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(Yonhap Feature) Prolific author, 'Dickensian' Hwang Sun-won yet to gain recognition
By Charles Montgomery
Contributing writer
SEOUL, Nov. 29 (Yonhap) -- Among the many under-appreciated Korean modern authors, Hwang Sun-won (1915-2000) may well have created the most prodigious output with the highest possible literary skills. Hwang produced several canonical short stories, as well as a number of novels of impressive content and quality, many of which have been translated into English.

   Despite these accomplishments, Hwang is relatively unknown overseas, and sometimes taken for granted in Korea itself. He is not completely unrecognized, for in his long career, he was the recipient of several honors, including the National Academy of Arts Award for his seminal, "Trees on the Cliff." Nonetheless, it is difficult to call to mind any author of similar output and quality who is less discussed.

   Hwang is one of Korea's most literary men. His works may fairly be described as Dickensian in the way he piles character on character, plot on plot, and then painstakingly explores the nooks and crannies of those characters and plots. Reading a novel by Hwang is an invitation to visit and then inhabit an entirely constructed world, but one that reflects, explains and elucidates on Korean historical realities.


Author Hwang Sun-won in his younger years (Photos courtesy of Charles Montgomery)

Hwang is also fearless in his choice of topics, which range from specifically Korean ones (the deleterious effects of the 1950-53 Korean War) to those of international and universal application (the role of religion in life, relationships between the sexes and power relationships in turbulent times). In fact, many argue that Hwang's universality is one of the keys to his success in translation.

   According to Lee Jae-soon, Korean language professor at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, translating Hwang effectively might benefit from the fact that "he focused on the universal aspects of humanity, and his prose was neat and immaculate."

   Hwang often explores questions of religious belief, sexual relationships, and how the structure of society deforms its citizens. Also running through most of Hwang's work is a version of "han," pent up angst; an acceptance that the world is a callous place, and the best we can do is accept that and struggle along. This thread in Hwang's work is well expressed in a quote from Hwang in the preface of "Trees on the Cliff" -- "After all is said, life is already tragic. Why should we make it worse?"

   While Hwang often focuses on some of the more difficult aspects of life, his work never gives up hope entirely, and while he is not an author of happy endings, he is an author who represents a deep belief that the meaning of life can be found in the struggle for it and that the struggle is ultimately worthwhile.


An assortment of Hwang's short stories have been translated, perhaps the most comprehensive and best introduction being "Lost Souls," a collection of three smaller collections originally published in Korea. Translated by Bruce and Ju-chan Fulton, it is comprised of "Pond," a collection Hwang wrote in the 1930s while in college; "The Dog of Crossover Village" published in 1948; and "Lost Souls" published in 1958.

   Hwang has also had novels translated, and although many of his short stories are canonical, it is in the longer form that his fully literary nature truly shines through. Four of Hwang's novels are currently available in English -- "Trees on the Cliff," "The Moving Castle," "Sunlight, Moonlight," and "The Descendants of Cain."

   Bruce Fulton bills Hwang as a "timeless writer" whose reputation is certain to flourish in the coming years as readers in and out of Korea discover the 100-plus stories he published over a 50-year period.

   "In terms of sustained quality, mastery of language and structure, breadth of vision, and human insight, there is simply no other Korean writer of short fiction, past or present, who can compare with him," he said.

   Hwang was born near Pyongyang, now in North Korea, in 1915 and after initial education there in Japanese-language schools moved on to Waseda University in Tokyo. His father was jailed for his participation in the March 1 Korean Independence Movement of 1919, and following his father's footsteps, Hwang joined resistance to Japanese colonization of Korea. He was a literary early bloomer; He was only in his early 20s when he published his first two volumes of poetry, and barely 25 when his first collection of short stories was published.

   Shortly after his career was launched, the occupying Japanese decreed that publication in the Korean language be halted, and from then until the end of the colonial period in 1945, Hwang wrote in the Korean language without any promise that his work would ever be read or published. At the same time, Hwang was forced to live underground to avoid impression into the Japanese war industry.

   One of his early works, "Snow," written in late 1944, portrays Korean despair during the last days of Japanese colonialism. Hwang spent the majority of his youth in North Korea but as conditions there deteriorated, his family fled to the South. It was during this period that he wrote one of his most famous stories, "The Dog of Crossover Village."

   In June of 1950, the North invaded the South, and Hwang's family was uprooted and lived as refugees. Hwang's fourth collection of stories, "Clowns," was published in 1952 and it focused on the plight of refugees and soldiers, and in 1954 he published "Descendants of Cain," a harrowing semi-autobiographical novel detailing the effects of the charged political polarity of the time on a small village. In the early 1960s Hwang continued to write, but retreated from overtly political themes in favor of more introspective works focusing on more universal problems, including love, religion, loneliness and friendship.

   In the 1950s, Hwang wrote the collection "Lost Souls," which considered the position of outcasts in Korea's highly structured social system. Also in the 1950s, Hwang began to regularly publish novels, including the post-war story "Trees on the Cliff" (also called Trees on a Slope) and "The Moving Castle."

   "Trees on the Cliff" follows the wartime and post-war lives of three soldiers as delineates the damage done by the Korean War. "The Moving Castle" is a comprehensive and kaleidoscopic story detailing the stresses brought about by a society modernizing at breakneck pace. While at the highest level this novel focuses on the conflict between Christianity and Shamanism, and the East and West, it also effortlessly and cleverly shows how these larger battles play out in the personal relationships between people.

   Hwang produced some of the representative short stories of Korea, several of which are still required reading today, including "Sonagi," the story of doomed childhood love, and "Cranes," a touching story of two friends on opposite sides of the Korean War, reunited in difficult circumstances.

   "Sonagi," particularly, has a revered place in the canon of Korean modern literature, so famous that it is required reading in middle school and virtually every Korean has read the story, or knows its contents by heart. It was made into a movie ("The Shower," 1978) and a musical. The story has also inspired a 7.5 hectare (18.5 acre) outdoor literature park in Gyeonggi Province, which honors Hwang in general, and the work "Sonagi" in particular.

   A new translation of Hwang's "Trees on a Slope" is currently underway and many of his other works are available for international readers, primarily through online booksellers.