Korean Culture and Ways as Viewed by a Foreigner

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Korean Culture and Ways as Viewed by a Foreigner

It is only within the lifetime of my own generation that Westerners have begun to distinguish the peculiarly Korean qualities of Korean art. The simple reason for this is that Korea was little studied by earlier generations: Korea was taken to be a poorer neighbor of China and Japan, and only a scholar or a man who had lived in the Orient had much idea even of the differences between China and Japan. "Oriental culture" was a phrase much used, and it is still used.

We now believe that we have a better idea of the differences between the cultures of the three most important East Asian nations. In fact, those of us who are primarily interested in Korea have gone so far in specializing that we are in danger of failing to see Korea in her East Asian context, and simply regarding Korea in a vacuum. Korean scholars, in their quest for national self-realization after the period of Japanese political domination, have encouraged this trend. One of the most urgent tasks in most fields of Koreanology is to restate the East Asian context of Korean culture, and to improve our definitions of Korean cultural concepts in relation to that context. In no field is this more apparent than in literature; and there are many signs that the rising generation of students is grappling with the task.

Until that task is fulfilled, however, anyone who makes generalized statements about Korean culture is liable to say things that could well be said of the whole of East Asia. It is important to bear this in mind in relation to what I say in the rest of this paper. Sometimes I can and will make specific comparisons and contrasts between Korean and Chinese or Japanese culture. Where I do not, it is fair to assume that I am either unsure of the truth in this respect or that what I say about Korea is applicable to other East Asian cultures.

Certainly the fact about Korean culture that impresses me more than all others is not peculiarly Korean, because it stems from the Chinese tradition that formed the sophisticated culture of Japan and Korea, and doubtless also of Vietnam. It is the great contrast between European and East Asian culture that is typified by Korea's preference for analogy rather than analysis. The West once liked to think analogically, and Christian theology has never been able completely to avoid analogy; but since Aristotle the West has tended to analytical thinking. Without that tendency the technological development of the West would not have happened in the way it did, and the disparity between Eastern and Western thinking would have been obscured; also the Christian church would have appeared much less foreign to the Orient.

To state, however, that the West thinks analytically and the East analogically would be altogether too much of a simplification. This gulf divides not only Korea from England, but also China from India. It is the reason why Mahayana Buddhism north and east of the Himalayas became so different from the Buddhism of India, and underlies the divisions between Chinese and Indians living in Southeast Asian multi-racial communities today. Indian logic has a tradition independent of the Graeco-Arabic tradition of Europe, but it is still in opposition to the logic of China.

The effect of analogical thinking on culture could be profitably studied in a number of fields, but I shall restrict myself here to a few considerations of its role in Korean literature and painting. Here the effect of playing down analysis is most clearly shown by the comparative absence of its contra positive synthesis. Form is a weak element in Korean literature. Traditional literature adopted rigid forms, such as the Chinese shil but developed them in a way that often left nothing but the mechanical framework of the form. Thus some highly esteemed Korean poems when rendered into English show very little logical form: form has become absorbed into style, and comparatively divorced from meaning. In prose writing this effect is even more striking. Old compositions in Korean and Chinese are long enough to demand paragraphing when translated into English, but they defy logical paragraphing. The writer's style has been exercised in his composition of sentences, his thought has been expressed more often than not by analogy, and the shape of his work is hard to discern. In fiction Korea finds it hard to show anything remotely comparable to the exquisite sense of form of a novel by Jane Austen. The picaresque anecdote is balanced by the loose construction of the European picaresque romance, and Korean traditional fiction, like Chinese traditional fiction, tends to be episodic in construction. (There is one remarkable exception to this general lack of form, Kuun mong, or "The Nine Cloud Dream," which, for this reason, deserves the careful attention of Western critics.)

Modem Korean literature shows the same tendencies. Traditional literature in the vernacular had few stanza forms. Only one of those has survived in modem poetry, the shijo and it is not insignificant that the shijo is an elastic form. Otherwise, modem Korean poetry has joyfully accepted the Western idea of "free verse" and thus justified its jettisoning of form. The development is natural: free verse is congenial both to the Korean language and to the Korean approach to literature. Likewise, modem Korean fiction, though it has benefited from the stimulus of contact with Western writing, has not adopted Western forms. The novel lags behind the development of the short story in modem Korean literature, partly for economic reasons (it has been difficult to publish and market long novels), partly for typographic reasons (it is not easy to read long works written in Chinese or Korean in the same way that it is easy to read long works written in European languages, because the Oriental rr.cthod of writing is not visually adapted to prolonged concentration), but partly also because the shape of the Western novel demands a concern about form which does not appeal to the Korean writer. Even the short story is carefully conceived as a story with a shape. Frequently it even lacks any sense of development, but has rather more of the impressionistic quality that is distinctive of the shih.

