|Poet and scholar Cho Ji-hoon. / Korea Times file|
Cho Ji-hoon's works, personal belongings on exhibition commemorating the centennial of his birth
By Park Han-sol
The life of Cho Ji-hoon (1920-68), a towering figure in the modern Korean literary world, has been revisited at an ongoing exhibition at Korea University in Seoul to commemorate the centennial of his birth.
Among other items, his hand-written manuscripts, books and personal belongings, including a smoking pipe, fountain pen and glasses, are on display, showcasing his life and literary works that were influenced by Korea's turbulent modern history.
Cho was part of Korea's independence movement during the Japanese colonial period. He was arrested for writing and circulating statements urging Koreans to take part in anti-imperialism protests, tortured and imprisoned for eight months.
His bleak days are described in his 1943 poem "Shedding of the Petals."
"What if the petals be shed, / Should the breeze be blamed? … Lest the frail mind / Of him who lives in refuge // Be revealed to the vulgar / I have some natural fears // These petals that are shed in the dawn / Prompt some listless tears."
Retiring in his hometown of Yeongyang County, North Gyeongsang Province, when the influence of the Japanese imperialists could still be felt, the poet mused on his fragile life in seclusion in a restrained yet melodious voice. Away from the police who interrogated him for his involvement in the Korean Language Society, he saw the pain he felt through the helpless rain of crimson petals.
Born in 1920, Cho has left a significant mark on modern Korean poetry as well as Korean literature and language. His early poems ― "The Dance of the Buddhist Nun," "The Grief of the Phoenix," "Shedding of the Petals," among others ― became his most iconic works lauding Korea's classical beauty and national consciousness in powerfully evocative language.
His lyrical poetry, published in 1946 in the "Blue Deer Anthology" alongside the works of two other prominent writers Park Mok-wol and Park Tu-jin, delicately explored the interconnection between nature and human life. Cho and two Parks have since been called the Three Blue Deer for their literary collaboration.
With the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, the already divided nation was torn apart pitting Koreans against their fellows. The poet joined a group of war writers, witnessing and recording the outcry of anguish, horror and the lifeless aftermath of the battlefield.
"Beneath the clear blue sky of autumn / The battle goes on, while // A piece of wood is standing quietly, / Bearing the grief lovingly engraved on it― // 'Here lies an enemy soldier'," he wrote.
After the war, Cho voiced strong criticism of the political corruption and the divisive rhetoric that plagued the nation, while praising the value of national identity through tradition and culture. At Korea University, where he served as a professor of Korean literature from 1947 until his life was cut short in 1968, he was head of the Research Institute of Korean Studies.
The institute was responsible for publishing the seven-volume edition of the "Overview of the Korean Cultural History" in 1972 shortly after Cho's death. The series became a foundational piece in its analysis of the country's political economy, science and technology, folk art, religious philosophy and literature and language.
|The special exhibition celebrating the centennial of Cho's birth is scheduled to be held at the Korea University Museum from Nov. 9 to March 20, 2021. / Korea Times photo by Park Han-sol|
In commemoration of the centennial of Cho's birth, the Korea University Museum has opened a special exhibition looking back on his lifework, philosophy and his scholarly focus on ethnic culture.
A vast array of his manuscripts and personal items donated by his family members in 2003 are scheduled to be displayed from Nov. 9 to March 20, 2021.
The exhibition serves as a meaningful platform to showcase the previously unpublished draft of his poetry anthology to the public for the first time, according to the museum. The 42-page manuscript is considered to be Cho's first collection he arranged on his own with publication in mind, which was never realized and has long been overlooked since then.
|Cho's handwritten manuscript considered to be the draft of his first unpublished poetry anthology is on display at the special exhibition. / Courtesy of Korea University Museum|
Through this special exhibition, the museum aims to portray Cho as not only the renowned poet but also the pioneering scholar of Korean studies, curator Park You-min told The Korea Times.
"After Korea's liberation from Japanese colonial rule, Cho found the direction the country should strive toward as a newly established democratic republic by studying the national culture from literature to folklore, and even history. So we wanted to paint him as a spearhead of ethnic and cultural studies who foresaw the future of Korea," he said in a recent interview at the museum.
Park added that the poet still held incredible influence over Korea University because he was responsible for laying its foundation for humanities studies during his more than two decades of teaching.
"Cho will always remain as the mentor of those who attended Korea University even if they were not his pupil," he said. "From his poems, including an ode to students who sacrificed themselves while fighting for democracy during the April Revolution, the school anthem to his writing that became the basis of the college's iconic cheer song, he has shaped the university in a way it stands today."
|Cho's handwritten manuscripts, smoking pipe, fountain pen and glasses displayed on a stationery chest at the exhibition. / Courtesy of Korea University Museum|
Aside from the museum's exhibition, Korea University hosted several other literary events during the second week of November after designating it as the "Week of Cho Ji-hoon." These included lectures, symposiums, poetry readings as well as the opening ceremony of a reading room in its campus library dedicated to the poet's works.
Cho and his works have also begun to garner international attention when his poetry collection was translated into English and published for the first time in New York last year. "Shedding of the Petals" contains 90 poems by Cho, two of which were translated by Lee In-soo, a pioneering scholar of English studies who met an untimely death in 1950 during the Korean War. The late scholar's son and professor emeritus at Yonsei University, Lee Sung-il completed translation of the remainder of the text.
Moreover, the botanical garden in Kyiv, Ukraine, will erect a statue of Cho as part of the country's project to design a park honoring distinguished poets from around the globe, with the unveiling ceremony scheduled for next year, according to Korea University.