“Who Ate Up All the Shinga?” (1992) by Park Wan-suh

“Who Ate Up All the Shinga?” (1992) by Park Wan-suh

<그 많던 싱아는 누가 다 먹었을까?> (1992) 글 박완서

 

–a book review by Gregory C. Eaves

2016-02-23 Tue

 

 

 

Reach out your arm. Stretch it as far as you can. Then plunge deep, deep into the plush velvet pocket of your psyche. Reach down as far as you can go, stretching and striving to touch the smallest bit at the very bottom of your memory, where your personality and psyche sit quietly waiting for you to appear. There, at the bottom of your psychic well, you lean over as far as possible to reach into the very deepest bottom corners. There lies the ephemeral boundary between memory and imagination. There, straddling those two realms, lies ensconced Park Wan-suh’s novel “Who Ate Up All the Shinga?” (1992), asking you — truly — who are you and what are you.

 

It is a deeply moving, warm personal tale of a bucolic countryside early-childhood idyll. It is followed by a middle-childhood and teen & late-teen life adapting to the big city. Those buckets of warmth, filling some two thirds of the tale, are then burnt away like morning fog by the afternoon sun to reveal an evening of authoritarianism, spittle-strewn revenge and that petty, petty humanity that comes from fear. Absolute fear. The tale weaves together childhood, family, nature, parents and grandparents, and then more flowers, trees, brooks, vegetables and mountains. It weaves together colonialism, urbanization, independence and civil war. It weaves together elementary school, middle school, high school and university. It ends with the crack of the authoritarian whip in the early days of the modern Republic of Korea, hunting for Reds. Reds everywhere. Published in 1992 when the author was 61-years-old, and after she had written numerous other autobiographical novels over the prior 20 years, this pinnacle of her oeuvre unveils her as a master of her craft.

 

How to Write?

 

Someone famous may or may not have once said that writing is easy: just sit down at a typewriter, slit open your wrists and bleed out onto the page. As we read “Who Ate Up All the Shinga?”, we wade through Park’s memory and her imagination, swimming back and forth between the two: swimming in her warm metaphorical blood, swimming in the outflow from her heart and her mind. And she makes it look so easy.

 

Park’s deeply moving, amazingly simple, clear and honest writing style weaves a tale like a soft feather floating on the aromatic wafts of a jasmine arbor. The toddlers play in the healthy dirt and rain, amidst the rural bushes and trees, and hop the stream to get to the garden’s communal outhouse. These are her memories. Grandfather has his first stroke on page eight, and by page nine Mother has launched a rebellion and has sent Brother to Seoul to attend high school.

 

Somewhere out beyond this child’s world, there’s a war raging between Japan and China. A little later, another war, somewhere out beyond, is raging between Japan and the U.S. For a five-year-old, or seven-year-old or nine-year-old — as the story progresses — however, such World Happenings are far, far away. The dates of the World Happenings and the realities of colonialism and imperialism only exist because we, modern-day adults, know of them today. For a child at that time, supposedly living “through” them, they are all far, far away. The dragonfly on the azalea is a much more real thing.

 

“The rain showers we encountered there offered a magnificent spectacle. Seoul children may think that showers descend from the sky, but we knew the truth: they charged forward from the fields like soldiers. Where we were playing could have been bathed in relentless sunshine, but as soon as thick shadows came down over fields nearby, we’d spy a curtain of rain making its way toward us. We’d fly home at breakneck speed, shrieking, all too aware how fast that curtain moved.” The rain was a much more real thing.

 

Reality, then, is what’s in front of you. In the countryside, it’s all the animals, plants, creeks, hills, shamans, rituals, rain squalls, friends, grandparents, Mother, aunts, uncles, cousins, bugs and seasons. In the city, however, it is the structured life: being encouraged to use a Japanese name at elementary school, making new friends, the shame or social standing that comes from using a Korean or a Japanese name, getting free rubber balls when Malaysia and Indonesia are captured, but having rubber shoes rationed once the war begins to go badly for Japan. Later on, there’s basic sugar rationing and ceremonies at school to honor the Japanese king. However, reality is also running along to the library on Sundays, climbing the mountain trail up and over Inwangsan Mountain to get to school and returning to grandpa’s hometown when he passes away after his third stroke.

