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Traditions of Korea examined in new book series : Former Culture Minister Lee O-young starts with customs surrounding birth

Feb 24,2020
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Lee O-young, the former culture minister, recently published a new book on Koreans. The 88-year-old scholar said the book, along with 11 other books under the same series, will be his “last books before he leaves this world,” [KWON HYUK-JAE]
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The first book of the “Korean Series” is titled “Birth.” [PARAM BOOK]
Lee O-young, literary critic, chair professor of Korean literature at Ewha Womans University, editorial writer, adviser to a local daily newspaper and the country’s first culture minister, recently published a new book.

Titled “Where Are You From?,” the book is the first part of the “Korean Series” that he is planning to publish over the coming years.

The 88-year-old scholar said that 11 more books will be part of the “Korean Series” and that “all the manuscripts are ready to be published.”

Along with his multiple titles, Lee is an avid writer. He’s published about 100 or so books over the past 60 years.

“This story about Koreans is not written by a professor, but by a storyteller. When a little kid becomes a grandfather, he tells [his grandchildren] the stories he heard from his own grandfather. This book is like that,” Lee said during a recent interview with the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily.

The “Korean Series” was first serialized in 2009 as Lee began writing stories about Koreans in the JoongAng Ilbo for 50 consecutive days.

“People had fun reading ‘The Story of the Roman People’ series, but with my series on Koreans, they unfortunately had an ideological dispute,” Lee recalls.

But Lee wanted to write the tales down in the hope of “telling a story that is more interesting than a novel and more serious than history.”

In order to publish the stories into book form, Lee said he rewrote the manuscripts a total of seven times.

“I would say this book is a late-born child of mine. I conceived it at the age of 77 and gave birth to it at 88,” said Lee.

He even revised the manuscripts while he was bed-ridden a couple of years ago after undergoing surgery.

Lee was diagnosed with cancer in 2017, but he does not receive chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Instead, he spends most of his time writing.

“As Scheherazade keeps telling tales to survive in ‘Arabian Nights,’ I felt the same [when I rewrote the stories],” said Lee.

Lee said his newest book and the upcoming series will be his “last tales before leaving this world.”

The first book, “Birth,” elaborates on some Korean cultural practices done before the birth of a child.

Lee talks about fetal nicknames and seaweed soup, for example.

“Ninety-seven percent of Korean fetuses have nicknames. It is a unique part of culture because we talk to them even before they are born.”

As for the long-standing ritual of boiling and eating seaweed soup after childbirth, “We already knew that our mothers are oceans.”

Lee also mentioned the tradition of giving eobuba, or a piggyback ride, to children. The scholar said the practice is seen as a way of passing down wisdom from older generations to younger generations.

“I wrote a book about the industrialization of Korea when I was in my late 20s. The next book was about digitalization. I came up with this slogan of ‘Although we were late to industrialization, let’s get a head start in digitalization.’ In my 70s, I wrote about ‘digilog.’ I wanted to tell people about the conversion between digital and analog to achieve the future that is more humane.”

Now in his late 80s, Lee is focused on what makes Koreans Korean.

“I trace the 3.6 billion-year history of humanity who spends 10 months inside their mothers’ wombs. That period of time does not belong to this life or afterlife, but it’s somewhere between the two.”

Lee continued, “This book is not history or biography. It is a tale from the perspective of a grandfather. The stories are closer to being miscellaneous, worldly and natural instead of being serious, divine and refined.”

“This book is a collection of my personal memories and my knowledge of biology and history. It also has some elements of nationalism, and many are calling it gukbbong,” said Lee.

Gukbbong is a compound word of the Korean words for country and methamphetamines, meaning a blind obsession with patriotism.

Throughout the book, Lee emphasizes the excellence of Korean cultural heritage.

But Lee also mentions some dark sides of Korean society as well. “Heungbu had 12 children, but now the fertility rate is below one.”

Heungbu is a fictional character from an old fairy tale.

“This country became industrialized without much preparation, and it is more tainted by nuclear families than any other country in the world.”

But Lee is still optimistic about the future of the country.

“Koreans have been through a lot of changes, but there are some things that never change in them, just like water flowing under a frozen river.”

Some may think it is too late to start a new project at 88, but still there are more topics that Lee hopes to write about.

“I want to write about death. Two words, womb and tomb, both come from Greek and they look very similar. For humans, to be born is to die. At some point, diapers have many things in common with shrouds. I want to write about the absurdities.”

After wrapping up the interview, Lee said, “I get sick for two days after I talk this much.” But he stressed the importance of storytelling. “What do you live for? It’s just to tell your own stories and leave this world.”

