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Korean modernism supplanted realism as the dominant trend in literature with the demise of the Korean Artist’s Proletariat Federation (KAPF) in the early 1930s. There is in Korean literary modernism a strong sense of the belatedness that is found in many aspects of colonial modernity, and this perhaps explains why characteristic writings (in both prose and verse) were less the critique of modernity found in western high modernism than an expression of a “will to modernity” that included a strong desire to move away from traditional conventions, especially those governing art and morality.

This article will discuss the critique of traditional morality and aesthetics as found in the writings of Yi Hyosŏk, one of Korea’s better known modernists. In mounting his modernist critique of the conservative Confucian morality that had governed social interaction in Korea for 500 years, Yi used a pronounced eroticism in his works and produced sexually liberated female (often femme fatale) characters who are not morally conflicted in the use of their sexuality for pleasure or power, a stance I am calling antimorality.

literary modernism , will to modernity , anti-morality , eroticism , femme fatale

    Korea’s literary modernism movement of the 1930s created (arguably) some of the most iconic and enduring literature of the modern period. Interestingly, though, critical commentary on Korean modernist literature mostly relegates it to a subordinate position in relation to realism literature of the same period. This is partly due to the fact that most of the commentary on modernism was produced in the 1980s and 1990s when the prevailing critical sentiment was overwhelmingly informed by the minjung movement that privileged (especially social) realism over other forms of writing. Modernists were characterized by one critic writing in the 1990s as being nothing more than “dandy boys addicted to western literature.” Many critics writing in the 1980s and 90s dismissed Korean literary modernism (both poetry and prose) as little more than a literature of the alienated bourgeoisie that could, at best perhaps, boast of some technical innovation.

    It is not merely technical innovation, however, that sets colonial era modernist literature apart from other genres of the period; modernist novelists like Yi Sang, Pak T’aewŏn, and Yi Hyosŏk were utilizing new, modern themes that in some ways challenged the traditional status quo and in other ways reflected the new, modern social consciousness. This was especially true of Yi Sang and Yi Hyosŏk’s use of erotic themes, images, and plot devices that were clearly subversive of traditional Confucian morality, most conspicuously in their liberal employment of the sexually liberated femme fatale, a modernist theme discoverable in the writings of D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and Katherine Mansfield, writers that directly influenced both Yi Hyosŏk and Pak T’aewŏn.

    While western modernism has been explained as a reaction to modernity, the Korean modernists had not been modern long enough to be disillusioned with modernity itself. Korean literary modernism of the colonial period came into being belatedly compared to that of the West and even of Japan, and how could it not? What is more, it had a very brief run before being choked off by the militarism and fascism of the later colonial period,2 thereby not being able to develop to the extent that modernist literatures in other countries did. This, perhaps, explains the relative paucity of critical treatment of this genre, but it does not explain the predominately negative (belated) response by critics writing after the 1980s who, almost without exception, framed their critiques of modernist literature in terms of its lack of literary value vis-á-vis realism (read proletariat) literature. While this criticism attempted to address the aesthetics of modernism, its ideological intentions are quite obvious. And while there is something of an effort recently to re-evaluate the writings of Yi Hyosŏk in a new, more positive light, very little is said about his nature as a modernist, and almost nothing has been written in Korean (that I can discern) about Korean literary modernism since the early 2000s.

    This article, then, after a review of the critical treatment of Korean literary modernism in general, will attempt to locate and explicate the modernist nature of Yi Hyosŏk’s writings as found in his use of erotic themes and lack of moralizing narrators that serve to both challenge and subvert the traditional (male-centered) morality of the time.

    2The Korean literary modernist period lasted less than ten years, from the early 1930s until perhaps 1941. Japanese literary modernism started a decade earlier but the curtain fell in Japan at the same time due to the re-evaluation of, and backlash against, western modernity that culminated in the symposium held in Kyoto in the summer of 1942 attended by prominent critics, thinkers, scholars, and writers dedicated to the “question of how to overcome the modern.” See Harry Harootunian, Overcome by Modernity: History, Culture, and Community in Interwar Japan, Shisedo, 2000.


    In talking about what should be included in a modernist canon of fiction in his book The Modernist Novel, Stephen Kern resists the idea of expanding the spatial scope of such a canon. He states, “Expanding the spatial range of sources globally makes it difficult to identify a common culture based on shared experience.”3 Actually, this sounds reasonable, and may even be necessary when trying to deal with a subject like literary modernism, which has been notoriously hard to neatly package. And yet, it is also a fact that there are non-canonical modernisms that deserve our attention; the modernist literature that resulted from the convergence of artistic, cultural, and societal factors that shaped life in the colonial capital of Seoul in the 1930s is one of them. Among the body of work that constitutes Korean literary modernism, Yi Hyosŏk is conspicuous for his use of erotic themes that, in their anti-moralism, subvert traditional notions of Korean morality and, in their highly individual and idiosyncratic themes, impugn the totalizing Japanese imperial project of assimilation.

