They say, if he ever sinned, it was that he “progressed ahead of his generation.” Ma Kwang Soo, a Korean Language and Literature professor at Yonsei University (YU) and an author of many books, has been criticized his entire life. In the end, after losing all his will to fight through, loneliness is said to have consumed him as he took his own life a few months ago. Ma, after everything, deserved better. His death is a loss for Korean society, and only when fellow Koreans realize this can those like Ma and their contributions to society be truly appreciated.
Hedonistic, sexually perverse, objectifying women—these were some of the many criticisms thrown at Ma. Ma is known for his books that contain stories of women who are sexually liberated in their lifestyles. Many people call them pornographic. In a sense, it is true. His works glorified promiscuity in women, and how “happiness comes from superficial senses,” referring to the pleasures of the skin. The consequence of his works was the destruction of his career. Not only was he once fired from his job as a professor, but he was also investigated for writing works of pornography.
Pornography, in its essence, is art; it is a different, yet very much a way to pursue self-expression. In a society where conservatism is the predominant ideology, this form of art was simply unacceptable until recently. People judged him for his works without understanding his true nature as a person. While government officials, other professors, and even the media were mocking Ma for allegedly perceiving women as objects of pleasure, his own students thought otherwise. Ma’s students gathered to put together a sourcebook titled The Generation’s Most Lewd Battle: Ma Kwang Soo Was Right. They were also the ones who fought for his reemployment, claiming that his work was serious and that he has never done or said anything inappropriate to his own students.
Ma’s works directly challenged the culture of Korean conservatism. For instance, Joyful Sara (1992), a book that has amassed much controversy, is a story of a female college student whose family moves overseas. The absence of her parents prompts her to enter a world of no restraints. She experiments with her sexuality, sleeping with all kinds of men and even working as a dancer at a club. This book is simply the story of a young, yet sexually liberated woman who lives against the traditional norms of what is expected of a woman’s lifestyle.
While many criticize this novel for fetishizing and sexually objectifying women, what this book accomplished is actually the opposite. Through the story of Sara, Ma has revolutionized the notion that women, too, are entitled to pursue their sexual identity—an idea that is still unconventional in Korean society. Perhaps, this was the reason why Ma’s works were condemned. Female objectification was not what infuriated the public. It was, rather, the fact that a woman’s sexual freedom cannot be considered as equally important as that of a man’s. Ma, who strived to shatter the shackles that hold back women’s rights to explore their sexuality, was punished for reminding the public of this inconvenient truth.
Ultimately, Ma was an artist born in the wrong place at the wrong time. Seeing how his books are widely acclaimed in Japan, his tragic and underappreciated life only reflects the close-minded culture of South Korea where liberal ideas are seen as a taboo and those who hold those views are chastised. Ma was brave. His life is comparable to that of Van Gogh, whose unique and unusual way of self-expression has been acclaimed only after his passing. May the life and death of Ma not only bring justice for all the slanders our society has thrown at him, but also pave a road for other unconventional artists to flourish and find their place in this country.