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In Session: Literature and Literary Studies of the Korean Diaspora in Yanbian
2: Coping with Capitalism: The Function of Humor in Korean-chinese Literature of the 1990s
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
Jerome de Wit
University of Tubingen, Germany
The term "compressed modernity" has found currency among scholars to describe the rapid transformation of South Korea’s economy, political system, and society in the second half of the twentieth century. When we want to accurately describe the speed with which economic and social changes occurred in Korean-Chinese society in the 1980s and particularly the 1990s, however, we perhaps may have to resort to call this phenomenon a "hydraulically-pressed modernity".
The Open Door Policy promulgated by Deng Xiaoping in 1978 started a rapid breakdown of Korean-Chinese traditional rural and community life as many decided to move to the cities in search of work and new opportunities. With the normalization of relations with South Korea in 1992 this process accelerated and the Korean Autonomous Prefecture of Yanbian was thrown into the capitalist system. As a consequence, the centuries-long habit of forging human relations based on mutual trust and reliance disappeared. This gave a tremendous shock to the sense of self-identity of the Korean-Chinese.
In literary magazines of the 1990s numerous essays appeared describing how Korean-Chinese were fooled by their fellow Koreans for failing to adapt to the new capitalist society. Korean-Chinese writers would often resort to humor in their stories as a coping mechanism to try to make (non)sense out of this all. In this paper I will argue that Korean-Chinese authors used humor not only to lampoon and criticize the shifting moral compass of their fellow citizens, but to question their own epistemic identity as well.