Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Yi Kwangsu and Korean Nationalism

Yi Kwangsu (Photo from here.)

Last week Andre Lankov wrote an interesting piece in the Korea Times about the life of Yi Kwangsu, which got me interested in him, not because of his novels or literary criticism, but more because I'd been reading Gi-wook Shin's Ethnic Nationalism in Korea, which discusses his influence on Korean nationalism. The way the Korean nation is perceived today has been influenced especially by two people: Shin Chae-ho and Yi Kwangsu.

As described in Andre Schmid's book Korea Between Empires 1895-1919 (and also in Henry Em's essay "Minjok as a Modern and Democratic Construct: Shin Ch'ae-ho's Historiography" in Colonial Modernity in Korea), Shin Chae-ho's most influential work was the essay "Toksa Sillon," or "A New Reading of History," which was first published in 1908. In it Shin was the first to take the relatively new concept of 'minjok' (see Henry Em's essay) and combine it with Dangun, the mythological precursor of the Korean people via the Jokpo, or family genealogical record. Ignoring court-based histories and the previous attention paid to Kija (the Chinese sage who founded an early Korean kingdom and provided a link to China when it was the center of the east Asian world), Shin made the minjok, the ethnic nation, the subject of his history, which allowed him to connect Korea to the greatness of Goguryeo (and a time when 'Korea' included a great deal of Manchuria) and Dangun. Shin's essay was incredibly influential, though it should be noted that though his use of genealogical concepts made a 'bloodline' implicit, Schmid makes no mention of Shin explicitly utilizing that idea. To be sure, Shin saw the nation in an organic manner, with his worldview influenced by Social Darwinism. It was Yi Kwangsu, however, who would contribute (or at least popularize) other ideas to fine-tune Shin's concept into one that endures up to the present.

As Lankov notes, "Yi was born in 1892, in what is now North Korea. He was 10 years old when his parents died, but the village community took care of him as he had already become viewed by his fellow villagers as a local prodigy."

Beongcheon Yu's book Han Yong-un & Yi Kwang-su: Two Pioneers of Modern Korean Literature says that Yi was taken in by the Dongak movement, while Lankov describes it as the Cheondogyo sect. At any rate, "It was sect leaders who provided Yi with a scholarship to study in Japan where he went in 1905. In Tokyo, he acquired a native fluency in Japanese. Indeed, Japanese, not Korean, was the language he used in his first fiction writings." Yi also learned English there, and in the 1930s was described as being able to speak 'beautiful English.'

There he became acquainted with western writers, and especially respected Tolstoy. According to Yu, in 1910 he returned to Korea, to his hometown of Osan (in northern Korea), and became a teacher (and also got married). He later had a falling out with the religious officials who took over the school, and wandered around northeast Asia for several years, visiting Shanghai, Vladivostok, Manchuria, and Chiba in Siberia. His planned trip to San Francisco was made impossible by World War 1, and he moved back to Japan and enrolled in Waseda University. There he wrote many essays, especially about literature, and became famous when his book Mujeong ('heartlessness') was serialized in 1917 in the Maeil Sinbo (formerly Ernest Bethell's Daehan Maeil Sinbo, which was secretly bought by the Japanese and published from 1910-1944, and the only vernacular Korean newspaper published by the Japanese authorities from 1910 to 1920, and 1940 to 1944). Mujeong is considered the first modern Korean novel, and made Yi a celebrity (and hated by some critics) overnight (it's reviewed here). He also caused a scandal when the woman about to become Korea's first doctor, Heo Yeong-suk, nursed him back to health after his first bout with tuberculosis and he divorced his wife to elope with Heo to Peking. [Yu, 88-91]

Yi's non-fiction writing focused on the purpose of literature in Korea and its relationship with the Korean nation, making it clear that nationalism influenced his way of seeing the world. Michael D. Shin's essay "Interior Landscapes and Modern Literature," from Colonial Modernity in Korea, discusses and quotes from some of his essays, especially "What is Literature?" (1916), Korea's first example of modern literary criticism. In it he views munhak, or literature, in a different way than in the past because of jeong "which he uses to describe a wide range of emotions." Shin notes Yi's assertion that "in the past emotion had been ignored because "humanity did not have a clear conception of individuality (gaeseong)." Shin describes Yi writing that 'although the human mind consists of three factors - knowledge (chi) emotion (jeong) and will (eui) - people in the past "regarded jeong as lowly and considered only knowledge and will important." [...] "The thoughts and emotions of the Choson people were restricted by an intolerant moral code for around five hundred years after the founding of the Yi dynasty." [p. 256]

