2011 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior third place

Chirstine Hamlin

Korean tradition holds that the legend of the crane’s thousand-year lifespan makes it the icon emblem of longevity, and that it also symbolizes fidelity (“Crane…”). Hwang Sunwŏn’s short story, appropriately entitled “Cranes”, serves as an allegory for the reconciliation between the warring Koreas in the mid twentieth century by means of chronicling the reunion of old friends.

The reader encounters for the first time one of the main characters, Sŏngsam, amidst the dreariness of a small village, caught amongst the inevitable effects of war in one’s homeland. Sŏngsam, because the reader perceives the surroundings through his eyes, and because of his flashbacks, takes on the characteristics of the village: bereft of its potential, haunted by ghosts of the past and fear of the future. 

One of these “ghosts”, his “closest childhood friend, Tŏkchae”, takes Sŏngsam by surprise when Sŏngsam stumbles upon Tŏkchae handcuffed and unkempt, offering a glimpse into the wandering soul that is Sŏngsam: there is a connection there, made clear by Sŏngsam’s “stunned” reaction, and the attentive reader is about to discover its significance. When Sŏngsam insists on escorting the prisoner Tŏkchae to Ch’ŏngdan, the first inkling of their past friendship is revealed. Sŏngsam contemplates his childhood adventures with Tŏkchae, during which the two fought together against the conventions of society – that is, the tacit understanding that one should leave the neighbors’ gardens alone. This glimpse into their past serves as the first suggestion that the two still harbor that friendly love for one another despite any tribulation that has occurred during their time apart.

As their walk continues, however, the tension that comes with a long separation from one’s best friend, especially in times of war, begins to emerge. It is clear that the friends have taken different paths since their childhood, and that the two cannot truly say that they know each other any longer. Sŏngsam ultimately pulls a gun on Tŏkchae, threatening him until he tells the truth about his past, of which Sŏngsam has no knowledge. Tŏkchae replies that he has “nothing to defend [himself] about”. This burst of passion on Sŏngsam’s part serves as a stimulus to Tŏkchae’s first verbal reaction, one that informs Sŏngsam that Tŏkchae’s father had died in Sŏngsam’s absence. This seems to snap Sŏngsam back into the reality of their old friendship: he abrubtly asks his old friend, “You married?”, and when it is divulged that Tŏkchae has married the target of their childhood teasings, Sŏngsam forgets this uncharacteristic hostility. The pair now has a common ground on which they might see eye-to-eye: Short Stuff. This mention of a an old acquaintance allows both Sŏngsam and Tŏkchae to open up to one another, to play “catch up” on the past several years during which they no longer knew each other.  Perhaps the most telling instance of the friends’ balancing-out is in the line, “Now it was Sŏngsam who walked along with his face turned away.” No longer does one have power over the other; they are as friends should be: equals.

The symbolism of the crane really comes to light in the anecdote of “Sŏngsam’s and Tŏkchae’s crane”. In the memory, the two, once again, make mischief despite the expectations of society. The “grown-ups” whom the two are trying to keep unaware of their antics, represent those who would support the separation of the Koreas. The Tanjŏng crane which the boys catch represents, as in the Korean fables, fidelity and longevity, especially between the two boys (“Crane…”). When it is clear to the boys that their crane is in danger of being killed, they rush to save it, only to find that “the crane could hardly walk. Probably from being tied up for so long”. This could easily be interpreted to signify the idea that unity could not thrive between the Koreas because of its being suppressed for so long by so many. After freeing the bird, the younger Sŏngsam and Tŏkchae hear a gunshot and fear that their crane had been shot. Soon after, however, another Tanjŏng crane takes flight, immediately followed by the boys’ crane. The second crane symbolizes the encouragement needed to expedite the movement toward unity between the Koreas. This necessity is fulfilled in the final image of the story, just after Sŏngsam, back in present time, has asked Tŏkchae to catch a crane with him for old times’ sake: “Just then, two or three cranes, their huge wings spread, went soaring through the clear autumn sky”. Sŏngsam and Tŏkchae are the ones who can make a difference, and it is understood that they go on to do so after the story’s end.

Sunwŏn’s interpretation of the situation existing between the two Koreas in the mid-1900s is not one of naïve optimism, but one of level-minded hopefulness. It is very true that one person can effect the greatest changes imaginable. It has been done many times, and the changes have often come from the disenfranchised, the oppressed, the anonymous. In this case, it is a renewed friendship that initiates the transformation, and although the effects have not yet achieved their full potential, they have doubtless kept hope alive for many, even those uninvolved in the old friends’ conflict.