Essays include a wide range of written works, such as letters, book reports and travelogues. An essay usually refers to academic and logical writing, while works with a more emotional touch are categorized as miscellaneous. Some classify this literary genre into reflective essays, critical essays, descriptive essays, personal essays, character sketch essays and editorial essays.
While the zeal for essays has now cooled down internationally, there was a time when Korean essayists enjoyed their golden days. Famous essayists include Min Tae-won(민태원), Lee Yang-ha(이양하), Lee Hyo-seok(이효석) and Kim Jin-seop(김진섭), to name a few. But Pi Cheon-deuk, among others, is considered the most prominent figure in Korean essay literature.
Boy of May
Born in Seoul on May 29th, 1910, Pi Cheon-deuk lost his father at the age of seven. His mother also died when he was ten, and he had to live at his relatives’ houses, moving from one to another. Although he grew up in a poor environment, the boy was gentle and humble, and he cared deeply about other people. He studied at a middle school in Shanghai, China, and he graduated from Hujiang University there with a degree in English literature in 1937.
Pi worked as a teacher at the Gyeongseong(경성) Central Industrial Educational Institute until Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule. But he started his literary career in 1930 by publishing his poem ‘Lyrical Poetical Works’ in the literary magazine (신동아).
The Korean literary world in the early 1930s, when Korea was under the occupation of Japan, was characterized by conflict between literature advocating participation in society and pure literature. As his entire life illustrated, Pi chose a path to lyricism and purity. He polished the harsh reality and added lyrical inspiration to it. His 1932 poem ‘Small Works’ and his 1933 essay ‘Memory of a Stormy Night’ drew critical acclaim for expressing pure emotions without any ideological elements.
Simple Writing, Great Emotional Resonance
After Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, Pi served as a professor at Gyeongseong Imperial University, which is present-day Seoul National University. The following year, he started lecturing on English poetry at Seoul National University. At the invitation of the U.S. Department of State, Pi studied English literature at Harvard University for one year starting in 1954. He assumed the post of the head of the students’ affairs section at the Graduate School of Seoul National University in 1966. He taught at the English literature department at the university until 1974.
Pi was a great scholar and a big star in the studies of English literature, but he is remembered more as an essayist by Korean people.
I love all small, beautiful things that comprise my life. I like to look at pretty faces without any desire and praise others’ accomplishments without envy. I hope to live a life where I love many, hate none, and adore a few tremendously. And I hope to grow older gently and gracefully.
This is part of his lyrical essay, ‘The Life I Love,’ which is based on the episodes of his personal life. The following is part of his masterpiece essay entitled ‘Karma.’
You may meet your loved one only once, never to see her again, although you miss her so much. You may choose not to meet her, although you will never forget her all your life. Asako and I met three times. It would have been better if we hadn’t met the last third time.
In this famous essay, Pi describes his beautiful yet sad relationship with a Japanese girl named Asako during the period from the Japanese colonial rule to the Korean War. In his essays, Pi portrays his personal life in a sweet and delicate way. When people feel dizzy, overwhelmed by the fast-changing world, or when they feel down from a boring life, reading Pi’s essays will comfort their souls warmly and make them feel relaxed.
Clean, Pure Life
Thanks to his writings that convey the essence of life in a warm, elegant and honest way, Pi earned such impressive epithets as ‘a living witness of the 20th century Korean literature’ and ‘a pioneer in Korean essay literature.’ Just like his essays, his personal life was humble and graceful.
Pi could have retired from professorship at Seoul National University at the regular retirement age, but he quit teaching early since he had no desire for fame and wanted to live freely. After he turned 70, he even refused to write as he was wary of grasping too much in his writing.
He lived in a humble apartment in Seoul for 25 years. He spent his twilight days with his 90-year-old, dementia-stricken wife before he died on May 25th, 2007.
May is the face of a 21-year-old man who has just washed his face with cold water. What’s the use of counting my age? I’m in the middle of May.
In his essay ‘May,’ Pi revealed his affection for the month when he was born. He died in late May, as if demonstrating he was the ‘boy of May.’ He was often called by this penname ‘Geuma(금아),’ meaning an innocent child playing the geomungo(거문고), a six-stringed Korean zither. We learned how to cherish and love small things from this great essayist, who never lost his childlike innocence when portraying his daily life and memories in a warm and calm manner.