Yi Yuk-sa: One hundred years

Brother Anthony (An Sonjae)

    This year, Korea is celebrating the centennial of the birth of one of its most famous poets, universally known as Yi Yuk-sa, although that was not his real name. What might seem amazing is the way he has become so famous, in Korea at least, when he only composed about forty or so poems in his whole lifetime. The way he lived and died made him an exemplary figure for later generations, and that supplies the explanation of his posthumous fame. He and his poems have come to exemplify the heroic spirit of the Korean anti-Japanese resistance of the 1930s and 1940s, in which he spent most of his life, for which he wrote his poems, then finally gave his life.
    He was born on May 18, 1904 in Dosan, Andong in North Gyeongsang Province and received the name Yi Won-rok. He was a descendant of another great figure from Andong, the great scholar Yi Hwang (better known as Toegye), the 500th anniversary of whose birth was celebrated in 2001. He completed his basic schooling in Andong, graduating in 1919, when he was 15.
1919 was, of course, the year of the March 1 Independence Declaration and its associated demonstrations, to which the Japanese responded with great ferocity. There is no indication of the feelings of Yi Won-rok or his family at that time, but the consequences of that year’s events were to shape his entire future life and provoke his early death. In 1920, the whole family moved to Daegu and in 1921, aged only 17, he married while still attending school, an academy in which he became a teacher in 1923. In 1924 he left for Japan, where he prepared to enter university. Yet in January 1925 he returned to Daegu and there, together with his two brothers, he joined the Uiyoldan. This association had been established in May 1919 by Koreans living in Kirin (Manchuria) in response to the Japanese repression of the Independence Movement. It soon had cells in Korea and China, and became a secret organization opposing Japan in various ways, including by assassinations and acts of sabotage. It is surely this commitment that explains his departure for Beijing at the end of 1925. He became a student in China and only returned to Korea in the summer of 1927. During his time in China, he seems to have formed links with a number of groups working for Korean Independence, including the Government-in-Exile in Shanghai.
When members of the Uiyoldan blew up the Daegu branch of the Choseon Bank that autumn, he was arrested and spent more than 18 months in prison. Freed in 1929, he started to work as a journalist. It was early in 1930 that he published his first poem, ‘Horse,’ in the Choseon Ilbo under the name he mostly used, Yi Hwal; then in October that year, he first signed an essay about the various social groups active in Daegu with the pseudonym ‘Yi Hwal, Daegu 264’ (the figures being pronounced in Korean ‘Yi yuk sa’) which had been his prisoner ID. Later he published poems under the name Yi Yuk-sa using the standard character for his family name ‘Yi’ and the characters ‘Yuk-sa’ meaning ‘Land-history.’ 1931-1933 saw him studying in various parts of China, but above all deepening his contacts with various groups of the Korean resistance. It was only in 1935 that he seriously began to write and publish poems and critical essays, mainly in the reviews ‘New Choseon’ and ‘Poetics.’ The following years saw him continue to write, and work discreetly in various ways within Korea. He is reported to have been arrested a total of 17 times, but he was never again imprisoned. In 1939, he published what is surely his best-loved poem:

Green grapes (Translated by Kim Jong-gil)

July's the month when green grapes ripen
Back in my village at home.
The village legend ripens in clusters
The dreaming sky settles on each grape.
A white-sailed boat will come drifting by
As the sea bares its bosom to the sky
And the longed-for guest will at last arrive
His weary limbs wrapped all in green.
With a feast of grapes I'll welcome him
Happy with dripping hands.
Quickly, prepare the dishes, lad,
White napkin on a silver tray.

He wrote in what he considered the truest tradition of Korean lyric poetry, and for him the very use of Korean language was an affirmation of his nation’s identity. Naturally, any reference to the independence struggle had to remain veiled, indirect, if his work was ever to see the light of day. Most of his poems are understood by Koreans to refer symbolically to the independence struggle and have been included in school textbooks on that account, although they can also be read simply as beautiful lyrics.
In 1941-2 he began to show symptoms of lung disease, and was hospitalized for several months. Yet in April 1943 he left for Beijing, and while in China seems to have been arranging for weapons to be smuggled into Korea. In July he returned to Seoul for the 1st anniversary of his mother’s death and in late autumn he was arrested. Transferred to the military police attached to the Japanese Consulate General in Beijing, he died in their prison on January 16, 1944. There is every reason to suppose that his death was provoked by the treatment he received in prison, but no eye-witness reports provide any details or confirmation. His remains were cremated and his ashes were buried in the public cemetery in Miari, Seoul.
Two years later, after Korea’s independence, family and friends began to work to preserve his memory. On October 20, 1946, a volume bringing together some 20 of his works was published by his brother: Yuksa Sichip. Ten years later, in 1956, additional works having come to light, a new edition was published and in 1974, the third, definitive edition was published. In 1957 the first symposium dedicated to his memory was held in Daegu, with two poets making the main presentations, Cho Ji-hun and Kim Jong-gil. The latter is currently the chairman of the association responsible for the commemoration of Yuk-sa; and major celebrations are to be held in Andong this month. In 1960, the poet’s remains were reinterred near his birthplace and in 1968 a memorial stone was erected nearby in Andong.