[FOUNTAIN]Portrait of a sad peninsulaThere was once a boy who frequented a pawn shop almost every day. He would go to the counter that was higher than him, pledging his clothes for cash. He needed money to buy medicine for his father. He trusted a local quack and looked for groundless remedies such as a pair of crickets or a sugar cane that was under frost for three years. However, his father passed away despite the boy’s care.
The boy left his hometown for his education and had to endure the cold winter with a pair of light pants. Going through winter was a challenge for the financially struggling boy.
The boy was Lu Xun (1881-1936), who enlightened China with his pen. At first, he pursued medicine to help the sick. However, he thought reconstruction of the Chinese spirit was a more urgent task and turned his attention to literature. When he first started writing, he felt that he was powerless. He wrote, “I am not a hero who can bring a crowd together with passionate speech.”
One day, his friend Qian Xuantong recommended writing for a magazine called “Xin Qingnian,” or New Youth. Mr. Lu told his friend, “Suppose there was an iron room with no windows or doors, a room it would be virtually impossible to break out of. If the people inside that room were sound asleep, wouldn’t they all suffocate? As they might die in their sleep, however, they would not feel the pain of death. Now let’s say that you came along and stirred up a racket that awakened some of the light sleepers. In that case, wouldn’t they go to death fully conscious of what was going to happen to them?”
Mr. Qian shook his head and said, “No you are wrong, as some people are awakened, we cannot say there is no hope of opening up the iron room.” That conversation led to the publication of Mr. Lu’s first short story, “Diary of a Madman,” in 1918, in which he borrowed the mouth of a madman to criticize China’s thousand-year-old feudalism as a system tormenting the people. His iron room was a metaphor for the feudal system.
Last week, the Seoul Summit Promoting Human Rights in North Korea was held. The lyrics of its theme song, “Glass Bottle,” were inspired by Mr. Lu and Mr. Qian’s conversation about the iron room. “There are people locked inside a big glass bottle... There is no glass that cannot be broken / If there are at least one or two people awakened / We have to stretch our hands out and save them.” The song compared the system of North Korea to a fragile glass bottle.
The words of Lu Xun from the 20th century are reverberating in Seoul in the 21st century. It is a sad portrait of the Korean Peninsula today.
by You Sang-chul
The writer is the Asia news editor at the JoongAng Ilbo.