Figuring Korean Futures
Children’s Literature in Modern Korea
Dafna Zur



The Child and Modern Korea

Something changed at the turn of the twentieth century on the Korean peninsula. This was aside from the remaking of Korea from a sovereign nation into a Japanese protectorate in 1905, and aside from the shifting rural landscape and the reconfiguration of urban spaces by trains and trams, bridges and telephones, street lights and the cinema. It was at this time that childhood was discovered, when the child was identified as important enough to merit a new and dedicated form of print culture: the young reader’s magazine. This new medium enjoyed enthusiastic reception by steadily increasing numbers of readers as well as by Korea’s most dedicated literary luminaries. Its form and content evolved from one decade to the next, showcasing the voices and aspirations of writers, poets, and artists from across the political spectrum passionately committed to writing and illustrating for Korea’s future adults. Children’s literature was born.

Archival materials from the Koryŏ (918–1392) and Chosŏn (1392–1910) dynasties—including paintings, diaries, and official documents—show that children had always been a part of culture. They were integral to social life: children were to be acculturated, raised to take their place in society according to dictates of age, class, and gender, and were expected to cultivate the material inheritance of their families and uphold the spiritual values of their ancestors. At the turn of the century, however, children occupied a new place in the world, their value celebrated not for their connection to the past but for precisely their difference and separation from it. Not only was their disconnection from the past to be relished, but they were recognized as discerning consumers of culture in their own right, deemed worthy of their own media filled with texts and illustrations that would be of interest to them alone. Chosŏn’s men and women of letters, educators and psychologists, artists and doctors, engaged in writing for children with a deliberate hand that had no precedent.

The emergence of young readers’ magazines at the turn of the century was neither arbitrary nor accidental. It occurred at the intersection of tremendous political and social changes that were taking place on the Korean peninsula. Under Japanese colonial rule, Korean subjects engaged with scholarship about children’s bodies and minds, and were introduced to literature for children in Japanese. For the individuals and institutions that took on literature for children, the stakes could not have been higher, because this literature claimed to attend to the most contested spaces: nature and culture, past and future, home and nation. The new audience of young readers offered adult writers something unique and critically important: the possibility of addressing fresh, impressionable beings, and the opportunity to render the world legible to the young in a manner that had not before been attempted.

But in order to make legible the past, present, and future—in fact, in order to imagine this new audience in the first place, and to write for it—three changes needed to occur. First, children had to be made visible. New ideas about children’s rights, welfare, education, and psychology, compounded with an exposure to the vibrant children’s culture in Japan, created the demand for a new type of writing for children that spoke to them at eye-level. Second, children needed to become literate. Not only in the sense of acquiring reading skills, although literacy was certainly central to this process. Becoming literate also entailed being initiated into a world of colors, symbols, and images that both reflected and prescribed the child’s experience. Third and finally, texts for children had to be stylized to suit this new audience. Children could not be addressed in the stiff renderings of classical texts that they had memorized for centuries. The texts of the past—written in Chinese, vernacular Korean, or a mix of the two—were deemed unsuitable, their modes of expression formulaic and far removed from colloquial speech, their content unrelated to children’s emotional tenor and real lives. The combination of these three factors—visibility, visual and textual literacy, and style—brought about the creation of literature for children in colonial Korea.

At the outset, this book attempts to answer several broad yet related questions: how is it that children’s literature emerged as a genre in the midst of the loss of national sovereignty and how was it shaped by Korea’s colonial experience? What types of cultural regimes or fields of knowledge made it possible for children’s literature to grow at a time when the future of the sovereign nation was uncertain at best? What kind of polyphonic, contested expressions can be found in this otherwise ideologically dogmatic period, and how does literature for children illuminate our understanding of Korean modernity? What role did national liberation play in the way Korea’s competing ideological projects played out? And finally, if we can understand children’s literature as a mode of translation and interpretation—the translation of the complex world of grown-ups on behalf of the less sophisticated, less knowledgeable, and less experienced child readers—what do these “translations” tell us about what adults thought children should know, feel, and do about the world into which they were born?

Discovering the Child-Heart

Much of the scholarship on children’s literature tends to be driven by the question of origin: how does children’s literature begin? How does a literary establishment in any given place and time go from the absence of reading materials for young readers to producing materials explicitly targeting such an audience? What are the cultural and social conditions that make the emergence of such a literature possible? How do we define literature for children, and what kind of insights can literature for children provide that are otherwise inaccessible?

One thing that makes such questions possible is the recognition, perhaps intuitive at this point in time, that childhood is a social construct. In other words, childhood—as a period that extends between infancy and adulthood—did not always exist. Once, the course of one’s life moved quickly from the realm of the home to a full incorporation into society with only a symbolic rite of passage to mark the transition. The oft-quoted Centuries of Childhood by Philippe Ariès published in 1960 (the English translation of the original French came out in 1962) has served as a pioneering yet contentious contribution to European scholarship on childhood for its claim to identify the moment when children and childhood came to have modern value. As Ilana Ben-Amos has shown, Ariès’ scholarship, for all its merits, was both Eurocentric and not entirely novel: ethnographic scholarship predating Ariès had already demonstrated that the transition from childhood to adulthood in many regions was rich in cultural and social significance, thereby indicating that this transition was neither seamless nor self-evident.1 Not to mention that the significance of the child as a cultural symbol can be traced from Confucian ethics in premodern China in the second century BC to Lockean philosophy in seventeenth-century Britain. The recognition of childhood as a social construct has made itself evident across cultures in different times, but its precise moment of origin has been difficult to pin down.

