Saving a poet’s redoubtOne of Korea’s late great poets may be losing his house. So Chong-ju, known by his pen name Midang, spent the last 31 years of his life continuing to write about his family, hometown and travels in his signature feminine style from his two-story house in southern Seoul until his death in 2000.
Arguably one of the most important literary figures in the early years of modern Korean literature, Mr. So has been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature several times, and his work has been translated into English, Spanish and French. However, since the 1990s some Korean public schools have been removing his works from textbooks after he was found to have praised Japanese colonization and Korean dictatorships.
While some denounce Mr. So, others are aiming to restore his reputation as a major literary figure. Gochang Literary Association, formed by his followers, say that his poems are part of Korean history and that students should be given a chance to read them.
The association would deplore the sight of Mr. So’s previous home, which is collapsing from neglect. Although the house, located in Namhyeon-dong, southern Seoul, was purchased by Gwanak district with help from Seoul city government, it has been deserted since Gwanak district is 490 million won ($504,738) short of the amount needed for its restoration.
Behind heavily chained gates, the yard had filled with old furniture and garbage. The aged brick walls and rusty window frames show signs of decay.
Gwangjang, the private company that won the bid to conduct the restoration, said the house was vulnerable to heavy rain and snow, and that the construction should begin soon unless people want to see a cultural property disappear.
“Cracks are growing and rain is penetrating, eroding the structure,” Kim Won, the president of Gwangjang said. “The house could collapse any time soon.”
According to the Seoul city’s initial plan, the house was to be converted into a memorial and a literary cafe that would have opened late last year. “Although the house has not been designated as an official cultural property, it has a literary value so we are willing to support the restoration,” said a Seoul city official.
The problem was money.
After spending 690 million won to purchase the house, Gwanak district only has 60 million won left over from the 750 million that Seoul city gave it for the project. The district has set aside another 150 million won from its own budget. Although the renovation is estimated to cost 700 million won, Seoul city has refused to contribute any more funds, sparking a dispute.
“Gwanak district said it would take care of the rest as long as the city purchased the house,” said a Seoul city official. “So we bought the house.”
“This is where one of the greatest poets worked,” said Yoon Jae-woong, a Korean literature professor at Dongguk University. “A bureaucratic feud cannot be a reason to leave this historical place deserted for two years.”
Tragically, the house of another notable literary figure has already been lost. The novelist Hyun Jin-geon (1900~1943) used to dwell in Gwanhun-dong, near Mount Inwang in northern Seoul. It was there that he composed his landmark work, “Muyeongtap (Muyeong pagoda).” But the western-style house was pulled down in 2003.
A few of Mr. Hyun’s acquaintances tried to buy property to build a memorial, but they were discouraged to find that the land had already been divided, sold and re-developed.
“The city tried to put up a small stone marker at the site instead,” said a member of the Minjok Literature Writer’s Council, “It would have been so embarrassing to see a marker on an empty lot, saying this was where Hyun’s house stood.”
Bang Min-ho, a professor of Korean literature at Seoul National University, says that efforts to preserve or restore the homes of literary figures are lacking.
“There are so many artifacts and important markers of modern literary figures. But they are slipping through our fingers without us even knowing it,” said Mr. Bang.
“We have a 100-year-long history in modern literature but much of it is being lost for absurd reasons.”
In the past, the government used ideology to decide what would be preserved, and what would be left to nature. Poets such as Kim Gi-rim and Jeong Ji-yong, who defected to North Korea, had their works banned from public schools. It wasn’t until 1988 that the restrictions were lifted.
While ideology is less important today, Mr. Bang noted that the selection process is still biased, as it relies on what certain public servants value. “Sadly, these restoration efforts depend wholly on the mind of the workers that are deployed in the literature-related bureau.”
According to Mr. Bang, when it comes to building a memorial or a museum, the importance of literary figures is less relevant than the passion of the local government.
Mr. Bang noted that Ungcheon, a small town in Jinhae, South Gyeongsang province, holds festivals to commemorate novelist Kim Dal-jin (1907~1989), who was born there.
He was also touched by South Jeolla province’s efforts to restore the birth place of Kim Yeong-nang (1903~1950), a romantic poet who wrote about peony blossoms. His hometown has preserved his birthplace and built a monument with a peony garden.
In comparison, Yongsan in Seoul has done nothing to commemorate the birthplace of Na Do-hyang (1902~1926), a famous novelist known for “Beongeori Samryongi” (Samryong the Mute).
“I wish Seoul, at least, would become more literature friendly,” said Mr. Bang.
by Lee Min-a, Shin June-bong