[KS] KSR 2010-01: _Eastern Sentiments_, by Yi T’aejun, translated and introduced by Janet Poole

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Mon Aug 16 22:00:00 EDT 2010

Dear all,

Please find below a review for Korean Studies Review. As most of of you know, I have stepped down from editing duties, but Bob Fouser, the current editor, has been delayed for a variety of reasons from taking up the reins fully so far. This situation may persist a while longer, but we look forward to seeing a new and improved KSR at some point in the not too distant future.

Cheers, Stephen

_Eastern Sentiments_,  by Yi T’aejun, translated and introduced by Janet Poole. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2009. 189 pp.   ISBN-13: 978-0-231-14944-0. $45.00 (cloth)

Reviewed by Samuel Perry
Brown University
samuel_perry at brown.edu

Eastern Sentiments, Janet Poole’s eloquently crisp translation of Yi T’aejun’s 1941 Musŏrok, introduces English speakers to the Korean essay, a genre of literature rarely dignified with translation.  Including all fifty-seven essays of Yi’s most famous work, each meticulously annotated, and preceded by a rigorous yet accessible introduction, Eastern Sentiments is an invaluable contribution to the cannon of Korean literature available in English translation today.

Yi T’aejun was born in northern Korea in 1904 on the eve of Japan’s annexation of Korea; he studied at Sophia University (Jōchi daigaku) in Tokyo, and went on to become one of the first authors in colonial Korea to support himself solely through his writing. From his new home in Seoul Yi T’aejun wrote in a variety of genres over the course of his prolific career, including popular serialized novels, travelogues, “palm-of-the-hand” stories, and most memorably short essays. His importance as a writer notwithstanding, Yi’s 1946 move to Soviet-occupied northern Korea (later to become the DPRK) and his status as a wŏlbok chakka (“a writer who fled north”) kept the publication of his writings banned in South Korea until 1988.  Few of Yi’s works have been translated into English to date.

Although many of the essays included in Musŏrok (literally, “Essays without a Preface”) were written in the 1930s, Yi’s book was compiled and published at a time that is traditionally seen as the darkest period of Korea’s colonial history.  Only five years before his book appeared the appointment of Governor General Minami Jirō had precipitated the institution of colonial policies in Korea that are often summed up with the term naesŏn ilch’e, a plan devised with the aim of systematically unifying Japan and its colony through a policy of coercive cultural assimilation. By 1941 most Korean newspapers and journals had been closed down, classes at schools were conducted almost entirely in Japanese, and young Korean men were being recruited into the Imperial Army to fight in the Pacific War.  What did it mean for a writer like Yi T’aejun to publish a book of exquisitely stylized essays in Korean at this time of coercive assimilation? As Poole succinctly describes it, Musŏrok was “at heart an elegy for a Korea that Yi thought was disappearing.”  But what precisely was disappearing and what was the nature of its disappearance?

If the essays collected in Musŏrok display many of the general characteristics of the essay genre—brevity of form, non-fictional representation, and authorial subjectivity—they also find a specificity in their miscellaneous arrangement and description of physical things, things that seem invariably related to the Korean past.  Throughout Musŏrok Yi writes lovingly of objects that speak directly of Korea’s rich and enduring cultural traditions: a weasel-hair ink brush, a miraculous elixir, a cultivated orchid, and Seoul’s ancient city walls.  In the tradition of classical poetry his book celebrates the joys of nature and by extension the distinctly human virtues that artists might project onto it: a well-tended flowerbed, the “integrity of the plum,” a “benevolent” ox, or a day spent fishing in clear mountain stream. The people described in Musŏrok, too, though sometimes symbols of the modern age, seem more often than not repositories of traditional Korean virtues that Yi increasingly found in short supply: talented kisaeng, sincere carpenters, and youthful antiquarians. Lurking behind all of these characters is the narrator himself: the modern day gentlemen-scholar, seeking out the cultural authority of the past, as a way of responding to a present-day world gone horribly awry.

