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The late colonial fiction frequently turns to rural motives. This tendency can be utilized to prime the development of the story or to serve as a secondary plot device. However, most commonly it is used for aesthetic purposes – to enhance the immersion, create a vivid image, and flesh out the characters. Interestingly, the countryside is portrayed in different ways in most works. For instance, the short story The Camellias by Kim Yujŏng presents the reader with a peculiar blend of down-to-earth aesthetics and subtle humor complemented with Freudian motives. The protagonist, a son of a tenant farmer, is being bullied by his neighbor, the daughter of a bailiff called Jomsun.1
What constantly eludes him yet becomes immediately evident to the reader is a motive beyond the girl’s gradually more persistent attempts – her sexual longing for the protagonist. This clumsiness and short-sightedness are secondary to his dismay with the potential damage of property – the rooster belonging to their family who is being repeatedly beaten by the stronger and bigger neighbor’s rival. In other words, he is portrayed as a responsible, hard-working individual who is strongly bound by the restrictions of the village hierarchy and the responsibilities laid on him by the conditions of rural life. Most prominently, this can be seen when his boyish ambitions of seeing his rooster winning the fight after being imbued with chilli water clash with the daily responsibilities and lose as he decides he cannot “afford to skip the wood gathering”.2
In a similar manner, the countryside is described in Kim Yujŏng’s other short story, Spring, Spring. Here, a protagonist, a poor farmer, is working for the employer who, instead of paying him for his work, promises to grant his consent for marriage with his daughter, Chosun, when the right time comes. Unfortunately for the protagonist, his employer has no intention to terminate a partnership where he gets working hands for free. As in The Camellias, the countryside is mostly depicted through the descriptions of daily routines and the tensions between the characters, who, again, are of different social class. The deliberately exaggerated silliness of the protagonist coupled with his evident powerlessness and confusion in the climactic ending adds up to create a humorous yet subtly disquieting picture of social rather than natural space of the countryside.
A different manner of depicting the countryside is chosen by Yi Hyosŏk in his story When the Buckwheat Blooms. Here, the narrative follows two peddlers who return from the market in town and talk along the way. Throughout the story, the image of the countryside is displayed in two instances: first, as a backdrop against which the reader follows the journey and the conversation of Hô and Tong-I, and as an environment where the events are told by both peddlers take place. In both instances, however, the rural landscape is portrayed as a lyrical and pristine environment that possesses an almost primordial beauty. The effect is further strengthened by the contrast used by the author during the initial scene where both peddlers leave the town. The night urban landscape is described as being “the untidy sprawl of a courtyard after a family gathering, and you could hear quarrels breaking out in the drinking houses”.3 As a result, the countryside in Yi Hyosŏk’s work serves to deliver the people from the foul and untidy urban environment and return them to their initial purity.
The depiction of rural space can also be tracked to the use of certain aesthetic strategies. In Kim Yujŏng’s Camellias, for instance, the author attempts to create an image of a simple and challenging yet cheerful environment. The challenging aspect is constantly brought forward by emphasizing the burden of daily activities faced by both characters. The conflict between the main characters develops in short outbursts when they are free from hard work – “a short break after I carried two piles of manure to the field,” as described by the protagonist on one occasion.4 The girl, despite being of a higher class, is equally involved in collective work – such as prior to one of the encounters where she is “crouching down doing something – either sorting rags or rearranging old cotton wool”.5 The situation is mirrored in the behavior of the protagonist’s parents, who feel gratitude towards Jomsun’s for the land and the occasional help with rice or barley.6
However, it is worth noting that these hardships and challenges are not put forth and remain a necessary background rather than a harsh inevitable reality. In other words, the countryside in The Camellias is only as unwelcoming as needed to not lose a connection to reality. The difficulty of the rural landscape is never emphasized, while the occasional simple joys of the countryside are depicted in full color. First, the vigorous rooster fights are impressively detailed, featuring details such as “our cock made a big soaring jump, and while it was coming down, it scratched its opponent’s eyes with its claws and pecked at its head”.7 In a similar way, Jomsun is depicted playing a reed pipe near the end of the story. The simplicity and robustness of the instrument, in this case, strengthen the message of the carefree youth and vigor associated with the setting. To add to the effect, the yellow camellias growing nearby are described as fragrant enough to cause dizziness, although it surely is more likely caused by the climactic events at the end of the story.