So how is it that despite the awareness of children and the long existence of some semblance of a period distinct from adulthood, children’s literature is a relatively new phenomenon? Recent scholarship on the emergence of children’s literature converges on two conceptual points. The first is visibility—that children’s literature is born when the child moves out of society’s periphery to the center of social networks. The child is then deemed a critically important object of ideological socializing which, linked with a strong educational doctrine, forms the basis of literature for children.2 Generally speaking, the transition of the child from the periphery of culture to the center has been facilitated by changes in labor laws and public education, changes that shifted the child’s significance in the home from economically useful to economically useless but sentimentally priceless.3 The broader market and education systems have also been implicated, since social and aesthetic value is determined, as Seth Lerer explains, “out of the relationships among those who make, market, and read books.”4 Scholars have demonstrated that a host of social and economic changes work to transform the child into a social agent, consumer, and moving target for an array of social and market forces, all of which make the emergence of literature for children possible.

But what about Korea, where children’s literature emerged later than its English- or Japanese-language counterparts? The scholarship here begins with Yi Chae-ch’ŏl, who first documented the development of children’s literature in Korea in his Adong munhak kaeron (Introduction to Children’s Literature) (1967) and Han’guk hyŏndae adong munhaksa (History of Modern Korean Children’s Literature) (1978). Yi attempted the very first genealogy and categorization of literature for children in Korea, and contended that it was a product of indigenous traditions of oral literature, local philosophies of enlightenment, and social transformations of the early twentieth century that together released children from age-old bondage to family and tradition.5 To this groundbreaking scholarship, Wŏn Chong-ch’an has offered depth and nuance in nineteen monographs and edited volumes, in which he has explored everything from the biographies of individual writers and artists to the circulation of children’s culture in Asia. In these works Wŏn argues that Korean children’s literature originated in the 1920s with the development of children’s activism, youth groups, and a broader market economy able to respond to the demands of a new audience of readers. Wŏn notes that children’s literature in Korea could only emerge when children were taken out of the labor market and placed into schools.6 Chang Chŏng-hŭi finds the first instances of children’s literature earlier, in school textbooks of the early 1900s.7 But as Ch’oe Myŏng-p’yo argues,8 it appears that the youth groups of the early 1920s played the most crucial role in the emergence of children’s literature, both in determining the political identities of young people—what Yael Darr refers to as the “shapers of taste”—and in creating space for budding young writers.9 To different extents, then, the limited introduction of public education and the establishment of youth groups provided the structural support and patronage that made children’s literature possible. In Korea, this coincided with the loss of national sovereignty, which complicated the dissemination of national identity and ideologies of modernity, and pitted multiple interest groups against each other. The demand for children’s literature was created in part out of the anticipation of expanding literacy and in part out of a need to “translate” the world on behalf of the next generation, who were entering a markedly different world.

If what made Korean children’s literature initially possible was the visibility of the child in society, then the second turning point was the growing interest in, and a belief in the accessibility of, the child’s mind, and the conviction that this mind provided clues into the origins of what it means to be human. In Korea, philosophies of the human mind and theories of child development, both local and global, shaped the belief in the existence of this privileged child’s mind, or as it came to be known, the tongsim, or the child-heart. The idea of the child-heart as a state of purity that could potentially be achieved even in adulthood had existed in East Asia from the times of Mencius and Laozi. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the child-heart again offered models of emulation to the intellectuals of East Asia such as Liang Qichao, who saw in the child-heart an untapped potential that could rejuvenate the nation both literally and symbolically. Under Japanese rule, Western conceptualizations of child development and education also found their way into the Korean colony. These included the works of John Locke (1632–1704), whose formulation of the tabula rasa implied that all people were born as blank slates and which brought Locke to inquire into the origins of the mind; Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), who, in his widely influential text Emile explored the tension between the innate goodness of man and the corrupting influence of society; and Jean Piaget (1896–1980), who believed that children were functioning beings in their own right and should therefore not be considered imperfect adults. And perhaps the greatest challenge to the idea of the purity of the child-mind came from Freud, who viewed the child’s mind as a depository of sexual desires, and for whom the key to understanding adult neuroses involved accessing childhood memories and experiences.10 From Mencius to Liang Qichao, and from Locke to Freud, theories of the child-heart as a window into the origin of humanity shaped the conception of the child in East and West, not just biologically but metaphorically, not just as an adult-in-process but, as Carolyn Steedman puts it, the biological child as a cell with “an individual’s childhood history laid down inside its body, a place inside that was indeed very small, but that carried with it the utter enormity of a history.”11 This focus on the symbolic potential of the child-heart helps explain why scholars have long argued that literature for children is a manifestation of adult investment in the child’s interiority. In her highly influential book, The Case of Peter Pan, or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction, Jacqueline Rose argued that children’s literature is a genre whose interests so closely hinge on adult concerns that it cannot be called children’s literature at all.12 Karatani Kōjin considered the visibility of the child in culture to be so important as to have enabled the birth of modern fiction. Karatani explained that the moment the child comes to be appreciated as external and objective in the world is the moment of discovery of interiority, and is that which marks literature as modern.13

