Korean Writer Mirok Li Rests in Peace in Germany
There is a special gravestone at Gräfelfinger cemetery in Munich, Germany. The inscription on the front of the gravestone is in German, while the back is engraved in Korean. The person described on the tombstone is Korean writer Lee Mi-reuk(이미륵), also known as Mirok Li in Germany.
Mirok Li attracted attention from the German literary community with his 1946 novel entitled The Yalu Flows. The autobiographical novel, which the author worked on for about ten years from the mid-1930s, became a sensation in local literary circles. Part of the novel even appears in German textbooks.
The author apparently enjoyed such great popularity, that a German woman even left a will indicating that she wished to be buried next to Dr. Mirok Li after her death.
Mirok Li was the only Korean-born writer who wrote novels in German. He was born in 1899 in Haeju(해주), Hwanghae Province, now in North Korea. But why did he die in the German city of Munich?
Leaves Home after Independence Movement
Mirok Li’s real name is Lee Eui-gyeong(이의경). His penname “Mireuk” was his childhood nickname given by his mother. Born into an affluent family, Lee Eui-gyeong actively participated in the March 1st Independence Movement against Japanese colonial rule in 1919. At the time, He was a student at the Kyungsung School of Medicine in Seoul. He distributed anti-Japanese leaflets and led student movements. As he was chased by the Japanese police, he chose to seek asylum. He crossed the Yalu River and went to Shanghai, China to assist the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea before heading to Germany.
Lee started his German life in 1920. He re-started his medical studies at the University of Würzburg in March 1921, but he had to give up due to health problems. Later, in 1923, he studied medicine again at the University of Heidelberg. He majored in zoology and philosophy at the University of Munich where, in 1928, he received his doctorate.
Consoling Story Touches Hearts of Devastated German People
In January 1931, Lee started his literary career by publishing a book titled Night in a Korean Street in the literary magazine, “Dame.” Most of his works are tinged with nationalism, featuring themes of Eastern culture, tradition and customs against the background of Korea.
His signature novel The Yalu Flows was published in German in 1946 and became a bestseller. Upon its publication, newspapers carried nearly 100 book reviews and the novel was selected as “the best book of the year written in German.” It was soon translated and published in English and Korean. When the first edition sold out, the name “Mirok Li” rocked the German literary community.
The book was published right after the Hitler era came to an end in Germany following the country’s defeat in World War II. German people were in despair amid the ruins. Mirok Li’s warm, humble and simple sentences were a great consolation to the devastated people of Germany.
Even today, Germans praise his works for performing a blue miracle to inspire a longing for pure souls and to restore ideals. Finding great solace in his novels, the German people remember Mirok Li as a purely free man who sought to breathe everything spiritual.
In addition to The Yalu Flows, Lee Eui-gyeong left many other literary works, including A Good-Natured Man, An Absconder, and The Other Dialect.
Never to Return Home
Apart from his literary activities, Lee lectured on Asian philosophy and Korean literature at the University of Munich. He devoted himself to nurturing many scholars of East Asian studies in Germany, and also made great contributions to promoting Korean culture in Germany.
While his brilliant intelligence and literary talent flourished in an unfamiliar land, he was never to return home. He died of stomach cancer in Germany, three months before the Korean War broke out in 1950.
About ten years after his death, his works were translated into Korean to reach readers back home.