Introduction by Sayaka Chatani, National University of Singapore.
Right after the 1919 March First Independence Movement across the Korean peninsula and brutal arrests and crackdown by the colonial government, the Japanese authorities relaxed restrictions on publications, leading to the birth of major Korean-language newspapers and literary magazines. Kaebyŏk (Gaebyeok) is probably the most well-recognized magazine that represented this era, largely known for its literary work and anticolonial political commentaries. It started in 1920 as a periodical of the youth division of the Chŏndogyo (Religion of the Heavenly Way), a popular indigenous religious organization, and it continued until 1926, when the colonial authorities shut it down. The magazine reportedly sold about 10,000 copies at its peak popularity. It became a major venue for Korean literary work, rather than a mouthpiece of the religious organization.
Some of the commentaries in Kaebyŏk presented a clear Marxist view of class struggle in an anticolonial tone. They were written by well-educated urban youth who were exposed to various ideologies of the time. Upon closer reading, it is also apparent that the magazine reflected many other global and empire-wide discursive waves and movements. This piece, “Letter to Rural Youth,” for example, was embedded in multiple contexts. One is the rise of “youth,” which was evident in colonial Korea in the form of numerous youth groups. Tonga Ilbo (one of the new Korean newspapers) reported in December 1922, “purely social youth groups flourish and have reached more than five hundred in number. Every county is witnessing an expansion of youth groups, and including religious youth groups, there are more than a thousand such organizations.” The “Letter” also presents a clear urban-rural dichotomy, which defined ideologies, identities, and social movements across the 1920s Japanese empire. Both anticolonial youth leaders and imperial bureaucrats attempted to reach the hearts of the majority of colonial youth who lived in the impoverished countryside. But it was challenging particularly for the urban intellectuals to integrate village youth into their movements, whereas the Japanese authorities gradually spread their version of agrarianism and established youth training institutions similar to those in the Japanese countryside.
Discussion questions: What is the main message of this “Letter”? What motivated the author to write this piece? How does he describe urban modernity? What would have been the reception by rural youth if they had read it? In what ways did Japanese colonialism shape the situation described in the “Letter”?
[The original publication]: Kaebyŏk (Gaebyeok) no.55, January 1, 1925, pages 20-22. Korean.
[The location of the material]:
Digitized and available at http://db.history.go.kr/id/ma_013_0540_0040
Letter to Rural Youth
Standing at the end of year 1924 that has left nothing but a brutal famine behind on this barren land, I write this letter to you, as I look at our farming village devastated by the ravages of famine.
Rural youth! The place where I am writing this letter is not a dull countryside with nothing but desolate fields and collapsing huts, like the place where you are at. This place is a busy, crowded and bustling city. While you eat chobap(mixed steamed rice and millet) there, we are eating white rice here. While you preciously wear cotton clothes there, here we wear silk clothes with no difficulty. Just as there are many illiterate people in the countryside, intellectuals make up the majority in the city. As such, the countryside cries in poverty while the city boasts prosperity. If the city is a place where we teach and enjoy civilization, the countryside is clearly wandering in a state of barbarism. Talking to all of you now about countryside life from the city, where life is completely different, feels no different from sitting in a nobleman's house, talking about the reality of life under poverty and asking the famished "If there’s no rice, why don't you eat ground meat?"
Rural youth! I do not know much about the reality hidden in the depths of your poverty-stricken life. But I know for sure this one thing. — I know surely that while children of rich families are inheriting wealth and receiving college education even when they don't like it, rural youth are inheriting poverty and illiteracy. And except for the many proletariat youth amongst you that are resolved on new ideas of class, the large majority curse their life as a farmer and are sick and tired of the dull countryside, yearning for city life filled with enjoyment. Otherwise, they try by all means to escape from the prison of poverty and take great pains to pursue an easy life as a landowner who has no hard labor. No few young people have completed primary school or gave up their studies halfway. With the bits of Japanese that they know, they look only at the tips of their shoes, with their greased hair, volunteer as policemen to become influential, and commute to the town. But I shall not bundle you and these people altogether.