This approach can also be observed in Spring, Spring. The descriptions of characters, which originate from the obviously simple-minded protagonist, are distinctively clumsy, such as his comparison of Chomsun to a honeydew melon “because of all the melons the honeydew is the tastiest and the prettiest”.8 Instead of describing the scenery, the countryside in this story is reflected through its inhabitants and their relationships.
Yi Hyosŏk’s story takes a more straightforward approach, but at the same time uses more prominent means of aesthetic communication. Since the rural landscape is described as universally genuine and positive, the author utilizes a set of epithets which induce serenity and create an unmistakable impression of mesmerizing beauty. Since both the central story and Hŏ’s retelling of his past experience occur at night, the author strongly relies on the description of the moon, using the phrase “awash in the moonlight” several times throughout the text.9 The scenery is described in equally favorable terms, with descriptions such as “The hillside was covered with buckwheat coming into flower, and the sprinkling of white in the gentle moonlight was almost enough to take your breath away” common throughout the text.10 Even the cigarette smoked by one of the characters along their journey is described as emitting “rich aroma of the purple smoke” which “suffused the night air”.11 Simply put, all of the aesthetic strategies used by Yi Hyosŏk confirm that the countryside is superior to its urban counterpart both in terms of visual qualities and, more importantly, its intrinsic characteristics.
Politics of Imagining Countryside
It should be mentioned that at least some of the details described above can be ascribed to the specific political characteristic of the colonial era and finding their way into the literature. For instance, the well-being of the two families described in The Camellias, as well as the relationship between them, is largely defined by hierarchical relations characteristic for the colonial reality. In addition to the debt the protagonist’s parents feel towards the Jomsun’s family, the boy’s meek attitude can be clearly traced to the understanding that his misdemeanor will eventually lead to the undesirable consequences, with losing the right for the land being the most extreme one.
While it can certainly be also ascribed to the hesitation and uncertainty he feels because of his lack of experience with the opposite sex and can be taken further to assigned metaphorical sense – with the dominant role of the more persistent and motivated girl being justified (rather than explained) by her higher social and political status, there is little doubt that the author deliberately chose this strategy to depict a gender conflict. Simply put, Kim Yujŏng utilizes the politics of the countryside as a readily recognized and well-established trope to present his somewhat Freudian narrative in a slightly ironic sense. The conflict between social classes is not downplayed entirely – rather, it is deemphasized and depicted without the bitterness of the earlier colonial literature.
This stratification as a characteristic feature of the countryside is even more prominent in Spring, Spring. The obvious abuse of power by the protagonist’s employer is only possible in the context of inequality between the social classes of bailiffs and tenants. The climactic clash between a dismayed farmer and the antagonist symbolically ends in a humiliating defeat of the former, aggravated by Jomsun’s siding with her father.12 This comical conflict is representative of the real issues characteristic of the colonial era as it shapes the politics of the countryside’s depiction more prominently than the description of the scenery or the daily activities.
Yi Hyosŏk’s work takes a more straightforward approach, distinguishing the countryside in its entirety from the urban space as its opposite. In addition to the contrasts between the town market and the rural night road mentioned above, the latter is invariably tied to nature and suggests uninhibited opportunities for humans who exist within it. The love story told by Hŏ is the most prominent embodiment of this principle as it leaves little room for moral considerations or social prejudice. It is only after the woman, who is presumably Tong-i’s mother, returns to society when she faces negative consequences of the act.13 To some extent, this is the most radical stance on the politics of rural landscape seen in the late colonial literature. It serves as a pure and idealized world that offers refuge from the oncoming unresponsive and senseless urban reality.
