Colonial Translations of Liberalism: “Freedom” in Korean Literature from the Late 1910s to the Early 1920s

Jin-Kyung Lee, Associate Professor
University of California: San Diego

Western liberalism and its core concepts such as freedom, equality, rights, and the individual began to dominate and transform the colonial Korean intellectual scene starting in the mid 1910s. These key liberal concepts were necessarily, of course, interconnected with the larger philosophical, ideological and political systems of the era such as imperialism, capitalism, and Social Darwinism. This paper explores the ways in which the Western notion of “freedom” is appropriated and translated in the context of anti-colonial but pro-modern/Western nationalist context. Functioning to negate, critique and “reform” the existing Confucian epistemology, ideas, and customs, the colonial Korean version of “freedom” became something quite different from its Western counterpart. This paper will first briefly examine how this version of “freedom” was related to the notions of voluntarism, interiority, vitalism, biopolitical discipline and modern nationalism in the broader discursive formation process of this period. The main part of the paper will explore the ways in which how the nascent modern literature of the colony contributed to the translations of a political concept, “freedom,” in the period between the late 1910s and the early mid 1920s. I read the works by the pioneers of modern Korean literature, such as Hyŏn Sang-yun, Chŏn Yŏng-t’aek, Na Do-hyang, Hyŏn Jin-gŏn, Kim Dong-in, Yi Kwang-su, and Yŏm Sang-sŏp, paying close attention to the ways in which this colonial modern version of “freedom” was being articulated and reformulated in their works in relation to other major “reformist” ideas and discourses in the larger cultural and social field.

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