History ‘faction’

According to the Hankyoreh, historical novels are all the rage at the moment in Korea. This doesn’t really surprise me all that much as historical novels seem to be pretty popular everywhere at the moment, although in Korea there always seems to be something more of an overtly political aspect to the popular fascination with history.

Unfortunately the article doesn’t really provide any convincing answers to the question of why historical fiction is particularly popular the moment:

…few deny that historical novels have their own special appeal. Lee Myeong-won, a book critic, said the unusual popularity of historical fiction can be ascribed to the easiness with which novelists find things to write about, compared to the difficulty authors face when trying to grapple with what is transpiring now in current society. In addition, authors are able to ride on the interest surrounding historical events in which people tend to hold fascination.

I’ve brought up this subject before here, so I obviously have quite an interest in the relationship between academic history and popular history/historical consciousness in the form of books, TV series and films. Is the popular depiction of historical events and characters all about entertainment, or is it really about a subtle (and not so subtle) type of ideology formation? Or perhaps people’s desire to read and write about history (outside of the academic paradigm) plays a deeper, more constructive role in society?


  1. Hello my name is Jerome de Wit, M.A. and I am doing research on Korean literature written during the Korean War period. When it comes to war literature the usual kind of themes that appear come to mind: the bravely fighting soldiers, the hardships of the people, etc. These stories are present, but the writers during the Korean War did not only focus on the war itself, but also wrote many historical novels during this period. Instead of accepting these type of novels as an anomaly, I was forced to look more deeply in the period before the war and am now of the opinion that these historical novels were an extension of the ‘ideological guidelines’ the writer’s had set themselves right after the liberation. One book which is of interest in this regard is Shin Hyeong-ki’s (신형기) ‘Beyond the ethnos narrative’ (민족 이야기를 넘어서, 삼인, 2003). In his book he argues that an ‘nation/ethnos’ narrative was created and focuses on how heroes were used in both North and South Korea to create the idea of one ethnic group. His opinion is that these ideological strategies are still at work in South Korean society today. It is a very interesting book to read and I would like to recommend it.

  2. Thanks for the interesting contribution Jerome. Shin Hyeong-ki’s book does indeed sound interesting. In fact I wish I had bought a copy when I was in Seoul last week since we don’t seem to have one in the library here at SOAS.

    As I understand it, one of the first, if not the first, writers of modern historical fiction in Korea was Hong Myong-hui (홍명희), whose novel Im Kkok-chong was serialised in the Chosun Ilbo from 1928. I wonder how this work would compare with the sort of novels you are looking at from the Korean War period. Questions of class and revolution are obviously important in Hong’s work since he was a socialist or communist I believe in the colonial period. However, I haven’t read enough of Im Kkok-chong to know whether he was already producing some of the national hero archetypes that appear after liberation (and are clearly still very important in contemporary South Korean ideology formation).

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