Impact on Plot
While on some occasions the depiction of the countryside plays a clearly secondary aesthetical role, it certainly influences the plot to some degree. For instance, the characters of The Camellias are for the most part defined by the conditions of the rural environment. This is especially evident in the behavior of the story’s protagonist. While it is certainly possible to imagine him as a bold and self-conscious individual who is not intimidated by the rough courtship he is targeted with, such a scenario would be unlikely given the social role ascribed to him by the author. If despite this, such change did take place, the protagonist would stand out as someone who acts contrary to the established norm. Therefore, under such circumstances and in a given situation the characters in question are necessarily framed in the most fitting social roles from the selection offered by the colonial landscape.
The plot of Spring, Spring clearly depends on the social component of the countryside, with poverty and inequality within the population being the driving factors behind the central conflict of the story. Despite a humorous tone, it can be seen that the issues brought forward in both works are sharp and eminent in the literature of the era. However, while in The Camellias they can be thought of as secondary and providing a believable background, in Spring, Spring they are unambiguously prioritized.
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In Yi Hyosŏk’s When the Buckwheat Blooms, the rural environment, which underlies the core idea of the story, drives the dynamics of the plot. This is best seen in the course of the narrative, where the characters, who are walking away from the town, become more and more open to each other. Their conversation starts with a quarrel over an inn-keeper but, as they enter the moonlit wilderness, they calm down and abandon the conflict altogether. The further they move from the urban entity, the more they become engulfed in the soothing countryside. Consequently, fewer barriers restrict them from sharing their highly personal stories. In a way, rural landscape primes the story by assigning it both a physical and a psychological direction towards unity and hope.
Kim, Yujŏng. “Spring, Spring.” Translated by William Skillend. In Modern Korean Literature: An Anthology 1908-1965, edited by Chung Chong-wha, 171-84. New York: KeganPaul International, 1995.
Kim, Yujŏng. “The Camellias.” Translated by Chung Chong-wha. In Modern Korean Literature: An Anthology 1908-1965, edited by Chung Chong-wha, 3-8. New York: KeganPaul International, 1995.
Yi, Hyosŏk. “When the Buckwheat Blooms.” Translated by Kim Chong-un and Bruce Fulton. In Modern Korean Fiction: An Anthology, edited by Bruce Fulton and Kwon Youngmin, 86-94. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
- Yujŏng Kim, “The Camellias,” trans. Chung Chong-who, in Modern Korean Literature: An Anthology 1908-1965, ed. Chung Chong-wha (New York: Kegan Paul International, 1995), 4.
- Ibid., 7.
- Hyosŏk Yi, “When the Buckwheat Blooms,” trans. Kim Chong-un and Bruce Fulton, in Modern Korean Fiction: An Anthology, ed. Bruce Fulton and Kwon Youngmin (Newa York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 86.
- Yujŏng Kim, “The Camellias,” trans. Chung Chong-who, in Modern Korean Literature: An Anthology 1908-1965, ed. Chung Chong-wha (New York: Kegan Paul International, 1995), 6.
- Ibid., 5.
- Ibid., 6.
- Yujŏng Kim, “Spring, Spring,” trans. William Skilled, in Modern Korean Literature: An Anthology 1908-1965, ed. Chung Chong-wha (New York: Kegan Paul International, 1995), 175.
- Hyosŏk Yi, “When the Buckwheat Blooms,” trans. Kim Chong-un and Bruce Fulton, in Modern Korean Fiction: An Anthology, ed. Bruce Fulton and Kwon Youngmin (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 90.
- Ibid., 91.
- Yujŏng Kim, “Spring, Spring,” trans. William Skilled, in Modern Korean Literature: An Anthology 1908-1965, ed. Chung Chong-wha (New York: Kegan Paul International, 1995), 183.
- Hyosŏk Yi, “When the Buckwheat Blooms,” trans. Kim Chong-un and Bruce Fulton, in Modern Korean Fiction: An Anthology, ed. Bruce Fulton and Kwon Youngmin (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 92.