Therefore, rural youth! Do you indeed dislike farming and yearn to leave the desolate countryside to live in the bustling city, like I said? Are you realizing the need to know the reality of the city life that you hope for? Of course, there must be many reasons why you yearn for city life. When I think of your life of suffering, city life is indeed worth wishing for. Now you are probably asking me to tell you about life in the city.
This city where I am at now is the capital of Korea, the center of Korea, the center of modern culture in Korea. Over here, there are many schools and bookstores that can satisfy your thirst for knowledge. The seniors and renowned people that you admire are gathered here, and there are media organizations that shape public opinion throughout the country. All the renowned buildings are standing everywhere here in the city as well. There are lectures by prominent figures that you have wished to listen to if you had the chance, and concerts day and night by all the great singers. All the social movement groups have also put up signs and are gathered here. That is not all. If you seek sensual satisfaction, there are theaters and cinemas. There are also all kinds of restaurants, like Myŏngwŏlsesim [明月洗心], here and there. There are many garment sellers where you can have extravagance at its peak as you please. There are many kisaeng (female entertainers). There are also many trains and cars.
I know all this will make you leave the desolate countryside and enter the city. However, let’s go one step further—how does the city prosper and what kind of people make up the majority of those living in the city? We should closely examine that.
If you want to know about the prosperity of the city and the relationship between the city and the countryside, there is no need to go deep into it to find [it] out. It is clear when we compare it to the village and town where you live. Just as the town maintains its prosperity by exploiting the villages around it, the city thrives and develops by exploiting the farming villages in the provinces below it. This city that developed gradually from a market truly has the attitude of the capitalist class and tramples on the countryside like the proletariat class. Just as the haves can amass great wealth by exploiting have-nots, the city will, of course, be unable to thrive with prosperity unless it exploits the countryside. The city is a money-accumulating center with busy traffic, where the rural people gather and trade their goods. Therefore, the farming villages’ money is concentrated at the city through all the financial institutions. People in the city purchase agricultural products from the countryside at a low price, and survive on the provisions you supply. With the raw materials obtained from you, they manufacture and sell handicrafts and luxury goods, and earn huge amounts of money through their unjust profits. Not only will the proletariat class in the city suffer when cheaply purchased agricultural products are sold as expensive urban products, but even more so when these products are re-imported back to rural areas. Weren’t the prices extremely low at the beginning when the raw materials for manufacturing urban products left your hands? But do you know that after it goes through the hands of several merchants, becomes a city-manufactured product and returns back into your hands once again, you would not be able to buy those goods without paying a few times more than the amount you originally sold the raw materials for?
Thus, the city dwellers fill their bellies with the grain that you grow while living without freedom, in poverty, and being forced into illiteracy. They make all of you fall further into the pit of poverty and illiteracy. They take away the opportunity for pleasure that one should have as a human being, making you drown in a sea of tears that is no different from the state of barbarism.
Rural youth! The city conquers the countryside, and the city people that do not produce anything exploit the farming villages that labor throughout the entire year. The city is the enemy of the countryside, and the city people are traitors of the countryside. However, if from a farmer you become a city person, despite the relationship between the city and the countryside, and follow the exploitation you once received from the city people by exploiting your fellow countryside brothers that were once together in the prison of poverty with you, or if you look at your unfortunate brothers and, with absolutely no sense of justice, push them into further unhappiness, you are holding an abacus and stock certificate in the hands that once held a hoe. In other words, I do not know if transforming from the exploited to the exploiting class can be said as a display of human value or an advancement of one’s character. If you are going to do so, I will change the subject and examine again whether rising from the exploited class to becoming one of the exploiting class is indeed an advancement of one’s character.
(Translated by Jovanne Tan Li Qi)
Sayaka Chatani, Nation-Empire: Ideology and Rural Youth Mobilization in Japan and Its Colonies (Cornell University Press, 2018): Directly discussing the source in Ch. 4; Ch. 7&8 go in detail about the lives of Korean rural youth.
Albert L. Park, Building a Heaven on Earth: Religion, Activism, and Protest in Japanese Occupied Korea (University of Hawai‘I Press, 2014): On a simultaneous rise in the emphasis on rural programs by religious organizations around 1925.
Gi-Wook Shin, Peasant Protest and Social Change in Colonial Korea (University of Washington Press, 1996): For the background of economic situations and social movements in the Korean countryside.