Literature in South Korea

By: Asyah Jiron

Stone Buddha Leaning Against a Wall in the Subway by: Hwang Jiwoo

On the stairway down to the subway-

the Seated Bodhisattvas crouch there at the entrance

selling dried squid, fresh corn, kimbap, and rice cakes wrapped in


a leper who once stood in the Unju Temple valley-one stone Buddha,

stands dozing off halfway down the steps.

The stairs run busily down to the subway,

run over by the stairs coming up from the subway,

the make-up advertisement depicting an orgasm,

and as if it were Holy Communion itself, a vending machine offers a

fluorescent pack of Mild Sevens.

Young man's voice: Me, sonnofabitch, I'm gonna die. (He mumbles the

same sentence over and over.) They'll find me under that scaly old

tree at Sin'gal Reservoir.

Middle-aged woman's voice: Oh god! I left without locking the door!

Middle-aged man's voice: Look how old I am and I haven't

accomplished anything. When am I going to get in to see the dentist?

How's mother doing? (Harsh sound of phlegm being coughed up.)

Young woman's voice: Everywhere I go there's always at least one

person who hates me. What should I do? No, I'd rather not drink

coffee from a vending machine.

Old woman's voice: You think it's raining at the Pyŏkche Public

Cemetery too? God, I keep thinking about that grove that appears

only on misty days. I should go soon.

Different young man's voice: Those bastards don't know who I am yet,

dude, I nod my head once and the cosmos spins around. I say one

word, and you guys are dead.

Man's voice, scratchy: I really oughta quit smoking . . .

Woman's voice, choking back tears: It was all a lie. [End Page 110]


This poem is a good representation of South Korea because it shows the setting of a subway which is a common form of transportation in South Korea; South Korea is very metropolitan which is part of their culture. The poem also mentions “Seated Bodhisattvas”. A Seated Bodhisattva is a statue that comes from Buddhism and is a form of East Asian Art. The statue was made in China, but research shows that Korean art typically derives from Chinese art; it just has its own twist. Kimbap or Gimbap was also mentioned and it’s a Korean dish made from steamed rice and other ingredients. It is rolled in gim and served in bite-size slices. Numerous locations were also mentioned like, the Unju Temple and the Pyŏkche Public Cemetery. The Unju Temple can also be called the Unjusa and it’s a Korean Buddhist temple located in Hwasun County in the South Jeolla province. The poem actually had quite a few more stanzas, but it became too explicit.

Hwang Jiwoo

He began his poetic writings in 1980, which was the year of the Kwangju massacre. The Kwangju Uprising was a mass protest against the South Korean government. The citizens of South Korea wanted to be a democracy. During that year, he immediately became a leading poet in an “age of poetry”. This “age of poetry” was during the 1970s and 80s. He is connected to the art aspect of South Korean culture because he is the president of Korea’s National University of Arts. He also won many awards.

Seoul's Jesus by: Jeong Ho-Seung


Jesus sits fishing by the Han River. Lighting a bonfire at the riverside, Jesus dries his wet clothes. Every day the grass in the fields is mowed and brought low by people's knives, and like the flowers of the field each person's flower blooms then falls, yet in order to see people become more beautiful Jesus weeps, soaked by winter rain as he leans against the wall of Seodaemun Prison.


One drunken evening. The long shadow of Jesus sinks below the horizon. Jesus has begged and eaten a bowl of human life's cold rice and a new moon is rapidly rising behind his back. Might there be overflowing peace in pain, longed-for freedom in tears? Jesus is smoking a cigarette all alone, thinking of the bread and loves of Seoul, the bread and tears of Seoul. A night when people fall asleep chewing sand, watching people vanish as people's dew. In order to leave, fallen leaves linger briefly in Seoul; Jesus walks to the end of despair.


I thirst. I thirst since people's dreams have fallen asleep before Seoul fell asleep. Where is someone walking along holding a lantern? The field paths of Seoul cannot be seen, you who spend every night weeping, huddled on a mound of ashes, merely rending your outer garments. A gunshot rang out, then snow fell, the first snow fell between the depths of love and faith so I have nowhere to throw the stone I picked up in Seoul. Raise your glasses with me, you who yearn once again for the person you yearn for. I have nowhere to lay my head for a moment in the night sky of Seoul now snow is falling, so raise your glasses with me. All you who walked on into the dark with a glass in your hand, avoiding the sword points of this world, whose hearts were then brought down by sword points, walk on along the snow-covered roads of night-time Seoul where the snow has stopped falling. The lanterns of the wicked have not yet gone out, the ears of the silent ones harkening to Seoul's dawn are wet from the grass blades and I thirst. Before people fell asleep, the dreams of Seoul had fallen asleep—ah, I thirst.


I long to drink from someone's glass. I long to meet someone whose memories are beautiful, share with him a glass of soju and the pancake of tears. Hearing the sound of someone's clothes sweeping over the grass on a spring day when each petal falls like a sword, I long to live in a country of humans rather than a country of the mind. Every dawn, to keep people's lamps from going out, alone I light the lanterns of Seoul and leaning against the windows of the poor I long to yearn for the yearning of Seoul.


One who serves me is sad, and one who makes me sad is sad. One who rejoices for my sake is sad, and one who is sad for my sake is sadder still. I did not suffer for my neighbors' sake, and I did not gaze up at the stars of the poor, so those who ardently invoke my name are unhappy, and those who ardently love my name are unhappier still.


In the first part of the poem it mentions the Seodaemun Prison, which is part of South Korean history. History is an aspect in culture because it makes many cultures who they are today. Today, that building is called the Seodaemun Prison History Hall, and it is a museum. This prison was used to confine Korean Patriots during the Japanese occupation. The Koreans there were tortured and executed and the Seodaemun Prison is now used to commemorate those brave patriots. Also in the poem, “Jesus” was eating a bowl of rice; that is a very common food in Korea. Lastly, it is common for Korean men to smoke. It’s a traditional way of behavior caused by the military. Up until the mid-nineties, cigarettes were provided to young Korean soldiers with their coffee or tea.

Jeong Ho-Seung

Jeong Ho-Seung is a very popular poet in South Korea and has won many awards. Many Koreans are introverted and to themselves and his poems contain themes like, poverty and alienation. Alienation is the state of being isolated from a group to which one should be included in. He focuses on societal issues and suffering in the hope that in misery and pain some hope can be found and that this can come to be the basis for a more successful future. Relationships and the behavior of people are important elements of culture and that’s what his poems and literature focus on.