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Hong Joungsun: Ambassador of China-ROK literature

Author  :  XU LIMING     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2020-09-07

Hong Joungsun is a representative South Korean scholar of modern literature. He developed deep feelings for Chinese culture during his childhood. Since he became a major member of Moonji Publishing Company in the 1980s, Hong has been promoting the translation and publication of traditional Chinese culture and contemporary Chinese literature, publishing collections of work by Lu Xun, Ba Jin, Wang Meng, Wang Zengqi, Mo Yan, Zhang Wei, Bei Dao, Liu Zhenyun and Li Er as well as ancient poets such as Tao Yuanming and Li Bai. He gathered scholars to work on books concerning China studies such as Philosophy of Laozi and Zhuangzi, Chinese Historical Geography and History of Liaodong. Photo: PROVIDED TO CSST

In 2019, Hong Joungsun won the Special Book Award of China, the country’s top publishing prize for people introducing China and Chinese culture to the world. Here he shared his thoughts on and understanding of China in an interview with Xu Liming, a lecturer from the School of Foreign Studies at Nanjing University.

Xu Liming: Over the years, you have reminded the Korean literary world that the emergence and development of modern Korean literature is more than just a combination of modernity, the West and Japan but also that of tradition, the Orient and China.

Hong Joungsun: Right. Regarding the development of modern Korean poetry, from Kim Eok to Kim Sowol, Han Yong Un, Zheng Chi Chong, Cho Chi-hun, and even contemporary master poets Hwang Tonggyu and Chong Hyon-jong, they all are well educated in the aspect of sinology. The imagery, words and sentences, ways of thinking and language habits of Chinese poetry have profoundly influenced modern Korean poetry. Examining Korean poetry merely from a “Western and modern” perspective will obscure a major stage of the development of Korean poetry. This fails to correctly understand the development of Korean modern poetry, it also hurts the creation of contemporary poetry. Poet Hwang Tong-gyu was an English major and became a lifetime professor in the English department. His poems are very “modern.” However, he told me his favorite poet was Du Fu, and that Du’s collection was the book he read most frequently. Therefore, at the third session of the Korean-Chinese Poet Conference held in December 2019, I decided to use the theme “the tradition of classical poetry and the situation of modern poetry.”

Xu Liming: In my memory, where China is concerned, most intellectuals in South Korea would first think of classical China, and they would even think of it in opposition to modern China. Some intellectuals in Japan and Western countries have similar misunderstandings.

Hong Joungsun: South Korea has some differences from Japan and the West. In ancient times, we were more deeply influenced by China. The long period of isolation between the two countries, since modern times, has resulted in our ignorance of contemporary China.

Xu Liming: You have been tracking the moves of the Chinese revolution since your youth. After China and South Korea established diplomatic relations, you worked as a producer with the MBC team to shoot a documentary about China. Why have you devoted so much enthusiasm to the Chinese revolution?

Hong Joungsun: I was very radical in my early years. I was very concerned about progressive literature. My master’s thesis may be the first dissertation on left-wing literature in South Korea, because of which I almost failed to graduate. In the 1980s, left-leaning literature was the mainstream in the Korean literary world. I participated in the debate when Kim Sa-in (president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea) and Kim Myung-in launched the “people’s” literature movement. In 1988, when the representative left-wing publication Practical Literature resumed, I was one of its editorial board members.

“People’s” and “revolution” are the background colors of a generation of Korean intellectuals. Many intellectuals considered the Chinese revolution as a model for the world revolution and a reference for the Korean revolution. We mainly acquired information about China back then from the works of Edgar Snow and Agnes Smedley and the introduction written by Rhee Yeung-hee. They described China as an ideal revolutionary country. We have learned that contemporary China pursued morality and justice in diplomacy while seeking fairness and respect in economic activity, making me realize that China was revolutionary, enthusiastic and fair. It was filled with Oriental wisdom and Confucian benevolence. These feelings echoed my research on the Korean left-wing writers who lived in China between the 1920s and 1940s, shaping my understanding of the Chinese revolution.

