Chrysanthemum! You look like my sister
Standing before her mirror, just back
From far away, far away byways of youth,
Where she was racked with longing and lack.
This is the third verse of Beside a Chrysanthemum, a popular Korean poem by Midang So Chong-ju. Some members of the older generation might have memorized one or two phrases of poems by So Chong-ju, which were also frequently used in college admission tests. Some older generation members might also remember that students who neglected their Chinese letter studies were reprimanded by their teachers after wrongly reading Sos pen name, Midang, as Maldang.
Poet Ko Un, who criticized Midang after his death, also praised him by saying, So Chong-ju is the government. This anecdote shows Midang was a major influence in Korean poetry circles.
The period when the influence of Midangs poetry started to drop was the late 1970s, when pro-democracy movements gained momentum. Suspected of being a pro-Japanese poem, Beside a Chrysanthemum also disappeared quietly from Korean language textbooks.
Now, Midangs poems are nowhere to be found in Korean language textbooks; they maintain their slender existence only in literature textbooks of literature, which are often elective courses.
By the end of the Japanese colonial rule, Midang managed to make a living by working as an editor of National Literature, a pro-Japanese literature magazine, and by writing poems like An Ode to Matsui Hideo, which lauded a Kamikaze suicide pilot.
When his pro-Japanese acts were made an issue in the 1980s, Midang published a poem and excused himself by saying that he was not pro-Japanese but just an obeyer of Heaven and a prisoner of Japan who believed that the occupation was the destiny that Heaven had given to the Korean people.
During Japanese colonial rule, Koreans were forced to change their full names into Japanese ones and bow toward the Japanese emperor every morning at school. Some may criticize Midang for not writing anti-Japanese poems or for not giving up writing as a means of passive resistance against Imperial Japan. Nevertheless, is it the best option to erase all of the poems that belong to one who has been called an example of the living history of Korean poetry and a master poet?
His poems took Korean poetry and the Korean language itself to the next level. Midangs beautiful poems are a legacy that we should revisit along with his mistakes.
Hwang Ho-taek, Editorial Writer, email@example.com