“The Soil” (1932-1933), by Yi Kwang-Su (1892-1950)

Yi Kwang-Su, Korea & “The Soil”

by Gregory C. Eaves

January 2016




The battle for the soul of Asia continues today, just as it raged in 1932 and 1933 when Yi Kwang-Su published his epic “The Soil.” What is the best path toward modernity? How can society create harmony between the globalized city and the conservative heartland? Must you Westernize in order to modernize? How is nationalism a response to colonialism? Most importantly, can Confucianism and democracy co-exist? Yi Kwang-Su (1892-1950) (이광수, 李光洙) touches on all of this as his protagonist, Heo Sung — torn between two women, torn between two towns, torn between two worlds — struggles with existence in 1930s Korea. The struggle continues today.


Heo Sung is an honest man in a corrupt world. Elite Korean youth are being incorporated into the Japanese colonial system, trained in Tokyo, and sent back to Seoul to rule and to manage the empire, all in the name of the Yamato people. The collaborationists, mostly civil servants, insult Korean traditions, sexually harass women, drink too much, abuse their wives or girlfriends and are generally rewarded with success. Amid all this, Heo Sung is a dreamer and a young lawyer trying to create a better world. Heo Sung is the modern embodiment of a traditional Joseon scholar (선비): noble at heart, earnest in thought and naive in action.


As we meet Heo Sung, the death of his patron’s eldest son opens a chance for him to marry an urbane, beautiful wealthy woman. However, he still dreams of heading back to the village to marry his first love, the country girl. The grass is always greener. Nonetheless, he gives up on this bucolic dream and takes his patron’s daughter’s hand in marriage. The young lawyer now has, he believes, it all. Heo Sung achieves the ultimate Korean Dream: move to Seoul, work for a generous patron, marry his beautiful daughter, become a lawyer, get rich.


Our hero then throws this all away. He returns to the countryside. Why reject the Korean Dream? Because it lies. The Korean Dream lies. Originally from a poor village but with a wealthy patron in the city, he’s eventually bested by the capital Seoul, bested by a debutante wife, and bested by the blindness of an uncaring society.


Seoul, it turns out, is tainted, tainted even in the patron’s own home. Heo Sung’s nemesis, Kim Gap-jin, works for the patron’s household, too. He insults Korean literature — quite an act for a character created by a master of Korean literature — studies in Tokyo and hounds Heo Sung at every one of his honest, nationalist, quotidian steps, from Seoul back to the countryside. Heo Sung’s other adversary, Lee Geon-yeong, who comes to the fore in the second act, trained as a doctor in the U.S. He prevents Heo Sung from helping the debt-ridden, ignorant farmers as they suffer through the worst of the Great Depression, through the worst of colonial exploitation.


Heo Sung’s honesty doesn’t fit with the elite collaborationist capital. He seeks “realness” and “quality,” in the abstract, and those are in short supply. He adheres to an almost socialist, Marxist, ideal, and in the second part of the novel returns to “the soil” to build a better life and to return to his first love. He longs for a Korea of the past, a mythical Korea untainted by modernity or chaos. He longs for his youth, an idealized existence that only exists in his insanely honorable mind. Modernity — specifically, trains, colonialism and globalization — destroys the honorable man, and government stands on the sidelines watching, failing in its Confucian duty toward the people. The author Yi Kwang-Su could just as well be describing Korea today.


He returns to the village only to find the ignorant peasants suspicious of his noble motives. Vice, rape and abandonment are everywhere. He finds himself bested by the countryside now, too, populated by stubborn, skeptical farmers, and misunderstood by the new woman — his first love — who doesn’t grasp his city ways. In the end, we have a <i>deus ex machina</i> ending, and so the curtain falls. With the final denouement, you’ll be reminded of “Anna Karenina.”


Liberation through literature


Like his contemporary, Yi writes like Hemingway: short sentences with few adjectives. His characters are almost cartoon-like in their one dimension, and the characters all show up in the first act. Like a Joseph Campbell myth, we can identify the main archetypes. There’s the bad guy dressed in black and the good guy dressed in white. There’s the nasty woman and the honorable woman. Amid these conflicts stands Heo Sung, the nuanced and naive hero struggling to build utopia, struggling to comprehend the world around him.


Yi’s 500-page epic “The Soil” was serialized in the Dong-a Ilbo, a Seoul-based daily whose name translates as “The Light of Asia”: Lux ex Oriente. From April 12, 1932, through to July 10, 1933, it was published in 272 short chapters or sections. The only English-language edition of this tale is part of the so-called “Library of Korean Literature,” a collection of Korean novels and short stories put out by the Literature Translation Institute of Korea (한국문학번역원). It was translated by the husband-wife team of Horace J. Hodges and Hwang Sun-Ae. The publishers kept the serialized structure with this book, so the Odyssey of Heo Sung rolls out across the 272 sections, each about two or three pages long, divided into four parts. Yi Kwang-Su is in good company: Dostoyevsky, Dickens and Dumas all published many of their novels serially, too, in either magazines or newspapers.