BY KIM HO-JOUNG [estyle@joongang.co.kr]



신간 낸 이어령 “태명·미역국·어부바…할아버지의 이야기”

“한국인 이야기를 쓴 사람은 대학교수도, 아무것도 아니고, 이야기꾼이다. 어린 애가 할아버지가 되면 자신의 할아버지에게 들었던 이야기를 아이들에게 해준다. 이 책이 그런 거다.”

초대 문화부 장관, 국문과 석좌교수, 문학평론가, 언론사 논설위원·고문이었던 이어령(88) 선생이 이달 새 책을 냈다. 지난 60년간 100여 권의 책을 낸 그가 낸 새 책 제목은 『너 어디에서 왔니』(파람북). ‘한국인 이야기’ 시리즈의 첫 권이며 한국인의 ‘탄생’ 이야기다. 18일 만난 그는 “‘한국인 이야기’는 총 12권이 나올 예정”이라며 그는 “원고가 다 준비돼 있다”고 했다.

‘한국인 이야기’는 이 선생이 2009년 중앙일보에 50일간 매일 연재한 내용. 당시 그는 “‘로마인 이야기’는 재미있게 읽고 ‘한국인 이야기’는 이념논쟁을 해야 하는 불행이 있었다. 소설보다 재미있고 역사보다 엄숙한 한국인의 이야기를 들려주겠다”며 연재를 시작했다. 이후 7차례 이 원고를 고쳐 썼다고 한다. 그는 “희수(77세)에 잉태해 미수(88세)에 얻은 늦둥이가 이 책”이라고 했다.

몇해 전 암 수술을 받던 병원 침상에서도 이 시리즈를 고쳐 썼다. “‘아라비안나이트’의 셰에라자드처럼 하룻밤 목숨 부지를 위해 무슨 이야기든 해야만 하는 심정이었다.” 그래서 그는 12권 시리즈가 “세상을 떠나기 전 마지막으로 이야기꾼이 돼 쓴 책들”이라고 했다.

책의 처음은 한국인이 태어나기 전부터의 이야기다. 먼저 태명과 미역국. “한국 태아 중 97%가 태명이 있다. 뱃속 아이와 대화하는 우리만의 독특한 문화”라고 했다. 산후 미역을 먹는 것에 대해선 “우리는 이미 ‘어머니는 바다’라는 것을 알고 있다”라 감탄한다. 어깨너머로 선대 지혜가 전승되는 ‘어부바’ 얘기도 했다.

“20대 말에는 한국 산업화에 대한 책 『흙 속에 저 바람 속에』를 썼다. 그다음은 정보화였다. ‘산업화는 늦었지만, 정보화는 앞서가자’는 슬로건을 만들었다. 70대에는 ‘디지로그’. 후기 정보화 시대 아날로그와 디지털의 융합을 통해 인류의 인간적 미래를 꿈꾸자는 것이었다.”

80대의 작업은 생명화 속에서 바라본 한국인의 이야기다. “이승과 저승 사이의 ‘그승’이랄 수 있는 뱃속에서 10개월 동안 보낸 인간의 36억년 역사를 짚는다.” 이 선생은 “역사도 전기도 아닌 할아버지의 이야기다. 숭(崇)보다 잡(雜), 성(聖)보다 속(俗), 정(正)보다 야(野)를 추구하는 이야기”라고 했다.

그는 “이 책엔 나의 개인적 기억부터 생물학, 역사 지식, 그리고 ‘국뽕’이라할 수 있는 내셔널리즘의 색채가 다 들어가 있다”고 했다. 한국인의 태명을 서양인들이 따라 짓고, 미국에 ‘포대기’ 주간(week) 캠페인이 생기게 되는 한국 문화유산의 우수성을 강조한다. 그러면서도 “흥부의 애가 12명이었는데, 출산율이 0점대로 떨어진 나라다. 면역체 없이 산업화하면서 다른 어떤 나라보다도 근대 핵가족에 오염이 됐다”고 그늘을 지적했다. 결론은 희망적이다. “한국인에게 많은 변화가 있지만 언 강물 밑에 흐르는 물처럼 변하지 않는 요소가 있다”면서다.

그는 항암, 방사선 치료를 받지 않고 있다. 아직 써보고 싶은 주제가 남아있다. “죽음의 세계에 대한 것이다. 희랍어에서 온 단어 자궁(womb·움)과 무덤(tomb·툼)은 놀랄 만큼 닮아있다. 인간은 태어나는 게 죽는 거다. 기저귀가 까칠한 수의와 닮지 않았나. 이 부조리함에 관해 쓰고 싶다.”

인터뷰를 마치며 그는 “이렇게 이야기하고 나면 이틀을 앓는다”고 했다. 하지만 마지막까지 이야기에 대한 믿음을 강조했다. “산다는 게 뭔가. 내 이야기를 하나 보태고 가는 것 아닌가.”

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