Analysis of Park Kyongni’s Land

Land tells an epic saga of the Choi family’s ups and downs during the turbulent period of modern Korean history from 1897 to 1945. The setting ranges from Pyongsa-ri, Hadong, a typical farming village in the southern region of South Korea, to Seoul, China, Russia, and Japan. The work features about 14 main characters and numerous minor characters, covering virtually every historical event up to the emancipation of Korea from the Japanese in 1945. It took 25 years for Park Kyongni (1926–2008) to finish this 16-volume, five-part monumental epic narrative of the vicissitudes of three generations of the Choi family.

The first part depicts the disintegration of the traditional relations among four castes from 1897, in the years following Donghak Farmers Rebellion (1894– 95), to 1905, when the Eulsa Treaty was signed, making Korea a protectorate of Japan. The main narrative involves the complicated fate of the main characters, beginning with Choi Chi-soo, son of the renowned Yangban family. Unknown to Chi-soo, he has a stepbrother, Hwan, who participates in the Donghak Rebellion, is chased by officials, and steals his way into Chi-soo’s house, hiding there as a servant under the name of Goo-chon. However, he falls in love with his stepbrother’s wife, Pyoldang Ahssi, and finally elopes with her to Mt. Chiri. The lovers are tracked down by Chi-soo, who shoots Pyoldang Ahssi and then becomes a Buddhist monk named Woo-kwan at Yeongoksah. However, Chi-soo is himself eventually killed by Kim Pyong-san, who was manipulated by the concubine Guinyuh.

Park Kyongni

Chi-soo’s mother, Mrs. Yun, is a widow and matriarch of the Choi family. She has been harboring a tragic secret: She had once been raped at a temple and given birth to an illegitimate son, Hwan. Because of her shame and guilty conscience, she treats everyone around her coldly, including her own son and servants. Doubtful about her son Chi-soo’s sudden death, however, she keeps tracing clues and finally inflicts a severe punishment on Pyong-san and Guinyuh.

Yet as the nation’s destiny declines, she watches helplessly as her family’s fortune dwindles due to severe famine. At last she is infl icted with cholera, like many people in the village, and experiences an untimely death, leaving only a little granddaughter to hold the family name. Young Seo-hee, who is intelligent and austere like her grandmother, tries to rebuild the Choi family with a loyal servant, Kil-sang. Her plan, however, is continually thwarted by vicious and greedy Cho Jun-koo, a distant family relative who comes with a wife and a hunchbacked son, Byong-soo, to manage the Choi household. With the Russia-Japan War and the Eulsa Treaty, circumstances favor Jun-koo, who claims the Chois’ family land as his own. Having failed to kill the Chos, Seo-hee and Kil-sang leave Pyongsa-ri with a little money Seo-hee had secretly inherited from her grandmother and head for Yong-jeong (also called Kando), in the Manchu area of China.

The second part of the novel describes how the young Seo-hee is reborn as the strong-willed matriarch of the Choi family. Barely escaping from Japan’s oppressive reign, Seo-hee starts a business of trading beans and lands and makes a great fortune in Yongjeong. She is helped by an old man named Kong and Kil-sang, who has been a faithful servant since her childhood days. In spite of loving Sang-hyon, son of her father’s friend from the same social class, the independent Seo-hee decides not to become an obedient housewife to Sang-hyon but instead marries her servant Kil-sang. She later gives birth to two sons, Hwankuk and Yun-kuk. Assured of her financial situation, she starts her longtime plan of avenging her family’s disgrace. Via Mr. Kong, she manipulates Jun-koo into investing big money in a gold mine, which leads him to fall into serious financial trouble. Triumphant, Seo-hee buys Jun-koo out of trouble and finally regains the land her family had once owned.

Kil-sang, meanwhile, has long been disturbed by Seo-hee’s insatiable obsession to avenge her family and restore the Chois’ land. He has also anguished over the insurmountable class difference between him and his wife. Kil-sang comes to learn the secret of Seo-hee’s grandmother and meets with Hwan. Sharing the vision of Korea’s liberation from Japan, he leaves Seo-hee behind so that he can join Hwan in the resistance movement. Seo-hee then decides to go back to her beloved hometown alone with two sons and a nanny.

The third part of the novel depicts the Japanese’s brutal treatment of Koreans and the ensuing resistance activities deployed by domestic and international organizations. Seo-hee, who previously did not care about others but had concentrated on rebuilding her family’s prestige, now takes charge of resistance activities and helps keep the independent spirit going in her village. In the fourth part, hearing about the positive progress in international politics, Seo-hee hopes for the country’s independence. Her son Hwan-kuk, who has cherished great respect and warm love toward his father Kil-sang, takes care of him when he is arrested and sentenced to two years in prison, where he finally dies. In the final part, Japan announces its defeat in the World War II, and Seo-hee and her two sons express their deep gratitude toward all the ordinary heroes who sacrificed their lives to achieve their beloved country’s liberation.

Land is a great and much-beloved historical epic that represents how Korean people survived the dark period of the Japanese occupation. Despite being a period novel with local color, it has universally appealing classic themes such as romance overcoming class difference, a daughter’s revenge for her family’s honor, an uncle’s greed so great that he makes an alliance even with the enemy Japanese to rob his niece’s wealth, and the hope and belief of people fighting for independence in the dark period of oppression. It also has numerous colorful characters, and among them is the indomitable and memorable heroine Seo-hee. Having lost everything—her parents, social status, and wealth at a young age—she struggles to restore the family’s name and wealth during the chaotic period of the occupation. She ultimately becomes a legendary character who manifests two distinctive spiritual characteristics of Korean women: determination and patience. This landmark epic narrative was dramatized into a TV miniseries twice and received tremendous accolades. Tojimunhakgwan (The Land Writing Center) for resident writers has been built in Wonju, memorializing the birthplace of Land.

Cheong Hyeon-kee. Han and Life: Criticism of Toji. Seoul: Sol, 1994.
Choi You-chan et al. The Cultural Topography of Toji. Seoul: Somyeong, 2004.
Kim Chi-su. Park Kyong-ni and Yee Cheong-jun. Seoul: Minumsa, 1982.
Yee Deok-hwa. Park Kyong-ni and Choi Myeong-hee: Two Women Novelists. Seoul: Taehaksa, 2000.
Yee Sang-jin. Glossary of Toji Characters. Seoul: Nanam, 2002

Categories: Korean Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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