Modernity and Otherness: Based on Works of Bulgarian and Korean Literature

Lyudmila Atanasova

Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Republic of Korea

Abstract: The current study seeks to uncover the relationship between modernity and otherness and to explore how the processes of modernization are construed as processes of dealing with otherness in seminal literary works from Bulgaria and Korea. For countries such as these, modernity is associated with the necessity to import foreign (Western European) modes of social life, that causes societies to encounter all-encompassing otherness with which they need to deal over shorter periods of time. While regarding the societies that were under the direct colonial power of the West, modernization has been predominantly analysed in the context of postcolonial studies, modernisation processes in societies outside the colonial space have mainly been studied from the viewpoint of social development and desire for progress motivated from within the society. Inquiring into well-established theoretical explorations of modernity and otherness, the current study makes the point that the latter type of societies, to which Bulgaria and Korea belong, has not been spared from the influence of colonial discourse, which has become a reason for othering the traditional in relation to the modern in the process of modernization. The construction of the local and the traditional as otherness, or self-otherisation, is illustrated through the analysis of two works of literature from the period of modernization, that are fundamentally important in the literary canons of Bulgaria and Korea – Aleko Konstantinov’s “Bai Ganyo: Incredible Tales of a Modern Bulgarian” and Yi Kwangsu’s “Mujeong”.

Key words: otherness, self-othering, modernity, modernization, Bulgarian literature, Korean literature, postcolonial theory.


Modernity and otherness are concepts that have been widely discussed, predominantly in the context of postcolonial studies. Since postcolonial theory explains the consequences of colonialism and the relationships of power between the colonizers and the colonized, the geographical scope of its explorations has mainly been the West and its former colonies. The process of modernization of other geographical and cultural regions has primarily been analysed in academic contexts, different from the colonial and postcolonial theory approach, and it has most often been regarded as motivated by desire to achieve the economic and cultural levels of development of the West.

The current study examines the processes of modernization, along with their deep impact on the societies of Bulgaria and Korea, as they are represented in seminal works of the respective literary canons of both countries, namely Aleko Konstantinov’s “Bai Ganyo: Incredible Tales of a Modern Bulgarian“ and Yi Kwangsu’s “Mujeong”, also known as “The Heartless”. The inquiry into the texts shows that even though neither Bulgaria, nor Korea has ever been colonized by a Western power, the discussion of modernization explicitly or implicitly involves the West, which along with the desire for progress, also evokes anxiety, confusion and contradictions. In certain aspects, the influence of the West on the modernizing societies is comparable to its impact on its colonies. In the literary works in question, the central theme of the modernization of the society proves to be also closely associated with the issue of otherness.

Through analysing the representations of the Other and the Self, the West and the local, the modern and the traditional, the study aims to uncover the complex constructs of otherness and to compare the approaches to dealing with the Other in the literary works from both countries. The comparative method of inquiry allows us to discover the discursive mechanisms leading a society “to adopt the West” as a perceived sole way of development and to gain insights into the way these discursive practices are perpetuated and/or adapted in literature to fit a particular social reality.

Theoretical Framework and Methods of Inquiry

The current study employs research within postcolonial theory, psychology and identity theory to define otherness and to explore its connection to modernity. The results are applied to analyse two literary works, one from Bulgaria and one from Korea, each regarded in the respective country as representative in reflecting aspects of the modernization of the society at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. The comparative inquiry is productive in shedding light on the way otherness is constructed and presented in literature, and on the social factors that possibly determine the manner otherness is processed on a national level in relation to the modernization of the society.

Aleko Konstantinov’s “Bai Ganyo: Incredible Tales of a Modern Bulgarian” and Yi Kwangsu’s “Mujeong

Aleko Konstantinov’s “Bai Ganyo: Incredible Tales of a Modern Bulgarian” (1895), (hereafter “Bai Ganyo”), is a compilation of anecdotal stories about Bai Ganyo, a character of a shrewd disposition with an entrepreneurial spirit. Calculating and manipulative, he appears first as a merchant of rose oil, traveling around Europe, and later, as a corrupt journalist and a politician in Bulgaria, abusing the social system to gain personal benefits. In European cities, centres of the European civilization, Bai Ganyo has the opportunity to visit various emblematic cultural places, like opera, exhibition spaces, famous coffeeshops and restaurants, even a bath house, but he is completely indifferent to the customs and the culture of those locations. Suspicious and critical of everything that is different from what he considers normal, he acts inadequately and creates laughable, and at the same time, embarrassing situations, which often make even other Bulgarians, accompanying him, feel ashamed on his behalf. Oblivious to his faux pas, or completely unabashed, even when he recognizes them, his only interest lies in the opportunities to save or make money.