I, too, argue that Korean children’s literature—in which I include poetry, prose, illustrations, and miscellaneous textual forms published in children’s magazines or newspaper columns aimed at young readers—was developed alongside the concept of the child-heart, or tongsim. A combination of the character tong for child and sim for heart/mind, the child-heart was the concept through which Korean writers justified the need for a new kind of writing. Korean scholars have acknowledged the centrality of this concept for colonial writers, yet it has for too long been taken for granted, its mechanics obscured. It is my intention to flesh out this term and trace its political and social contours. As I will show, the term “child” and “heart” cannot be taken at face value. Tong alluded to the non-adult body, and sim rendered the child intellectually and affectively different, and entirely knowable. Perhaps the most important characteristic that marked the child as distinct from the adult—the most striking feature of the tongsim—was the perception of the child’s existence on the threshold of culture: the child was closer to the flora and fauna than to acculturated adults. The child’s inherent innocence and purity demanded simultaneous protection and careful engineering. It is the tongsim that required a “translation” of the world, but that also embraced contradictory impulses of nature and culture, those very same elements under threat by the colonial regime.

Why is this of consequence? I return to the questions raised earlier: what can an interest in children’s literature, viewed through the concept of tongsim, contribute to our understanding of the development of modern Korean literature? First, because children’s literature has been long considered a minor genre—on the fringe, of little consequence, hardly worthy of archival preservation—it enjoyed a certain degree of freedom in hosting polyphonic, contradictory voices that quietly challenged the mainstream. More importantly, in the words of Chris Jenks, “the child, as conceptualized within both the spectrum of everyday attitudes and the professional discourses of the social sciences, is employed, consciously though often unconsciously, as a device to propound versions of sociality and social cohesion.”14 There is something about the conceptualization of the child revealed by children’s literature that can reveal “versions of sociality and social cohesion” that may otherwise be obscured. Yet thus far, the term tongsim has been accepted at face value: by chalking up the entire production of children’s literature to artistic manifestations of the child-heart, scholarship has ignored its constructed and profoundly artificial structure, without illuminating how exactly this child propounded, to use Jenks’ term, “versions of sociality and social cohesion.” The indiscriminate use of the term has obscured a clearer vision of what the child meant to different interest groups in different periods. I argue that the tongsim concept and its manifestations prompted the production of a rich and diverse body of texts and images that inscribed, both literally and figuratively, pasts, presents, and futures on the bodies and souls of the young. It is the emergence of the child-heart, the stakes claimed by writers, and the insights that their texts provide that will be the concern of this book.

Who were the stakeholders, the determiners of literary taste, in this period, and what did they hope to achieve? How did the idea of the child-heart emerge, and what forces did it contend with? The responses to these questions change across different periods of Korea’s colonial and postcolonial history. There were hints of the importance of the child-heart before it emerged in the late nineteenth century. The looming threat of colonialism politicized progressive intellectuals, bringing youth to the attention of the likes of Ch’oe Nam-sŏn (1890–1957) and Yi Kwang-su (1892–1950). Themselves barely out of their teens on the eve of colonization in 1910, they saw Korea’s youth as an antidote to the disaster unfolding before them, and decided that nothing short of a complete overhaul of Korea’s structures of thinking and feeling was needed to survive the struggle of the fittest taking place on the global stage. “Let us feast upon our ancestors’ nutritious blood and flesh!” cried Yi Kwang-su in his 1918 essay, “On the Centrality of Children.” He continues, “You are our center, our hope, and our joy!”15 Ch’oe and Yi, having recently returned to Korea from studying abroad in Japan, rallied their young peers to embrace their role in the new world order through scintillating magazines, and paid special tribute to the role of emotion as the critical foundation of Korean modernity.

The title of his famous essay may have been “On the Centrality of Children,” but the target of Yi Kwang-su’s essay was not children but youth. Children did not become visible until another young intellectual, Pang Chŏng-hwan (1899–1931), shifted the spotlight. Pang left the most significant mark on the history of the child and children’s literature in Korea. He brought the term ŏrini, or child, back into circulation; founded the national holiday Children’s Day, still celebrated in Korea each year on May 5; and published and edited the magazine Ŏrini from 1923 until his untimely death in 1931. It was this magazine, alongside Pang’s tireless advocacy of children’s rights in the mainstream media of the time, that delighted young readers and gave them a much-desired respite from the heavy-handed didactic materials that had been the mainstay of texts for young people. Pang gave textual and visual contours to the child-heart in a manner that would have a lasting impact on children’s culture in colonial and postcolonial North and South Korea.

There were, of course, many others. Korea’s proletarian writers presented their own political and social agendas in the pages of their dedicated children’s magazines, with their own vested interests in shaping the affective world of the young. To these leftist writers, children were particularly valuable for the kind of privileged access to truth they inherently possessed. Following the disbandment of leftist organizations in the mid-1930s, writers of leftist sympathies contributed to children’s magazines that were published even in the most oppressive period of the late 1930s and early 1940s. For even as war swept over Asia and Japan militarized the peninsula, children became ever more implicated in the imperialist culture of late colonial Korea. Whether on the left or right of the political spectrum, writers continued to contend with the view of the child-heart as natural and outside culture. Even upon liberation in 1945, the idea of the child-heart—now imbued with a national consciousness—was a fruitful and productive way of accessing the interiority of the child. All along, the national child-heart was tenaciously embraced and mobilized, even while it was interpreted in widely diverse ways.

