National Museum Of Korean Contemporary History

Thematic Gallery

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Permanent Exhibition Thematic Gallery

Theme Exhibition 1A Korean Self-portrait Read through Best Sellers


Humans are the earth’s only living organisms capable of reading and writing. People leave their thoughts and feelings for others to read. Best sellers are books that are the most popular in any given time period, and so they contain the thoughts and feelings that the most contemporary people would agree with.
So, what makes a book a best seller? To try and answer that question, shouldn’t we take a look at the circumstances during the time in question as well as at the ways in which people were thinking at the time?
In this exhibit the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History examines Korea’s most salient best seller trends since Liberation (1945), with a focus on historical and social settings. Authors and publishers do not make best sellers alone; it takes all of society to make that happen. Best seller phenomena illuminate the overall look of a generation, to include its politics, economics, society, culture, legal systems, thought and everyday lifestyles. Best sellers are like a “mirror of the times,” reflecting the public’s collective desires.
This exhibition looks into this mirror of the times, and hopefully visitors will come away with a self-portrait of Korea for each time period covered.

Part 1The first best sellers—Madame Freedom and The Human Market

[Madame Freedom, Korea’s first best seller post-Liberation]
Madame Freedom, authored by Jeong Bi-seok, was serialized by the Seoul Shinmun newspaper starting from January 1, 1954. The novel, in terms of content and popularity, symbolizes Korea in the 1950s. Volume I was published before the newspaper serial was completed, and the first edition sold 3,000 copies on its first day of release. Volume II came out after the run in the newspaper was over, and it became the first book in Korea to sell more than 100,000 copies since Liberation. The popularity of the novel led to series of movies, the first of which was produced in 1956, and it became the year’s biggest box office hit. The movie was subsequently remade five more times, the last being in 1990.
The story involves the deviant behavior of a university professor’s wife, and it created a great stir throughout Korean society. A certain professor at the time excoriated the author as an “enemy of the Fatherland equivalent to half a million Communist troops.” A women’s group accused the author of insulting all women and doing damage to decent customs. The storyline also offers a glimpse at Korean society in the 1950s, as outdated values and Western lifestyles were jumbled together and at odds with one another. The uproar surrounding the novel offers a clue as to the social atmosphere at the time, and this book was truly a “self-portrait of its time.”

[Where to people take respite when times are gloomy? The Human Market, Korea’s first-ever million seller]
Weekly Hankook released The Human Market, by Kim Hong-shin, as a serial in 1980, and the story was published in book form the following year, becoming Korea’s first ever to sell over a million copies. The lengthy novel was divided into Parts I and II, and each part was published in ten separate volumes, for a total of twenty volumes. Volume 1 sold 100,000 copies immediately after its release, and aggregate sales broke the one-million mark in 1984, when Volume 7 of Part 1 was released. Sales for all twenty volumes topped 5.6 million, and the advertisement for the book did not exaggerate when it said it was “the most copies sold since the creation of the Korean alphabet.” The popularity of the novel led to the production of a movie, a TV drama, and a play.
The contents of The Human Market, which enjoyed such popularity, was truly “best seller” material insofar as it fit the nation’s contemporary circumstances and the public’s collective desires. Jang Chong-chan, the protagonist, took on evil barehandedly in the face of rampant lawlessness and injustice. His actions stimulated the sentiments of a public desperately seeking some breathing space amid an oppressive reality. Some called the hero a “modern-day Hong Gil-dong (a Robin Hood-type figure)” and compared him to a Messiah in the early 1980s. In 1980, before a “Seoul Spring” could blossom, the authority of a new military group trampled on the nation’s democracy and held onto power.

Part 2In the shadow of industrialization and urbanization—Gyeong-a, Yeong-ja and the Dwarf

Korea in the 1970s differed from the previous period in many ways. A new youth culture emerged, symbolized by blue jeans, acoustic guitars, and draft beer. The “Hangeul (Korean alphabet) generation” became the mainstream in the book market. Economic growth was accelerated by industrialization, while the downside of this development began to darken. Certain literary works were able to capture public sentiments amidst these changes.
Heavenly Homecoming of the Stars (1973) by Choi In-ho, who was the iconic figure for the youth culture; Yeong-ja’s Heydays (by Cho Sun-jak, 1974); and Winter Woman (by Cho hae-il, 1976): these works were criticized for being plebeian and commercial, but they also received tremendous popular support. All three stories were turned into movies and enjoyed great success. Meanwhile, A Strange Land (by Hwang Sok-yong, 1971), Floating Grass (by Han Soo-san, 1977), and Dwarf Launches a Little Ball (by Cho Se-hee, 1978) draw on the shadows of 1970s industrialization from a different angle. These six novels provide readers with a sense of the social problems and anguish in Korea after its entering industrial society.

