with a genuine spectacle, in a room built for a huge sea turtle made entirely out of 1990s-style television sets, all boxy yet rounded. Every few minutes, much newer projection technology, still impressive in itself, sends the entire floor around the electronic reptile through a rippling metamorphosis, from solid to liquid, concrete to abstract.

From there you exit straight into another room containing (this being Korea, after all) a pop-up coffee bar and a display of all the Nam June Paik merchandise available for purchase. The hallway outside that contains a video work built in tribute to Paik by the media artist Choi Jongbum — making use, the signs tell us, of the latest models in Samsung’s lineup of “quantum dot display” ultra high definition TVs — and a lounge area bristling with cables loungers can use to charge their handphones. They might well need to, having drained their batteries snapping selka (샐카, or the Korean version of “selfie”) with friends standing beside Paik’s robots, or in silhouette against the colorful video collages of his not-quite-regular grids of monitors.

All this does little to actively refute the notion, long held by Paik’s critics without seeming to bother the artist himself, that his work wasn’t quite serious, that it was a little too much fun. As the standard translation of “fun,” jaemi, sound like a highly specialized cultural concept though it may, is one the very first vocabulary words a student of the Korean language learns. If you want to say you enjoyed something, you say “Jaemi isseosseoyo,” literally something like “There was fun.” If you want to say you didn’t enjoy something, you say “Jaemi opseosseoyo,” or “There wan’t fun.” This becomes something of a crutch later on, when people begin to expect more specific responses, but later in the day I’d seen the Paik Nam June show, when a friend asked how it was, my response — jaemi isseosseoyo — sounded a great deal more meaningful than usual.

Related Korea Blog posts: 

Writing About Korea, in Korean, for Koreans — as an America: an Interview with Robert J. Fouser

Why Korea Needs Alain de Botton (and Why Alain de Botton Needs Korea)

You can read more of the Korea Blog here and follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.