Yi the savior, bringing literature to the people


Yi Kwang-Su led an interesting life, to say the least, and his modern legacy is quite nuanced. He left his diaries to posterity, so that gives us an insight into his inner thinking. He was born in early March 1892 in Jeongju, Pyeonganbuk-do Province (North Pyeongan Province), halfway between Pyeongyang and the Manchurian border. Some two decades before “The Soil” was published, in the fall of 1909, 17-year-old Yi was studying at the Meiji Gakuin University, a Christian school in Tokyo. His diaries, many times also expressing elements of homoeroticism, show that he was furious at the U.S. and Japanese professors. The students there — particularly the Korean students there — were direct witness to the overt racism and to the ultra-nationalism of the day. The Japanese students at Meiji Gakuin discriminated quite harshly against the Korean students; indeed, an ethnic Korean faced racial discrimination across the Japanese isles, the Manchurian plains and even in his home on the Korean Peninsula.


Racism, of course, is simply the flip-side of nationalism. As Japan rose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, each citizen of this new empire had a formal “race” assigned to them. Those labeled “Japanese” were tier one. The so-called “Koreans” were tier two, along with the “Manchurians/ Qing.” At the bottom were the ethnic Han “Chinese.” You were required to carry an ID card that listed your “race.” Yi Kwang-Su experienced racism and discrimination first-hand during his studies and throughout his life.


This was Japan’s strongest response to U.S. colonialism and exploitation between the 1850s and the 1870s: nationalism. Korea, in turn, searching for a response to Japanese colonization itself, also resorted to nationalism. This manifested itself in the March First Movement of 1919, of course, but it also manifested itself a decade earlier.


In October 1909, an astounding case of bloodshed hit the newswires. Ito Hirobumi (1841-1909) (이토 히로부미, 伊藤 博文), four-time prime minister of Japan, former resident-general of Korea, a symbol of Japan’s modernity, co-drafter of the Meiji constitution, a symbol of Japan’s racial arrogance, the man on modern Japan’s 1,000 yen note, and symbol of Korean oppression, was gunned down with three shots from a Browning M1900 in a Manchurian train station. Ahn Jung-geun (안중근, 安重根) had committed propaganda of the deed: propagande par le fait.


Ito’s assassination, combined with a Japanese society foaming at the lips and which was already lapping up over the Asian shore, caused the angry young Yi Kwang-Su — as translated by Gabriel Sylvian — to throw away what he later called his “goody-goody” diary and ended what he called his “well-behaved Christian period.” The man was 17 years old and was a newly minted Korean nationalist. His next diary, which remains a primary document today and which he called his “devilish” diary, explains itself in an early entry: “…entering most definitely and in the frankest manner, various events which come from my innermost heart, or which impress me deeply.” The man had been moved.


In 1910, Yi quite clearly laid out his vision to rescue the Korean people through literature in his essay “The Value of Literature” (“문학의 가치”). He wanted to help his fellow Koreans throw off the yolk of feudal custom, to shed “the Korean stink,” as he called it: traditional Confucianism and Confucian mores. He wanted his community to step up onto the world stage, head held high.


In another essay, “Recommending Reading” (1915) (“독서를 권함,” “讀書를 勸함”) — again, as translated by Gabriel Sylvian — he wrote, “I escaped from conditions of primitive poverty and base barbarism and came into an abundant, high, gorgeous civilization. What gave me the ‘great surprising correction’ to the business of the Creator is, in fact, the power of a treasure gleaned from amassing a repository of books.” Literature is salvation. Literature is modernity. Literature is independence.


Korea as part of the world


Across the globe — Ireland, Turkey, Egypt, Iran, India, China — societies have had to come to terms with a world created by and for the imperial powers. They faced the same questions that Heo Sung faced during his life in Seoul and during his move back to the countryside. Nationalism has always been society’s response to colonialism, just as utopianism was Heo Sung’s response to the corrupt and collaborationist Seoul government. With the end of World War I, the year 1919 was momentous. There was the May Fourth Movement in Beijing, the Irish War of Independence, the Turkish War of Independence and, most importantly for us, the March First Movement that swept across colonial Korea. These were all nationalist responses to the shocks of colonialism, modernity and war.


Yi Kwang-Su was part of all this. In February 1919, at the age of 27, he was co-drafter in Tokyo of the eighth Student Declaration of Independence. In April 1919 and in response to the police crackdown after the March First Movement in Seoul, he moved to Shanghai to help found the Korean Provisional Government, along with other independence activists. He was back in colonial Seoul by 1921, aged 29 years old.


Yi’s world


Seoul in the mid-1930s was tempestuous. The first wave of industrialization and globalization had just hit the nation, tearing it from its agrarian roots. Modernity was striking its talons into the heart of rural Korea. Railway lines, telegrams and imperial police were ubiquitous. Debt was high, and taxes were higher. Young men were able to leave the farm and head out toward Shenyang or Osaka to make their fortune, or to incur further debt to the South Manchurian Railway Company. Trains and ferries connected all corners of the empire: Manchuria, Korea, Japan, Okinawa and Taiwan. Indeed, Korea in the 1930s was more connected than South Korea is today in terms of eligible work visas and ability to travel and find employment. Korea was part of an empire. For the first time, Joseon society was blossoming in the warmth of globalization, but the warmth was fetid with the reek of colonialism and exploitation.


