2023 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Adult third place
third place, adult essay division
A sense of post modernity plays throughout Kim Jung-hyuk’s short story “The Glass Shield,” which questions the true meaning of art and life. Culturally speaking, to have a true, sustaining life is to provide yourself with your needs, while also providing yourself an equal amount of happiness. Kim’s “The Glass Shield” grapples with the notion of art and how art can express many different things. Throughout the story, the unnamed narrator and his friend, M, grapple with the idea of art. Although they do not realize it when they first begin expressing themselves, they show how the overall culture of Korea can be expressed through the simple, yet liberating nature of art, which is found through the nostalgia that art brings when grappling with adolescence, wonder, and discovery. The relationship between the narrator and M is artistic in itself and calls to attention the ideologies of Korean society in order to critique how Korean society does not fully welcome non-materialistic art.
The Korean culture is bifurcated into two different categories. One can see these two categories as the haves and the have-nots, the oppressed and the oppressor, or even the more radical tendencies versus the more traditional tendencies. Looking at the relationship between the narrator and M, there is some sense of resemblance of this divide in Korean culture. M is symbolic for radicalism, while the narrator is symbolic for nationalism. The original “division within the nationalist movement was over the tactics and the long-range vision of what the nation would become after independence” from Japan (Robinson 246). This division brought about the “cultural nationalists” and the “radical nationalists” (Robinson 246). Although these are ideas of the 1930s during Japan’s annexation and occupation of Korea, these terms and ideologies are still current in today’s Korean society. In rejecting the cultural nationalism of traditional capital, Kim’s story is advocating for a return to the virtues of earlier ideas of radical nationalism including those of non-materialistic art.
After the narrator hears another friend on the phone say that he “can’t understand why [he] stick[s] to [M] like glue,” the narrator becomes confused about his relationship with M (Kim 220). The narrator has an internal monologue of how one “can never understand human relations,” and although the narrator “wanted to say something back” to his friend on the phone, he had some sense of urge not to (Kim 220). This instance reveals to the reader that the narrator is extremely torn between his friendship with M and living the more material Korean lifestyle. This lifestyle puts corporate work before everything else, arguing that careerism and material success are the most important things. M is a radical that wants nothing but to be relentlessly playful, but the narrator has an internal feeling that something must change, or the cycle will remain. Thematically, Kim’s story explores a fractured friendship that is divided by the bifurcated Korean society. This split friendship can also be represented through the two colors of yarn that the men have in their demonstration. M has “the blue yarn in his hand,” while the narrator has “the red yarn in [his] hand” (Kim 214). The blue yarn is in a “tangled state,” which can represent how M is a very disorderly person and thinks very irrationally. The red yarn is “coiled on the seat,” which shows how the narrator is a collected person with goals that are seemingly traditional (Kim 214). These two colors of the yarn also represent the two primary colors of the Korean national flag and the two political positions that one could have; indeed, the translation of Kim’s metaphor as differently “tangled” nation “state[s]” testifies to this split ideology.
The cycle of this friendship is shown through the movement of the train on which the two friends perform their art. The train is stuck in a loop that is outside of the city; it is positioned outside of everything that Korea has been founded on, outside of business, economics, capitalism, and national economic growth. The fact that the train is outside of the city shows the non-material artistic potential of Korean society. However, since the train is surrounding the city, it shows that there is a boundary that the traditional standards of Korean society operate on. Playfulness is not welcome in Korea. However, it is notable that while the narrator and M are in the middle of a sword fight, “two small kids… approached… two women who appeared to be the kids’ mothers moved close… [and] two grandfathers [were] intrigued by the clanging of the swords” (Kim 226). Although the art seems childish, the people of Korea gathered around the two men still enjoy the child-like actions that the men brought through the art that they produced. These acts are child-like, but also retain the subversive streak between the haves and have-nots. This art that the narrator and M made brought questions to the forefront: that “if acting the fool can be construed as art,” then they are “number one” (Kim 225).
At the end of the story, they found themselves having “passed a fork in the road,” and this fork ended with M choosing “the left and” the narrator choosing “the right” (Kim 231). The relationship splitting and the narrator choosing the more traditional roles of Korean society shows that, for some, art is not the purpose of life. This choice that the narrator makes at the end is viewed by Kim’s story as a surrender – as a loss of the nostalgia and the radicalism that once guided his spirit. He knew that he would not be able to continue his life the way that M would. The notion that the text ends with this epiphany by the narrator shows that even if one tries, it is hard to escape the corporate traditionalism of Korean society.
Kim, Jung-hyuk. “The Glass Shield.” Translated by Kevin O'Rourke, The Library of Musical
Instruments, 2008, pp. 207-31.
Robinson, Michael. “Ideological Schism in the Korean Nationalist Movement, 1920-1930:
Cultural Nationalism and the Radical Critique.” The Journal of Korean Studies, vol. 4, 1982, pp. 241–68. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41490178. Accessed 10 Feb. 2023.