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Korean Literature

Land (3 vols: Vol 1: 378 pp.; Vol 2: 392 pp.; Vol 3: 402 pp.) by Pak Kyung-Ni and translated with Introduction and glossary by Agnita Tennant (Global Oriental: Brill) Acclaimed as the most powerful and important piece of Modern Korean writing, the epic sweep of Land is breathtaking in its conception and execution. Set against the background of the struggle between conservative and modernizing forces at the turn of the twentieth century, it follows the fortunes of several generations of Korean villagers during a time of unsurpassed turbulence and change. To Korean readers, upon whose imagination Land has an unparalleled hold, and for whom the characters and village have a palpable reality, it is the great national novel — the work that embodies—the many elements that make up Korea and the Koreans of today.

Beginning with the village's celebration of the Harvest Moon Festival in 1897, the plot takes place over a ten-year period and revolves around the household of Ch'oe Chisu, a rich landowner, who, though envied by many for his wealth, is embittered by the fact that his wife has not borne him a son. Characters emerge upon whom the rest of the story devolves — including the Lady Yun with her prophetic wisdom; the wilful Sohui, daughter of Ch'oe Chisu; and the tender-hearted Wolson, accepting as her due the ignominy of life as a shaman's daughter.

An enthralling saga and panorama of Korean village life in the early 20th century (roughly 1895-1925) by that country's most highly acclaimed living novelist. The story, which possesses both the formal dimensions and the high seriousness of epic, is set in a period during which Japan held strong sway over Korea, regulating its business and industry and making arbitrary land grants to Japanese settlers. At the heart of the novel is a series of conflicts between Korean conservatives too enervated to oppose Japan's acquisitive energies and radical native insurgents. Their resistance culminated in the Dong Hak rebellion, a watershed historical event that casts long shadows over the intricately interwoven fates of Kyong-Ni's vividly drawn characters--most especially Choi Chisoo, an arrogant, wealthy landowner, hated and envied by his neighbors and servants, and at continual odds with his embittered wife, whose ``failure'' to bear him a son provokes Choi's bitter displeasure and sets in motion a chain of events leading to his downfall. The author employs a kind of Upstairs, Downstairs structure, in which nondescript villagers and assorted second-class citizens observe, comment on, and in some ways parallel the lives of their ``betters.'' Among the most memorable are Pyongsan, an impoverished landowner waiting patiently through half a lifetime to be revenged on the avaricious Choi; the handsome villager Yongi; and the scheming Guinyo, the ambitious housemaid whose plan to rise above her station precipitates chaos, losses, and death, and drives the story to its stunning, tragic conclusion. The energy of melodrama surges through this big novel, yet as a portrait of a culture and a knowing psychological tale of the social and personal consequences of rigidly enforced class differences, it's a work of high literary distinction as well. A much-beloved work in Korea (where it was made into an equally popular television series) that should find many grateful admirers in America as well.

Pak Kyung-Ni (1926-2008); writing with such intensity on the timeless themes of humanity such as love, treachery, the gap between rich and poor, fate, and deep-rooted traditions facing the tide of change, has produced a magnificent work that is a monumental achievement in the literature of Korea, and of the world at large. In many ways Pak Kyung-Ni is like the Thomas Hardy or Charles Dickens of Korea. She chronicles the transition between an agrarian and Confucian-style ethos through the dramatic throes of urbanization, colonial occupation and war. Here in these three volume is to be found the heart and soul of Korea. Readers should be aware, however, that although these three volumes only contain Part I of the original five-part epic, it stands out as a self-contained story, enabling it to be read in isolation from the rest of the work.

AGNITA TENNANT, née Hong, was born in Korea. She was educated at Yonsei University. In Britain, she studied at Loughborough University and received her PhD there. She worked as a librarian in Leicestershire and taught Modern Korean Literature at Sheffield University. She has also translated and published a number of Korean short stories.

In the history of modern Korean literature the achievements of Pak Kyong-Ni are outstanding. Her prolific output which includes scores of novels, short stories, poetry and essays, together with her wide influence over the Korean literary world, merit awarding her the title of literary giant.

