우물 안 개구리

6/22/2007

History ‘faction’

According to the Hankyoreh, historical novels are all the rage at the moment in Korea. This doesn’t really surprise me all that much as historical novels seem to be pretty popular everywhere at the moment, although in Korea there always seems to be something more of an overtly political aspect to the popular fascination with history.

Unfortunately the article doesn’t really provide any convincing answers to the question of why historical fiction is particularly popular the moment:

…few deny that historical novels have their own special appeal. Lee Myeong-won, a book critic, said the unusual popularity of historical fiction can be ascribed to the easiness with which novelists find things to write about, compared to the difficulty authors face when trying to grapple with what is transpiring now in current society. In addition, authors are able to ride on the interest surrounding historical events in which people tend to hold fascination.

I’ve brought up this subject before here, so I obviously have quite an interest in the relationship between academic history and popular history/historical consciousness in the form of books, TV series and films. Is the popular depiction of historical events and characters all about entertainment, or is it really about a subtle (and not so subtle) type of ideology formation? Or perhaps people’s desire to read and write about history (outside of the academic paradigm) plays a deeper, more constructive role in society?

3/26/2007

Remixing Tagore

Filed under: — Owen @ 8:15 am Print

This story in the Korea Times about Rabrindranath Tagore’s poem ‘The Lamp of the East’ caught my eye. In the South Korean nationalist imagination this poem has a remarkably important position as a sort of ‘external legitimator’ for Korean independence. But according to the KT, the version that appears in many of the nation’s high school textbooks has, shall we say, been remixed and enhanced:

…the poem titled “The Lamp of the East” seems to have been over glorified to the point where it has taken on a life of its own, spawning hundreds of different versions with stronger words and longer passages to boost nationalistic sentiment.

More specifically, it seems that an unrelated passage has been taken from Tagore’s poetry collection Gitanjali and added to his original poem about Korea published in the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper in 1929:

“The version of the poem that combines excerpts from Gitanjali has been widely spread for a long time and it is often mentioned by politicians and even newspaper columnists. There are even some literary schoolbooks that list the variation as the original version of `The Lamp of the East,”’ a high school history teacher in Seoul, who asked not to be named, said.

According the Wikipedia article about him, Tagore himself was not exactly the model independence fighter and was almost killed by Indian expatriates while staying in San Francisco in 1916 because of his apparent lack of devotion to the cause of Indian independence. In fact, from a strictly nationalist point of view you could say that he sounds a bit like Yi Kwangsu – a mixture of the good and the dubious. Interestingly enough the very comprehensive article doesn’t mention Korea once, so it would seem that the significance of Tagore for Koreans is not necessarily matched by the significance of Korea to Tagore and his legacy. Actually, one wonders whether it was in fact the strong impression made by the Koreans that Tagore met in Tokyo (Dong-A bureau chief Yi T’aero and poet Chu Yohan) in 1929 that moved him to write his famous-in-Korea poem as much as his feelings about a country he was never able to visit.

There are many fascinating aspects to this literary-historical episode: the creation of historical memory and national identity; the fundamentally non-self-contained nature of nationalism and its need for external legitimation; and questions concerning the malleability and authenticity of a literary text (especially when in translation). But perhaps what intrigues me most of all, is who actually came up with the idea of remixing Tagore’s poem in the first place, and why did they feel the need to do so.

In case people are interested, I’ve transcribed below the original text (with original han’gul spellings and hanja preserved – the jpeg was not too clear so I hope I’ve rendered the spellings correctly) of Chu Yohan’s translation of Tagore’s poem that appears in the picture of the Dong-A article provided by the Korea Times:

일즉이 亞細亞의 黃金時期에
빗나든 燈燭의 하나인 朝鮮
그 燈불 한번다시 켜지는 날에
너는 東方의 밝은 비치 되리라

English original:

In the golden age of Asia
Korea was one of its lamp-bearers
And that lamp is waiting to be lighted once again
For the illumination in the East.

For the sake of comparison, the extra 11 lines added from Gitanjali song 35 and included in the version of the poem known to many Koreans are below the fold.
(more…)

2/18/2007

Boston and the Bamboo Grove

Filed under: — Owen @ 2:23 pm Print

I must admit that I’ve not felt at all keen on bringing up here the most recent Korea-related history controversy to hit the news. As many readers are probably already aware, many Korean-Americans and the majority of the South Korean media have been upset over the book So Far from the Bamboo Grove. I suppose my reluctance is due to the fact that I find something particularly depressing about the whole business. Perhaps it’s the sense that this seems to pit different immigrant groups in the US rather pointlessly against one another. In any case, I’ve been sent some links to articles on this matter by an editor at the Boston Globe, which I will post here in the interests of sharing information.

The first one covers the South Korean angle, noting that the South Korean consulate has asked the (Massachusetts) Department of Education to ‘rethink its use of the book’. The second concerns the author’s (Yoko Kawashima Watkins) response to the controversy at a recent press conference, where she seemed to admit to certain problems with her book by offering to see if a more extensive historical introduction could be included in future editions.

Personally, I think Professor Carter Eckert of Harvard already pinpointed rather well (in the same newspaper back in December – reg. required) the core of this controversy and why the use of the book as school text has upset Korean-Americans so much:

While Yoko’s story is compelling as a narrative of survival, it achieves its powerful effect in part by eliding the historical context in which Yoko and her family had been living Korea. That context, simply put, was a 40-year record of harsh colonial rule in Korea, which reached its apogee during the war years of 1937-45, when Yoko was growing up.

This is not an argument for censorship or banning books. There is no reason why Watkins’s book cannot be used in the schools. Introduced carefully and wisely, in conjunction, for example, with Richard Kim’s classic “Lost Names,” an autobiographical novel about a young Korean boy living at the end of Japanese colonial rule in the 1940s, it can help students understand how perspectives vary according to personal and historical circumstances.

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