Before living in Korea for four years, the only East Asian writer I was even vaguely familiar with was Japanese mainstay Haruki Murakami. Then, during my time in the Hermit Kingdom, I discovered a small part of its rich literary heritage. From there, I branched out into Chinese, Japanese and Taiwanese writers, too, reading everything from the short stories of the Chinese Revolution to novels about the Korean immigrant experience in the United States. Throughout my reading, these six authors stuck out as particularly fantastic:
1. Lu Xun (China)
Chekhov of the Chinese Revolution, Lu Xun wrote a huge amount of short stories extolling socialist ideals in the 1920s and ‘30s. His work highlights the instability of the Republican years, when a weak and corrupt right-wing central government struggled for control against communists and regional warlords. There’s a comforting rigor and plainness to his writing style.
Start with “The True Story of Ah Q,” which details the misadventures of a cowardly, stupid, yet somehow likeable peasant:
"Thinking that Wang meant to run away, Ah Q stepped forward raising his fist to punch him. But before his fist came down, Whiskers Wang had already seized him and given him a tug which sent him staggering. Then Whiskers Wang seized Ah Q's pigtail and started dragging him towards the wall to knock his head in the time-honoured manner.
'A gentleman uses his tongue but not his hands!' protested Ah Q, his head on one side."
2. Young Ha-Kim (Korea)
Young’s most famous work is his 1996 début, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself. It’s a bleak read about the profound alienation of Korean urban life, describing two brothers, C and K, who are in love with the same woman. K grimly threads a cab through Seoul’s concrete jungle, and C is a kind of clandestine professional suicide assistant who memorializes his customers with posthumous biographies. The English translation is brittle and angular, appropriate for such an unremittingly dark tale:
"They call responding to my ad in the paper: 'We listen to your problems.' I talk until early in the morning to people with various problems; a girl being raped by her father, a gay man about to be conscripted into the army, a wife beaten by her husband.
This is how I find the majority of my clients."
3. Kim Kyŏnguk (Korea)
Kim Kyŏnguk is a writer from Korea’s oft-neglected south west. The first of his short stories to be available in English is 99%, a humorous tale about an advertising executive who craves 99-percent cocoa chocolate whenever life starts to stress him out (which is often). Read this for the full take on Korea’s office culture.
Before I realized it, I asked him a question.
“Isn’t the Jungfrau actually 4,158 meters, not 4,156?”
The laughter stopped as if I’d ordered everyone to do it. No one made eye contact with me. All eyes were on him, awaiting his reaction. My gaze and his made a tight clot in space.
“You have quite the memory, Mr. Ch’oe. Yes indeed, the Jungfrau was 4,158 meters. But now that the summit glaciers are melting it’s two meters shorter. Greenhouse effect, you know.”
4. Mary Paik Lee (Korea)
At the start of the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of Koreans emmigrated to Hawaii. Paik Lee’s family was amongst them, and her heartbreaking autobiography Quiet Odyssey vividly illustrates the discrimination Koreans faced, both from the ascendant Japanese imperial apparatus in their homeland and once they arrived in U.S.-annexed Hawaii.
5. Linda Sue Park (Korea)
When My Name was Keoko is a young adult novel, but it is supremely effective in detailing the perverse cruelties of Japan’s occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. Beginning in the late 1930s, 11-year-old Sun-hee (along with most other Koreans) is forced to take a Japanese name. Her older brother is forcefully enlisted into service as a kamikaze pilot, and some of her friends are taken to serve as “comfort women” — military sex slaves. Sun-hee watches as her uncle risks death to print anti-Japanese propaganda and her father undergoes severe discrimination at work; sidelined by her family due to her sex, her story captures her frustration as she faces the double handicap of being Korean and female.
6. Lao She (China)
Lao was steeped in Chinese nationalism. His father was killed by western forces during the Boxer Rebellion in 1901, and he was a die-hard supporter of the nationalist Wǔsì Yùndòng, the May 4 Movement. His novel Rickshaw Boy is essential to our understanding of the turbulence of Republican China and the pitiless reality of life for the average Chinese worker. As an intellectual, Lao was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, and in August 1966, he drowned himself after being broken by a stretch of public humiliation. From Rickshaw Boy:
"Hard work never bothered Xiangzi, nor was he affected by any of the excusable yet reprehensible bad habits so common among other rickshaw men. If he’d been born into a better family or received a decent education, he’d never have been reduced to joining the rubber tire crowd. Unfortunately, he had no choice, so, all right, he’d prove himself in the trade he was saddled with. Had he been consigned to hell, he’d have been one of the good demons."
This list is a jumping-off point to exploring the work of East Asian authors and is no way meant to be all inclusive — but you can help us make it even better! Which East Asian writers would you recommend to fellow readers? Leave your suggestions in the comments below!
Patrick Kilkelly writes about culture, travel and music. A Ph.D. candidate at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, he reads more about 19th century Korean grain tax reform than is healthy.
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