Kang Kyong-ae: From Wonso Pond
Tr Samuel Perry
Feminist Press, 2009
Originally published 1934 in the Donga Ilbo
It’s the 1930s. In colonial Korea, economic development brings factories and work to Incheon, Seoul and other centres of population, while in the countryside the semi-feudal lifestyle continues. The local yangban plots which local lass to deflower next, and keeps the local rent-farmers as much in debt to him as he can. We are introduced to his next victim, the young Sonbi, at the start of the book, but it’s not till about half way through that he achieves his objective. Unable to continue to live in the village, she escapes to Seoul to stay with his previous victim.
This is a book in two halves: in the first we have a simple story of country folk trying to survive in difficult times. We are introduced to an array of characters: the local yangban and his family, including his daughter Okchom and a hanger-on from Seoul, Sinchol, whom everyone (apart from him) hopes will become the next son-in-law; we meet the central female character, Sonbi, desired not only by the yangban and the hanger-on but by Chotchae, an honest but hot-headed labourer – the most obvious candidate for a long-term relationship.
The second half of the book relies over-much on melodrama and coincidence – and there are those who see this type of serialised novel as the forerunner of the modern Korean TV Drama in the use of these storytelling techniques. And Samuel Perry tells us in the informative introduction that popular fiction written by and for women was a major source of newspaper revenue at the time.
Maybe because the text that has come down to us is had to get through the Japanese colonial censors, there seem to be leaps in the narrative: suddenly, after parting company with his father for not having the gumption to marry Okchom, we find that the somewhat useless Sinchol is an activist communist intellectual highly regarded by the comrades. Quite by chance he ends up living in a squat in Seoul next door to Sonbi before being sent by the party organisation to Incheon to raise the workers’ consciousness. And by coincidence, one of the workers whose consciousness he raises is none other than Chotchae, who has escaped from the countryside after clashing with the yangban.
In the squalor of the factories and docks, where excruciatingly hard labour brings little security, it’s not hard to see how the activists find a ready audience – but the conversions of some of the characters have been excised from the text: in particular Sonbi goes from being a timid downtrodden worker to being a champion of the revolution virtually overnight.
The author, Kang Kyong-ae was born in 1906 in Hwanghae province in what is now North Korea, a farmer’s daughter. Supported financially by her step-father, she attended a Catholic boarding school in Pyongyang. Something of a Modern Girl, she eloped to Seoul with a fellow student with whom she shared a copy of Marx’s Kapital.
Sinchol, having learned the phrase “extraction of surplus labour” in the abstract from his reading of Marx comes to experience the reality of it when he tries to mix with the labourers to “raise their consciousness”. Tuberculosis, imprisonment, hardship and oppression is what faces the workers in the various factories. It comes as no surprise then that the title of the book is Ingan Munje: Human Problems.
The book is very readable, coming in short chapters which were serialised in the Donga newspaper.
Worth searching out.