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HAN - The Soul of Korean Literature
By: Alex Kroman
Web Designer, KeganPaul.com
17.09.2000



Listen everybody! Listen to me!
Would youth last forever or white hair ever get black again?
What else can you do but have fun in such a brief life?

Korea has a proud and long-established literary tradition, but while it has produced many fine classical and contemporary works - as well as its own unique form of poetry, the Sijo - Korean literature continues undeservedly to be far less well known in the west than that of China and Japan. With this in mind, a special colloquium was held in Paris from 24 to 26 November, 1994, organised by the University of Paris 7 and the Korean Culture and Arts Foundation, with the cooperation of the Korean Studies Centre of the College de France. Bringing together Korean specialists - both publishers and translators - from different western countries, the aim of this important conference was to consider ways of introducing Korean literature to a wider audience. Speakers from Great Britain - represented by Kegan Paul and the translator Agnita Tennant - France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, Russia and Australia - discussed many aspects of this fascinating field, above all the qualities that make Korean literature unique.

The keynote speech on this subject was given by Park Kyong-ni, Korea's greatest writer of contemporary literature and author of the epic Korean novel Land. In the words of Professor Suh Ji-mun of Korea University, "...the name of Park Kyong-ni evokes in Koreans feelings that no other author does. It inspires pride in her monumental achievements in literature. The magnitude of her work and her austere way of life inspire a feeling akin to awe. And the numerous pains she has suffered at the hands of man and fate (including the loss of her doctor husband, who was abducted by the North Koreans) evoke in Koreans a sympathetic pain and fury. And of course the Koreans love Park Kyong-ni for having given such powerful expression to the hereditary sorrows and regrets that oppress even prosperous modern-day Koreans." Indeed, there could have been no better speaker on the special qualities of Korean literature than Park Kyong-ni. A translation of her talk is presented here:

    The Feelings and Thoughts of the Korean People in Literature

    by Park Kyong-ni

    'Forty years ago, when I was beginning my literary career, I told myself I would become a writer because there was something missing in my life. Even nowadays I still think of it sometimes. Though the idea was fairly clumsily expressed, it remains for me an important idea, one that has grown and developed since. There is something lacking not only in the individual's life, but in all lives. The life of all living things, including plants and insects, lacks something, is therefore not perfect. Living beings live neither in a Christian paradise, nor in a Buddhist paradise, nor in the promised land. Life would lack nothing, would be perfect in the beyond which we dream of. If we lived in paradise, there would be no tears, no separation, no hunger, no waiting, no suffering, no oppression, no war, no death. We would no longer need either hope or despair. We would lose those hopes so dear to us all. We Koreans call these hopes Han. It is not an easy word to understand. It has generally been understood as a sort of resentment. But I think it means both sadness and hope at the same time. You can think of Han as the core of life, the pathway leading from birth to death. Literature, it seems to me, is an act of Han and a representation of it.

    'Han is a characteristic feeling of the Korean people. But it has come to be seen as a decadent feeling, because of the 36-year Japanese occupation. It is understood simply as sorrow, or resignation, or a sigh. Some have compared it to the Japanese word ourami, meaning hate or vengeance, but that s quite absurd. This nonsense is the result perhaps of the identity of the Chinese character or it may be a kind of left-over from the Japanese occupation. The Japanese word ourami evokes images of the sword and the seeds of militarism, and is a characteristic feeling of the Japanese, for whom vengeance is a virtue. Therefore the Japanese word ourami is completely different from the Korean word Han. As I have already said, Han is an expression of the complex feeling which embraces both sadness and hope. The sadness stems from the effort by which we accept the original contradiction facing all living things, and hope comes from the will to overcome the contradiction. In the present, we accept it; in the future, we will overcome it. Life for all living things is full of contradictions. Where there is centrifugal force, there is also centripetal force. Where there is a beginning, there is also an end. Where space lasts for ever, time passes. And all who are born must die. Thus we become aware of existence, time, space and life itself. Finally, we have to admit the contradictory duality of life. It is very easy to resign ourselves to this contradiction, but we can think of it in another way. We can think of ourselves as actively conforming to the laws of the universe. This is the way in which Koreans strive to overcome the contradictions of life. When we are poor, we think of Han. We therefore work hard in order to buy lots of land. When we are ignorant, we are mindful of Han. We educate our children in order to deliver them from Han, that is why the passion for educating the young is so ardent in Korea. We cannot however completely deliver ourselves from Han in this world, because Han is also a hope for the future. This is how Han becomes more profound and touches upon shamanism. Shamanism is based on life and extends to the infinite universe. We Koreans believe that the dead have only left this world, that they are not completely dead and that they are still living somewhere in the universe. That is why we say, when someone dies, that he has left this world or that he has returned. This thought is fundamentally different form that of the Japanese who use the word sinda (he is dead) or the word nakunata (he has disappeared). Our ancestors did not consider death as the end. That is why at our funerals there are not only tears of sorrow but also tables covered with drinks and sweetmeats. At funerals we feel as we do on festival days. Moreover, we long ardently to communicate with the souls of the dead. It is our will to overcome the contradictions of life. We do not wish to destroy the laws of the universe, but to arrive at a place where there are no longer any contradictions. This desire translates itself into a respect for all living things. It is because of the grandeur of life that we respect a thousand year old tree. We long with all our heart to communicate with all souls because spirituality seems to us to be the source of life. We believe that spirituality is found in every living thing. In this way we have become aware of the equality of all lives.

