2020 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Adult third place
third place tie, adult essay division
Chestnuts, Cigarettes, and Cranes: Transformed Relationships with Landscape in Hwang Sun-won’s “Cranes”
In “Cranes,” Hwang Sun-won uses the chestnut tree, cigarettes, and the cranes as environmental symbols to portray a complicated relationship between Songsam and Tokchae and, through them, the two Koreas. Nostalgia for a bucolic past mingles with the present emptiness of isolation and division, and Hwang emphasizes the inevitable harm inflicted on humans and the landscape through this conflict, even in attempts at peacemaking.
The chestnut tree’s presence in the story primarily reveals Songsam’s nostalgia for a simpler past. On the one hand, the old grandfather’s chestnut tree reminds Songsam of climbing the tree with Tokchae in order to steal the chestnuts. It’s a memory with pain (from the chestnut burrs in Songsam’s backside), but also with community connection to both his friend and their elderly neighbor (307). In the present, Songsam holds onto the chestnut tree, looking up at the “blue autumn sky,” representing his holding onto the tranquility and simplicity of the past (306). There is hope for common ground between Songsam and Tokchae—and, by extension, the two Koreas—because the chestnut tree itself is still there, holding meaningful and fond memories of unity. However, Songsam’s experience with the chestnut tree in the present is more wistful than active, as the village has changed. The old grandfather is long since passed away, and Songsam and Tokchae are no longer boys. Holding on to the metaphorical chestnut tree has a different meaning in the face of these new physical and political landscapes.
Hwang uses Songsam’s cigarettes to illustrate the poignancy of these changes and the resulting emptiness. As he walks with Tokchae, Songsam recalls smoking cigarettes from pumpkin leaves in secret when they were young (306). Songsam still smokes cigarettes in the present, but they are disconnected from his friendship with Tokchae, divorced from the landscape they lived in (his cigarettes now are certainly not made from local pumpkin leaves), and devoid of meaning; “the cigarettes seemed to have no flavor” (306). This can be read as a symbol of modern exploitation of the land—he consumes cigarette after cigarette, but they hold no meaning for him, no connection, except to remind him of a past long since lost. In the end, he has to toss aside the cigarette in what seems like an attempt to forget these memories. In the harsh light of the reality of conflict, division, and feelings of betrayal, even good memories are painful to engage with.
Finally, the cranes as a symbol of freedom demonstrate a more complicated relationship than one of simple love and desire for the being in question to be free—the crane in the past and Tokchae in the present. Songsam’s memory of the past here is possibly the most ecologically destructive one in the story; the boys mistreat the crane for their own pleasure. Only when they heard that the crane’s life could be threatened were they were determined to set it free, despite the risk of being found out. Even then, their mistreatment of the bird made its ability to escape to safety to freedom uncertain—it faltered at first, and it could barely walk (311).
In the present, the situation between Songsam and Tokchae is an obvious parallel to the past. When Songsam decides to allow Tokchae to escape near the end of the story, Tokchae initially worries that Songsam is sacrificing himself, but it becomes evident that a crane will be the actual sacrifice. Songsam asks Tokchae to flush out the cranes, ostensibly so one of the cranes can be shot instead of Tokchae (312).
There are multiple ways to read this, including that this is a simple reconciliation of the two Koreas, an overcoming of bad blood and feelings of betrayal to allow love and positive memories of the past to dictate their actions in the present. But, read through an environmental lens, this reading is not so straightforward. Songsam’s choice may come from a place of love, but there will still be a victim of the conflict: poignantly, a crane will be the one to suffer the consequence. We see similar consequences in the real-life relationship between the two Koreas; the Korean War didn’t just kill millions of people, but it also decimated the Korean landscape, and environmental degradation has continued throughout both Koreas’ post-war histories. And beyond literal harm to the landscape and to non-humans, the people themselves cannot move forward into the future—together or separately—without scars.
Perhaps there is hope for finding unity again one day through their common ground, but “Cranes” suggests that the wounds in the people and the landscape will not heal easily. The tensions remaining from the Korean War and the separation of the peninsula continue to mark the landscape, whether it’s a deer setting off a landmine in the DMZ or industrial pollution of rivers and the air. Further, a major spiritual casualty of the war has already been inflicted: that the people’s relationship with the land and with each other is irrevocably changed and damaged, no matter what side of the conflict they were on. Tokchae describes his feelings about these irreplaceable ties to his father and to his family’s land: “People like us, all we know is working the earth to stay alive. What good would it do us to run away?” (309). This very connection to the land, though experienced differently by the two men, can be read as a reason for hope, as evidence that there is still literal common ground between the two Koreas. However, Tokchae is essentially being punished through threat of death for this connection to the land and his filial piety to his father, and the responsibilities and connections Songsam left behind continue to haunt him through soured memories. Reunification and return to their home would not be as simple as signing a treaty and returning to remembered unity. There are yet many broken things to mend, from conflicts past and present.