    With the Japanese colonization of Korea beginning in 1910, the modernity that Japan had so single-mindedly been pursuing since the advent of the Meiji Restoration (1868-1869) began to literally pour into Korea. The success of Japan’s “benchmarking” of western modernity is well documented. What is not so widely known is that the Japanese, while constructing modern universities based mostly on the German model, took the study and teaching of English literature very seriously. The sixth imperial university constructed in Seoul in 1926, Kyŏngsŏng (J. Keijō) Imperial University was no exception. Satō Kiyoshi, the chairman of the English Literature Department studied in Britain focusing on both the romantics and the newly emerging modernists like Yeats. This, combined with the large number of Koreans studying literature in Japan, led to a rapid assimilation of western literary trends and techniques in the colony.4

    Just as the industrialization and modernization of Korea (and Japan only shortly before it) followed, somewhat belatedly, that of the West, so too did the formation of its modern literature. Most critics locate the beginning of “modern” Korean literature with the publication of Yi Kwangsu’s novel The Heartless (Mujŏng) in 1917,5 just several years after Ezra Pound gave his famous imperative to “make it new.”6 This is exactly what Korean writers were striving for in their quest to cast off the old and embrace the new. Yi himself in his seminal paper titled “What is literature?” stated, “There exists only a future for Korean literature, it has no past.”7 This sentiment made it easy for Korean writers to accept and imitate the western literary trends of the times, and the literature of the 1920s was characterized by the dominant trend in Japan, that of realism leaning towards engagé themes.

    Modernism was the major literary trend to replace socialist realism or “proletariat literature” with the demise of KAPF (Korean Artist’s Proletariat Federation) in the first half of the 1930s. The rise of literary modernism in Korea, exemplified in the formation of the writer’s coterie the Kuinhoe or Group of Nine in 1933 (of which Yi Sang, Pak T’aewŏn, and Yi Hyosŏk were members), was, to a certain extent, made possible by the degree of modernity achieved in Seoul at the time. Of course, Korean writers were also tapped into world events, and the same forces that were shaping modernist narratives in the United States and Europe were at work in the Korean colony as well, coalescing in the 1930s into a very high level of (localized) cosmopolitanism rivaling that of other major world metropolises.

    Before beginning the discussion of Korean literary modernism, a short treatment of the concept of modernism by English speaking critics might be helpful. The term modernism as a descriptive category of literature has become so broad that it can accommodate a wide range of trends, techniques and sensibilities, many of which have nothing in common except the term itself. In fact, the scope within which the term is used is so open that its validity has recently come into question. In the 1995 work titled, Eliot to Derrida: The Poverty of Interpretation, John Harwood makes the argument that modernism is essentially an invention of the Academe, created to justify “new” research perspectives that are, in fact, merely slightly modified derivations of each other. Harwood expresses his critique of the traditional use of the term in the following:

    Harwood is saying that ‘modernism’ as nomenclature applied to types of literary writing serves more to obfuscate meaning than to clarify it. While acknowledging that there are contradictory elements in the use of the term, Marianne Thormählen makes the assertion that “if Academe did invent ‘modernism,’ it did so in response to a need, and the swift acceptance of the term suggests that the need was answered.” She goes on to say that the functions assigned to the term in contemporary academic discourse are periodizing, characterizing, and valorizing. Periodizing means setting temporal boundaries as to what can be considered ‘modernist’ (the outside limits being 1890 to 1940). Characterizing (which receives the most academic interest) is the act of determining and defining what is ‘modernist.’ And valorizing refers to the privileging of the term ‘modernist’ and any work or author associated with it. According to Thormählen, the characteristics of “modernist” writing are as follows:

    In looking at the above list, the first Korean writer that comes to mind is, of course, Yi Sang. In fact, almost all of these characteristics could be readily applied to both his poetry and prose. After him, the works of Yi Hyosŏk as well can be understood using many of the above classifications, especially valorization of art, cultural pessimism, and interest in representations of sexuality.

    Western modernism was, among other things of course, “a reaction to and against the modernity that was dulling human instinct, impoverishing high culture, and that had killed millions in the first instance of ‘modern’ warfare.”10 The experience of Korean modernity had not been long enough to explain the advent of literary modernism as a reaction to modernity in the same manner as that seen in western literature and art. And indeed, Korean modernity was in many ways different from that of the west. But by the same token, it was also similar in many ways. In talking about modernism, the term “crisis of representation” has frequently been used. Broadly speaking, this refers to the rejection by modern art of traditional conventions for representing the world and producing works of art. The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism gives the following synopsis of the innovations that characterized this “crisis”:

    Another common observation regarding western modernism was that its impetus was actually a “will to modernity.” This seems contradictory in the face of the assertion that modernism was “a reaction to and against the modernity that was dulling human instinct, impoverishing high culture, and that had killed millions in the first instance of ‘modern warfare’.” In fact, the high modernists exemplified by Eliot were pushing back against the kind of modernity foretold of by Nietzsche in his description of the last modern man who has accepted bourgeois values and whose happiness is nauseating.12

    On the other hand, this “will to modernity” could clearly be seen in the works of the Korean modernists as they had not been modern long enough to be disillusioned with modernity itself. In fact, the modernist poet and critic Kim Kirim described the modernist writers that were his contemporaries as “the sons of modernity.”13 Their discontent was that they had not yet become modern enough by the time they saw the promises of modernity receding like a mirage in the face of the fascism that was consuming Europe and parts of Asia. This is not to say that they had shared no common literary impulses with western modernist writers. They did, and, ironically, they were located in a new kind of romantic sensibility.

