Alternative Modernities for Colonial Korea

Steven Lee, University of California, Berkeley

Sunyoung Park. The Proletarian Wave: Literature and Leftist Culture in Colonial Korea, 1910–1945. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2015. 348 pp. $50 (cloth).

Vladimir Tikhonov. Modern Korea and Its Others: Perceptions of the Neighbouring Countries and Korean Modernity. London: Routledge, 2016. 218 pp. $160 (cloth).

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It has become a global scholarly undertaking: how to rethink modernity so as to decouple it from Westernization (Chakrabarty 2000). Strategies have included foregrounding the plurality of history to disrupt linear progress; positing non-Western centers of modernity in, say, Moscow or Shanghai; and tracing anticolonial circuits connecting Asia to Africa to Latin America. The two recent books under review here add colonial-era Korea to such far-reaching discussions by situating the country across national boundaries. Interestingly, one connecting thread here is the alternative world system provided by the interwar, Soviet-oriented Left. The result is an unsettling of binaries that subsequently became entrenched during the Cold War: for example, north-south, socialist-nationalist, and, for literature, realist-modernist. But more broadly, pervading both books is the sense that history could have turned out differently—that revisiting northeast Asia’s porous borders in the early twentieth century reveals the Korean peninsula’s lost, internationalist potential...