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Tale of Hong Gil-dong (Hong Gildong Jeon), the first novel published in Hangeul, the Korean alphabet.

As a country with thousands of years of history, combined with a drastic turnaround from rags to riches in the 20th century, Korea has a lot of stories to tell from the heart and soul reflected in its novels and poetry.

Korean literature is divided into classical literature, written in Hanja (Chinese characters adapted to Korean usage) -- largely defined as stories, essays, ballads, and other prose that were composed before the end of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) -- and modern literature written in Hangeul.

As Hangeul, the Korean writing system, wasn't invented until the 15th century to educate the people and not popularized until much later, most works were written in Chinese characters, whose sounds and meanings were rearranged to fit the Korean language.

The establishment of Korea's modern literature extends from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. The first stage of modern literature, referred to as the Gaehwa/Gyemong (Enlightenment) period, secured its readership base through newspapers, the newly emerging medium at the time. All newspapers published serialized novels, helping the emergence of professional writers.

The term "sin-soseol," or new novel, came to be around this time. All these works were written in Hangeul. Some of the noted titles include Yi In-jik's Hyeor-ui-nu (Tears of Blood, 1906), and Eun-segye (The Silver World, 1908).

In 1910, Japan annexed Korea. Under the colonial rule that lasted until 1945, Korea faced harsh restrictions in not only speech but also in publishing. The literature movement during this period was sparked by the March 1st Movement in 1919. Though Korea's independence movement ended in failure, it helped the public experience a renewed national consciousness. The novels of this period described the sufferings of intellectuals at the time, the sad lives of laborers and farmers, and overall contradictions coming from the ideal versus reality.

The statue of writer Yeom Sang-seop (1897-1963) and his early editions of the novel The Three Generations printed in 1978 and 1945. (Photo: Yonhap News)

In reflection of the state of the society, in the 1930s, novels about characters living in such tumultuous times were produced, such as Yeom Sang-seop's Samdae (Three Generations, 1931) and Chae Man-sik's Tangnyu (The Muddy Stream, 1938).

On the other hand, more experimentation was made with the styles and techniques of writing. Yi Sang used the technique of dissociation of the self from the world with his short story "Nalgae" (Wings, 1936) and "Jongsaeng-gi" (Record of the End of a Life, 1937). Yi Hyo-seok's Memilkkot Pil Muryeop (When the Buckwheat Flowers Bloom, 1936) and Kim Yu-jeong's Dongbaek Kkot (Camellia Blossoms, 1938) showed masterful skills in vivid description of scenery as well as the characters' feelings.

Writer Kim Yu-jeong (1908-1937) and the traditional setting of his novel, built to honor the author. (Photo: Yonhap News)

Korea was struck by yet another strategy only a few years after national liberation in 1945. The Korean War (1950-53) solidified the nation's temporary division into a permanent one between the communist North and the capitalist South with a great loss of lives. Much of the postwar novels described the pain and anguish of the people shattered by war.

Novels that showed concern for various social changes were all the rage during the 1960s and ‘70s as Korea went through rapid industrialization. Lee Mun-gu's Gwanchon Supil (Gwanchon Essays, 1977) portrayed the actual living conditions of neglected farmers. Poverty among laborers was also clearly shown through Gaekji (The Strange Land, 1970) by Hwang Seok-yeong and Nanjang-iga Ssoa-ollin Jageun Gong (Small Ball Thrown by the Dwarf, 1978) by Jo Se-hui.

Other novels looked into the human isolation coming from industrialization, such as Lee Cheong-jun's Dangsindeur-ui Cheon-guk (Your Heaven, 1976) and O Jeong-hui's Yunyeon-ui Tteul (The Garden of Childhood, 1981).

A genre called "literature of division" emerged during this period. Kim Won-gil's No-eul (Sunset, 1987), Jeon Sang-guk's Abe-ui Gajok (Abe's Family, 1980) and Jo Jeong-rae's Taebaeksanmaek (The Taebaeksan Mountains) written from 1986-1989) are typical examples.

Park Gyeong-ri's Toji (The Land), a 16-volume epic saga, is considered the most important achievement of modern Korean literature. The story follows the life of a woman who survived the most tumultuous times of modern Korean history, from the Japanese colonial period to national division. The series, written over 25 years from 1969 to 1994, has been included in the UNESCO Collection of Representative Works.

It was in the 1980s that translations of Korean literary works began to appear abroad in large quantities. The types of work selected for translation have become increasingly diverse and the quality of the translations themselves has improved steadily. With translations principally being published by overseas publishers, the translations have become available to a wider range of readers.

A fifteen-volume series of Korean short stories was released in July 2012 featuring works by some of Korea's representative modern fiction authors. As bilingual editions, the volumes feature both the original Korean and translated English texts (photos courtesy of Asia Publishers).A fifteen-volume series of Korean short stories was released in July 2012 featuring works by some of Korea's representative modern fiction authors. As bilingual editions, the volumes feature both the original Korean and translated English texts (photos courtesy of Asia Publishers).

The Korean Literature Translation Institute was established in 2001, in a bid to produce official translations of Korean literary works abroad more systematically. The institute arranges overseas intellectual exchange programs in the field of literary works and offers grants to translators and publishers. It also holds a translation contest every year to discover and encourage new translators of Korean literature.

For more information on the latest books being translated into English, Chinese, Japanese, French, German, Russian, Arabic, and other languages, visit the official website of the Korean Literature Translation Institute at: 

For more on Korea’s classical literature, click here:

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