The child-heart underwent an important qualitative change with the defeat of the Japanese, the division of North and South Korea, and the ensuing Korean War. While children’s writers appealed to the authority of science throughout the colonial period as the best method through which to understand the physical world, they also at times viewed science with suspicion as somehow interfering with the child-heart. But this changed with the dropping of the atomic bombs, the utter devastation of the Korean War, and the new world order into which North and South Korea came into being. Until the 1950s, the child-heart’s qualities had been maintained and fortified through the coupling of child and nature. But in the atomic age, the child-heart experienced a shift. Tongsim was still important, but rather than promoting the idea of a natural child on the threshold of culture, children’s magazines from the postwar period indicate that the child was to be the main agent of the transformation of nature. The fictional children of postwar children’s literature recognized nature’s inherent flaws and set out to master the universe through acts that ranged from raising the bottom of the ocean floor to exploring and colonizing other planets. The child-heart that had been defined by its privileged communication with nature, and that granted children a pristine goodness and deep wisdom, was now put to a new purpose. To continue to maintain a privileged view of the world, the child’s final mission was to become nature’s master.

To better understand the emergence of children’s literature in Korea, it is necessary to review the unique landscape of Korean literature in the early twentieth century, and to appreciate the place of literature in the cultural life of Korea on the eve of Japanese annexation. For no sooner did discourse on nationhood begin to emerge than Koreans witnessed their sovereignty snatched away and their lives changed in a process that has since been termed “colonial modernity.” Since the concept was illuminated in the mid-1990s by Korean historians and by the volume of the same name edited by Gi-Wook Shin and Michael Robinson, scholarship has had to contend with its implications, namely: how to understand the diffusion of colonial power and the emergence of modernity in a colonial context.16 Colonial modernity, as articulated by Shin and Robinson, is a complex and dense “ecology” of colonialism, nationalism, and modernity, whose interconnected and interactive nature allows for a more comprehensive understanding of history. But it also illuminates how cultural production often works in complex ways that do not conform to a binary understanding of oppression and resistance.

Indeed, recent scholarship in the English language on Korean colonial fiction has provided new ways of understanding the scope and limitations of culture as it operated under colonial rule. Janet Poole, for example, points to the way that certain writers focused on unruly detail, drew on the idea of double exposure, and clung to antiques, in ways that disrupted the forward-moving temporality established by the colonial regime and provided a private space outside the clutches of the colonial state.17 Christopher Hanscom, on the other hand, argues that the crisis of representation—in which the very communicability of language was cast into doubt—served as a means for writers to explore not only what it meant to be a colonial subject but also a modern one assailed by the unknowability of the self and the overwhelming and chaotic power of capital.18 Sunyoung Park has demonstrated that even a writer like Kim Nam-ch’ŏn (1911–1953), denounced for having abandoned his leftist ideology in favor of a chauvinistic pan-Asianism, found a way to defy the “belligerent masculinity” of wartime Japan and instead turned to the everyday as a way of exercising materialist critique.19 Aimee Kwon has proposed to view colonial modernity through the concept of what she calls the “conundrum” of subjectivity, language, history, aesthetic representation, and recognition as a way of reevaluating the stakes of writing under a colonial regime.20 Ji-Eun Lee has shown how colonial print culture mobilized women for different and sometimes contradictory ends,21 thus introducing the problem of gender into the equation. Together, these nuanced analyses show how writers negotiated the manifestations of colonial power in their work.

Scholarship on children’s literature from the period must also contend with the implications of colonial modernity. My use of the term is inspired by Shin and Robinson’s definition mentioned above: as a complex and dense “ecology” of colonialism, nationalism, and modernity, whose interconnected and interactive nature demands a more comprehensive understanding of cultural production. Aimee Kwon characterizes colonial modernity as a paradox that “emerges not because there exists an internal contradiction between coloniality and modernity, but from the fact that such a contradiction was produced and imposed discursively and continues to undermine our understanding of the true intimacy between coloniality and modernity.”22 For me, colonial modernity is a way of thinking through a particular kind of knowledge production that is imposed discursively “from above,” but which is also created, interpreted, and circulated “from below.” This approach allows us to read colonial-period children’s literature as a production by colonial subjects whose subjectivities were themselves shaped in part by colonial discourses in a genre—literature for children—that is inherently invested in human engineering. In this sense, colonial modernity produced a qualitative shift in writing for children under Japanese colonial rule that can be traced in three ways. The first is through censorship, which, while peripheral to the book’s argument, still warrants mention since it was the means through which information and knowledge were restricted and controlled. The second shift in writing for children was produced through the visuality of children’s literature, by which I mean the literal and figurative renderings of knowledge whose dissemination and consumption were central to modernity. Here, the body of the child, and by extension its (gendered) social function, was figured in texts and reinforced in images as a way of molding the colonial and postcolonial subject. And lastly, a qualitative shift in writing for children was created by an extraordinary investment in affect. Children’s literature was, first and foremost, meant to elicit a certain reformed affective response—to comfort, excite, move, inspire—in a way that was deemed appropriate to the ideological projects underway. Visuality and affect are productive lenses that can illuminate the ways that children’s literature translated the world for Korea’s present and future colonial and postcolonial subjects.