This reluctance to analyze exhaustively (and I must insist that I do mean not that Koreans never analyze or are unable to analyze, for neither of these things would be true) leads to another quality common in much Korean writing: it leaves more for the audience to supply than much of Western writing does. It is comparable to the famous effect of the yobaek, the white spaces in an Oriental watercolor. Indeed, a good shih ought to leave a sense of haunting or mysterious, uncompleted statement. The effect is sought and achieved in many of the best shijo, and most obvious in the preference of shijo writers for avoiding a statement in the last line, substituting a question for a statement. A translator realizes that often he had better translate a negative question as a positive statement, a positive question as a negative statement. It will then sound better to the foreign reader; but a great deal will have been sacrificed, because the statement form will have inhibited the vacant space surrounding the question, the undefined will have been defined, and an analysis implied which the Korean poet left unresolved.

Of course these points must not be pressed too far. The same qualities can be found in some Western writers, and some Koreans are highly logical. Yet one has only to read a large number of essays by Koreans of varying degrees of skill to realize that the generalization is worth making; one has only to attempt translation of a modicum of Korean literature to realize that the major problems one faces is the diffuseness of meaning, so unacceptable in the context of Western culture. And here lies most of the answer to the problem of why the West has considered the East more mystical than itself, when it is clear to anyone who has lived on both sides of the world that the Orient has no prerogative in the matter.

Preferring analogy means a preference for deduction rather than induction, and therefore means that originality in art is not so highly valued as it is in the West. There is no need to labor this point: it has been insisted on ad nauseam. It is worth noting in passing that the West sometimes admires originality too much, and values newness too highly. It must certainly be remembered that the great names of East Asian art are as much the names of innovators as Chaucer, Shakespeare and the rest of the West's culture heroes are the names of innovators. Ch'usa (Kim Chong-hili 1786-1856) is an obvious example, the greatest and also the most original calligrapher of the Yi Dynasty. In poetry one has only to recall the inimitability of Tu Fu to understand that originality plays a role in Oriental appreciation. Nevertheless, it is not usual to stint praise for those who perform well without originality, and on the whole any seeking for originality has traditionally been discouraged. I think that Westerners have judged this aspect of Oriental culture too harshly. It contributes to stability of standards as well as to fossilization of styles; but the reader of traditional criticism soon realizes that it was not always such a dead hand as it has appeared.

The counteraction has come from the insistence of the critics on the necessity of experience to validate a man's writing or painting. Merely derivative work has always been recognized for what it is, and condemned as such. What is old to the Western critic is the unity of art and morals implied by the critical method of the Orient. Very rarely does the Korean or Chinese critic risk an adverse judgment of another's work, unless he is willing to have it accepted in a moral sense. The Westerner finds this the more difficult to understand in that the morality of the content of a work of art seems sometimes to have no bearing on the question. In particular, sexual amorality is implied in poetry and stories written by men who were regarded as paragons of virtue.

The moral aspects that inflamed the Korean critic, and still sometimes do, were matters less readily accessible to the basically Christian mind of the West. Loyalty to the state and the clan, faithfulness of wife or disciple is often the key to moral problems that could rend Korea, but which seem meaningless to the West. Hence Anglo-Saxons find the factional disputes of the Korean court hard to believe and misunderstand the source of the power in Korean folk literature. They cannot believe that the disputes about the rites of mourning could have been taken seriously, and they cannot see that to the traditional Korean audience the illogicalities of Chunhyang-jon would be of no significance, because attention was focused on Chunhyang's fidelity, not on the love story.

So criticism plays a role in Korean culture quite different from its role in Western art. It has to be less virulent. The book reviews in the Korean-language press tell one little or nothing about a book's quality. To say a book was less than good would be to vilify the author's character; to praise it would usually be too fulsome. So we have notices of publication more often than we have criticism. Criticism exists, and is still remarkably efficient; but it is the criticism of the grapevine and the bush telegraph. It works better than one would have expected if one had experience only of the Western world. Its drawback is that sometimes a valuable work goes unnoticed for too long-but that can happen in the West too.