Sheila Miyoshi Jager's Narratives of Nation Building in Korea: A Genealogy of Patriotism also quotes from Yi, making clear in the same essay where he thought the source of Chosun's literature's backwardness lay :
Korean thoughts and emotions were suppressed by the narrowminded morality during the 500 years of the Chosun Dynasty, not to mention the pre-Chosun periods, and thus did not have the opportunity to develop freely. Only if this sort of suppression and obstruction had not existed, then the flower of [Korean] literature [munhak] could have bloomed brilliantly during Chosun’s past 500 years and provided nourishment for the minds of its people and become the source for their pleasure.[…]

While lamenting the fact that our idle Chosun dynasty ancestors have not left us anything of tangible value, I am also deeply vexed that they have not left behind anything of spiritual worth due to their incompetence. However, this situation cannot be blamed only on our ancestors. As a result of the intrusion of Chinese culture, Chosun culture became extinct. Underneath the overarching dominance of China, Korean culture withered and died. Our careless and idle Korean Confucian literati (sonin) foolishly allowed themselves to become slaves to Chinese culture and as a result, our own nation’s culture was eradicated. [p. 23]
On the one hand, it's hard to miss the xenophobic thrust of the above passage, but on the other, he also criticizes Korea's past and seems to find little usable in it. Still, rejecting the Confucian past did not mean that he wasn't nationalistic, tying as he does the meaning of literature to the fate of the nation, or minjok. As Shin notes, Yi also wrote that "the thoughts, emotions, and way of life of a generation were the result of the study, cultivation and training of earlier people (minjok) and a crystalization of their innumerable sufferings and efforts." 'Believing that this legacy constitutes the "spiritual civilization of a people and the basis of its nationness (minjokseong)," he argued that "the most effective way to transmit this valuable spiritual civilization [to future generations] is the literature of the people [minjok ui munhak]." [p. 258]

In a 1917 essay titled "Our Ideals," he wrote that literature is the most important part of culture because "the spirit of the nation that has been transmitted from the time of our ancestors ... will be the center of literature." [p. 255]

Yi took his writing about the nation to the next level when he left Peking after being together for three months with his lover, returned to Seoul, and then made his way to Tokyo where he wrote the February 8 Declaration of Independence by Korean Students in Tokyo (something I’ve argued was possible only because of the more relaxed political environment in Japan after the 1918 Rice Riots). This statement was an important precursor to the March 1 movement three weeks later. After writing the declaration he went to Shanghai to take part in the formation of the government in exile, working with An Chang-ho and taking charge of the newspaper Independence News. After two years his wife-to-be returned to claim him and they returned to Seoul, where he was seen by some as a turncoat for having abandoned the cause in Shanghai and having not been investigated by the Japanese on his return. [Shin's essay says he was arrested for a short time.] In February 1922, Yi organized the Suyang Tong'uhoe, a version of the Heongsadan (Society for the Fostering of Activisists) founded by An Chang-ho in LA in 1913. He also helped found (in 1924) and edited the literary journal Joseon Mundan. Yi would write essays and serialized novels for the Donga Ilbo for much of the next decade.

Gi-wook Shin's Ethnic Nationalism in Korea examines Yi's writings and influence, and describes him as being aligned more with the cultural nationalist movement in the early 1920s. Cultural nationalists of the 1920s 'criticized their own historical heritage, especially Confucian heritage, as backward and sought to reconstruct Korean nationality largely based on modern liberal Western thought.'

In Yi Kwangsu’s "Minjok Kaejoron" (A theory of national reconstruction) 'Yi stressed the necessity of creating a "new person," or a new national character. […] For him, nationality was not enduring, but could be readily reconstructed with individual cultivation and mass education. […] The [national reconstruction] movement would have to be moral and spiritual, rather than political, as the reconstruction of nationality was more important than political independence, at least for the time being.'