First, censorship. Part of trying to get at a deeper understanding of what colonial modernity meant for children’s literature inevitably leads us to question how censorship intervened in the production and publication of its content. If one of the concerns undergirding the concept of colonial modernity is the dissemination of colonial power in private and public spaces, then the control of information in the form of censorship becomes a tangible part of that process. As recent scholarship has shown, however, the censorship mechanism itself was complex, as it tried to keep up with shifting conditions on the ground. Starting with the sinmunjibŏp, the newspaper law of 1907, and the ch’ulp’anbŏp, the publication law of 1909,23 all newspapers, magazines, and other print materials were subjected to both pre-print and post-production, pre-circulation scrutiny. Thereafter, all materials—including translations, biographies, fiction of all genres, and literature for children—were routinely censored. These laws were not static, as Chŏng Chin-sŏk points out, and an appeal in 1923 brought about a change in some of the application processes in 1926 and again in 1931.24 According to Mun Han-byŏl, there were typically two categorical grounds for censorship: “disruption of the peace” (ch’ian panghae) and “offenses against public morality” (p’ungsok chŏhae).25 In certain cases, censorship was straightforward, and any challenges to the colonial regime or lewd content were eliminated. But to a certain degree, the judgment was arbitrary, and Son Chi-yŏn, who points out that the writers and censors were often in dialogue with one another, explains that censorship at times depended largely on the whims of the censors.26 Such studies point to the fact that censorship was less systematic than might be imagined.

A more detailed examination of the process of censorship of children’s materials has come under scrutiny only recently. Mun Han-byŏl’s discovery of the Translations of Seditious Texts for Boys and Girls and the Content and Classification of Vernacular Texts for Boys and Girls provides new insights into censorship from this period.27 Seditious Texts included a letter in the name of the police chief of the Government General that calls for the censorship of materials for children because of the growing interest in foreign patriotic tales and in stories that celebrate a spirit of independence. By contrast, Content and Classification reveals that children’s materials were typically censored for three reasons: for containing overtly nationalistic content (for example, reverence for historical figures, glorification of the Korean nation, examples of self-sacrifice, or content that was explicitly pessimistic); for overtly leftist content (works that incited class struggle, exposed exploitative social structures, or “revolutionary” content); and for being ideologically tainted more generally, including works that incited “solidarity” or “effort.” Censored pieces included stories portraying the destruction of a village that falls under the charms of modernization; calling for Korean children not to forget their language and history; and describing scenarios in which children came to understand exploitation and take action. Letters to the editor, according to Mun’s findings, were also excised, particularly those that called for children to work hard at school.28

Children’s literature continued to be published throughout the colonial period, and some of the materials, particularly in the late 1920s and early 1930s, were open about the discrimination and exploitation of children, grievances that censorship purported to prevent. Still, censorship played a role in shaping the magazines’ content, and therefore children’s materials, which were subjected to scrutiny, do not provide transparent access to the voices of writers of children’s literature. If anything, colonial-period documents are important indicators of the growing awareness of the popularity and subversive potential of children’s magazines in the 1920s, including their ability to instill nationalist identity and provide a broader understanding of the political and social context of Korea’s colonial present.29 At the very least, these documents indicate that children’s fiction was important and popular enough to warrant caution on the part of the colonial government, and thus children’s literature is all the more deserving of our attention today.

Second, visuality. As I have indicated above, the emergence of children’s literature was predicated on the appearance of children in culture. Children were no longer relegated to the home or to schools as adults-in-progress. There was a surge of investment in the child as the new citizen that was deeply implicated in discourses of modernity, of what it meant to be playing, feeling children reacting to and shaping the world around them. This new investment involved a new kind of visibility of the child (as a member of the imagined community of both other children and the nation at large) as well as a new kind of visuality—texts and images created to cater to the kind of intellectual and affective qualities perceived as age-, gender-, and class-appropriate. Each chapter in this book will present examples of how illustrations—which were central to both the narratives and marketing of children’s magazines—became part of the developing semiotics of the child body and affect. My readings here are inspired by the existence of visual material less as distinct linguistic units but rather as something that “yields to the receiver a quantity of indefinite information, like statements but unlike words” in ways that do not obey the precise grammatical construction of written language.30 Roland Barthes’s distinction between the denotative and connotative meanings in images helps me read past what the images show and get to what they tell, the kind of knowledge and mythology embedded in them, and more specifically, the kind of hegemonic consensus that they elicit and render natural.31 In addition, one of the important functions of children’s literature at the time was the building of an imagined community of children and childhood, and images worked to remove the “social relations from local contexts” and recombine them across time/space.32 The analytical focus of this book will largely be textual material, but there is no question that the texts themselves were gesturing toward the visualization of a child audience that was reinforced in images. Visuality and visibility, then, are central to the discussion of children’s literature in that they help explain the impact of colonial modernity on this new literary category. The driving force of magazines for young readers was the recognition that the birth of the nation depended most critically on new forms of knowledge that extended to geopolitics, military history, poetry, and science. In children’s literature in particular, texts and illustrations were charged with the task of conveying a new kind of semiotic literacy that was crucial to the educational and enlightening process that was evolving under colonial rule.

