Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Hwang Sok-yong on what is traditionally, exclusively, and authentically Korean

Hwang Sok-yong
(Image from Marmot's Hole)

About a week ago, I posted a series of entries on Hwang Sok-yong's novel The Guest as part of my attempt to understand why he refers to smallpox in Korea as a Western disease. Part of my difficulty was due to an insufficiency in the translation, so when my wife helped me with the original Korean, I came to see that Hwang is playing upon two senses: west as direction and West as place. He cleverly uses this wordplay in his criticism of Christianity's effect on Koreans.

I've continued my reflections on Hwang's novel and am currently integrating my analysis of his critical theme in an article on Korean identity that I've been asked to write. Here is part of what I've done with Hwang's wordplay:
But Hwang's critique may go even deeper by playing further on the direction "west" (서쪽) and the place "The West" (서양). Anything that had come from a western direction might be understood as suspect because not indigenously Korean. Hence, Catholicism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, which like smallpox all arrived in Korea by way of China, the country to the west, would implicitly count as western diseases (서쪽 병: seojok byeong). And Protestantism, which arrived in Korea from the West (서양: seoyang), would therefore be a Western disease. By extension, Westernization itself would amount to a Western disease, whether in the guise of Japan's colonization of Korea, which accelerated Korea's pre-colonial Westernization, or even in the guise of Marxism, another Westernizing ideology. Rather than all these things western (서쪽) and Western (서양), one should "Believe in the God of Chosŏn," as Hwang's non-Christian character Pak Illang exhorts the Christians who are leading him off to his execution (page 195). To believe in the God of Chosŏn (조선으 하나님: chosŏn u hananim, dialect for chosŏn ui hananim) -- the God of Korea -- would apparently mean to believe in Korea's traditional God. The term hananim (하나님) for "God" in Pak's exhortation is also the term used by Protestants, but in Pak's usage, it would seem to mean the same as Big Grandma's reference to hanunim (하느님) in her insistence on Korean religion:
"Here in our Chosŏn, we say the son of God is Tan'gun." (page 42)
For "son of God," she uses hanunim adeol (하느님 아덜). Both terms, hananim and hanunim, appear to be longstanding Korean expressions for God and have been explained as dialectical variants. At any rate, Hwang seems to have identified them for the purpose of his central theme, the call for a return to what is traditionally, exclusively, and authentically Korean.
Or so it seems to me, but I could be mistaken since I lack expertise. Experts are therefore welcome to comment on what one astute commenter has described as my "oily undergraduate pretensions."

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