According to Shin Gi-wook, Yi saw tradition (and Neo-Confucianism) as an obstacle to progress, 'championed Western liberalism and free will,' and seemed 'more cosmopolitan than nationalist in outlook.'[46-47] This can also be seen in his embrace of western ideas of personal freedom and individuality (such as the argument against arranged marriage that was presented in Mujeong).

According to Yu, Yi's suggestion in "Minjok kaejoron" that there would need to be a 30-year-long maturation period before pursuing independence (quite similar to An Chang-ho’s ideas) was not popular with some, and the magazine it was published in was stormed by an angry crowd. Though he was invited to write by the Donga Ilbo, he had to write under pseudonyms until 1925. It's interesting the essay caused such a reaction, considering Mujeong, the novel that made him famous, had similar notions near the end when a character suggested, "Let's devote ourselves to seeing a much better Chosun by the time we grow old and die." [Michael Shin, p. 284]

As Shin Gi-wook points out, by the late 1920s and early 1930s, Yi had changed his outlook. This had a great deal to do with changes in the nationalist movement in general, he argues, due to nationalist reaction to both colonial racism by the Japanese Government General and the internationalism of the socialist movement. Though Japanese rule in the 1920s was nowhere near as harsh as the military rule of the first decade after annexation, the Japanese attempted to rewrite history and take over the administration of historical objects or monuments, for example, in order to control their meaning. While the work of ethnographer Murayama Chijun is noted for its contribution to the understanding of shamanism in Korea (see his photos of Korea in the 1920s and 1930s here), the main goal of his research - at least on the part of the colonial government - was to find connections between shamanism and Shinto, so as to show an ancient link between Korea and Japan and thus justification for Japanese colonial rule. As for international socialism, Korean socialists had allied themselves with left wing nationalists in the late 1920s, but in 1930 the Comintern called for this alliance to cease, and this pushed left and right wing nationalists closer together as they sought to combat the idea that international class affiliation was more important than national ties. In both cases, Shin argues, in trying to deflate nationalism, international socialism and the Government General instead engendered a more nationalist reaction.

Thus, by the early 1930s, Yi had changed his outlook, stressing, as Shin puts it, 'pride in Korean heritage' and 'a highly racialized view of nation,' and he 'championed collectivism over individualism.' In "Three Basic Tasks for Korean National Movements," published in 1932, Yi defined nation as "eternal being," something immutable and unchangeable. This is quite a change from his argument ten years later that 'nationality was not enduring, but could be readily reconstructed with individual cultivation and mass education.' 'In "Basic Morality of Old Koreans", published four months later, he lashed out at individualism and liberalism calling for we-ism (uri juui), groupism (danche juui), and totalitarianism (jeonche juui). Clearly departing from his earlier view that championed western individualism and free will, he now charged these with destroying Korea’s tradition of we-ism and group-ism,' and said 'that the import of Anglo-Saxonian individualism and liberalism weakened Korea’s traditional "spirit of sacrifice and service," and he called for restoring collectivism based on the "communal spirit of villages of old Joseon."'[p. 48, 69] This is clearly quite a change from his comments lashing out at Neo-Confucianism and the pro-Chinese attitudes of the Chosun Dynasty in the late 1910s.

In his Theory of the Korean Nation, published in 1933, 'he compared the idea of nation to the notion of "fate," claiming that "Koreans cannot but be Koreans…even when they use the language of a foreign nation, wear its clothes and follow its customs in order to become non-Korean." In his view, nation cannot change because of hyeoltong (bloodline), seonggyeok (personality), and munhwa ( culture) constitute a nation. Here, he defined nation in ethnic and racial terms, departing from his earlier view. […] Yi concluded, "Koreans have been without a doubt a unitary ethnic nation (danil han minjok) in blood and culture for thousands of years." [p. 48-49] As Michael Shin notes, in 1933 he wrote that "language is the soul of the nation." He also argued that "anyone who insults the nation must be denounced as a sinner against the nation." [p. 56] Yi probably came to regret that particular statement.