    Modernism was being discussed in the 1930s starting with the debate between Kim Kirim and Im Hwa over literary technicalism (kigyojuŭi) and growing into the debate between and among Im Hwa, Paek Ch’ŏl, and Ch’oe Chaesŏ regarding the relationship between modernism and realism. Interestingly, this debate formed the conceptual framework of the later debates over art for art’s sake versus social consciousness in the 1960s, and Im Hwa’s critique of Kim Kirim’s modernist poetics provided the theoretical and ideological basis for the critique of modernism in the 1980s and 1990s. The debate can be summarized as follows: Kim Kirim, writing in the Chosŏn ilbo in 1935 stated that neither the romantic nor the engagé poetry of the 1920s had achieved technical maturity and that the solution to that problem could be found in the technical sophistication of modernism poetics.14 Im Hwa responded in the magazine Sindonga that the poetry of these technicalists (like Kim) was a product of the subjective fantasies of the petit bourgeois.15 Im’s language and anti-capitalist class-struggle ideology would be appropriated by critics five and six decades later in their attack on modernism that accompanied their privileging of realism over other forms of writing. When asked about Im’s critique of him in Sindonga, Kim replied as follows:

    This debate became moribund with the premature death of Yi Sang and the turn to the left by Pak T’aewŏn and others.

    Critical interest in Korean literary modernism resurfaced in the 1980s and peaked in the 1990s but has since trailed off with little being written in Korean17 (in book-length form anyway) since the early 2000s. According to Ch’a Hyeyŏng there were three main perspectives to modernism research: first, that dealing with modernist texts according to author, or by category such as psychological or selfrevelatory novels; second, while illuminating modernist literature using modernism as a type of aesthetic principle or an organized literary movement that existed in the 1930s, there was the attempt to establish it as equivalent to realism from an aesthetic and literary-historical perspective; and, third, the most recent tendency is to place modernism not in opposition to realism, but to modernity itself by using the concept “aesthetic modernity.”18

    The first approach was mostly utilized in master’s theses and Ph.D. dissertations written in the 1980s and early 1990s; the second was utilized by two major studies in book form that came out in 1991 and 1992 respectively.19 In the first study, Sŏ Chunsŏp places modernism side by side with realism as equally important in the development of Korea’s modern literary history. He describes the advent of Korean literary modernism as having come about against the backdrop of Seoul’s rapid development as a modern city, and following the disbandment of KAPF and increasing Japanese fascism. He goes on to say that it was propelled by the writer’s coterie the Kuinhoe (Group of nine) and was a movement characterized by a sophistication of language and the pursuit of an aesthetic literary technique achieved through a transformation in the way the aesthetic object is perceived.20

    Ch’a’s approach is similar in placing modernism alongside realism in the flow of Korean literary history, however; there is a clear tendency in her writing to privilege realism over modernism due to the perception shared by many critics writing in the 1980s and 90s that realism better represented the Korean ethnic consciousness and was more critical of colonial modernity (and by extension all things Japanese). Consider the following:

    This passage clearly demands further discussion due to the oversimplified manner with which she categorizes a fairly complex phenomenon; however, Ch’a’s real ideological agenda is fully revealed in the following assertion:

    The major problem with the first statement is that Ch’a seems to be (willfully) ignorant of the nature of modernism’s approach to reality. To say that it had an inferiority complex in regards to realism when it came to reflecting reality is like saying that Pablo Picasso painted the way he did because he was not artistically capable of producing paintings that were literal depictions of physical reality. Ch’a’s assertion that, due to the fact that Chosŏn’s industrial development was too far behind that of the West and that its economy was “distorted” meant that Chosŏn modernism was nothing more than an attenuated and fetishized dandyism displays a remarkable ideological bias.

    Na Pyŏngch’ŏl develops this line of thinking further. He states that both “critical” and “social” realism allow the reader to gain a “proper” conception of reality that can lead to an overcoming of the contradictions of society (caused by bourgeois values). On the other hand, modernism, being “merely” a literature of alienation, cannot reflect or depict reality.22

    Of course, much of the disparity evident between the two literary camps arises from their different perspectives of history. Both modernists and realists were critical of Chosŏn’s past and traditions,23 but their literary responses to modernity and the future differed significantly. Chosŏn realism, especially that of the KAPF variety, had been influenced by the Marxist view of history (as promoted by Im Hwa). The modernist perspective was, like modernist literature itself, more idiosyncratic. This is in keeping with the highly introspective and individual nature of modernist art in general, and such characteristics in 1930s modernist Korean literature opened it up to the type of critique mentioned above (see Ch’a). In fact, much of the criticism by nationalist (minjung) writers generated in the 1980s and 90s was based on Lukacs’ critique of modernism.24 This critique can be summarized as follows: In realism, of all the possibilities that exist in the abstract consciousness, a concrete consciousness emerges through the interaction of the individual with his/her environment. And this explains why in realist novels, the inner consciousness is a preparatory element for interaction with and response to the environment. On the other hand, as there is no clear depiction of a mutual interaction between the individual and the environment in modernism, a concrete consciousness is never syncretized from the limitlessness of the abstract consciousness.25

    It is likely, however, that the privileging of realism over modernism by nationalist critics has a more fundamental cause. As seen above, Korean literary modernism was seen as more embracing of modernity than its western counterpart (recall Kim Kirim’s description of Korean modernists as the “sons of modernity”). Much nationalist writing on the colonial period is uncritically critical of modernity itself. The logic goes that colonial modernity (imposed by Japanese colonialism) was “the deformed child of rape”26 and, therefore, the only way to escape the stigma of such a “violation” is to attack and reject, or in today’s parlance, to deconstruct modernity itself. It follows, then, that from this perspective literary modernism is negatively viewed as a product of this “distorted” modernity and is, therefore, guilty by association of what amounts to a kind of crypto-collaboration with Japanese colonialism (the agent of that modernity). This accounts for much of the negative criticism heaped on Yi Hyosŏk including labeling him a “collaborator” in spite of his never having written anything that could be remotely construed as pro-Japanese.27 There has been a fairly recent trend to re-evaluate Yi in a more positive light due to his undeniable literary legacy. Ironically, but not surprisingly, this is done in part by rereading him through a post-colonial lens in order to re-cast him as an antimodernist. The irony of this position will be dealt with in the next section.