What started with the motivation to provide a semiotic education alongside informational content quickly developed into a veritable visual era of print culture. By all accounts, the urban landscape—particularly the Korean capital of Keijō, as it was known in the colonial period—was transforming before people’s eyes. Unremarkable streets were turning into spectacles of consumerism, and photographic images and illustrations appeared in magazines, newspapers, and billboards. Radio broadcasts filled the airwaves, and films, first silent and then talkies, became a fixture of colonial Korea’s urban culture. As recent scholarship has shown, the visual transformation of the city had direct implications for the world of letters, which was undergoing its own dramatic changes at the turn of the twentieth century. This point is brought out by Ch’ŏn Chŏng-hwan in his book about modernity and reading practices, Kŭndae ŭi ch’aek ilkki (Reading in Modern Korea), as well as Kwŏn Podŭrae in her exhaustive Han’guk kŭndae sosŏl ŭi kiwŏn (The Origins of Modern Korean Fiction). Jina Kim writes that “photography, film, radio, and the press came to play an active part in redefining literary activities, especially reading and writing.”33 Jiwon Shin has observed that the different mechanisms associated with the visual order—identification, recognition, misrecognition, gaze, sight, illusion, frame—“constituted an integral narrative device in modern fiction in articulating the shifting personal relation to material culture in Korea’s transition to modernity.”34 And Theodore Hughes argues that key political and aesthetic movements in Korea—the proletarian movement, nativism, modernism, and mass mobilization—“set in motion ways of seeing and writing” that informed not only colonial-period cultural production but also the postwar period.35 The evolving forms of visual culture, spurred on by the development of technologies that expanded both their production and dissemination, played an active role in shaping textual narratives, and influenced the way a growing number of people from disparate classes and age groups engaged with the world around them. The relationship between text and image in the context of nation-building returned full force in the wake of liberation when nothing was more urgent than the redefinition of historical and cultural symbols in the new Cold War order.

Children were made visible for the first time in text and image, and they were immediately gendered. The gendering of the child was sometimes explicit and other times ambiguous, but attentiveness to the role of gender throughout this book will show that children were gendered subjects in the making. As Ann Stoler has argued, gender is essential to the understanding of the structures of colonial power. Stoler’s suggestion that “the very categories of ‘colonizer’ and ‘colonized’ were secured through forms of sexual control” is evocative not least because the iconic figures of the early twentieth century, the New Woman and the Modern Boy, were manifestations of colonial Korea’s changing gender dynamics, and because so much was invested in defining their scope and meaning.36 As recent scholarship has argued, masculinity and femininity were sublimated into service of the colonial state. Kelly Jeong describes the paradox of colonial modernity as a crisis of Korean masculinity, and Vladimir Tikhonov argues that ideal Korean nationalist masculinity was constructed out of borrowed terms from standard Confucian rhetoric and from Meiji Japan, built “on the all-permeating sense of national emergency and the painful anticipation” of the downfall of the Korean state.37 Hyaeweol Choi suggests that the ideals of femininity in the early twentieth century, captured by the term “wise mother and good wife,” can be traced to Confucian gender norms, to ideologies of Christian domesticity, and to the gender ideologies of Meiji Japan. These ideologies placed a high value on women’s place in the domestic sphere and sought to produce a submissive workforce, but at the same time they also challenged aspects of the traditional models of womanhood with prescriptions of modern education and homemaking.38 In colonial Korea, generally speaking, manhood signaled the degree of national prowess while womanhood provided a reflection of Korea’s level of civilization.

Gender ideologies percolated through various institutions—schools, youth groups, and media—to shape the formation of Korea’s young with the aim of grooming boys for leadership and bread-winning skills and girls for enlightened girlhood and motherhood. As Choi explains, it became no less than a “national imperative” to modernize Korean girls’ education toward child-rearing and scientific homemaking.39 Missionary schools, for example, emphasized domestic science as well as lessons on hygiene, lessons that were reinforced in the popular women’s magazines whose purpose was “to educate women so that they become good mothers for modern citizens.”40 The stakes involved in childrearing are evident in the polemics of literary luminaries such as Yi Kwang-su, who weighed in on the connection between girls’ education and national reform in magazines like Sin yŏsŏng (New Woman).41 In 1925 Yi wrote:

The only duty that women have to humankind, to the nation and to society is to become good mothers and raise good children, and only women can do this. If a nation wants to produce good citizens, it first has to cultivate good mothers. Especially in Korea, where the population urgently needs to reform its national character, there is a particular need for many good mothers.42

Pak Suk-cha argues that the discovery of the child in the 1920s is inseparable from, and in certain cases gave rise to, multiple discourses on motherhood in the same period.43 Kim Pok-sun, however, insists that girlhood did not emerge until the appearance of postwar civil society in direct relation to the imposition of anti-Communist ideology in South Korea, while Kim Yun-gyŏng insists that the “literary girl” did not emerge until 1949 with the expansion of education for girls.44 Hong Yang-hŭi argues that colonial textbooks exhibit a shift away from child-rearing and home management content in boys’ education toward “economic activity,” a shift that clearly demarcated the domestic sphere as the responsibility of girls.45 As these scholars have shown, school textbooks and popular magazines for girls and women provide insight into how gender roles were assigned by social institutions and implicated in colonial modernity.

