“One Hundred Years of Modern Korean Literature” at Boston University – 1

I have hesitated to start a “blog” section because I was afraid I will end up saying something egregiously irrelevant. Nonetheless, I think this page would be the most appropriate place to jot down and share my thoughts and life events that are relevant to my research interest.

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This morning, I set out to Boston University to check out a Classical Chinese workshop offered by a professor from Keio University. However, when I got to the room I thought was going to be the classroom, I didn’t see anyone at all. I tried to find a room number for the workshop on the web but couldn’t, so I rode my bicycle back to Tufts. After I arrived at Tufts and had lunch, I found out Boston University was hosting a conference on modern Korean literature. Most of the topics that were being presented today were also the topics I’ve been thinking or curious about, so I took a cab and arrived at Boston University again.

Unfortunately, presentations on Zainichi literature, one of the topics I’ve become interested in, were almost over. But the rest of the presentations were still thought-provoking.  Some of the thoughts I had:

1.

I shared this one in public, but I think there was a language barrier between professor Hatano Setsuko (University of Niigata Prefecture) and me that the professor didn’t fully grasp my question. (Obviously, I need to practice how to express theoretical concepts in Korean.) Professor Hatano pointed out how Koreans stopped using Chinese characters, and how that is leading the Korean language to “move away” from Chinese characters.  Unlike Japanese, who uses Chinese characters with Kana, Koreans no longer perceive words that are derived from Chinese characters in the context of the original characters because they only use Hangeul. In other words, words that are based on Chinese characters are Koreanized.

And this made me wonder what significance does “moving away” really have. The Korean language indeed is moving away from Chinese characters, and as a person who also knows the Japanese language, I fully agree with the comparison the professor made. However,  even though Chinese characters are so Koreanized that they are no longer visible in Korean texts, aren’t they still present in the Korean language as a background, registered in Korean people’s subconsciousness? So, instead of understanding the replacement of Chinese characters as “moving away” from them, shouldn’t we think of it as a furtive mode of embodying Chinese characters in our consciousness? Moreover, erasing Chinese characters from the surface while letting them thrive in the background allows them to haunt the Korean language and Koreans’ linguistic consciousness. Indeed, learning Chinese characters has become the national and/or educational issue in South Korea on a regular basis. For example, the generation above me didn’t learn Chinese characters in school, but my generation learned Chinese characters (although once or twice a week). Ten years later, around three years ago, the government suggested including Chinese characters in the Korean language textbooks for elementary students, which stirred the Korean public. Therefore, the ghost of “Chinese characters” have shown up and are always ready to show up, and they inevitably will show up again.

That being said, I am wondering what significance Mujeong (the first Korean novel written only in Korean characters, which was the presentation topic of professor Hatano) has for Korean literature under this context.

 

2.

Professor Immanuel Kim (SUNY Binghamton)’s exposition of South Korea’s perception of North Korea was interesting. However, I still wondered what “understanding North Korean literature” precisely means. Readers from South Korea and the United States, as he said, have perceived North Korean literature through an ideological lens. So one obvious aspect of “understanding” would be freeing oneself from this lens as much as possible. What was vague to me was the object we were trying to understand is. Are we simply trying to get rid of our “South Korean” perception of them (and thus understand North Korean literature as it is influenced by the North Korean ideology), or are we trying to be cautious of assuming any type of ideology in our understanding, whether it be North or South? Of course, perceiving any material entirely free from an ideology is impossible, but I wonder if this is the direction we are imagining when we say “understanding North Korean literature.” I didn’t ask the question because the person who asked a question before me asked a similar question…I think.

After the conference, I tried to join the professors and researchers to have a dinner and talk more about their projects. Unfortunately, unlike Allston Asian restaurants I had imagined, the restaurant was a lot fancier than I thought. Because the conference had reserved a small room for the exact number of people, I had to come back home. I was planning to squeeze a chair in and join the conversation if it was a typical Allston Korean restaurant, but oh well.

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