Poole’s introduction to Eastern Sentiments superbly rises to the task of clarifying how that world might have appeared to Yi T’aejun in 1941, and offers a compelling analysis of the contradictions at the heart of his aesthetic practice.  It was not simply a colonial policy of forced assimilation that was threatening the survival of Korean culture. The arrival of capitalism on the peninsula had already begun to transform this overwhelmingly agricultural society into a center of heavy industry, tourism, and urban consumption, and interconnect it with efficient systems of mass transportation and communication.  As Poole writes, the author of Musŏrok “refuses the rhythms of the newly industrializing society” and “clearly disdains the modern capitalist world that is his home.”  And yet, in clinging to Korean tradition, Yi’s writing also threatens to underscore the pressing need for a modernity modeled after its Japanese occupiers. “Traditionalism in Korea,” explains Poole, “was always caught between trying to recover a tradition more glorious than the abject present and trying to elaborate the past outside the imperial discourse that also appropriated it.” “We must shake the dust of death from the old object and help turn it into the phoenix of new beauty and life,” writes Yi himself. “That is the point where I believe the antique can truly be brought into our daily lives.” (144) The Confucian scholar in Yi who rejects the universality of Japanese modernity still clings to a Korean particularity situated so securely in the past that it seems woefully inadequate when faced with the challenges of colonial capitalism. Indeed, given the pressures under which Yi wrote there is little in Musŏrok that might offer a meaningful alternative to a Japanese historiography that sought to incorporate the Korean past into a pan-East Asian worldview commensurate with the ambitions of empire.

For the richness with which Eastern Sentiments speaks to these important questions about colonial history, identity and aesthetics, Poole’s translation offers teachers of East Asian  cultures an extraordinary pedagogical resource. Yi’s book can be read in a world literature class just as easily as it can in a seminar on Korean modernism; the essays would also serve well in an introductory class on East Asian history or culture.  For those who have struggled to find deftly translated Korean works to use in East Asian literature and history classes, Eastern Sentiments indeed offers important ways of setting the experiences of Japan, China and Korea in dialogue with each other. Within a unit on East Asian traditionalism, Yi T’aejun’s essays could be read alongside works by Tanizaki Jun’ichirō—his essay In’ei raisan (translated by Thomas Harper and Edward Seidensticker as In Praise of Shadows) certainly comes to mind. Both Yi, writing in Seoul, and Tanizaki, writing in Osaka, shared a passion for tradition that was as deeply connected to a broader discourse on ancient history and culture, as it was inseparable from both an interest in local particularity and a connection to Japan’s expanding empire.  The travel accounts which conclude Musŏrok, detailing Yi’s trip to Manchuguo, might also be productively read alongside the available translations of Yosano Akiko’s and Natsume Soseki’s travelogues through Manchuria.

As a work of literature Poole’s translation manages to capture the elegant simplicity that defines Yi T’aejun’s prose as well as its nuanced shifts in tone and voice.  That Poole worked with the original 1941 version of Musŏrok, is made abundantly clear in the precision of her renditions of classical Chinese—Yi’s text draws heavily on Chinese poetry and proverbs—several of which differ in interpretation from the contemporary Korean translations in more recent anthologies of his work. Carrying out the important work of editor as well as translator, Poole provides citations for each quotation of classical Chinese verse, carefully restoring for her English-speaking audience an important part of the cultural background shared by Yi’s intended readership. The overall quality of the translation can also be seen in a meticulous attention to detail throughout the volume—annotations are provided on Korean artists, classical tales, as well as historical people and places. The field of Korean Studies is indebted to Janet Poole for setting a new standard of literary translation and analysis.

Columbia University Press also deserves special credit for Eastern Sentiments’ beautifully designed jacket cover, which features an ink painting of an orchid by the 18th century scholar-official Kim Chŏnghŭi. Yi T’aejun would surely have approved.

Perry, Samuel, 2010
Review of  _Eastern Sentiments_,  by Yi T’aejun, translated and introduced by Janet Poole (2009)
_Korean Studies Review_ 2010, no. 1
Electronic file: http://koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr10-01.htm

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