    3Stephen Kern, The Modernist Novel: A Critical Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 2011, 7.  4For a good discussion of this process of importation and assimilation of western literary trends into Korea through Japan see, An Yonghŭi, Hanil kŭndae sosŏl ŭi munch’e sŏngnip (The establishment of style in modern Korean and Japanese novels: Tayama Katai, Iwano Hōmei and Kim Tongin), Somyŏng Publishing, 2011.  5For a discussion of what makes this the first “modern” Korean novel see, Michael Shin, “Interior Landscapes: Yi Kwangsu’s ‘The Heartless’ and the Origins of Modern Literature,” Colonial Modernity in Korea ed. Gi-Wook Shin and Michael Robinson, Harvard University Press, 1999.  6It is significant that it only took some fifteen years for Korean writers to go from producing the first modern novel (which was in no way modernist) to consciously producing modernist texts.  7Yi Kwangsu, “Munhak iran hao” (What is literature?), Maeil sinbo (The Daily News), 1916, November, 10–23.  8John Harwood, Eliot to Derrida: The Poverty of Interpretation, MacMillan Press, 1995, 14.  9Maria Thormählen, Rethinking Modernism, Palgrave MacMillan, 2003, 2–3.  10Pericles Lewis, The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism, Cambridge University Press, 109.  11Lewis, 3.  12For more on this see Allen Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, Simon and Schuster, 1987, 195.  13Kim Kirim, “Modŏnijŭm ŭi yŏksajŏk ŭich’i” (Modernism’s historical position), Inmun p’yŏngnon 10, 1939.  14Kim Kirim, Si e issŏsŏ ŭi kigyojuŭi ŭi pansŏng kwa palchŏn (Reflection on and development of technicalism in poetry), Chosŏn ilbo, 1935, 12.  15Im Hwa, Tam ch’ŏn ha ŭi sidan 1 nyŏn (A year under cloudy skies for poetry), Sindonga, 1935, 12.  16Kim Haktong, Kim Kirim p’yŏngjŏn (A critical biography of Kim Kirim), Saemunsa, 2001, 305.  17There is some work being done on this subject in English, however. This year saw the publication of The Real Modern: Literary Modernism and the Crisis of Representation in Colonial Korea (Harvard East Asian Monographs), which deals with the literary modernism of Bak T’aewŏn, Kim Yujŏng, and Yi T’aejun.  18Ch’a Hyeyŏng, 1930 nyŏndae Han’guk munhak ŭi modŏnijŭm kwa chŏnt’ong yŏn’gu (A study on 1930s Korean literary modernism and tradition), Kimunsaem, 2004, 14–17.  19Sŏ Chunsŏp, Han’guk modŏnijŭm munhak yŏn’gu (A study on Korean modernism literature), Ilchisa, 1991; Ch’oe Hyesil, Han’guk modŏnijŭm sosŏl yŏn’gu (A study on the Korean modernism novel), Minjisa, 1992.  20Sŏ Chunsŏp, Han’guk modŏnijŭm munhak yŏn’gu (A study on Korean modernism literature), Ilchisa, 1991.  21Ch’oe Hyesil, p. 16  22Na Pyŏngch’ŏl, Han’guk munhak ŭi kŭndaesŏng kwa t’algŭndaesŏng (Modernity and post-modernity in Korean literature), Munye Publishing, 1996, 183–184.  23Regarding this, Kim Yujŏng notes the following: “The indiscriminate denial of our traditions that arose out of a longing for the promise of Utopia that western civilization seemed to offer was clearly a distorted mentality that resulted from the exigencies of the times; however, it cannot be denied that the writers of the time felt that outside elements (that is modern elements) were incompatible to, and could not coexist with, traditional elements of Chosŏn society. Kim Yujŏng, Han’guk modŏnijŭm munhak ŭi segyegwan kwa yŏksa ŭisik (The worldview and historical consciousness of Korean modernism literature), Taehaksa, 1996, 151. See also, Yi Kwangsu’s famous essay “Munhak iran hao” where he states that “Chosŏn literature has only a future, it possesses no past.” Yi Kwangsu, “Munhak iran hao” (What is literature?), Maeil sinbo (The Maeil Daily), 1916, November 10–23.  24Lukacs was de rigueur reading on Korean college campuses in the 1980s and early 1990s, especially in Korean literature departments.  25Georg Lukacs, “The Ideology of Modernism,” in Realism in Our Time, tr. John and Necke Mander, New York: Harper and Row, 1964.  26For a detailed discussion of this topic see Sin Hyŏn’gi, Minjok iyagi rŭl nŏmŏsŏ (Beyond talk of the nation), Seoul: Samin, 2003, 117.  27See Im Chongguk, Ch’inil munhak ron (The theory of pro-Japanese literature), P’yŏnghwa Publishing, 1966.