There is another quality of Korean consciousness of art that I find hard to relate to what I have already said, but which impresses me deeply: the quality of Korean concentration of attention. By this I mean the Korean's apparent lack of concern for the setting of a work of art. Art exhibitions are startling in their usual lack of careful presentation. It is enough that the work of art is presented, even if the room is gloomy or dirty. The Westerner has been trained to perfect the setting of a treasure, the Oriental cares less for the context of beauty; he can apparently concentrate on the lovely thing itself. Koreans often seem less aware than Westerners of ugliness, though they are unquestionably no less sensitive to beauty.

The right way to understand this may be by application of Son (Zen) Buddhist principles. I do not mean the deliberately shocking scatology of some Son parables, but the practice of concentration involved in Son training that leads a man to concentrate the forces of his mind, just as taekwondo trains the concentration of the strength of the body; so that a man can abstract his attention from just so much of his surroundings as he wants to, can tolerate squalidity, vulgarity, sometimes filth, without contamination of his delight in the isolated beauty that he finds....

Ability to concentrate and lack of concern about the setting must be allied to the fact that, in general, Korea has not developed grandiose art. It would be easy to adduce economic reasons for this, but to do so would not entirely answer the question why the East Asian cultures have not ordinarily been attracted to monumental forms. The Buddha of Sukkuram is not only the largest Korean Buddha, but is hard to match in size. The sculptors of Shilla were capable of making large statues, but did not often make them. Buildings were sometimes extensive, but not often, and history's accounts of large buildings usually imply that the builders were profligate, whether Chin Shih-huang and his A-fang-kung or the playboy kings of Goryo. I have already mentioned some of the factors that inhibited Korea from producing lengthy literary works. The Palman Taejanggyang is one of the most significant printing achievements in history, yet it stands alone. There is a preference for works of art of a size that can be appreciated by the use of a single attention span. What appear to be the long books of East Asia are really compendia: the histories, even the Confucian classics for the most part.

Surely this is an offshoot of the East Asian preference for the concrete rather than the abstract. Most of the words now in use for the discussion of abstract principles by Korean scholars are neologisms with a history of less than a century. Confucian thought used only a handful of abstract terms; Buddhism, born in dialectical India, came to China with a huge vocabulary of the abstract, and the East Asian genius quickly learned to express Buddhism in its own way, by which the concrete symbols of Son parabolic are made to express the inexpressible, and abstract rationalization is bypassed. The I ching is a catena of concrete images used as counters for more than one sort of abstract thinking, and Korean poets rarely moralized for long, even when their meaning was most moral. They suggested a concrete image of a problem, or proposed a situation that emblematized the abstract.

I know that some Western writers and artists have preferred this way of thought that it is the natural means of expression of the Old Testament; I know also that Koreans were capable of abstract thought, as all the involutions of the Songnihak abundantly show. Tonghak, however, that typically and purely Korean system, dealt in the abstract through concrete images, and it is the Western, or Western-trained, thinker who brings his analytical and synthetical techniques to bear on Korean culture and describes the essence of Korean thought and culture in abstract terms.

In most of what I am saying I am implying, as I said I would, that what the Westerner sees most in Korean culture and art is its East Asian qualities. A Korean traditional landscape painting looks much like a Chinese or Japanese one; a Korean book looks like a Chinese one, a Korean poem

Translated into English shows little that seems fresh to an English reader who has previously read Chinese verse in translation but not Korean. What can we foreigners distinguish as typically Korean qualities?

The answer must be impressionistic, and to that extent unreliable, but a consensus appears in the writings of Westerners who deal with various aspects of Korean culture.

Spontaneity is a word frequently used. Korean culture seems rarely to have lost all touch with life. The 19th century produced vapid art, both in painting and literature, but Korea nowhere shows the opulent straining for effect of grasshoppers on a cabbage. Nor has Korea ever produced the mannered excesses of Japanese art. There has never been a Korean fin-de-siecle; decadence, in art has accompanied economic and political decadence, whereas in 19th century England and 18th century China and 19th century Japan it accompanied political stability.

Are the reasons for the spontaneous simplicity of the Korean approach to art to be found entirely in material causes? Is it all just the natural outcome of being a small agricultural nation without a middle class to produce a bourgeois culture? I doubt it. These things are certainly major influences, but had there not been a single-minded absorption of Buddhism and then Confucianism; there must have been some development of elaborate sophistication such as neighboring states produced. Whatever the reason, the Korean aristocrat's art retains closeness to the life and atmosphere of the country people that, in spite of the vanity and display that undeniably occurred, give a tone of directness and rugged honesty to the whole culture of the nation.


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