From the Preface to Pak Kyongni ed. Professor Ch'oeYuch'an

pak Kyung-Ni (also expressed as Pak Kyongni) was born in 1926 in Ch'ungmu. She had acquired the ability to take pleasure in reading from an early age. By the time she was a high school student, she was an avid reader. She read large volumes of world literature in Japanese translations, Korea being under Japanese rule from 1919 to 1945. She passionately read Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Maupassant, Ibsen, Hardy, Dickens and the Brontes. At my first meeting with her in 1980 I was impressed by her knowledge of the heroes and heroines of Western novels. It is clear that what she absorbed at an impressionable age had a lasting effect on her mind. It is not hard to make the link between what Pak had read as a teenager and the contribution this made to her creativity. Pak's writing style and her literary form are very close to that of nineteenth-century European writing even though her sensibilities and her subject matters are entirely indigenous. The same could be said about most of her contemporaries and the writers of the previous generation. They had experienced Western literature through Japanese translations in the early days of modern Korean literature in the 1920s and the 1930s. For this reason, modern Korean literature, unlike the classical writing, which preceded it, can be more easily understood and accepted by Western readers.

Pak is a writer who created art out of human sorrow — sorrow she knew through her own experience but largely through her perceptive imagination. She has created numerous characters who endure profound sorrow, and through hardship uphold their human dignity to the end. For much of her life, Pak experienced sadness: As a child she had an unhappy relationship with her father. She married at twenty in 1946 and had a daughter in the same year, but only four years later she became a widow in 1950, when the Korean War broke out. Suddenly she found herself the breadwinner for her family including her mother who was also a widow and her young daughter. She made her literary debut in 1955 with the first of many short stories written throughout the 1950s. These stories reflected the absurdities of society in the post-civil war years. 'A Time of Disbelief' (Pulssinsidae) published in 1957 was a culmination of these themes and became a landmark in Korean literature of the 1950s bringing her recognition as a formidable writer.

Pak produced all her major novels in the 1960s including 'Fields in Sunset' (Nouljin tulnyuok),`The Daughters of the Apothecary, Kim', 'The Marketplace and the Battlefield' .

In 1969 Pak launched on her magnum opus, Land (T'ojI) that was to take her the next twenty-five years to complete. Throughout the 1970s Pak worked on Land in most unfavourable, harrowing circumstances. In 1973 her only daughter married Kim Chiha, a poet. It was rumoured that Pak herself encouraged this marriage as she saw much promise in Kim. The 1970s was a politically troubled time in South Korea and Kim Chiha became a dissident voice through his poems against the dictatorial military government. He was arrested and held in prison repeatedly until finally being released in 1980. Being a member of a dissident's family was not a comfortable state to live in. The earnings from her writing, with which she had to support her family, were meagre.

In the 1980s Pak's efforts with Land were beginning to be rewarded as the popularity of the novel escalated. By 1993, when Land was finally completed and all its five parts published in sixteen volumes by Sol Publishers it was met with unprecedented acclaim. Pak was hailed as the author of the nation and honoured with an honorary doctorate from Ewha Womens' University. She received many national and international literary awards including one from the government of The Gabriela Mistral Commemorative Medal.

No longer an impoverished breadwinner Pak became a cultural patron, and in 1996 founded 'The T'oji Cultural Foundation'.As one of the foundation's projects, it was proposed to build a house to facilitate various cultural events and activities. At the opening ceremony in 1999 the then President Kim Dae Jung addressed the audience. In his laudation, he said, as he recited a passage from the novel, `T'oji was a book that has moved me most profoundly.'

Land is a narrative on a vast scale. It has been acclaimed as the most powerful and important work in modern Korean literature. While it is the greatest national novel, it has at the same time a universal appeal -as it deals with fundamental, borderless and timeless themes of humanity such as love, treachery, the gap between the rich and poor, fate, and deep-rooted traditions facing the tide of change.

Starting at the turn of the twentieth Century, Land follows the fortunes and misfortunes of several generations of the villagers of a traditional farming community. In the centre of the community is the Ch'oe family, the landlords that had reigned over the area for many generations.