    Yi Hyosŏk’s anti-morality emanated from the perception that morality was an impediment to the creation of beauty and the enjoyment of aesthetic pleasure. His moral stance was one of neutrality. His later novels mostly dealt with a broad ranging sexuality wherein his protagonists, liberated from moral restrictions, were able to pursue sexual pleasure.28

    Yi Hyosŏk majored in English literature at Kyŏngsŏng (Keijō) Imperial University. His literature for the first six or seven years of his writing career (he debuted in 1928) was characterized by socialist themes, and he was considered a “fellow traveler” writer until, suddenly, he was not anymore. From about 1934 on, his fiction dealt with highly individualized themes of the personal search for beauty, sexual awakening, betrayal, and the redemptive and universalizing (Whitmanian) power of love. He borrowed freely from western literature and was influenced by John Milton, William Blake, Walt Whitman, Lawrence, and Mansfield, among others. What made his writings modernist was his willingness to utilize sexual themes to push the boundaries of what was acceptable, earning him comparisons with Lawrence. He was clearly in thrall to western civilization and culture, something for which both Korean nationalist and Marxist critics (these two identities often ironically co-existing in one person or camp)29 never forgave him.

    However, in spite of his socialist leanings, Yi had been incorporating themes of sexuality into his literature since early in his career. The degree to which such themes appeared in his work increased with time, becoming major aspects of plot structure and character development. The full-length novel Pollen (1938) was, perhaps, the most obvious iteration of the importance of sex in Yi’s literary consciousness and provides important insights into the relationship between (anti-) morality, eroticism, and Yi’s modernist aesthetic. In order to elucidate these elements of Yi’s modernism, it may be helpful to first look at some typical examples of how they are dealt with by Korean critics.

    Generally speaking, Yi’s use of erotic themes was negatively viewed by Korean critics, earning him a number of pejorative appellations as discussed above, mostly revolving around the idea that such writing was frivolous, decadent, and, in the extreme betrayed a simultaneously insidious fascination with western culture and a crypto-collaborationist mentality.30 Negative appraisals of his work include the epitaphs “petit bourgeois” and “conformist” (read collaborator).31 The problem with this approach, however, is that it necessarily leads to the critical dismissal of a large portion (arguably the most developed in terms of style and technique) of Yi’s work.32 Recently, however, there has been a movement to “reevaluate” Yi’s literature in a more positive light. In a collection of essays titled A New Understanding of Yi Hyosŏk’s Literature, Kim Chaeyŏng proposes that sexuality in Yi’s works is intended as a challenge to the conventional notion of the moral restrictions placed on sexual activity by marriage.33 In the same collection, Han Suyŏng argues that, unlike previous treatments of sexuality in Yi Hyosŏk’s writing that categorize it as an expression of “natural instinct,” Yi’s use of sexual themes is related to the issues of sexual self-determination and the possibility of sexual pleasure (especially the female orgasm) irrespective of the traditional restrictions within which sex was possible for women at the time.

    Rather, Han asserts, Yi is “using literature to open up the discussion of sex that had been up until then considered a taboo topic, and doing so to a degree that could be seen as dangerous.”35

    This is perhaps the essence of Yi’s modernism: a willingness to break some of the eggs of convention to make his literary omelet as it were. Yet, while Yi’s role in the formation of a “new sexual modernity”36 is being discussed, this as the defining characteristic of Yi’s literary modernism receives no treatment. This “reevaluation,” however, also included the bewildering attempt to rehabilitate Yi from a “petit bourgeoisie accomodationist” who embraced colonial modernity into a (anti-Japanese) resistance writer who was attempting to subvert that modernity.

    This effort as well, however, fails to acknowledge the clearly modernist aspects of Yi’s writing and, instead, relies on the ideology of post-modernism and post-colonialism to recast Yi’s work as a kind of anti-imperial, anti-modernity resistance literature. One of several such arguments in this vein should suffice to illustrate this point. In her article titled “A re-interpretation of sexuality in Yi Hyosŏk’s novels,”37 Im Ŭnhŭi “re-evaluates” the use of erotic themes in some of Yi’s works. The problem with the article is that it has a very palpable political/ideological intention; in other words, it is an attempt to find a way to read Yi’s eroticism and anti-morality as a critique and attempted subversion of “western” modernity and Japanese colonialism (with some feminist critique thrown in for good measure). The argument seemingly being that his use of erotic themes and liberated female sexuality is a refutation of what the writer Im frequently refers to as a “modern sexual consciousness.” The main problem with trying to bend Yi’s literature to nationalist and feminist ends (strange bedfellows indeed) is that she must read Yi’s eroticism as an appeal to a return to a premodern state where man is undifferentiated from his environment, indeed, a return to the garden before the fall; the fall being, of course, the annexation of Korea.

    Im never clearly delineates how modernity and colonialism have distorted human sexuality. In one of Yi’s stories titled “Field” (Tŭl), the male first person narrator ends up having a sexual liaison with Okpun, a local maiden, under an apple tree some time after the two have together witnessed two dogs copulating, an event that, together with the ripe strawberry that the protagonist feeds Okpun, seems to act as a catalyst to their own coupling. In describing Okpun’s attitude regarding losing her virginity in this way, Im points to the fact that she is unencumbered by guilt, or feelings of anger or recrimination and emphasizes that this attitude is in contrast to the “distorted modern sexual consciousness” and is a refutation of a “modern sexuality that has undergone a westernized colonization.” She goes on to say that Okpun represents the embracing nature of the field (nature itself) that is able to accept society’s outcasts (the narrator has been in trouble with the law for socialist activities). This magnanimity and liberalness is, according to Im, the symbol of the power of female sexuality, one that “while being threatening to the male cannot be resisted by him” and which is depicted in the story as the cyclical life force of nature. Im describes this life force in the following way:

    The flimsiness of this argument as an analysis of sexuality in Yi’s literature becomes instantly apparent when we look at the fates of almost any of his other sexually active female characters.

