Space and Alterity in Yi Kwangsu’s Work


Thursday, March 14, 2013, 4:30pm to 6:00pm


Porté Seminar Room (S250), CGIS South Building, 1730 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA 02138

Korea Colloquium

Ellie Choi
Assistant Professor of Korean Studies, Cornell University

Ellie Choi received her graduate training at UCLA (MA) and at Harvard University (PhD) in modern Korean cultural and intellectual history, before working as an Assistant Professor of Modern Korean Studies at the Cornell University Department of Asian Studies. Her book manuscript, Space and National Identity: Yi Kwangsu's Vision of Korea during the Japanese Empire, explores the relationships among space, cultural nationalism and historical identity. Professor Choi's current research interests include reinvented traditions, the Seoul city, the Diamond Mountains, visual culture, colonial tourism, and collaboration. Before Cornell, she taught at Yale, Smith, and Dartmouth College.

Chaired by David R. McCann, Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Literature, Harvard University

There is a growing body of spatially driven scholarship today on the colonial modern projects of Seoul (Hanyang and Keijō), focusing on state interventions, commemorations, road building and official infrastructure. As a counterpoint to this body of work on public places, my presentation considers Yi Kwangsu’s 1910s writings as invaluable sources which reintroduced old Hanyang as modern Keijō to the colonial readership. Yi Kwangsu’s The Heartless (Mujŏng, 1917) was more than the first fiction work introducing visuality and landscape to the Korean literary imagination. The Keijō depicted in this seminal work represented the dream of the modern Korean minjok, the location of a new “national” identity in all its subsuming power. And the centrifugal pull of modern national capitol-building required forgetting of other memories and localities. Literature is often the best excavation site for everyday practices of the disenfranchised who lived hidden from official view, and of colonial nationalists who did not wish to be visible in the official maps and government plans. Yi Kwangsu’s travel throughout the empire in this context were co-figurative processes translating a colonial modern minjok, and were complicated by the very condition of alterity for an individual whose location of culture was not home (kohyang, furusato). These dichotomies (Korea and Japan) were further complicated by the fact that even though he represented the Seoul intellectual elite, Yi Kwangsu’s hometown was in northern Korea.   

Yi Kwangsu had left Chŏngju at the age of 11, and “came up” (上京) to P’yŏngyang a regional center. He then “came up” to the capital of Seoul (Keijō), and finally, to Tokyo, the imperial metropole. Travel was that much more important in such a layered context, in retroactively opening up (through travel home) the spaces closed off (by empire) to forgotten memories and stories – the heterotopic imaginaries which preconditioned modern alterity. By uncovering the repetitions of “going up to capitol” (上京), my work seeks to rediscover the lost hometown (古鄕) of P’yŏngyang, the real locus of chŏng 情 and chinjŏngsŏng 眞情性 in his work. In the final analysis, my research suggests that the very condition of global cosmopolitanism was created by similar painful movements away from local hometowns to “heartless” centers of capitalist development. 

The Korea Colloquium is generously supported by the Min Young-Chul Memorial Fund at the Korea Institute.