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Trap of History: Understanding Korean Short Stories

Excerpt from Questia:

Culture is an emblem of a people’s self-recognition in their own world and of their achievement of freedom in it. It is a people’s cumulative reception and negation of the world in their history — negation in the Hegelian sense, that is, the changing of the world in accord with one’s own needs. Thus different cultures have different ways of self-recognition and different ways of achieving freedom, shaped largely by the physicality of the spaces allocated them. Indeed, a certain physicality and historicity may be required for engendering certain culture. That’s why there is no understanding a culture, especially a literature as one of its primary expressive modes, without being sensitive to both the physical space of a people and their history of negation in the world.

What then is Korean culture? Koreans have learned how to live on the Korean peninsula, which has breathtaking scenery and wonderful weather but is comparatively poor in natural resources in every sense. Only 85,000 square miles, the peninsula separates the Yellow Sea from the Eastern Sea and is surrounded by two huge countries — China and Russia — and one island-country, Japan. Mostly mountainous, only about 20 percent of Korean land is arable; rice (the chief crop), barley, wheat, corn, and soybeans are extensively cultivated. The narrowness, the surroundedness, the scarcity of arable land, the exposure to supreme foreign powers, good weather, beautiful scenery, and agriculture have been part of a fate that was to be negated for the Koreans to survive, and their survival with only a one-time loss of independence has been a great feat.

The genius of the Korean culture lies in the art of self-recognition under the conditions of the “unfreedom” derived from the physical nature of the peninsula. The physical environment nurtured a spirit of harmony with nature, humble acceptance of fate, resistance to foreign powers, and self-fulfillment through art. In the course of history, Confucianism, Buddhism, and later Taoism, which flowed into this peninsula from China and India, enriched the senses of the . . .

Read a review by Charles Montgomery here.

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