Yun Tong-ju (December 30, 1917 - February 16, 1945) was a Korean poet active during the period of Japanese rule (1932–1945). Known for his writing of lyric poetry as well as resistance poetry, he was born in what is now “Yanbian,” an autonomous prefecture in Jilin province with a large Korean resident population, in the northeastern part of China. The area was then the base of the Korean movement for independence from Japan. Yun Tong-ju began writing poetry as a boy, and argued with his father, who wanted him to study medicine instead of literature. While studying at Yeonhui Technical School (now Yonsei University) in Seoul, he prepared a collection of nineteen poems, but his professor advised him to delay its publication because of Japanese censorship. In 1942, Yun went to Japan to study English literature. In 1943, as he was traveling home for the summer holidays, he was arrested as a “thought criminal” by the Japanese police and sentenced to two years of prison on the charge of having participated in the independence movement. He died in prison on February 16, 1945.
His collected works, published by his family posthumously in 1948 as “Sky, wind, stars, and poems,” has become a perennial best-seller in Korea, and he is currently the national poet of the Republic of Korea. His poetry is characterized by contrast between qualities of defiance and humility, depth and simplicity, and passion and self-discipline.
Yun Tong-ju was born December 30, 1917, in Hwaryong-hyeon, Jiandao, in what is now “Yanbian,” an autonomous prefecture in Jilin province with a large Korean resident population, in the northeastern part of China. Yanbian is south of Heilongjiang, east of Jilin's Baishan City, north of North Korea's North Hamgyong Province, and west of Russia. The name "Yanbian" was created in the 1920s, because the area stretches (yan) on the boundary (bian) of three nations. During the Manchukuo period (1932–1945), it was called Kan-do (間島) Province. His family’s legal domicile was Ch'ŏngjin (Ch'ŏngjin-s;i청진시; 淸津市), North Hamgyŏng (Hamgyŏng-pukto; 함경 북도; 咸鏡北道), a province of North Korea. In 1886, his great-grandfather had migrated with his family to the north of Kan-do (間島). Yun Tong-ju was therefore the descendant of a group of Korean settlers in Manchuria.
Yun Tong-ju was the eldest son among four children born to his father Yun Yeong-seok and his mother Kim Yong. As a child he was called "Haehwan" (해환, 海煥). Yun Tong-ju was raised in north Kan-do (間島), which was then the base of the Korean movement for independence from Japan. His mother’s brother was a well-known leader of the Korean independence movement, and an educator who built schools and taught the racial ethos. Yun Tong-ju grew up under the influence of his Presbyterian grandfather. He studied at the middle school in Lóngjǐng (龍井). Today, near the school, there is a stone monument at the house where Yun Tong-ju was born.
As a boy, Yun Tong-ju was reserved and diffident, but had a chivalrous spirit. In a recent interview, his sister described him: “As a young man, my brother was really an elegant dresser. The color of the school uniform was yellow, but if it did not fit him, he made his own uniform on a sewing machine. More than by his style, I was always attracted by the way in which he was surrounded by many books. He was always creating (poems).He used a copying machine and I was given some of his printed papers.”
Yun Tong-ju was six years older than this sister. She added “Even now I can see, in my mind’s eye, my brother catching dragonflies for me.”
Yun Tong-ju loved his brothers and sisters, and taught them songs and told them stories. As a student in middle school he had various hobbies; he was active in soccer and sometimes worked until midnight to publish the school magazine. He also won a prize in a speech contest. He had excellent mathematical skills and his favorite subject was geometry. As his classmates and cousins moved to other schools, one in Beijin and another in Pyongyang, Yun Tong-ju also moved to the middle school in Pyongyang in September, 1935. However because the students refused to bow to a Japanese Shinto shrine, the school was closed down, and Yun Tong-ju returned home. In those days he published children’s songs and poems in a Catholic boy’s magazine, K’at’ollic Sōnyon (Catholic Youth).
After he graduated from middle school, Yun Tong-ju struggled with the problem of proceeding to the next stage of education because of his father’s desire for him to go to medical school. However, Yun Tong-ju had a strong love for literature, and he could not abandon this ambition. The strife was so serious that he even went on a hunger strike. On April 9, 1938, Yung Tong-ju entered Yeonhui Technical School, which later became Yonsei University in Seoul. His cousin 宋夢奎 , who had studied in Beijin, entered Yeonhui Technical School with him. Yung Tong-ju loved the natural areas around Yeonhui Technical School and liked to go for walks. Through meditation and thinking in silence, he shaped each of his poems, some of which were published in the youth section of Chosōn Ilbo.