 

Emotions

 

The bright lights of the big city didn’t really wow the young Park. She just takes them in stride. The most important thing, as with most preteens, is image, the way we think people are thinking about us, our friends and, of course, our parents and siblings. Mother and Brother are everywhere. The young Park moves with aplomb from thatched roofs, wooden beams and mud walls to brick, asphalt and cement, her mother being the unmoving rock to which she clings. As preteens everywhere, Park is both repulsed and attracted to her mother, and Mother is her pillar. She moves from a lantern life to an electrical existence. She moves from endless flowing creeks and streams to only two buckets of water per day, delivered by a laborer each morning. Mother is always there.

 

Many of the young Park’s bare emotions are basic humanity, but many are also a child’s pride. She describes her first new home in Seoul, up in the hills above today’s Independence Gate, along subway line No. 3. She describes her new surroundings, certainly, but could be describing her acceptance of early adulthood. “My own sense of beauty had developed under the influence of aesthetics handed down for centuries. The chest that confronted me here, with its hasty paper job and tacky colors, insulted my eyes.” This is how humans grow up.

 

The complex emotions of late-childhood and preteen existence waft back and forth as Seoul lives through its mid-20th century experiences. When a child tries to be an adult but is still only a young teenager, or when an older teenager tries, again, to be an adult, but is still a child in many regards, emotions can erupt. The range of emotions that runs from shame and embarrassment at one’s family through to the free-flowing tears of love that you can only have for your family; they all cover the young Park as we follow her and her family through the rural comfort and stability of colonialism, the mild chaos of independence in August 1945, and through to the ravenous months of pillage, chaos and fear brought on by the fratricidal Korean civil conflict (1950-1953).

 

Empire

 

The elementary school and middle school of Park’s Seoul are clearly part of an empire, as is the city of Seoul itself, with direct transport links to other nations, countries, tribes and subjugated people. The train ran from Busan, to Seoul, to Shinuiju on the banks of the Yalu River, and thence on to Mukden in southern Manchuria, today’s Shenyang in Liaoning Province. In many ways, Korea of the 1930s and 1940s was more interconnected with its surrounding lands of Manchuria, Honshu, Taiwan, Okinawa and, of course, what is now North Korea, than the modern state of South Korea was for most of the late 20th century. At the train station in Seoul, Park is witness to migrants heading northward to Shenyang and to the Manchurian Plains to make new lives for themselves. They wait with their bed rolls at Seoul Station to head further into the empire’s periphery.

 

It’s not until page 59, when she begins elementary school, that the Japanese enter the scene. Remember: the kids all spoke Korean. The authorities had to educate the kids how to “be” Japanese, whatever that means, or at least how to be imperial citizens. These are all social constructs — race, sexuality, tribe, identity — and the colonial government had to “create” citizens, melding them lecture by lecture. Indeed, the shocking superficiality of colonialism is not only apparent to us, a century away. It was visible to the children themselves.

 

“We didn’t enter the classroom for roughly a month, but merely sang songs and played games in the grounds as we tagged along after our teachers, gradually becoming acquainted with the Japanese terms for the school facilities.” We’re looking through a child’s eyes, so for Park it’s kind of innocent and playful. As adults, however, we see the harsh reality of the imperial colonialist system. It’s like watching Ozymandias building his statue and knowing the final outcome.

 

When looking at the overall Japanese colonial exercise, there was racism, psychological oppression and personal violence inherent in the system. From the first day of Park’s elementary school, we are witness to the physical violence of Japanese culture, education, society, imperial policy and occupational strategy. The imperial Japanese elementary schools in Seoul had institutionalized forms of corporal punishment. Park describes it best in her own words: “Our teacher knew how to punish us viciously without so much as lifting a finger: she had pairs of students face each other and smack the other’s cheek until she told them to stop… the real reason our blows grew fierce was that it was difficult not to feel that your partner was getting the better of you. This made us lash out even harder…” Repeat this across the entire Japanese realm, in child after child, and you begin to understand the inhumane violence and fierce resistance faced by Chiang Kai-shek and Douglas MacArthur as they struggled against the Japanese polity. Violence was inherent in the system.

 

World War II

 

As the Japan-China war and then the Japan-U.S. war both began to get worse for Japan after the winter of 1942-1943, life got harder for Seoul’s residents; hard, but not devastatingly so. Indeed, Korea, or at least Seoul, seems to have done fairly well out of colonialism and out of WWII in general. At the peak of imperial Japan during that winter, Park was in her last year of elementary school. When the new school year began in March 1944 she was in her first year of middle school and the empire was collapsing around her otherwise well-structured life.