    In the short story “Punnyŏ,” the eponymous main character, in direct and stark contrast to Okpun, is humiliated and spurned by her socialist first love after he returns from a time in jail for his communist activities to find that she had been busy exploring the possibilities of sexual pleasure afforded her (ironically) by the “new sexual modernity” identified in Han Suyŏng’s article.39 Punnyŏ’s discovery of “that secret world” and its wonders and pleasures result in her being beaten with a club by her mother and ridiculed by the local town folk. Here, Punnyŏ’s “life force” is not trampled on by a “distorted modern sexual consciousness” but by a very stock, self-serving traditional male centered morality (something modernist writers like Lawrence and Joyce were attempting to criticize). She is, in fact, raped by four different men and, in the process, actually develops not only a liking for sex, but also a “modern” conception of both sex and men. She loses her virginity when she is raped by Myŏngjun in her own room at night with her mother sleeping nearby. Next, she is taken by Man’gap in the storage room of his store. This experience awakens her sexual appetite, and she revisits the store for the purpose of engaging in sex with Man’gap. Her next experience is with Man’gap’s friend Chŏnsu who lures her out at night disguised as Man’gap and forces himself on her. After that she has an encounter in the woods with Wang, a Chinese merchant, after she has seen him earlier in the day masturbating behind a tree (an experience that leaves her excited) while looking up her dress as she is competing in a swing competition. At this point she ruminates on what this all means:

    The above is an example of one aspect of Yi’s modernism: the critique of the vested rights of the male-centered sexual morality of his society. He has provided Punnyŏ with an amorality that provides her with sexual autonomy free from the (male imposed) strictures of the times. He invests her with a natural and unfettered curiosity about, and interest in, sex that leads her to the realization that there is more to sex than the simple act she has so far experienced. In one episode, she is spying through the bedroom shutters on the master and lady of the house in which she is employed as a maid.

    Like Yi Sang, Yi Hyosŏk’s most sexually liberated and dangerous characters are women. If Yi Sang viewed sexuality as a way to reveal truth (for Yi Sang the truth was often found in secrets), Yi Hyosŏk saw it as the most honest expression of human nature, something he thought essential to both beauty and truth. Yi Hyosŏk’s work, like Yi Sang’s, is tinged with the modernist’s cynicism and skepticism, directed in particular at conventional (hypocritical) views of sexual morality. In a short story titled after William Blake’s poem “The Sick Rose,” Yi deals directly with a subject alluded to in the poem: syphilis. In discussing sex, obscenity and censorship in modernist literature, Rachel Potter states:

    This is exactly what Yi is doing in this story with his use of not only a sexually liberated female protagonist, but one with syphilis as well. In the story, the protagonist Hyŏnbo reunites with Namjuk, a girl he knew as a passionate, politically-minded (socialist) young student seven years after losing touch with her. He recalls that she was a “healthy yet fragile flower”43 (evoking Blake’s poem). She needs money to return to her sister in the countryside, but he only has enough for a night out in a bar. Namjuk surprises him by dancing by herself and then later with a rich man’s son. The other patrons are clearly offended by this public display of uninhibitedness, and a waitress tells them dancing is forbidden, at which point Hyŏnbo pulls the drunken Namjuk from the bar to avoid further embarrassment (to himself that is, Namjuk is clearly unconcerned with such things). The next day they go on an outing and end up making love in Namjuk’s room later that night. Hyŏnbo tells her he will come to see her after he has raised the money to buy her a train ticket, but when he goes to her house several days later with the money, he finds she has already left for her sister’s on a train. Her landlady tells him that for several days she has been bringing the rich man’s son to her room. A few days later Hyŏnbo is visited by the symptoms of syphilis. He goes to the same bar to drown his sorrows and meets the rich man’s son who tells him he also has contracted syphilis from Namjuk.44 Hyŏnbo wonders about the “secrets that had filled the parentheses of those seven years,”45 and thinks that “that once pretty flower was not only worm-eaten, but has become sick and started to wither.”46

    Here again, Yi has reversed the typical sexual roles. Not only is Namjuk exercising her sexual agency, she is doing so for the two-fold purposes of pleasure and money. She has no moral qualms about sleeping with Hyŏnbo for the pleasure it brings her while at the same time bringing the rich man’s son to her place in order to secure the money for her trip. The fact that both men contract syphilis from her is evidence that she has been sexually active before she met them. Her unselfconscious willingness to dance in a bar both by herself and with the rich man’s son shows that she is clearly unburdened by a sense of shame, the traditional emotion imparted unevenly to women in Korean society to act as a damper on just such behavior. And her equally unselfconscious use of her own body for both her own pleasure and as a means of securing a train ticket shows she is also unencumbered by a sense of guilt, the other moral harness fettering female sexuality. Here again, Yi’s inversion of traditional morality without a moralizing ending is characteristic of his modernist critique of his society’s hypocritical sexual mores.