[Novels portray the realities of the marginalized in the industrial era]
Choi In-ho was a writer in his twenties in 1972 with command of the graphic “colloquial” style of young people, distinct from the conventional writing style, when Heavenly Homecoming of the Stars was introduced in serial form on the pages of the Chosun Ilbo newspaper. The work was fresh and unconventional, and the following year it was published as single volume, which sold 400,000 copies in three years. This was Korea’s second most successful best seller, after Madame Freedom. The author used his bar hostess character Gyeong-a to illustrate popular sentiment concerning Korea’s social conditions amidst rapid industrialization and urbanization.
Then in 1974 Cho Sun-jak came out with Yeong-ja’s Heydays, which had a prostitute as its lead character. In the story, Yeong-ja was a country lass who came to Seoul and started working as a domestic servant. Next she became a bus conductress but then lost an arm in an accident, and she ended up going to a red light district, where she met a tragic end. The work realistically portrays the lives of people who become socially marginalized in the process of industrialization and urbanization.

[Laborers become the heroes of novels]
Hwang Sok-yong presented a laborer as his protagonist in A Strange Land (1971), which deals with the plight of workers at the dawning of industrialization. Floating Grass (1977) is about a circus troupe swept aside by the modernization wave and the painful process of its dissolution. Author Han Soo-san covered a traveling circus for two years before he wrote the novel, sparking the widespread use of the phrase “field literature” within the literary community.
Cho Se-hee’s Dwarf Launches a Little Ball (1978) deals with the tragedy of a dwarf laborer and his family amidst the steadily worsening polarization that occurred in the industrialization process. The story resonated with many readers. Many university students who read this novel in the 1980s turned their attention to the reality faced by poor people in Korea. The book sold 100,000 copies within six months of its release, and the story was retold repeatedly in plays, movies, TV dramas, and creative musical performances. Aggregate sales of the novel broke the one million-mark in 2007.

Part 3A reading culture of criticism and resistance—best sellers banned by the government

One of the important aspects in the flow of Korea’s reading culture is the production and reading of books that promote citizens’ critical-mindedness. The fact is borne out by the inextricable link between Sasangge (World of Thought) magazine and the April 19 Revolution in 1960 as well as by numerous history and social science publications put out in the 1970s and 1980s. In the process, the government banned many of these publications, but it could not stop people from reading them. Such books would not become best sellers officially, but they were openly received as best sellers in the areas around universities. A total of 110 publishers were arrested in Korea between 1982 and 1992, while over 1,300 publications (some three million copies in total) were banned and confiscated by the authorities.
After the “Struggle for Democracy” was launched in June 1987, bans were eventually lifted on certain works that had been outlawed from the Yushin (revitalizing reforms) period, starting from 1972 during the President Park Chung-hee regime. These include the Five Thieves poem (by Kim Ji-ha, 1970) and Logic of the Transition Period (by Ri Yeong-hui, 1974). In 1988, the government permitted the publishing of literary works written before Liberation by authors who had either been abducted by or had defected to North Korea.

[Books that made the April Revolution and books made by the April Revolution]
The April 19 Revolution and Sasangge (World of Thought) magazine together capture the spirit of the times. Sasangge was first published in Busan, the place of refuge from the war, in 1953. 97,000 copies of the April 1960 edition were published on the eve of the Revolution, the most ever put out by a Korean periodical up to that time. “If you don’t carry a copy of Sasangge under your arm, you’re not a university student,” went the saying, indicating just how influential the magazine was among both students—in high school as well as in university—and professors. Thereafter, Sasangge articles continued to stir up criticism of the dictatorial government, and so the magazine was suppressed and finally shut down. The last issue, Volume 205, was published in May 1970.
The Square (1961) by Choi In-hun was conceived amid the prevailing spirit of the April 19 Revolution. The novel tells the story of how the protagonist, a prisoner of war who opposes both the Northern and Southern sides, chooses to be extradited to a neutral country. The author’s post-Cold War point of view, neither pro-Communist nor anti-Communist, was made possible in the atmosphere of free thought that followed the student-led April 19 Revolution. The Square is indispensable when discussing ideological issues in Korean society. This is a prime example of a steady seller in the history of modern Korean literature.