Educational materials for children and women were gendered, but what of fiction and poetry published in popular children’s magazines? Unlike Japan, where magazines for girls such as Shōjo-kai (Girl’s World), Shōjo no tomo (Girl’s Companion) and Shōjo kurabu (Girl’s Club) can be traced to the early 1900s, the word sonyŏ, or girl, is not to be found in Korea at that time. Ji-Eun Lee notes that in 1933, 92 percent of women were illiterate.46 But with the introduction of compulsory education, school attendance jumped from 64 percent in 1945 to 99 percent in 1959, and literacy followed suit.47 Girls’ magazines such as Yŏhaksaeng (Schoolgirl), launched in 1949, responded to the desire of its readers for material that reflected their gendered experience.48 Han Chi-hŭi argues that Ch’oe Nam-sŏn’s first non-adult magazine, Sonyŏn (Youth), discussed in detail in Chapter 1, addressed young women readers implicitly, but there seems to have been no need to create a term of distinction between the two genders because it was only the male experience that “counted” enough to be reflected in print culture.49 Ŏrini, the title of the first magazine to address children, and which was published in colonial Korea from 1923 (discussed in detail in Chapter 2), was a gender-neutral word; and the magazines that followed, from Pyŏllara (Star World) and Sinsonyŏn (New Youth) in the 1930s to Sonyŏn (Youth), Ŏrininara (Children’s World), and Sohaksaeng (Young Student) in the 1930s and early 1940s, did not explicitly cater to a gendered reader. While gender construction in children’s literature is not the primary focus of this book, the moments in which texts are complicit in gender building will be highlighted to show the extent to which future identities of Korea’s young were gender-bound.

Colonial modernity permeated social life through censorship, and through the mechanisms of visibility and visuality. But perhaps the most important goal of making the child visible, was the education of a modern affect. By “affect” (discussed in detail in Chapter 2) I mean the presumed precognitive, extra-cultural state of being that children were perceived to occupy thanks to their age and inexperience. Christopher Hanscom and Dennis Washburn argue in The Affect of Difference that representation and affect are linked in critical ways, particularly in the framing and formation of imperial projects in East Asia. As they put it, the sense of agency and subjectivity prompted by bourgeois aspirations—of which childhood is a significant manifestation—is at once encouraged and controlled since it can be seen to be in conflict “with the disciplinary power of the state” and other institutions such as the family, schools, and political identities.50 Affect in children’s literature was shaped in complex and multilayered ways: equally invested was the colonial regime (which often shifted its priorities and was less organized and deliberate than might be expected), as well as the Korean publishers and writers who harbored their own loyalties and visions of what children might want and need. The resulting texts and images were encountered by children whose interpretations of the texts were impossible to control.

Operations of affect, as Hanscom and Washburn contend, are central to state power, and a reading of children’s literature at the time through the concept of tongsim, as well as through the multiple discourses of emotional education (kamjŏng kyoyuk), demonstrates just how central they are. If visibility and visuality focused on the body of the child, the concern with affect extended this concern since “the capacity of a body is never defined by a body alone but is always aided and abetted by, and dovetails with, the field or context of its force-relations.”51 Affect, as Hanscom and Washburn contend, exists at “the intersection of ideology and the experience of social, political, and everyday realities;”52 and one way to theorize affect, Seigworth and Gregg explain, is through the lens of experience where “persistent, repetitious practices of power can simultaneously provide a body (or, better, collectivized bodies) with predicaments and potentials for realizing a world that subsists within and exceeds the horizons and boundaries of the norm.”53 The investment in children’s literature emerged precisely out of the newfound awareness that immersive, everyday experiences, such as family meals, mailing letters, interactions in the classroom, and running errands, would shape children’s internal world. Every moment had potential for social and existential epiphany, and was a teachable moment with implications that would last a lifetime.

Korean children’s literature was marked by its investment in the body and heart of the child, the tongsim. Developments in child psychology and new methods of education helped writers understand that children were shaped by their environment in general, and by texts and images in particular. That explains why we find an unprecedented level of attention to child-centered texts and images that attempted to both narrate and prescribe the child’s experience. This is not to say that texts and images in young readers’ magazines worked according to their intention. Rather, I wish to point out that the magazine editors and writers believed in the transformation power of their texts and images, and that tracing their efforts to shape the internal world of children can reveal how writers read and anticipated their readers’ preferences. Korean intellectuals across the political spectrum recognized that young readers were not only a viable new audience that required their own reading material, but that texts had a crucial role to play in the lives of their families, their communities, and their nation. To raise the next generation—both to nurture and hoist them up to a new level of sophistication—children’s texts had to be composed with attention to content and language that had not been previously attempted.


1. Ben-Amos, “Adolescence as a Cultural Invention.”

2. Shavit, “Historical Model of the Development of Children’s Literature.”

3. Zelizer, Pricing the Priceless Child.

4. Lerer, Children’s Literature, 7.

5. Yi Chae-ch’ŏl, Adong munhak ŭi ihae, 53–54. This book is a republication of Yi’s original book from 1967.

6. The literacy numbers from this era, however, are not very encouraging. In the 1920s the Korean peninsula was still largely rural, with over 80 percent of the population engaged in farming, forestry, and fishing and with about 90 percent living in rural areas. The few schools scattered around the country catered to families who could afford to release their children from household and child-care duties. In 1931, for example, colonial records show that only 20 percent of Korean children were enrolled. Wŏn Chong-ch’an, “Han’guk adong munhak,” 88.

7. Chang Chŏng-hŭi, Han’guk kŭndae adong munhak, 13.

8. Ch’oe Myŏng-p’yo, Han’guk kŭndae sonyŏn munye undongsa, 17–20.

9. Darr, Kanon be-khamah kolot. Darr’s book is a fascinating survey of the polyphonic voices that emerged in literature for children in the roughly two decades before the establishment of Israel, and it has served as an inspiration for many of the questions that I raise in this book. The similarities between Israel and the two Koreas—particularly in the mobilization of literature for the purposes of nation-building on the one hand, and the struggle of different interest groups and “shapers of taste” for hegemony on the other, is fascinating and deserves closer examination.

