Korean Childhood

Modern Korean Childhood


A review of The Construction of the Child in Korean Children’s Magazines, 1908-1950, by Dafna Zur.

By analyzing a variety of texts and illustrations in Korean children’s magazines from the first half of the twentieth century, Dafna Zur’s dissertation is not only an important study of the construction of the modern child in Korea but also modern media culture and literature. Through examinations of some of the most representative children’s magazines from the period, Zur posits the child “as a site of ideological inscription” (p. 1) and shows that the construction of the child was intimately tied to the changing discourses of colonial Korea, which consequently were constructed through prominent social discourses of their time such as Social Darwinism, enlightenment, modernity, and nationalism. The adult producers of children’s magazines—writers, educators, intellectuals, politicians, businessmen, etc.— keenly recognized that youths and children stood as important signifiers onto which multiple meanings can be impressed.

In Chapter 2, “Sonyŏn and the Modern Child,” Zur analyzes what might be considered the first mass-produced, modern publication for young readers. Zur argues that Sonyŏn (1908-1910), founded by Ch’oe Namsŏn in 1908, framed much of its content within Social Darwinism to construct the modern child. Her examination of texts, photographs, and illustrations show how the contributors, in particular the founder and editor Ch’oe, sought to construct a reader who could carry “Chosŏn Korea out of its dark and stagnant past into a glorious, politically viable future” (p. 56). In a sense, enlightenment thinkers of the early twentieth century believed that a politically viable future was tied to the project of modernity, which subsequently meant transmission of modern and new knowledge to the youths who would in turn be inspired to guide the nation into modernity. Thus, Zur concludes that the birth of the modern child cannot be divorced from the political context of modernity in which Sonyŏn was published.

If Ch’oe’s Sonyŏn imagined a monolithic, ideal child who should and could become a political subject, Pang Chŏnghwan’s magazine Ŏrini (1923-1934) constructed the ideal child as one who is capable of preserving “human goodness and eternal child-ness” through social reform in the face of colonial oppression and native patriarchy (p. 114). In Chapter 3, “Ŏrini and the Myth of Innocence,” Zur points out that the most marked departure from Ch’oe’s Sonyŏn that can be seen in Ŏrini is the acknowledgement and the awareness of the audience (the readers), which was advanced by the notion of tongsim (the child-mind)—the belief of the innocence and the purity of the child and compassion toward him. Zur argues that despite good intentions, Pang’s construction of the child in colonial Korean society inadvertently denied children agency, complexity, and resilience.

Chapter 4 “Pyŏllara, Sinsonyŏn and the Rebel Child” takes up the evolution of socialism and the proletariat movement in colonial Korea, and publication of two leftist magazines that offered a counter attack to the tongsimjuŭi as advanced by Pang and his magazine. Zur demonstrates that rather than the innocent, victimized child, the contributor and editors of Pyŏllara and Sinsonyŏn strove to educate the readers about capitalist exploitations, the ills of bourgeois life, and ultimately to assist in developing class consciousness so that children could collectively rise to fight for justice.

In Chapter 5, “Sonyŏn and the Natural Child,” Zur explores the significance of wartime cultural production through the magazine Sonyŏn. In addition to aestheticized texts and images of soldiers, war, and technology, a recurring image of the Korean child in this period between the second Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War was that of children and nature. Zur makes the point that this was not a contradiction but a strategy to construct Korean youths whose bodies needed to be disciplined and minds inculcated with sacrifice for the Japanese empire. In doing so, Zur argues, the Korean child was made “anti-modern,” thus complying with the wartime colonial discourses. Yet, the centerpiece of this chapter is her introduction and analysis of writer Hyŏn Tŏk, who despite harsh wartime assimilationist policies, was able to offer a voice of opposition through his prose writings for and about children.

Published after Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonialism, publishers, writers, and readers of Chugan Sohaksaeng (1945-1950) and Ŏrininara (1949-50) had much to celebrate – but much was also to be reformed, reconstructed, and renewed. In her final chapter, “Ŏrininara, Sohaksaeng and the Liberated Child,” Zur shows that these two magazines also undertook various rebuilding projects, including modernizing the Korean language, restoring biographies of notable people from the past, and introducing new knowledge of science and technology. All of these, Zur argues, did not truly liberate the child at all but still constrained him/her as a site for ideological inscription.

By introducing a range of important children’s magazines, Zur provides a rich source for understanding the development of the child as a critical category of analysis. Dafna Zur’s dissertation will offer a strong contribution to the emerging field of children’s literature in Korea and more broadly in East Asia along the lines of Andrew Jones’ Developmental Fairy Tales: Evolutional Thinking and Modern Chinese Culture (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2011). In addition, by bringing together the study of mass print culture and literary studies, Zur, along with dissertations by Peter Wayne de Fremery (Harvard, 2011), Jae-yon Lee (University of Chicago, 2012), and Ji-Eun Lee (Harvard, 2006) have identified the magazine as playing a central role in the emergence of modern Korean literature and culture.

Jina E. Kim
Department of East Asian Studies
Smith College

Primary Sources

Chugan Sohaksaeng (1945-1950)
Ŏrini (1923-1934)
Ŏrininara (1949-50)
Pyŏllara (1930-34)
Sonyŏn (1908-1911)
Sonyŏn (1937-1940)
Sinsonyŏn (1929-1934)

Dissertation Information

University of British Columbia. 2011. 306 pp. Primary Advisor: Ross King.

Image: First volume of Sonyŏn, 1937.

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