Yung Tong-ju was a taciturn person, who always kept his dignity but warmly embraced his friends with a beaming smile. Yun Tong-ju was influenced not only by the world-famous literature, but by history, culture, art and music, all of which served also enhanced his appreciation of his Korean heritage. After school he used to ride an electric train to the station in front of the Bank of Joseon and visit several famous book shops in present-day Myeongdong or Myeongdong (명동 明洞). After that, he was fond of sitting the music cafes, reading books. He loved to read not only the literature of Korea, but Miyoshi Tatsuji’s poems and Ogawa Mimei’s fairy tales. In those days he was most affected by Kierkegaard.
On December 27, 1941, Yung Tong-ju graduated from Yeonhui Technical School . He had been writing poetry from time to time, and chose nineteen poems for a collection he intended to call "Heaven, Wind, Stars, and Poetry" (하늘과 바람과 별과 시), but he was unable to get it published. At first, he called this collection of poems “the Hospital.” The last poem in the collection, “Counting the Stars at Night” was written on November 5, 1941. The introductory poem, which became the most popular, was written on November 20. He presented this collection to his professor Yi, and explained the meaning of its title: “Before completing this collection, I thought the title should be “the Hospital” because there are so many patients.” His professor suggested that he wait to publish it because several poems would be subjected to censorship . His professor worried that, as Yun Tong-ju was soon going to Japan to study, publication of his poems might jeopardize his opportunities there.
In 1942, he went to Japan and entered the English literature department of Rikkyo University in Tokyo, before moving to Doshisha University in Kyoto six months later. On July 14, 1943, as he was traveling home for the summer holidays, he was arrested as a “thought criminal” by the Japanese police and detained at the Kamogawa Police Station in Kyoto. The following year, the Kyoto regional court sentenced him to two years of prison on the charge of having participated in the independence movement. He was imprisoned in Fukuoka, where he died in February, 1945. The following month, he was buried in Yongjeong in Jiandao.
In January 1948, his family collected thirty-one of his poems and had them published by Jeongeumsa, together with an introduction by Chong Ji-yong; this work was also titled Heaven, Wind, Stars, and Poetry. His poems became very popular, and Yun Tong-ju came to be a much-beloved poet of tragedy and lyrical patriotism.
In November 1968, Yonsei University and others established an endowment for the Yun Tong-ju Poetry Prize. A monument to the memory of Yun Tongju is erected at Yonsei University.
Since 1980, Yun Tongju has won the most points in an annual poll to determine “the most loved poet” and “the most favorite poet” in Korea. His collection of poems is a perennial best-seller in Korea, and hundreds of literature students have earned Masters degrees and PhDs by studying his poems. Yun Tongju is currently the national poet of the Republic of Korea, and even in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) he is widely admired.
Wishing not to have so much as a speck of shame toward heaven until the day I die, I suffered, even when the wind stirred the leaves.
The poetry of Yun Tongju, who was a witness to Korea's national humiliation, expresses sorrow in response to relentless tyranny with defiance but without violence or hatred. His poetry became the voice of Korean people during a dark period in their history.
Yun Dong-ju was a poet of purity, beauty, and sincerity, and his collection of poems, posthumously published under the title “Sky, wind, stars, and poems,” is one of the all-time favorites of Korean readers. His poems express his love for his people, his compassion for the poor and destitute, and his hopes for freedom and independence, themes which still resonate deeply with Korean people. His imprisonment and eventual death in 1945 in a Japanese prison lend great poignancy to his work.
“Some of the poetic attributes that give Yun's work the inexhaustibility of significant poetry are seemingly conflicting tendencies that become complementary through the power of his art: natural syntax and rhythms that are nonetheless carefully devised; an authoritative passivity; humility achieved through audacity; and capacity at once to give multiple meanings to words and to see the limitations of words.“ Christy Choi Choi, Approaching the Translation of Yun Tong-Ju's Poetry, Harvard University. Retrieved April 16, 2008.</ref>
From The Sorrowful Race:
From Counting the Stars at Night:
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