[A new perspective for looking at the world and growth in critical thinking]
Logic of the Transition Period (1974) by Ri Yeong-hui, approaches topics such as Socialist China and the Vietnam War as well as ROK-US relations from a new perspective. The book changed the way that many readers looked at modern history and the international situation. This became a “must-read” for intellectuals and university students, but the book was immediately banned, and the author was imprisoned for violating the Anti-Communism Law.
Koreans faced dictatorship and suppression of the press in the mid-1970s, and a considerable number of the reporters and university professors who had lost their jobs as well as the university students who had been expelled from school joined the publishing world. These people led the publication of critical social science pieces at the end of the 1970s and helped to shape the reading culture. This trend continued in the 1980s, ushering in the era of social science publications. The first volume of a six-volume series called Understanding Korean History Around the Time of Liberation (by Song Geon-ho et al.) was published in October 1979, and it became a best seller around university campuses in the 1980s.

[The era of social science publications and banned best sellers]
The 1980s got started off in Korea with the Gwangju Democratic Movement in May 1980 and developed into a decade marked by social science publications. The political situation was dark during the Fifth Republic of Korea (1981-1988), but Korean citizens also raised their critical awareness. The best seller among the books on social science topics was Philosophical Essay (1983) by Cho Seong-o. Initially wanting to keep from becoming a target for suppression, the author published under the name “Editing Department of Dong Nyeok Publishing Company.”
The 1980s was also a time of book banning. Few periods in modern Korean history saw as many books being banned and as many people reading banned books. In May 1985 the government announced guidelines for an indefinite crackdown on over 300 kinds of “seditious publications, to include ideological books, and leaflets.” Soon afterward the owners of the shops that published and printed Hwang Sok-yong’s Beyond Death Beyond the Darkness of the Age were arrested. The author, too, was brought in after being put on a list of wanted criminals. In March 1986 the police raided fourteen social science books stores located in university areas in Seoul, confiscated 51 different book titles (over 1,200 volumes in all) and apprehended nine bookstore owners.

Part 4Unadorned wish for success—the bookshelf of any “salary man”

Amid the flow of Korea’s modern reading culture are books that focus on economic and worldly success. Best sellers in the 1960s and 1970s included a few works on economics, business management, the art of living and practical learning. However, those works classified as “self-improvement” emerged as indicators of Korea’s high economic growth from the 1980s on. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet Union, ideological battles began to decline at the end of the 1980s and in the early 1990s, while adherence to capitalism deepened. The concerns of the general population also started to shift away from ethnicity, nation, ideology, and society and become more centered on the individual. Books on economics and practical ways to improve one’s life established a solid place in popular reading trends.

[Legendary successes in a time of high economic growth]
The effects of Korea’s rapid economic growth began to become readily apparent with the dawning of the 1980s, while the model of the “self-made chairman” and the life stories of the chairmen at the nation’s largest business conglomerates became objects of great interest, for they stoked wishes for personal success among white-collar workers. Stories like What Time Is It in Seoul Now? (by Ju Chi-ho, 1982), which told of the dream to be a business tycoon in Korea, were popular as were stories about colossal failures. Top selling books at the time included Iacocca: An Autobiography (1985), the CEO at Ford and then Chrysler, idol of US white-collar workers; Autobiography of Hoam (1986), Samsung Chairman Lee Byung-chul; and In the Morning with a Beating Heart (1986), speeches by Hyundai Chairman Chung Ju-yung.
The World Is Wide and We Have a Lot to Do (1989) by Daewoo Chairman Kim Woo-choong received the most attention at this time, becoming a best seller in both 1989 and 1990. The work inspired many young people who were dreaming about achieving their own success. However, the Daewoo Group wound up collapsing in 1999, during the Korean Financial Crisis. Daewoo had grown rapidly into one of the nation’s leading conglomerates, and its sudden fall made Koreans look back on what was real and what was false in the process of rapid economic growth.