    In Yi’s first full-length novel titled Pollen (Hwabun), published shortly after “The sick rose,” he pushes the limits of the treatment of sexuality in what was still a very conservative society. To be sure, his prose was not as graphic as either Lawrence’s or Joyce’s, but he took on a taboo in Korean society that critics to this day seem reluctant to touch: while the sexual permutations in Pollen are convoluted and include fornication, adultery, and rape; what Yi did that set him apart was include the theme of female and male homosexuality.47 The first comes in the form of the housemaid lusting after her young mistress Miran who has just been surprised by a snake in the garden of their home that has caused her to menstruate early.

    While there are further descriptions of homoerotic longings between the women in the story (including that of Seran for her sister Miran), there are several instances of male homosexuality, one of which is surprisingly straightforward and is actually consummated.49 One of the main characters, Hyŏnma, the president of a movie production company, makes love to his male assistant who is described as a young “Adonis.”

    This is, as I have said, perhaps the most direct depiction of a male homosexual liaison in all of early modern Korean literature. Yi’s use of homoerotic sexuality in Pollen seems to have been influenced by the modernist homoeroticism of Katherine Mansfield, especially as found in her story “Bliss,” which Yi studied carefully and at least partially translated.51

    The image of indiscriminate pollenization evoked by the title of the novel is discernable in the sexual configurations of the plot that are so complicated as to require a diagram to follow:

    In Pollen, Miran, the main protagonist, serves as the medium for Yi’s message: sex is not the original sin and does not, in and of itself, lead to one’s (more precisely, a woman’s) downfall. After seeing the film Paradise Lost (Sillagwŏn)52 with Tanju, Miran engages in the following rumination:

    Miran then goes on to contravene the taboos of her own society by giving her virginity to Tanju in Hyŏnma’s apartment shortly after seeing the movie.

    Yi rehabilitates the “fallen” Miran through the agency of art. Art for Yi is both a synonym for beauty and the source of its creation. Miran, through the redemptive powers of art-beauty, is able to overcome her extremely compromised status (having lost her virginity to the licentious, bi-sexual Tanju and having been raped by Hyŏnma) to become once again worthy of love and happiness. Her music teacher, the classically trained Yŏnghun, by virtue of his art, possesses superior wisdom and is the dispenser of redemption in the form of an unbiased love that can easily accept Miran as he has no compunctions whatever about her past. He has come to know the events of Miran’s past through a fight with Tanju at a hot springs resort and, when Miran finds the courage to confess her “sins” to Yŏnghun, he surprises her by announcing that he knows all that has happened and that no “sin” has been committed, and, what is more, that nothing that has transpired has affected his love for Miran in the slightest.54

    Yi’s privileging of both eroticism and art (explicitly western beauty/culture) over convention was one of the most conspicuous aspects of his modernist critique of the moral status quo. This is consistent with Fredric Jameson’s use of the term “taboo” to describe modernism’s rejection of tradition. He states that “we should think of the quintessential modern gesture as one of taboo rather than discovery,” and goes on to explain this as meaning that “modernism is seen as originating in an ever-keener distaste for what is conventional and outmoded, rather than as an exploratory appetite for the undiscovered and unexplored.”55 This, then, creates the irony wherein for Yi the taboo was taboo and this attitude allowed him, together with Yi Sang, to create some of the most emancipated (read dangerous) and undeniably “modern” female characters in all of modern Korean literature.

