‘Redder than a Poppy’: ‘Suju’ BYEON Yeong-ro’s Literary Works and Love for Bucheon
Located between the large metropolises of Seoul and Incheon, Bucheon has worked hard to establish an urban identity for itself. Bucheon has grown from a rural village in 1960 to an industrial city in the 1970s and 80s and a culture and arts hub since the 1990s. When it comes to valuable literary assets from Bucheon that embody the essence of modern Korean history across space and time, BYEON Yeong-ro is a name that cannot be left out.
BYEON Yeong-ro(1898-1961), a poet and English scholar, was born in Seoul. However, as his pen name ‘Suju’ (樹州, the former name of Bucheon during the Goryeo Dynasty) suggests, Bucheon was his hometown (his registered home was in Gogang-ri, Ojeong-myeon in Bucheon-gun), and his grave lies in Gogang-dong in Ojeong-gu, Bucheon, alongside a commemorative plaque.
The divine fury
Is deeper than religion,
The burning passion
Is stronger than Love
Ay! The heart redder than a poppy
Is the wave
Bluer than a bean flower
This excerpt is a verse from ‘Nongae,’ a poem that is well known to everyone in Korea. It was written by BYEON in 1922 during the Japanese occupation. BYEON was adept at expressing the bitter resentment(恨) and patriotism of the Korean people, and as can be seen in ‘Nongae,’ many of his works embody the national spirit of Korea and the people’s earnest desire to be freed from the oppression of the Japanese imperialists.
BYEON mainly wrote poetry and essays, and also produced a number of works in English. He became a renowned educator and journalist, and even today there are many visitors to his grave in Gogang-dong, Bucheon, which is adorned by a plaque commemorating the 100th anniversary of his birth and a stone tablet engraved with his poem ‘The Person I Cannot See in Reality.’ In celebration of the Year of Literature in 1996, another stone tablet of Byeon’s poetry was erected in Central Park, Bucheon.
The fourth of BYEON’s seven siblings, BYEON Yeong-man, was a lawyer and scholar in Chinese classics who served as the chair of the Investigative Commission on Pro-Japanese Collaborators, while the fifth sibling BYEON Yeong-tae served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister in succession. As the sixth eldest child, BYEON Yeong-ro was also an upstanding and principled patriot alongside his two brothers, and all three made a giant imprint on modern Korean history.
BYEON’s genius was already apparent at the age of 21 when he surprised the world by publishing an English poem called ‘Cosmos’ in magazine. At the age of 22, he joined YEOM Sang-seop, O Sang-sun and NAM Goong-uk as part of the literary coterie . The stories about O, a chain-smoker, and Byeon, a renowned drinker, are legendary in modern Korean literary history.
BYEON lost his job as a correspondent for the Dong-a Ilbo due to his involvement in the publication of a magazine which attempted to erase the Japanese flag through a depiction of the uniform of SOHN Kee-chung, a famous athlete. Struggling to make ends meet, he returned to Bucheon, the place where he had spent his early years. As an intellectual living during an era where it was hard to survive with a sober mind, BYEON turned to alcohol to drown his sorrows.
It is said that upon the liberation of Korea, he was hailed as a ‘patriotic poet’ by the locals in Bucheon who celebrated by tossing him into the air, carrying him around on their shoulders and holding a parade.
Byeon’s most famous poetry collections are The Heart of Joseon (1924), A Collection of Suju’s Prose & Poetry (1959) and I’d Rather See a Moonless Night (1983). In addition to this, the essay collections Forty Years of Myeongjeong and The Essays of Suju were published in 1953 and 1954 respectively.
Bucheon established the nationwide ‘Suju Literary Awards’ in 1999, which have since been held as an annual event, and also published The Literary Works of Suju in 2004. The inaugural Suju Culture Festival was celebrated in 2005, while the Suju Youth Essay Contest was first held in 2006 and remains an annual event to this day.
* supplementary reference: http://library.ltikorea.or.kr/node/173