 

By spring of 1945, and the beginning of Chapter 8, Keijo (경성, 京城) — Seoul’s colonial epithet — was told to evacuate. Some people left. Some people didn’t. Park’s family went back to Gaeseong. Uncle with the ice shop was a black market smuggler. Food was scarce. The police were confiscating rice. Grain had to be smuggled into Seoul from the countryside. Park was about to start her second year of middle school. The child is gone and a teenager has arrived.

 

The unraveling of imperial Japan leading up to August 1945 unfurled across Seoul like a wool sweater being pulled apart by one sole string of yarn. Warp by warp, weft by weft; slowly, for sure, but inevitably, the Japanese tide was receding. And then they were gone.

 

By late 1945, Park’s concerns had shifted from teenage angst and Mother, to food rations, U.S. soldiers, U.S.S.R. soldiers and university entrance exams. She says at one point, “I sensed that I was standing not so much on [a hill]… as on the border of two totally different worlds. I felt inexorably drawn to this unknown realm, but at the same time I wanted to take a few steps back.” Our young heroine stands on the precipice, ready for the fall.

 

A Korean War

 

What destroyed Korea, however, was not the retreat of the Japanese tide. Korea was able to bob along for a few more years under joint military occupation by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., as local political parties and citizen organizations ebbed and flowed around the nation’s cities. Park and her family were able to move back and forth between Gaeseong and Seoul, critical for the city folk to get rice. Gaeseong, being immediately south of the 38th parallel, but north of Seoul, had U.S. military first and then U.S.S.R. military stationed there: both seemed kind of casual in this 1945-1948 period. Civilians were free to walk back and forth, though the trains were over-crowded and didn’t run regularly.

 

Most critical for today’s world, however, and to Park’s tale itself, was the bitter fratricide that was soon to erupt, pitting Red versus Nationalist, Communist versus Fascist, radical versus radical. All the many versions of Korean identity and nationalism — pent-up by colonial oppression for so long — tore society apart once the colonial cork had popped. This fratricidal civil war built up steam from 1945 to 1950 and then raged hot from 1950 to 1953, from Mao’s solidifying victory until Stalin’s liberating death.

 

To paraphrase historian Wada Haruki, this was a civil war among Koreans, wrapped in a regional war between the Japan-based U.S. Army and Mao’s recently victorious Communists, and then wrapped again in the global Cold War between Washington, D.C., and Moscow. It tore apart the Korean body politic limb from bloody limb, just as it tore apart the Park family limb from bloody limb.

 

The Back-and-forth

 

Seoul fell to Kim Il-sung’s Soviet-supplied armies in the initial action of the war on June 28, 1950. On Sept. 25, Seoul was re-captured by U.S. and South Korean forces.

 

After this initial trade, and as the tide of North Korean troops retreated northward, Park writes, “…Every [Korean male] conscript still alive had had a narrow escape; all owed their survival to fate. Anyone who has had a close scrape with death becomes bolder and overflows with desire to live a meaningful life. Those who’d managed to avoid conscription [into the North Korean forces] were filled with bloodthirsty passion for revenge, and we remained at war… Nothing is more horrifying than a civil war in which it is kill or be killed. The enemy had neither a different skin color nor a different language; they simply belonged to the Communist Party… But for us, patriotism and anti-Communism were identical. Neither could exist without the other; they were the palm and the back of the hand.”

 

Now add to this chaos another Communist occupation, this time by the Chinese. A year into the Korean civil strife, on Oct. 1, 1950, Mao received a request from Stalin to send troops into the Korean War, especially since the U.S. Army was a bit too close for comfort. So driving southward, Seoul fell again, this time to the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) alongside the Korean People’s Army (KPA), on Jan. 4, 1951. However, the combined U.S. Army-ROK forces were only pushed a little out of Seoul proper. So eventually on March 14, 1951, the U.S. 8th Army pushed the PVA and the KPA out of Seoul, again, this time for good.

 

This was the fourth time for the capital to change hands in nine months. The pre-war population of about 1.2 million was down to about 200,000. There were food shortages. There was chaos. There were betrayals. There was death. Neighbor snitched on neighbor. Park Wan-suh lived through all of this, caring for her extended family’s two infants, caring for her injured brother and helping her mother and sister-in-law.

 

As bad as the North Korean and Chinese troops were, however, the South Korean troops seem to have done far worse upon their final control of the capital. Infected by Red Scare, knowing that there was no way to visually distinguish a “North Korean” or a “Communist,” the newly empowered South Koreans were particularly fierce in purging the infected cells, as they saw it, in their community.