    28Han Kyejŏn et al., “1930 nyŏndae Han’guk munhak ŭi pigyo munhakchŏk yŏn’gu” (A comparative literature approach to 1930s Korean literature), Pigyŏ munhak (The Journal of Comparative Literature), Han’guk Pigyo Munhakhoe, 1989, 12, 87–94.  29This isone of the major contradictions in the Korean critical tradition: the wedding of nationalist and Marxist approaches; something clearly antithetical to the internationalist nature of the Marxist critique of modernity.  30For more on this see Steven D. Capener, “Paradise Found: Recovery and Redemption in the Later Literature of Yi Hyosŏk,” Seoul Journal of Korean Studies, Kyujanggak, Seoul National University, Volume 22, Number 1, June 2009.  31Kim Hyŏn, “Wijangdoen ch’ohwa wa punyŏl, Yi Hyosŏk” (Disguised harmony and discord, Yi Hyosŏk), Hyŏndae Han’guk munhwa wa iron—sahoe wa yulli (The social ethics and theory of modern Korean literature) in Kim Hyŏn munhak chŏnjip (Kim Hyŏn’s collected works, Seoul: Munhak kwa Chisŏngsa, 1991, 2: 294–5. Chŏng Myŏngwhan, “Wijangdoen sunŭngjuŭi—Yi Hyosŏk ron” (A disguised conformism—Yi Hyosŏk), Ch’anggak kwa pip’yŏng 4, no. 1, Spring 1969, 151–3.  32Ironically, but not surprisingly, the portion of Yi’s work that is positively evaluated by nationalist critics is exactly the same as that acknowledged by recent North Korean literary criticism, i.e., his early “fellow-traveler,” or so-called engaged literature. The point at which both South Korean nationalist writers and recent North Korean criticism switches from positive to negative occurs at precisely the same point in Yi’s trajectory as a writer: the early 1930s starting with works such as “Orion and the crabapple,” “Pig,” and “Field.” See, for example, Sŏk Kŭmch’ŏn, “Kap’ŭ ŭi tongbanja Yi Hyosŏk ŭi segye wa t’ŭkk’ihan ch’angjak hwaltong” (KAPF fellow traveller: Yi Hyosŏk, his life and unique writing), Kim Ilsŏng taehak chonghap hakbo (The School Bulletin of Kim Ilsŏng University), 2007, 53rd printing, issue 4. I am indebted to my colleague, professor Ross King of the University of British Columbia for bringing this article to my attention.  33Kim Chaeyŏng, “Yi Hyosŏk sosŏl e nat’anan “sŏng” ŭi t’ŭksusŏng yŏn’gu” (A study on the characteristics of “sex” in Yi Hyosŏk’s literature), Yi Hyosŏk munhak ŭi chaeinsik (A new understanding of Yi Hyosŏk’s literature), Somyŏng, 2012, 132.  34Han Suyŏng, “Chŏngch’ijŏk in’gan kwa sŏngjŏk in’gan” (The political human being and the sexual human being), Yi Hyosŏk munhak ŭi chaeinsik (A new understanding of Yi Hyosŏk’s literature), Somyŏng, 2012, 169.  35Han Suyŏng, 142.  36Han Suyŏng, 143.  37Im Ŭnhŭi, Yi Hyosŏk sosŏl e nat’anan sŏng ŭi chaehaesŏk (A re-interpretation of sexuality in Yi Hyosŏk’s novels), Kasan Yi Hyosŏk ŭi sam kwa munhak segye (The life and literature of Kasan Yi Hyosŏk), Han’guk munye yŏn’guso, Hakkobang, 2008.  38Im Ŭnhŭi, 117.  39Han Suyŏng, 143.  40Yi Hyosŏk, “Punnyŏ,” Yi Hyosŏk chŏnjip 2, Ch’angmisa, 2002.  41Yi Hyosŏk, “Punnyŏ,” 41–42.  42Potter Rachel, Modernist Literature, Edinburgh University Press, 2012, 119.  43Yi Hyosŏk, “Changmi pyŏngdŭlda” (The sick rose), Yi Hyosŏk chŏnjip 2 (The collected works of Yi Hyosŏk 2), Ch’angmisa, 2003, p. 204.  44Here as well, Im Ŭnhŭi’s argument falls flat (in fact it suffers an inversion) when we substitute Namjuk for Okpun, especially regarding the assertion that her (here Namjuk’s) attitude is in contrast to the “distorted modern sexual consciousness” and is a refutation of a “modern sexuality that has undergone a westernized colonization.”  45This phrase and many others in Yi’s works that reference sexual secrets are highly redolent of Yi Sang. He begins his short, autobiographical story “Silhwa” (Lost flower) with the line, “A person with no secrets is as poor and empty as one who has no belongings.” These secrets, it turns out are secret sexual liasons engaged in by Yŏn, his live-in girlfriend (and modeled on his wife) with his best friend S. She is a femme fatale in her own right, and Yi, after discovering some (but not all) of her secrets, ends the story on the same note with which he begins: “What secrets of the cushion and couch, then, do you possess underneath that thick make-up?” “A person with no secrets is even poorer than one with no belongings. Just look at me.” Yi Sang, Chŏnjip 2 Tanp’yŏn sosŏl (Yi Sang’s collected works 2 Short stories), Edited by Kwŏn Yŏngmin, Ppul, 2009.  46For more on this see, Steven D. Capener, “A Rose by Any Other Name: The Influence of William Blake, Walt Whitman and Katherine Mansfield on the Literature of Yi Hyoseok,” Foreign Literature Studies, Foreign Literature Research, February, 2012, No. 45.  47To date I have only seen one critical treatment (and that a very cursory one) of this topic in Pollen.  48Yi Hyosŏk, “Hwabun” (Pollen), Yi Hyosŏk chŏnjip 4 (The collected works of Yi Hyosŏk), Ch’angmisa, 2003, 204.  49To my knowledge, this is the most striking description of male homosexuality in Korean literature of the modern period.  50Yi Hyosŏk, Hwabun (Pollen), p. 146.  51Again, see Steven D. Capener, “A Rose by Any Other Name: The Influence of William Blake, Walt Whitman and Katherine Mansfield on the Literature of Yi Hyosŏk,” Foreign Literature Studies, Foreign Literature Research, February, 2012, No. 45.  52I was unable to determine if such a movie existed or if it was a plot device employed by Yi.  53Yi Hyosŏk, Hwabun (Pollen), p. 88.  54Yi Hyosŏk, Hwabun (Pollen), pp. 240–241.  55Frederic Jameson, A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present, London: Verso, 2002, 194–5.


    Yi Hyosŏk’s modernism emanates mostly (but not entirely) from his use of erotic themes and images to contest a Confucian based traditional (sexual) morality that suppressed natural feeling and emotion thus impeding the experience or creation of beauty. This characteristic places him securely in one of the main arteries of the modernist aesthetic. Pericles Lewis summarizes this aesthetic as follows:

    With the exception of censorship, something from which Yi does not seemed to have suffered, the above passage could have been written specifically to describe his work. He placed his characters in conflict with traditional moral conventions regarding pre-marital sex, cohabitation, female sexual agency, and homosexuality. What is more, unlike other writers of the time that visited cosmic retribution on their characters for contravening the prevailing moral strictures,57 Yi avoided moralizing conclusions or consequences. In this way, the modernist elements of Yi’s work brought to his literature a cosmopolitan character that was unique to the fiction of the time.

    56Pericles Lewis, 28.  57See the works of Na Tohyang, for instance.

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