2021 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior first place

South Korea represents one of the fastest modernizing countries in the world. Developments of iconic pop, fashion, and gourmet cultures exemplify the massive influence of modernization on South Korea today. However, as this cultural reform catalyzes, the light of traditional Korean culture starts to fade, creating a divergence within South Korean society. Most move with the tide, benefiting from Korea’s cultural shift. Others hold true to their ancestral beliefs, often trapped in the past. The short stories “The Poplar Tree” by Choi Inho and “The Old Hatter” by Yi Mun-yol uniquely illustrate opposing views of the modernization of South Korea, demonstrating a divergence in ideologies and a threat to the stability of a national Korean identity.

“The Poplar Tree'' expresses the themes of uniqueness and persistence and their relationship to growth and change. Choi Inho uses delicate contrasting symbolism to represent remnants of Korea’s past as well as its progression towards a more Western and modern world. The initial setting of Choi’s story represents traditional Korea, characterized by the elderly man’s occupation as a blacksmith, a job that has long been forgotten in the modern world. This traditionalism is immediately contrasted by the blacksmith’s unique jumping ability disapproved by the public, but revered by a group of young boys. The old man suffers from injury that temporarily destroys his jumping ability, representing conflicts within Korean history. Choi cleverly uses a poplar tree and its inability to grow fruit to demonstrate divergence from society, as this steers away from the agricultural interests of his society. As this tree grows, the elderly man exemplifies persistence, as he exclaims “Everyday I’m going to jump over that tree. If I can keep it up, then one day I’ll be able to jump as high as the sky”. This persistence eventually accumulates into one final leap that propels the elderly man into the sky, escaping to a new world that the people in Choi’s story could only see, but not experience. Through the planting of the poplar tree and gradual persistence, the blacksmith enters this new world, with his worn out shoe a sign to those who choose to fester in the past.

By contrast, in “The Old Hatter'', Yi Mun-yol adopts a conservative view of Korean modernization, as the story highlights the detriments experienced by people who fail to adapt to change. Yi cleverly expresses the themes of conservative sentiment and failure to adapt through the use of symbolic change. In the beginning of the story, Top’yeog, a member of a traditional Korean village, was a normal citizen, as young boys used to steal from him as a form of mere entertainment. As the story progresses, the old hat weaver represents old Korean culture drowned out by westernization and modernization. As his village changed into “a new town trying to catch up with modern times'', Top’yeog’s store remained the sole transgressor, representing a growing isolation of traditional Korean ideals in a bustling market. Later on, Top’yeog modernizes his store, but not his product, symbolizing an attempt to move with the tide of the future, but refusal to let go of the past. As Top’yeog’s death approaches, he seeks to preserve his practice by making a master hat with sacred weaving techniques for the last elder of the village, representing a wavering resistance to modernization and the struggles of preserving traditional sentiment. Yi then brilliantly spins the story on its head, using strong symbolism and vignette to exemplify the true misfortune of those who fail to adapt to modernization. As Top’yeog finishes his most dedicated work, he is ecstatic to deliver it to the Venerable Kyoch’eon, but is ultimately devastated when he sees his “accustomed horse-hair hat was conspicuously missing”. Top’yeog is outraged, as the village’s last elder was lost in the growing Western influence in Korea. Devastated, Top’yeog rests the hat on the grave of the late elder Ch’ilbok, symbolizing the death of hat weaving. As Top’yeog dies, hat weaving dies with him, as his daughter, whom no one in the village has seen in years, sells the store at the first bid, drowning out the traditions of Korea’s past in a sea of modernization.

Choi Inho and Yi Mun-yol approach the development of their stores in very unique ways. Whilst Choi focuses on direct symbolism and portraying a freely-interpretive message, Yi implements aspects of vignette and strong symbolism into his story, subjecting readers to a universal view of “The Old Hatter” and its message. Choi, a rebellious writer famous for his socially oppositional literature such as “Heavenly Homecoming to the Stars”, focuses on the misconception that modernization would improve discord. This can be seen in “The Poplar Tree”, as the story focuses on the idea that the final goal of a new world is not one that is visible, only something that can be experienced, creating a possible false perception of modernization. Yi, a conservative writer raised around traditional Korean culture and rooted by his father’s defection to North Korea, strongly supports the preservation of traditional Korean ideologies, a sentiment that can be seen in “The Old Hatter”, as Yi animatedly depicts the struggles of those who fail to move with the tide of modernization and attempt to preserve tradition.

Whilst both stories portray different interpretations of modernization in Korea, the impact of Westernization on South Korean culture, nationalism, and identity are evident. Whether this modernization be perceived as a necessitated growth to boost the livelihood of the country or as an abandonment of traditional Korean culture is a matter of the reader of these two brilliant stories. Modernization and westernization today arguably have done Korea more good than harm, but this divergence in ideologies regarding the promise of the future and the traditions of the past create an environment for South Koreans to improve upon. In a capitalistic world characterized by dying traditions, South Koreans are now obligated to find a way to strike a balance between the two ideologies to optimize the culture, identity, and nationalism of the country.