[Reading self-improvement material in novels about historical figures]
In the early 1990s, novels about three famous figures (Heo Jun, Yi Ji-ham, and Jeong Yak-yong) from Korean history led the book-reading market. They were Donguibogam (Principles and Practice of Eastern Medicine), the Novel (by Lee Eun-seong, 1990); Tojong bigyeol (The Secrets of Tojong), the Novel (by Lee Jae-eun, 1991); and Mokminsimseo (Admonitions on Governing the People), the Novel (by Hwang In-gyeong, 1992). These three stories were considered to be the same as self-help books for readers. For example, Donguibogam, the Novel tells of how Heo Jun (1539-1615), who was born the son of a lowly concubine, overcame his adverse circumstances and rose to Sr. 1st Rank in officialdom of the Joseon Dynasty. The story was described as “the drama of one man driven to succeed who made his own fortune.”
The story of the self-made man in literature is not new. When Sun Tzu’s Art of War, a Novel (by Jeong Bi-seok, 1984) came out, it was acclaimed as “a guidebook for business management” and “a textbook on learning how to conduct one’s life.” The book remained on the best-seller list for three years (1984-1986) in a row.

[The decline in ideological confrontation accompanied by a rise in books on economics and practical learning]
The obsession over ideology started to abate as the 1990s rolled around, and the social atmosphere leaned toward the individual. In this environment economics and practical learning books became a firmly established reading genre. Authors took advantage of the “globalization trend” and “spread of information devices” to put out books offering readers new ways to practice English conversation and books on how to use computers. Some of them unprecedentedly hit the best-seller list. The top three best sellers for 1995, in descending order, were: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (by Stephen Covey, 1994), Computer Tutorial (by Im Chae-seong et al., 1995) and Nose-to-tail English (by Han Ho-rim, 1993), demonstrating the rapid rise in popularity of books aimed at helping readers to improve themselves and make more money.
In 1997, Korea was hit by a financial crisis that lasted for several years, and the country had to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund under strict economic reform requirements. The national economy contracted sharply, and many people suddenly found themselves unemployed and out on the street. The publishing industry was affected by the changing environment as well, and numerous books quickly appeared on economics, business management, life conduct, and practical learning. Korean readers sought books like Rich Dad Poor Dad (2000) by Robert Kiyosaki and Sharon Lechter, Who Moved My Cheese (2000) by Spencer Johnson, offering ways to survive in the tight jobs market.

Part 5Period Bookshelf

You can look into the important best seller phenomena after Liberation (1945) using the movable Transparent Displays.
<Ⅰ : #Liberation #Korean Language, Korean History #Peninsular Division and the Korean War #The Magazine Period>
<Ⅱ : #Poverty #Intellectual Hunger #Essays #Book Sets #Prevalence of Weekly Magazines>
<Ⅲ : #Industrialization and High Economic Growth #Resistance and Democratization #Pocket Editions #Lyric Poetry #Epic Novels>
<Ⅳ : #Diversity #Escape from Authoritarianism #PC Communications and the Internet #Economic Crisis #Solace>


Books are the products of time periods, but they also influence time periods. Koreans’ thirst for democracy led in a reading culture for critical thinking. The Korean public’s craving for economic prosperity and success led to their reading books on economics, practical learning, and self-improvement. The megatrends of democratization and economic development affected the nation’s reading culture, and Koreans’ book-reading also helped to fuel democratization and economic development.
As time periods change, people’s motivations for reading books also change. Korea’s critical and anti-government reading culture of the 1980s faded in the 1990s when the ideological battle declined. The scope of self-improvement books broadened amid rapid economic growth and a string of economic crises. The sales of these books rose and fell, as people were wearied by structural barriers they were unable to surmount through individual effort. Given these facts, what direction will Korea’s reading take in the days ahead? What effects will reading and society have on each other?
As electronic books appeared in the 2000s, pundits argued whether it meant the end of “paper books.” Paper books still have advantages today e-books cannot deliver, but will there be a point in the future when e-books or some other new medium will replace paper books completely? Will paper be pushed aside as a writing medium in the same way that clay tablets and wooden tablets were?
Some people insist that media may change, but the human acts of communicating and exchanging messages through writing will continue. How long will the act of communicating and exchanging messages through writing persist, given that humanity continues to survive? A new generation is now emerging that feels more closely to the video medium than they do to the written word. Perhaps the idea of writing means something a bit different to that generation.