Worth noting is that Yi, while reacting to Japanese colonial policy, was at the same time influenced by Japanese ultra-nationalism, facism, and campaigns in Japan for ‘Japanization’ rather than ‘westernization.’ [p. 56] And much as we saw an anti-foreign streak in his lashing out at Korea's Confucianists becoming "slaves to Chinese thought," we see that in his view of history, "He blamed Silla for breaking Korea’s national unity by inviting foreign forces into the boundaries of the nation and praised Koryo for recovering those boundaries." This sounds rather similar to North Korea's justification for the last (and perhaps a future) Korean War.[p. 48]

Speaking of history, as the Japanese appeared to show great interest in Korean history, but were actually looking for ways to assimilate Koreans and prove a common ancestral origin of Koreans, Manchurians, and Japanese, the Korean nationalist response grew. As Shin writes, '[c]ampaigns to preserve sites of "National heroes," such as Yi Sunsin, Gwonyul, Dangun, and Euljimundeok, were another effort to demonstrate the uniqueness and greatness of the Korean nation and to preserve the national spirit. When national hero General Yi Sunsin’s tomb was on the auction block to pay off debts in 1931, in May of that year Yi Kwangsu published fourteen articles on his heroism in the newspaper Donga Ilbo. The next month, he began publishing a serialized novel called Yi Sunsin in the same newspaper. […] Within a year, forty six organizations and 21,543 individuals were reported to donate a total of 16,021 won.' [49-50] Similar campaigns also took place. From 1922 to 1937, he wrote numerous novels that were serialized in the Donga Ilbo and later the Chosun Ilbo, with quite a few of them dealing with Korean history. In 1934 he became Buddhist.

To personal anecdote from around 1936, from Agnes Davis Kim's "I Married A Korean," describes a visit with Yi at her house:
One very interesting visitor was Mr. Lee Kwang-Soo, the famous author of Korean novels and stories whose pen name is Choon Won, which means "Spring Garden." He had been David's teacher in O-Sang [Osan] High School, and was very much interested in us. David unfortunately was not home when he came, but he spoke beautiful English and I did my best to entertain him. A short while before, I had illuminated and framed as a gift to David a little poem about my feelings for him. Mr. Lee picked it up, and after reading it asked to make a copy of it. A few days later an article he had written of his impressions of our home appeared in the daily newspaper along with a Korean translation of my poetical efforts [.][...] A short time later we were invited to the home of Mr. Lee Kwang-soo for dinner and an evening of wonderful conversation about Korea and Korean traditions. [p. 151-153]
During the 1920s and 1930s, he was ill with tuberculosis on several occasions and attempted to retreat from the world in places like Geumgangsan. This illness, the death of a son, and the arrest of his mentor, An Chang-ho paved the way for a crisis of faith, and as time went on his interest in Buddhism grew. In 1937 he met with An after his release, but they – and many of the remaining nationalist leaders in the Suyang Tong'uhoe – were soon arrested.

The ideas he presented up to this point have been quite influential. Shin Gi-wook sums up Yi Kwangsu's main concepts of the nation as an organic sense of nation, eternity of nation, and primacy of nation over other collective identities. [p. 108]

Syngman Rhee, the first president of South Korea, was obviously influenced by Yi's ideas when he advocated Ilmin Juui, (One people-ism) which essentially called for a northern advance to reunify the country before the Korean War. As he wrote, "As a unitary nation [danil minjok] that has a long history, we are always one and not two. As one nation, we have to be one always." An Hosang, Rhee's first minister of education, further articulated this, writing, "We are one people. One people has the same bloodline, same fate, and the same ideology," further showing a debt to Yi with words like "fate" and "bloodline." [p. 101-2] Park Chung-hee later proclaimed “Ideology changes, but the nation stays the same,” just as Rhee and Yi Kwangsu had [p. 99].