 

Park describes first-hand these returnees who had fled Seoul, particularly those of the new South Korean government. “Maybe a guilty conscience was prompting them to display their power preemptively. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been possible for the government, which had shown royal magnanimity in considering the situations of Japanese collaborators, to become so stern now.” South Koreans hated North Koreans, but Japanese collaborators were OK.

 

Your Grandparents

 

People in Korea born between about 1920 or 1940 — so people in their late 70s or late 90s these days — were witness to a great movement from the rural to the urban. Born with cows and dirt paths, they are passing away now around us, with glass & steel and silicon chips. Park Wan-suh was in the middle of this generation. She was born with shamanistic rituals. She died with modern medicine. If you scratch a modern South Korean, you can find someone pining for a rustic, bucolic past. This historical consciousness and pride at humanity’s progress exist throughout the novel, and the two are tightly intertwined with modern Korean identities.

 

It’s possible that Westerners, looking back on the fratricidal birth of modern Koreanness, might think it odd that a dictatorship ruled in Seoul for so long after the civil war. From 1948 to 1988, the U.S. supported, or at least accepted, a dictatorship in Seoul. Indeed, the South Korean people themselves lived firsthand with their dictators. Reading dry historical texts alone might not explain this. Park, thankfully, through her novel, through literature, sheds some light on this. Literature explains modern Koreanness better than the bare historical record.

 

The Book Itself

 

Shinga (싱아) is the Korean word for Aconogonum polymorphum, a flowering mountain shrub common in parts of Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula. The genus Aconogonum encompasses a wide range of flowering mountain shrubs, in fact. Take heart, though. It’s as obscure for a Korean reader as it is for a Western reader.

 

According to interviews, Park chose this unknown herb for a reason: she wanted to give a sense of being detached, out of control, an oddity. As she walked up and over the hill from her first home in Seoul to elementary school, from outside the city walls to the school within the city walls, she would count the plants and trees and birds atop Inwangsan Mountain. In the countryside, plants abound. On the barren hills that envelope Seoul, she asks herself one day, “Who ate up all the shinga?” for she didn’t see any growing.

 

Born in October 1931, Park Wan-suh passed away in January 2011 at the age of 79-and-a-half. She didn’t write her first novel until her early 40s, in the early 1970s. Nonetheless, it is her childhood that is the base for most of her books. Published some two decades after her debut, “Who Ate Up All the Shinga?” is the tale of her childhood.

 

It was published in 1992 to great fanfare and popularity in the Korean market. It was said that if you wanted to understand your grandparents, you had to read it. In 2009, Columbia University Press published the tale in English, with Yu Young-Nan and Stephen Epstein as translators, bringing Park’s story to a global audience.

 

She was just 14-years-old when imperial Japan capitulated to the U.S., and she was between 19- and 22-years-old when the Korean War swept back and forth across the peninsula. It is that war that is the final bookend to this story.

 

At the heart of the tale, however — an old person remembering childhood and youth — is the question of identity. To read this story is to travel into the deep recesses of our identity and our memory, the walls that define our tale. Who are you? Who am I? Certainly the you you see in a photo from your childhood is you: you know it’s you. Yet are both of you the same person? Would the you of your youth be friends with the adult you? What is it about your life that creates you?

 

For Park, it is the memories of her childhood. Here we have Park — a 61-year-old grandmother, alive and well in the industrialized glass & steel Korea of the early ’90s — writing about the farms and fields of her youth. For Park, it is these memories that define who she is.

 

“…The outhouses where I grew up were clean enough to eat porridge in. They were very roomy, sometimes as big as three or four kan, with a wooden frame in one corner where adults would take care of their business. Kids just squatted on the dirt floor. This area resembled a shed, and its floor slanted to allow turds to roll downward, not into a deep pit, but into a section where ash from the kitchen furnace was dumped…

 

“I’d go off to our outhouse with a pack of friends. If kids are playing house and one suddenly asks, “Who wants to play hide-and-seek?” the others scramble after her. In exactly the same vein, when anyone suggested a trip to the outhouse, we’d all follow…

 

“Crouching side by side and chatting was fantastic fun. As we squatted in our dim hide-away, excreting little corn ears of dung to mirror what we’d eaten, our trivial tales called forth flights of fancy and elicited histrionic “oohs” and “aahs.”

 

“Did you hear about Kapsun’s dog? It had six puppies, but listen to this! The dog’s yellow, but no puppy was yellow — just black ones, white ones, and white ones with black spots.”

 

We are the memories we choose to keep.

 



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