A harsh colonial regime and a bigoted imperial government extracted resources — both natural and human — from the colonies. This made Korea’s transformation all the more painful, galling and traumatic. General Ugaki Kazushige (1868-1956) (우가키 가즈시게, 宇垣 一成) was the governor-general in Korea from 1931 to 1936 when “The Soil” was published, and his imperial police state ruled with an iron, racist, industrial fist.


Yi converted to Buddhism in the 1930s just before “The Soil” was published. He was incarcerated by the imperial police in 1937 and emerged as a collaborator himself after about 1939. Much of his writing from the 1940s onward is traditionally considered to be pro-Japanese, though a modern interpretation could forgivingly call it simply “pro-global” or “pro-modernity.” In 1950, as the North Korean forces fled northward away from Seoul, he was rounded up with some other writers and was never heard from again.


Yi Kwang-Su’s world today


This modern-day dichotomous battle between a modern globe and a traditional village is perfectly embodied not only in Yi’s main character Heo Sung, but also in a real-life debate that took place in 1994 in the pages of Foreign Affairs. The international relations periodical interviewed former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015) (리콴유, 李光耀) for its March/ April 1994 issue. In his answers, Lee makes clear that, in his belief, Confucianism is not compatible with modernity or democracy. “Westerners have abandoned an ethical basis for society, believing that all problems are solvable by a good government, which we in the East never believed possible.”


That is when Korea stood up.


Following in the footsteps of Yi Kwang-Su, following in the footsteps of the fantastical Heo Sung, Korea stood up onto the world stage to defend democracy and to defend modernity.


Kim Dae Jung wrote a response.


A light was shone upon the East by former Korean President Kim Dae Jung (1924-2009) (김대중, 金大中), living up to the Dong-a Ilbo’s moniker. Kim Dae Jung wrote a response to Lee Kuan Yew’s comments. Kim’s response letter was published in Foreign Affairs in the November/ December 1994 issue, four years before he became Korean president. “The proper way to cure the ills of industrial societies is not to impose the terror of a police state, but to emphasize ethical education, give high regard to spiritual values and promote high standards in culture and the arts.”


Kim is quite clear in his exhortation that traditional, rigid Confucianism is not Asia’s destiny; that despots, dictators and communist parties quite often use the word “Confucianism” to justify their own brutality; and that, yes, even East Asians, too, are capable of the democratic process. Kim Dae Jung states quite clearly that Heo Sung was right: Confucianism and democracy — modernity and the past — are not mutually exclusive.


These essential facts lie at the core of Yi Kwang-su’s novel, written some 83 years ago: the modernization of East Asia, its responses to a world system created by Japan or by the West, and whether or not Confucianism and traditional Korea can be melded with modernity.


In many regards, the collaborationists of colonial times and the bureaucrats of the dictatorship are reflected in the modern Korean government’s vast contingent of white collar civil servants: head down, carry on, keep calm. Populating both Sejong City and downtown Seoul alike, the modern state’s civil servants perpetuate the mere mechanism of government. Such people escape from the difficulties of “real” Korean society and take shelter in their government employee bubble. This allows them, as civil servants, to ignore the ills of the world, all in the interests of an easy existence and of sustaining the mechanics of governance. Korea always scores quite low on OECD surveys of “trust” between citizens and government. Once again, government fails in its Confucian duty to the people.


Yi’s protagonist Heo Sung struggles to build a better world and faces the monolith of society blocking his way, whether it be collaborationists in the capital or ignorant peasants in the village. So, too, did Kim Dae Jung face a rigid society, unwilling to improve, unchanging in the militaristic social structure it inherited from the Japanese and fine-tuned during decades of nationalist dictatorship. Today, the light shone by Kim Dae Jung is flickering dangerously low.


In both his diaries and his novels, Yi Kwang-Su calls out to us across time: “Save society through literature!” Many a South Korean citizen could do much worse than to re-read “The Soil” with an eye toward modern Korean life and to the social pact that exists between family-run conglomerates, the government’s civil servants and, down at the bottom, the rest of us who fall through the cracks.


With online comments describing modern Korean society as “Hell Joseon,” with abusive seniors being such a prevalent social ill that they’re referred to as “Mr. Dogs” (“개저씨들”), with the fall in the birthrate, with heightened interest in emigration abroad shown among Korean youth, with unhappiness recorded at all levels of society, with high personal debt, with a dishonest education system, and with a shockingly high suicide rate, Yi Kwang-Su’s world is that of modern Korea. What would an honorable Heo Sung do if he were alive — and real — today? Where is our utopia? Where are our honorable Joseon scholars (선비)?


So the battle for the soul of Asia continues. As Korea finds its place in the modern world — step-by-step, export-by-export, new technology-by-new technology — we can see the light that Korea shines upon the East through both Kim Dae Jung and through Yi Kwang-Su. Democracy and literature will save us all.


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