[Kim Seong-kon] The books that shaped Korea

By Yu Kun-ha
  • Published : Apr 23, 2013 - 19:52
  • Updated : Apr 23, 2013 - 19:52
Recently, I was asked to write a blurb for the Korean translation of Thomas C. Foster’s book, “Twenty-five Books That Shaped America,” published by Random House Korea. As a professor of American literature, I immensely enjoyed reading the book originally published by Harper Collins in 2011. And I was equally impressed by the author’s profound insight into and powerful criticism of American culture and society, not to mention his erudite knowledge of American literature.

In this impressive book, professor Foster’s selection was quite appropriate. Perhaps I would have included Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz” and J. D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” rather than Willa Cather’s “My Antonia” or Langston Hughes’s “The Weary Blues.” Nevertheless, Foster pleased me by including Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49” and Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss)’s “The Cat in the Hat,” all of which deeply influenced and shaped the American mind. 

Reading the book, one can find Foster’s thesis persuasive and his perception penetrating. By analyzing representative American literary works in light of what Leslie Fiedler called “the American mythos,” the author tackles the question, “What is America?” throughout the book. A remarkable page-turner, this intriguing book enables us to understand America by providing a 21st-century interpretation of 25 American books that shaped the American mind and psyche.

While envying the great literary heritage of the United States that shaped America, it suddenly occurred to me, “Do we not have 25 books that shaped Korea?” Subsequently, some other questions follow as well: “What is the Korean mythos? Why do we not have a book tackling such questions and bearing such a title?”

In fact, we, too, have some outstanding literary works that shaped the Korean mind. In classical literature, for example, Pak Chiwon’s “The Story of Yangban” comes to mind first. In this sarcastic story, Pak poignantly satirizes the aristocratic Yangban class (predominantly scholars, though it includes warriors as well) that was plagued by hypocritical and opportunistic attitudes. It is not going too far to say that this well-known satire of the Yangban significantly contributed to shaping the Korean mind that regards the ruling class, including scholars and politicians, as fundamentally deceitful and unreliable hypocrites.

When it comes to the classical literary work that shaped the Korean mind, one cannot omit “The Story of Hong Gil-dong.” A Korean version of Robin Hood, Hong Gil-dong is an illegitimate son of an ex-Cabinet minister, who is deprived of all the privileges of the Yangban class according to social custom. Frustrated, Hong leaves his home and becomes a righteous bandit who steals money from the rich and distributes it to the poor. In the eyes of most Koreans who detest the rich and powerful, Hong has always been a charming hero who provides catharsis for them.

Another classical tale that presumably shaped the Korean mind is “The Story of Heungbu and Nolbu.” It is a story of two brothers who are quite different: Nolbu, the older brother, is rich, mean and cruel, whereas Heungbu, the little brother, is poor, nice and good-natured. Perhaps from this story, Koreans have developed their ungrounded distrust and hatred of the rich.

Koreans also like “The Story of Chunhyang,” not only because Chunhyang is an emblem of women’s fidelity, but because the male protagonist, who turns out to be the Secret Royal Inspector, punishes the tyrannical local magistrate who forces Chunhyang to give up her chastity to him. Oppressed by the politically powerful for a long time, Koreans traditionally abominate power-wielding government officials. Meanwhile, “The Story of Simcheong” is also loved by many Koreans because it reflects the strong Korean tradition of filial piety, even though it is rapidly disappearing from our society these days.

Among modern literary works, we can bring up Yi Kwang-su’s “Heartless.” In the early 20th century, this modern novel greatly inspired the Korean people who were passively dormant in the shadow of the past in a pre-modern, colonial society. Hwang Sun-won’s “Crane” delineates the tragic situation of the Korean Peninsula that is divided into North and South due to political ideologies. In the story, Hwang celebrates warm friendship and humanity that transcend and overcome ideological differences. Kim Tong-ni’s “Portrait of a Shaman” deals with the clashes between shamanism and Christianity, tradition and innovation, and the East and the West, all of which were compelling issues in late 19th and early 20th century Korea.

Meanwhile, Kim Sung-ok’s “Seoul, 1964 Winter,” Cho Se-hui’s “The Dwarf” and Yi Mun-yol’s “Our Twisted Hero” have also deeply impacted the Korean mind by brilliantly depicting the Korean people’s predicaments during the military dictatorship in a rapidly industrializing society. So Chong-ju’s poem, “Beside a Chrysanthemum,” touches upon strong Buddhist traditions among the Korean people.

It would be worthwhile if someone in Korea wrote a book called “Twenty-five Books That Shaped Korea.” It would be meaningful to understand Korea through the representative literary works we have produced, because in our literature we can also discover the Korean mythos and Korean archetypes. 

By Kim Seong-kon 

Kim Seong-kon is a professor of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. He can be reached at sukim@snu.ac.kr. ― Ed.