Senior essay competition
grade 12 and younger
Topic: "The Poplar Tree" by Choi Inho and "The Old Hatter" by Yi Munyol
"The Poplar Tree" and "The Old Hatter," though they are in different genres, are both stories about perseverance, endurance, and stubbornness told through a narrator who is witness to the life of an old man. Both stories are also allegorical. "The Poplar Tree" reads as a fantastical tale related to folklore (and the creation of legends), but it is no accident that the old man "was a blacksmith, a maker of sickles, axes, and such." That association with the poplar tree of the title points at the infamous "axe murder incident" at Panmunjom in 1976 when two American soldiers were killed by North Koreans while trimming a poplar tree in the DMZ. In "The Old Hatter," the conflict between the young boys and old Top'yeog (whose horsehair hats are an important part of traditional men's clothing) is clearly a depiction of the conflict between modernization/westernization and the decline of traditional Confucianism in Korea.
Read the two stories carefully and compare the authors' approaches to their themes. Where do they overlap and where do they differ? Why do the authors choose those forms of allegory to engage their themes? What do the stories say about Korea's culture and national character? (You may want to do some biographical research on the authors to help your understanding of the stories.)
The Poplar Tree
About the author
Born in Seoul, Choi In-ho (1945- 2013) was a talented, confident, and rebellious writer. He studied English language and literature at Yonsei University and wrote numerous highly-praised literary novels and best-selling works in Korea. The public loved his works for his sensitive voice and sophisticated choice of words, and critics hailed him for broadening the scope of urban literature. His book sales and accolades were incomparable to any other novelist of the time. Many of Choi’s works were made into movies and TV dramas.
A theme central to his works is how modern ideology cannot hide the essential discord of the world and the false perceptions that people have of it. Choi said he was “born resisting against belonging anywhere” in an interview with the major Korean newspaper Joong Ang Ilbo in 2011 after releasing a novel he wrote while fighting cancer (City of Familiar Strangers). "The Poplar Tree" is one of a trio of stories, Strange Folk, that are reminiscent of Choi’s signature stories "The Boozer" and "Another Man’s Room", which likewise blur the boundaries between fantasy and reality.
"The Poplar Tree" was published in The Dark Blue Night (2002), publisher Jimoon Dang, funded by the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. Translation by Bruce and Juchan Fulton. Permission to use this story for the 2021 Sejong Cultural Society was granted by Professor and Mrs. Fulton.
The Old Hatter
About the author
It is not an exaggeration to say that Yi Mun-yol (born in 1948) is the most successful Korean writer of the last quarter of the twentieth century. Yi is one of those lucky authors who consistently win both critical acclaim and enthusiastic popular following. Since his debut at age 30, he has been a commanding presence in the Korean literary scene, and in recent years he has also received acclaim and critical attention in Europe and elsewhere, as his works have been translated into major European and Asian languages. Yi, however, has not always been so lucky. In fact, he was intensely unhappy in his early years. Much as was the case with the protagonist of this story, his father's defection to the North forced his family to struggle not only against poverty but social stigma and police surveillance. So he repeatedly dropped out of school and experienced great turbulence of spirit. Throughout it all, however, he read omnivorously, which served him well in his later career, as did his early tribulations.
To date Yi has produced close to twenty novels (half of them multi-volume) and more than fifty novellas and short stories, besides two collections of political and social commentaries and two ten-volume translations of classical Chinese romances. Even more impressive than his productivity is the range and power of his stories. Some of them are serious explorations into man's existential condition; many delve into the implications of the Oriental and Western heritages, drawing from numerous classical texts from the East and the West; some grapple with the meaning of history and ideology; and some are satirical portrayals of contemporary social mores. He is certain to continue to enrich Korean literature and delight and enlighten his enthusiastic readers worldwide.