2020 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Adult second place
second place, adult essay division
Nostalgia: Finding the Future Through the Past
Hwang Sun-won’s 1953 short story “Cranes” weaves together the narratives of Songsam and his childhood friend Tokchae, the conflict between North and South Korea, and that of the birds from which the title comes. Collectively it is a narrative of duality, juxtaposing themes of peace and violence, friendship and animosity, and freedom and imprisonment through various relationships and imagery. Written at a time when the Korean War armistice was coming into effect, it is no surprise that “Cranes” is viewed as a wholeheartedly optimistic take on the possibility of reconciliation and perhaps even reunification of the two Koreas. However, while it appears that Songsam and Tokchae are able to discard the confines of politics, war, and their divergent pasts in the pursuit of freedom and friendship at the end of the story, a more nuanced examination reveals both the obstacles that must be overcome to reach reconciliation and the acknowledgement that reunification may be just a fleeting dream rooted in the past.
The element of time is crucial in “Cranes” because it is only in looking to the past that Songsam overcomes the expectations of his present and makes his own decision for the future. Traveling between Songsam’s past and the present, we sense the nostalgia that memories of sharing pumpkin leaf cigarettes (306), pilfering chestnuts from the old grandfather’s tree (307), and capturing then freeing a Tanjong crane (311) evoke. We sense that while Songsam escaped to a place south of the 38th and outwardly adopted the view that men from the North must have blood on their hands (“‘How many men have you killed so far?’”(307)), there is still a part of him that holds on to his identity as a farmer and believes in the goodness of his childhood. His “heart feels relieved at its core. As if something blocking it has eased and fallen loose” (307) when he sees Tokchae’s indignance at the accusation since he realizes that his friend is no murderer. Their lives had been drastically altered by the war, and they had chosen to pursue different visions, but in many ways they were still true to their identities. Songsam had abandoned his home and family to flee South (309) and survive, but he never let go of the guilt of that decision, and now Tokchae is choosing to stay with his ailing father and pregnant wife, because even though it means facing death, “‘People like us, all we know is working the earth to stay alive’” (309) and there is no future in fleeing.
Vulnerability is the first hurdle that must be overcome to create a space for curiosity, mutual understanding, honest dialogue, and generosity. Songsam is conscious of society’s expectations for his role as Tokchae’s enemy—“How could he offer a cigarette to a guy like this one, today?” (306)—but he finds ways to be kind to his childhood friend: “He makes up his mind not to light another while escorting this fellow Tokchae” (307); asking about Tokchae’s family; not laughing when he finds out Tokchae married Short Stuff (308). The reciprocation of vulnerability is equally essential for re-establishing rapport. Though Songsam was willing to offer an olive branch, it was Tokchae’s returned willingness to share information about his ailing father and his family that resurrected the bond of friendship between them and rekindled the desire to trust in a simpler, more peaceful time.
The memory of the cranes and the freeing of Tokchae that takes place in the demilitarized zone illustrate the complexity of Hwang Sun-won’s portrayal of the relationship between the two Koreas. When they were children, Songsam and Tokchae imprisoned a Tanjong crane. “They had tied it up, even its wings, and every day the two of them would come and stroke its neck, ride on its back, making a fuss over it” (311). They nearly destroyed it with their adoration, and even though “all they could think was that their crane must not die…the crane could hardly walk. Probably from being tied up for so long” (311). Their interest in the crane was borne from good intention, but their affection almost killed it and not even their collective effort in heaving the crane into the air could successfully send it off. Only with the support of another crane could their own crane “stretch out its long neck, give a cry, and fly up into the sky” (311). Though Songsam and Tokchae can be thought of as representing South and North Korea, I would add that the characters represent the citizens of those countries whereas the cranes themselves symbolize the countries. The support of the people is necessary to achieve reconciliation, but to succeed, the endeavor toward peace and reconciliation also requires the support of both North and South Korea as nations. That there are two cranes rather than one introduces the uncertainty of whether the two Koreas will ever become one.
The people, though governed, still have the freedom to make their own decisions. As children, Songsam and Tokchae chose to thwart the government-approved hunting of cranes by saving their own crane; as adults, they must overcome their own vulnerability and fear of betrayal and choose to trust each other via trusting in their shared past. Songsam suggests they go crane hunting in the DMZ, an area of peace bridged on both sides by war. “‘I’ll make a snare with the rope here. You chase a crane over’” (312). It is a shared secret between them, what crane hunting means: the escape to freedom, a future free of death, the shared dream of peace. But Tokchae has a moment of hesitation, experiences the fear that “soon a bullet would come from where Songsam had gone crawling off” (312), yet in the end he chooses to trust.
As the “two or three cranes, their huge wings spread, soaring through the clear autumn sky” (312), we are left to wonder whether those cranes are the three countries that signed the armistice, or the two Koreas traveling in unison.