Covering the period from 1897 to 1945, the year of Japanese capitulation at the end of the Second World War, Land is in five parts, some 7,000 pages with several hundred characters. Each part is set in a different location and employs somewhat different narrative techniques. This difference would seem especially noticeable in the writing style between the first three parts, first serialized in magazines in 1969-77, then published in book form in 1970-80, and Parts Four and Five, first serialized in a paper in 1987, then in several book editions in the succeeding`years.

The three volumes published by Global Oriental constitute the first part of Land. Fortunately for the readers of this book, Part One stands out as a self-contained story, so it can be read in isolation from the rest of the series.

Part One was written with such intensity that readers can almost perceive the author's emotion as she, driven by a powerful inspiration, pours her heart and soul into her writing. In this part of Land the story moves fast and dramatically. At my interview with the author in 1980 she told me that in writing Land she hadn't even needed to make any memos or notes as everything was so vivid in her mind. Part One is the first fruit of this vivid inspiration. It was then still early days and at that stage she had not expected it would grow into such a vast novel. I imagine that Pak, who passed away in 2008, would not have said the same as regards the volumes that followed Part One. She wrote the early part of Land while she was fighting cancer. She says:

Writing was the basis of my existence. I could not imagine myself not writing. As long as I breathed I would be writing. Two weeks after my operation I resumed my writing, my breast tightly bound up with bandages. When I had written one hundred sheets, I shuddered at my own tenacity...(From the author's preface)

Part One deals with the decline of the Ch'oe household. It covers some ten years from 1897. Some historical events that happened during this period are frequently referred to. It would be helpful for the reader to know them:

1. The Tonghak Movement — originally a peasant uprising against a corrupt local government, and against the incoming waves of the foreign influence — had been brutally crushed by the government a few years back.
2. In Korea, Japanese influence was increasing until in 1905 a Protectorate Treaty was signed. Korea became a Japanese Protectorate paving the way to an annexation five years later in 1910.
3. Internally the conflicts between the conservatives and the so-called Enlightenment parties were getting intense.
4. In the royal court a family feud between Queen MM and the Regent Taewon'gun was growing in intensity.
5. Queen Min's murder by Japanese assassins, and the Hair Cut Edict which forced Koreans to cut their hair against the traditional Confucian custom among other edicts roused strong anti-Japanese feelings among the people.

The human drama opens and unfolds against this background. It starts with the village celebration of the Harvest Moon Festival. All the characters are brought in one by one to join the party, each with his or her individuality that will carry throughout the novel. Readers who are familiar with Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native may be reminded of its opening chapters, in which the villagers appear one by one going up to Rainborrow to take part in their customary bonfire party. Indeed throughout Land they may notice in some parts that a sort of affinity exists between Hardy and Pak. For example, the role of nature in both writers' works is an important feature. One could say that the handling of nature, making it an integral part of the fabric of the story, is done in a similar vein. Both writers also display an unmistakable humanism as well as fatalistic pessimism.

In Land, Pak has created a gallery of unforgettable characters. There are the embittered, heirless present landlord, Ch'oe Chisu; his graceful mother, Lady Yun; Ch'isu's daughter, Sohui; a fallen gentleman who covets the wealth of Ch'isu, also many villagers, each with his or her disposition, among themYongi, a tenant farmer who cannot lawfully marry his childhood sweetheart Wolson, the daughter of a shaman, because of the class barrier. The most important character of the novel is obviously Sohui, the heiress to the Ch'oe family. She shows a strong personality and plays a major role from the early stage, though still young in Part One, and her role extends throughout the series to the last.There are many impressive secondary plots within Part One, of which the story of the love ofYongi and Wolson stands out. It has an unsurpassed beauty and will bring to Western readers' minds Bronte's Heathcliff and Hardy's Tess.

Part One of Land which opens with a joyous gathering of villagers celebrating the Harvest Moon Festival in the village called P'yongsari in 1897, closes ten years later with the mass exodus of a large number of them to Chianto in Manchuria.

Pak Kyung-Ni died 5 May 2008. Her funeral resembled a state funeral; people lined the roads where her funeral cortege passed, an occasion befitting a hero's send off.


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