10. For a survey of Western intellectual history and theories of child development, see Cleverley, Visions of Childhood.

11. Steedman, Strange Dislocations, 92 (italics in the original).

12. Rose, The Case of Peter Pan.

13. Karatani, Origins of Modern Japanese Literature, 115. Karatani pushes against the notion that child psychology or the division between children and adults is in any way universal, noting both the culture-specific context in which the awareness of the child emerged in Japan, as well as how the discovery of the child was predicated on the capitalist reorganization of contemporary society (including schools and the military).

14. Jenks, Childhood, 8.

15. Yi Kwang-su, “Chanyŏ chungsimnon.”

16. See Shin and Robinson, eds., Colonial Modernity in Korea, 1–18. Kyu Hyun Kim elucidates the arguments raised in favor of and against this term, and shows why it has proven so contentious and compelling to historians, particularly in the way that Robinson and Shin have approached it. See Kim, “Reflections on the Problems of Colonial Modernity.”

17. Poole, When the Future Disappears.

18. Hanscom, The Real Modern.

19. Sunyoung Park, “Everyday Life as Critique in Late Colonial Korea,” 886.

20. Nayoung Aimee Kwon, Intimate Empire.

21. Lee, Women Pre-scripted.

22. Nayoung Aimee Kwon, Intimate Empire, 9.

23. Chŏng Chin-sŏk, “Ilche kangjŏmgi ŭi ch’ulp’an hwan’gyŏng.”

24. Ibid., 27–30.

25. Mun Han-byŏl, “Chosŏn ch’ulp’an kyŏngch’al.”

26. Son Chi-yŏn, “Singminji Chosŏn esŏ ŭi kŏmyŏl ŭi sasang kwa pangbŏp,” 130–33.

27. Mun Han-byŏl, “Ilche kangjŏmgi adong ch’ulp’anmul ŭi kwalli ch’egye,” 416. Mun notes that the Seditious Texts contains content from twenty-four books that were censored between 1926 and 1927, while Content and Classification is more of an instructional manual that contains a detailed record of the censorship process. Mun notes that after this period, children’s censored materials were included in the general censorship volumes rather than collected in their own dedicated volume.

28. Ibid., 421–426.

29. Ibid., 432.

30. Metz, Film Language, 26. Quoted in Evans, Visual Culture, 12.

31. Barthes, Mythologies; and Barthes, Image, Music, Text. See also Gramsci, “Hegemony, Intellectuals, and the State.”

32. Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity.

33. Jina Kim, “Intermedial Aesthetics,” 47. She argues that the yŏnghwa sosŏl, or cinematic novels, were “entwined in a symbiotic relationship [that] generated new intermedial reading, viewing, and hearing experiences.” Ibid., 58.

34. Jiwon Shin, “Recasting Colonial Space,” 54.

35. Hughes, Literature and Film in Cold War South Korea, 20.

36. Stoler, “Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power,” 14.

37. See Kelly Y. Jeong, Crisis of Gender; and Tikhonov, “Masculinizing the Nation.”

38. Hyaeweol Choi, “‘Wise Mother, Good Wife.’” See also Theodore Yoo, The Politics of Gender in Colonial Korea, 70.

39. Hyaeweol Choi, “‘Wise Mother, Good Wife,’” 6. While the demands for education may have been vociferous, Choi notes that there was marked disparity between ideals and reality. In 1919 only 2.2 percent of girls and 10.2 percent of boys attended primary school; ten years later this had increased to 7.9 percent girls and 30.0 percent boys in primary school, with even fewer going on to middle school. Ibid, 8.

40. Ibid, 13; Ji-Eun Lee, Women Pre-scripted, 8.

41. Sinyŏsŏng was edited some of the time by the pioneer of children’s literature in Korea, Pang Chŏng-hwan.

42. “Mosŏng chungsim ŭi yŏja kyoyuk,” Sinyŏsŏng 3.1 (1925). Quoted in Hyaeweol Choi, “‘Wise Mother, Good Wife,’” 14.

43. Pak Suk-cha, “Adong ŭi palgyŏn kwa mosŏng tamnon,” 255.

44. Kim Pok-sun, “Sonyŏ ŭi t’ansaeng”; Kim Yun-gyŏng, “Haebang hu yŏhaksaeng yŏn’gu.”

45. Hong Yang-hŭi, “Singminji sigi namsŏng kyoyuk.”

46. Ji-Eun Lee, Women Pre-scripted, 104. Lee provides a succinct summary of scholarship on women’s literacy in the colonial period in note 5 of the introduction, pp. 137–38.

47. Kim Pok-sun, “Sonyŏ ŭi t’ansaeng,” 206. According to the website of the National Archives of Korea, illiteracy rates for 12-year-olds and older after Libration stood at 78 percent. By 1958 this rate had dropped to 4.1 percent. The standard of literacy was reading, arithmetic, and basic science at a second-grade level. See (accessed February 6, 2017).

48. Kim Yun-gyŏng, “Haebang hu yŏhaksaeng yŏn’gu,” 37.

49. Han Chi-hŭi, “Ch’oe Nam-sŏn ŭi ‘sonyŏn’ ŭi kihoek.”

50. Hanscom and Washburn, eds., The Affect of Difference, 4.

51. Seigworth and Gregg, “An Inventory of Shimmers,” 3.

52. Hanscom and Washburn, eds., The Affect of Difference, 6.

53. Seigworth and Gregg, “An Inventory of Shimmers,” 7.