    'Han, which comprises both sadness and hope, is a feeling unique to the Korean people, especially the poor. One hundred years ago, shamanism was revived among the Korean people thanks to the oriental doctrine of Dong Hak. They proclaimed respect for all creatures, since human selfishness was about to rush us into the end of the world. It is not a choice between two alternatives, but a thought which prepares for the future by embracing contradiction.

    'It's a pity I don't have enough time for a detailed explanation. I would therefore like to tell you briefly how contradiction is embraced and Han (sadness and hope) represented in some famous and classic Korean novels. The theme of The Life of Simchong is death, its story that of a young girl who dies for her father in the sea and is born again surrounded by flowers. The theme of The Life of Hungbu is poverty and that of The Life of Choonhyang is oppression. These three novels with varying themes have in common duality and contradiction. For the comic element exists alongside the tragic in these three novels, which tell of the most tragic situations in which living beings can find themselves. Optimism is revealed in the broad humour and satire which sparkle throughout, like jewels. Sobs as well as unrestrained laughter, the serious alongside the joking, pessimism with optimism, all at the same time. Entertaining humour makes us like even the villains. In these novels, based on the duality and the contradiction between tragedy and comedy, the essence of Han is to be found. The balance and the tension of life - in other words, life's true face - is clearly revealed here.

    'To end, I would like to talk about our contemporary literature. In Korea our literature seems very rich and varied, reflecting all aspects of life. But why does this richness make us anxious? Why does this variety trouble us? We have to admit that we are in a state of crisis, worsening every day. Occasionally we notice that our literature has taken a very wrong direction and is distancing itself more and more from true life and from truth. The 20th century has seen many remarkable events - for example, man has walked on the moon. But the fundamental question remains the same. Have we given up on it? It goes without saying that this fundamental question is to do with life. The civilisation which claimed to raise the quality of life is in the process of breaking up under our eyes. In other words, literature is straying away from culture and is rushing towards civilisation. In the novels we hear the metallic sound of machines instead of human breathing. Life and truth, dissected like a corpse into thin slices, have disappeared from novels. Literary works are openly considered as good to be sold in the market place, judged only by their price. We will not accept what is not certain. We will accept only what is visible. Do you think that what is not certain does not exist? But it does. We live surrounded by what is not certain. Do you think that the invisible doesn't exist? And that it would not concern us even if it did exist? But it does. There is an infinite universe beyond what we can see, and we are all connected to it. Is creativity possible in a world limited and framed by the certain and the visible? Only copies would be produced. The materialism which believes only the certain and the visible has destroyed the earth. Living things, abandoning themselves to the pleasures of hyper-consumerism, are buried in garbage. Will writers remain just as spectators of all this? Do they want to enjoy the comforts of modern life, constantly offered to us by civilisation? I am deeply grieved by this. I assure you that there is no hope for our times unless we respect other creatures. I told a young person who wishes to become a writer: `Don't try to write till you have overcome your narcissism or self-interest, till you have been touched by compassion for all living things.'


A true appreciation of Korean literature, and of Han, can only be gained by reading. Both can be relished to the full in Park Kyong-ni's epic novel Land, published in English by Kegan Paul.

A translation of 'The Life of Simchong' appears in Korean Classical Literature, a volume in Kegan Paul's Korean Culture Series edited by Chung Chong-wha.


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