This should also sound familiar:
How have we come to have such sentiments? The reason is that the idea that we are a single people sharing the same bloodline has been passed down to us in our shared racial consciousness. Today, while the many races on the earth live within their different, respective environments and histories, they are all struggling for sake of their respective race’s development and prosperity. A race/group shares the same blood and uses a common language, while sharing a history and culture. Based on that, the communal consciousness embodied in the word “we” constitutes the meaning of the group. A race/group can share a common name, race, or area, and in the same way, because we share the same bloodline as our ancestors, we can sometimes even call race "a big family." [...] In a family, even if one member moves far away, one cannot say that that person is no longer part of the family. In the same way, if a person born as a member of our race/group lives in another country, and even acquires citizenship there, one cannot come to the conclusion that the person is no longer a member of our race.
Compare the last two sentences to Yi's assertion that "Koreans cannot but be Koreans…even when they use the language of a foreign nation, wear its clothes and follow its customs in order to become non-Korean." The source of the above passage is the 1994 middle school morals textbook, via the Metropolitician (see also here). Note its similarity to this:
The Korean nation is a homogeneous nation that has inherited the same blood and lived in the same territory speaking the same language for thousands of years. All Koreans in the north, south and abroad belong to the same nation with the blood and soul of the Korean nation and are linked inseparably with the same national interests and a common historical psychology and sentiment.
The source of this quote? A 1998 speech by Kim Jong-il titled “Let us unify the country independently and peacefully through the great unity of the entire nation.” [Ethnic Nationalism in Korea, p.93]

Yi Kwangsu and Shin Chae-ho's ideas have influenced the leaders of both Koreas, but what is interesting about Shin is that he later abandoned the minjok as the subject of history and focused on the minjung (less-fortunate masses) instead, writing the "Manifesto of the Korean Revolution" and later becoming an anarchist. He was arrested and imprisoned in 1928, and died in prison in 1936.

Yi, on the other hand, spent only a short time in a Japanese prison before becoming the opposite of Shin - an enthusiastic collaborator.

It is worth noting, however, that the first person to articulate key modern Korean nationalist concepts - which greatly influence how Koreans perceive themselves and their nation's place in the world - later became an anarchist, and the second-most important person eventually became, for all intents and purposes, a Japanese nationalist. Needless to say, those facts are left out of morals textbooks.

Yi seems to me a fascinating person, and it's the pro-Japanese writings I was most interested in finding, but they'll have to wait until the next post.


Sperwer said...

It's "Henry" Em; otherwise another very good past.

matt said...

Fixed - thanks for catching that.

Charles Montgomery said...

Very Nice,

I caught this article over at KTLIT, but didn't go nearly as deep. So I linked you instead. ;-)


Exit86 said...

It is amazing that both Korea's still adhere to these very outdated
ideas of "race" from the 19th century (and early 20th).
So much ink has been wasted on how
unique the Koreans think they are
among all people living in other nations. I've had a heated discussion on the matter with a prominent S.K. archaeologist about the lack of the stomach enzyme which metabolizes alcohol--a physiological feature common to
folks with an East Asian family background (including Native Americans), who believed this to be a purely "Korean" feature.
The same goes with the Haplogroup 03/C3/02b studies--all enzymes which attach to the Y chromosome found very commonly in East-Asian males--though offered as evidence ofa purely unique Korean people by the K. nationalist camp. The same goes with the root structures of the molars and incisors--different among European/Western ethnicities and Asian ethnicgroups--though the same among these Asians.

Get out of the 19th century folks!!!!

Why is it so darn difficult to admit that Koreans are part of the human race? I just don't get it.

Jamie said...

Vladimir Tikonov (Park No Ja) recently gave a talk on these topics, focusing on the way in which Chinese people were depicted in early modern Korean literature, here at UBC. You would have liked it.

Bob said...

Fascinating, thank you.

matt said...

Thanks for the link.

It's for the same reason that people ate up the idea that Koreans were uniquely vulnerable to mad cow disease when PD Diary broadcast it (despite the scientist behind the study saying his work had been misinterpreted).

I imagine that lecture would have been interesting. I've found what Park has to say about the past to be interesting - just as long as he doesn't bring up the present. Case in point, this Hankyoreh op-ed from last week, where he said, in regards to South Korea's options post-Cheonan, that "the only measure is to approach North Korea with humility and try to overcome its otherness." A much better example - and one pertinent to this post - is here, if one avoids the middle east references.

Glad you enjoyed it.

hoihoi51 said...

Hove you ever read his " blood of tears" this book was the first korean modern iterature.
however he was also prp Japan
he wrote how bad Yangbang was and destroyed korea..

He told annextion was demanded by korean side first.