Figuring Korean Futures: Children’s Literature in Modern Korea

By Dafna Zur

Dafna Zur is Assistant Professor of East Asian Languages & Cultures at Stanford University and author of Figuring Korean Futures: Children’s Literature in Modern Korea, just published by Stanford University Press.

In the fall of 2011 I was a recent graduate of the University of British Columbia and had taken a position at Keimyung University in the Department of Korean Literature. Besides my teaching job, which gave me an opportunity to experience life in Korean academia, I found myself in the rather unenviable position of hakpumo, the parent of a school-age child. My older son was then seven and enrolled in the second semester of first grade. He was thrown into the proverbial “deep end” of elementary school, in which no accommodations were made for speakers of Korean as a second language. I watched him struggle to keep up with sentence dictations and word problems in math, when one of his homework materials caught my eye. It consisted of a short poem, followed by multiple-choice response options, as follows: 

“I was going to scold
the cheeky dog
that dropped my shoe in the water,
but I didn’t…because of its wagging tail.

The mischievous cat
knocked over the milk bottle.
I was about to give it a noogie,
but I didn’t…because of its perky ears.”

What is the emotion contained in this poem?
1. Sadness 2. Gratitude 3. Affection 4. Apology 5. Pity

This question, and others like it, troubled me for months. I understood that its purpose was literacy: the poem demands that the young reader connect a situation with an emotional response articulated in language. More specifically, the poem is teaching the grammatical form of intent, -ŭryŏ ta (ka) (“is going to, wants to, is about to, when…”), a form that is followed by an interruption of that intent, by contextualizing it in a real-life situation. In addition, it teaches visual literacy: the image depicts the dog and cat with anthropomorphic smiles and gently wagging tails that highlight their playful innocence, which should then be associated with a positive emotion. What bothered me most about these examples was the way they were conditioning a specific response. Rather than leaving the question open-ended, having the students grapple with what kind of emotions such a situation might evoke (and recognizing that there may be a range), this multiple-choice frame presents it as a fact that there is only one right answer.

A year later I was settling into my new life as assistant professor in Stanford University’s Department of East Asian Studies and beginning to revise my book manuscript. I was thinking back on our family’s experience in Korea when I remembered these examples and was suddenly struck by the thought that I had seen all this before. By “all this,” I mean the emotional conditioning of children through language, and more specifically, the concept of “emotional education,” or kamjŏng kyoyuk. This was a key word that emerged in 1920s colonial Korea at a time when educators, psychologists, and writers weighed in on the question of what children needed and how childhood should be experienced. The idea that there was such a time, a “childhood,” in a young person’s life, and that this was worthy of protecting and celebrating, was a new one. It inspired conversations and debates among Korea’s writers and illustrators about what childhood could mean, what obligations Korea might have to its future generations, and how storytelling should be composed in form and content to accommodate these ideas.

“Emotional Education” was an evocative term with which to understand the new attention that was being paid to children through word and image, but the most important concept that emerged from the archives was tongsim. Composed of the words “child” and “heart”, the term tongsim denoted those unique and special qualities of the child that made literature for children a necessity. The term has been mentioned often in secondary scholarship on children’s literature, but I found that it had mostly been taken for granted, and that its mechanics—what the tong and sim stood for, and the implications of these concepts for writers—were too long obscured.

I found that the most compelling aspect of this concept lay in its dialectic of body and mind, which rendered the child intellectually and affectively different and entirely knowable. Perhaps the most important characteristic that marked the child as distinct from the adult—and what made literature for children necessary—was the perception of the child’s existence on the threshold of culture: children were viewed as closer to flora and fauna than to the culture in which they were immersed. It was the child’s inherent innocence and purity that demanded both protection and careful engineering. Tongsim required a translation of the world, but at the same time it embraced the contradictory impulses of nature and culture—both of which were under threat by the colonial regime.

From this point on, it was my purpose to understand how this idea of tongsim and the literature created in its wake contended with the shifting ideological rhetoric over the course of four decades. The chapters of my book are devoted to periods in Korea’s colonial history—the era of cultural rule, the rise of leftist culture, the era of militarism and strict censorship during the Pacific War, and the post-liberation period. In each, I identify how the view of the child as essentially organic and natural drove the creation of a certain kind of fiction and poetry. In my last chapter, I point to what I perceive as the most significant break in the post-war period of division: the move of the child from a position in which it was an organic part of nature to the position in which it became an agent of control of nature.

Since then, my research has taken me deeper into the postwar eras of North and South Korea. I am driven more by questions of ethics these days, and my next project will look at the intersection of science and literature in the building of new moral frameworks for youth. At first glance, it seems that the investment in emotional education that began in the 1920s shifts in the postwar era to an investment in managing the imagination of the young. In my future rummaging through magazines and school textbooks for young readers in North and South Korea’s 1950s and 1960s, I will be looking to understand how emotion, morality, and imagination were conceived, and how it is that over half a century later the idea of emotional education is still part of South Korean education.