The Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945 remains one of the most crucial, and yet occluded and misunderstood, periods of modern Korean history. Often painted in black-and-white terms, the oppressive brutality of the Japanese is decried with righteous indignation, while the heroic resistance of the Korean people is extolled. Yet, other domestic struggles within Korean society — internal political divisions, the exploitation of commoners by the yangban (aristocracy), their active collaboration with the Japanese, the existence of slaves, the patriarchal family structure that enabled Korean men to have several wives, etc. — all get swept under the rug. Thus, how ordinary Koreans lived their daily lives during this time remains something of a mystery, erased under the broad brushstrokes of a nationalist Korean discourse that would rather paint a simplistic picture in which all Koreans were innocent victims of Japanese subjugation.
Which is why the publication of an English-language translation of Three Generations is so important. Originally published in 1931 by the Korean writer Yom Sang-seop as Samdae, the novel is considered a classic today and a source of national pride for having been published during one of the darkest times in Korean history. By focusing on the domestic drama that takes place within the Jo family, the novel reveals the reality that, to some extent, virtually all Koreans had to compromise themselves under the colonial system, and the characters are refreshingly free of the exaggerated nationalism that emerged after liberation from Japan in 1945. Yom’s characters are simply immersed in their lives, and while Japan’s sinister presence lurks in the background as a pervasive reality, the tensions dealing with tradition versus modernity are grounded in the everyday. Some of the main characters speak Japanese and deal with the Japanese authorities simply as an accepted fact of life. The main protagonist, for example, is a student at a Japanese university, something that is presented as a matter of fact. Thus, the tensions depicted here lie not in resisting the Japanese, but in how the traditional Korean family structure that is steeped in strict Confucian values finds its very foundations falling apart in the face of Western and Japanese encroachment as Korea marches to modernity.
The title refers to the three men of the affluent Jo household. The stubborn grandfather, referred to as the “old man,” sees no value in Christianity or Western education if it means abandoning his cherished Confucian values: “If any bastard dared to offer up a Christian prayer for him after his death, he’d retrace his steps from the underworld and rip out the rogue’s tongue with his own hands.”
His estranged son, Sang-hun, is a 40-year-old, respected Christian church leader who has one foot in tradition and the other in modernity, but is ultimately unable to make the transition. Sang-hun considers himself a “modern” man, but he is still dependent upon the family’s finances for his livelihood. He is the rich, useless son of an outdated Confucian patriarchal system, relegated to playing cards, getting drunk and wasting time at kisaeng houses.
The bulk of the novel, however, focuses on the grandson, Deok-gi, “a young master struggling to hold the family together — a household whose foundations were crumbling and whose divisions were growing deeper.” Deok-gi must negotiate his way among the men and women who infect the home with suspicion and jealousy in their struggles to exert power over the family. Meanwhile, Deok-gi’s best friend, Byoeng-hwa, and Gyeong-ae, his father’s mistress, become involved in a revolutionary movement that indirectly draws the Jo family into its sphere. Gyeong-ae, who has fallen to the status of a hardened bar hostess in order to support her illegitimate daughter, is depicted with surprising earthiness and toughness — a strong Korean woman who refuses to capitulate to the whims of the Jo family men. Byeong-hwa, a poor Marxist activist secretly under Japanese surveillance, reflects the social edge of the novel as he struggles with his own personal ambitions with the greater social good.
Readers may be surprised at Yom’s depiction of married men falling in love with other women, but this reflects the patriarchal society of the time. Deok-gi, already married with a child though barely out of high school, finds himself in love with a young factory girl named Pil-sun. His father, in a loveless marriage since the age of 10, deals with his heartache over Gyeong-ae by having yet another affair. The novel, filled with gossip and family intrigue as scandalous as any contemporary soap opera, reads deliciously like a Dostoevsky novel or Les Liaisons Dangereuse meets Korea’s traditional middle class.
Yom’s depiction of his characters struggling to live during colonial Korea seems strikingly relevant, even tragically prescient. One character, speaking of Korea’s difficulty in modernizing without comprising its values, states: “True, but such scruples are unnecessary in the case of Korea, where there’s no organizational base and where the use of illegitimate means is inevitable.” He could just as well have been speaking of the justifications made about South Korea’s brutal post-war development in the 1960s and beyond.
As you become engrossed in the family drama, you wonder how the family will be able to heal the divisions. With a start, you realize that the unwitting characters are fatefully destined to confront the cataclysmic horror of the Korean War, a tragic event where the larger social tensions are finally allowed to explode. Three Generations is an important work for revealing how political, social and cultural tensions played out in the lives of families during the colonial period, tensions which remain with Korea even today.