Rhee Yeung-hee was arrested and imprisoned many times for reporting on China, and due to the conditions, he found it hard to obtain comprehensive information. By the end of the Cold War, intellectuals’ understanding of revolution underwent major changes worldwide. It behooves our generation to set foot on Chinese soil and close the gap between our conception and reality. I went to Yan’an, Hailufeng and the Taihang Mountains many times to explore the footprints of the Chinese revolution. Such field investigations helped me to consolidate and deepen my understanding of the Chinese revolution.

Xu Liming: Each year between 2006 and 2017, you spent nearly half a year preparing the Korean-Chinese Writers Conference, and you never got paid. Why?

Hong Joungsun: South Korea and China have been each other’s closest neighbor for thousands of years, but their exchanges have been interrupted in modern times. After the establishment of diplomatic relations, the exchanges have mainly taken place in the political and economic fields while there have been rare cases of cultural communication, especially when it comes to literature. Literature is the art of language and soul.

As intellectuals, we must soon build a spiritual bridge between South Korea and China, so that our people can deeply communicate. Therefore, we decided “peace” to be the general theme of the Korean-Chinese Writers Conference. “Trauma and Healing” was the theme of its first session.

Another major reason for my active involvement is my discovery that since the 1990s, especially since the 21st century, Korean literature has been shrinking swiftly and losing vitality. Korean novels pay too much attention to people’s inner worlds and gradually lose their narrative. The poetry has embarked on the path of an extremely obscure and pseudo-avant-garde. I hope that Korean writers can reflect and learn more amidst the process of communication with Chinese counterparts.

Xu Liming: You plan the travel itinerary whenever there are meetings of Chinese and Korean writers in China. You also inspect hotels and restaurants in advance. Does this have a lot to do with literary exchange?

Hong Joungsun: Korean writers don't know much about China. So I want to take them to different places every time to get a deeper understanding of China. For the first meeting, I took Korean writers to Shanghai, Shaoxing and Wuzhen to see the prosperous cities and ancient towns in Jiangnan Area where Lu Xun and Mao Dun were born and raised. Regarding the second session, I deliberately took them to Qinghai and Gansu provinces. They viewed plateaus, snowy mountains, deserts, wastelands and the grottoes in the valleys in the upper reaches of the Yellow River. Later, some Korean writers visited Wuyi Mountain in Fujian Province and Jianmenguan Ancient Shu Road in northern Sichuan Province. I hope Korean writers to be overwhelmed by and understand China’s vastness, diversity and profound history.

Xu Liming: What has impressed you most in your efforts to promote the China-ROK literary exchange for more than a decade? Which Chinese writers do you personally admire?

Hong Joungsun: For more than ten years, I have been very touched by Chinese writers’ selfless help and honest treatment of Korean writers. Many of them have invited me to their home. I’ll never forget their openness and sincerity to foreigners. I treasure these personal contacts as a part of my life.

Many Chinese writers and their works have impressed me a lot. This is also the reason why I hope that Korean-Chinese literature exchange will continue. I like Yan Lianke’s novels very much and I have read almost all of the Korean editions of his works. Mo Yan was first introduced to South Korea by our publishing house. Zhang Wei, Alai, and Han Shaogong are also favorite novelists. I have organized Korean critics to discuss Zhang Wei’s works. I hope that in the future, the Korean literary world will have a focused discussion on the works of Yan Lianke, Alai and Han Shaogong.

Regarding poetry, from the perspective of a literary historian, I would like to introduce Xu Zhimo and Dai Wangshu to Koreans despite limited Korean editions and the difficulty of poetry translation. I don’t think I am qualified to make academic arguments on contemporary Chinese poetry, but many of the Chinese poets I had contact with could inspire contemporary poetry in South Korea, such as Shu Ting, Yang Ke, Liang Ping, Wang Jiaxin, Chen Dongdong and Wang Xiaoni.

Editor: Yu Hui

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