Since the end of the 19th century, when the character of Bai Ganyo was created, it has crossed over to oral folklore [1] and various cultural fields, acquiring multiple levels of meaning and symbolism. On the one hand, it is often interpreted as symbolic of the Bulgarian national identity, on the other, it has been criticised for its negative representation of national traits, but in either case, its omnipresence in the national conscience and its great significance in Bulgarian literature and culture cannot be denied.

At first glance, Yi Kwangsu’s novel “Mujeong” is a literary work very different from “Bai Ganyo”. Published in 1917, it was serialized in instalments in a daily newspaper and, similarly to “Bai Ganyo”, was only later compiled as a single volume. The novel immediately gained great popularity and its author became one of the first national celebrities. In Korean literary history, “Mujeong” is considered the first modern Korean novel and Yi Kwangsu is often touted as “the father of modern Korean literature”. The features that qualify the work as “modern” in comparison with previous pieces of prose, are the language style, which is close to the conversational, the realistic characters, the psychological approach to character development, and, moreover, the central themes, pertaining to the modernization of the society. The novel is often interpreted as signifying the relationship between the traditional and the modern society, which is represented by the interactions of two types of characters – the first, traditional in their lifestyle and worldview, and the second, modernized and feeling at ease in Western cultural environment.

Hyeongsik, a young man of modest upbringing falls in love with Seonhyeong, the American-educated daughter of a Protestant church elder, even though in his childhood, it had already been arranged for him to marry another girl, Yeongchae. Yeongchae comes from a respectable virtuous family, but the family’s fortune declines and she is forced into becoming a kisaeng, a woman earning her living by entertaining men. The two women represent the old and new, the past and the future. The tension between the old and the new, especially between the different values of the traditional Confucian society and the newly introduced Western ways, causes confusion, misunderstanding and suffering. Remarkably, though, in the end, the young men and women, raised in a traditional environment, manage to change their outlook on the world and, given the opportunity to receive Western-style education, change into modern people, who can contribute to the development of their country.

In the history of Korean literature, “Mujeong” is not spared of controversy. Its author, Yi Kwangsu, turns from a prominent proponent of the independence of Korea from the Japanese occupation into a collaborator of the occupiers. Attempts have been made to erase his legacy as a writer of national significance but his works, especially “Mujeong”, are so emblematic and have become such an integral part of the national consciousness that diminishing forcefully their importance has proven impossible.

Bai Ganyo” and “Mujeong” were written some twenty years apart from each other, at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, the time when both Bulgaria and Korea were swept by cardinal changes and embarked on the way to modernization. Both novels reflect the new realities and their effect on the society and the people. Created in regions, geographically and culturally very far from each other, the two works deal with similar problems, stemming from the same cause – the transformation of the societies following the economic, political and cultural patterns of the Western European societies. What prompted Bulgaria and Korea, along with many other countries, to unavoidably pursue the European model of development and how the resulting social changes are reflected and dealt with in major works of literature in both countries are the questions which we will seek to answer hereafter.

Modernity, Modernization, Otherness

Modernity refers to modes of social life or organisation which emerged in Europe from about the seventeenth century onwards and which subsequently became more or less worldwide in their influence”. [2] The new modes of social life and new social organization, mentioned in Giddens’s definition are truly what modernity brings – profound changes in every area of social life. In the West, though, modernity did not come into being by spontaneous and simultaneous changes in all social spheres. It started in the key areas of production, science and philosophy.

Today, it is taken for granted that the fact that certain countries in Western Europe achieved industrial and scientific development first in the world, means that all other countries that seek to progress should follow the Western example. It is almost impossible to consider development, following a pattern, different from the one established by the West. When a country embarks “on the road to development”, it does not solely take the blueprints for industrial, technological and scientific development, but, more often than not, it also “absorbs the West” in its entirety, along with its traditions, social structure, culture, etc.

The modes of life brought into being by modernity have swept us away from all traditional types of social order, in quite unprecedented fashion. In both their extensionality and their intensionality the transformations involved in modernity are more profound than most sorts of change characteristic of prior periods. On the extensional plane they have served to establish forms of social interconnection which span the globe; in intensional terms they have come to alter some of the most intimate and personal features of our day-to-day experience.” [3]

Non-western societies find themselves forced to switch to an entirely new social order to be able to progress. The profound changes that they undergo are a result of their adoption of a foreign culture, foreign values, foreign lifestyle, etc. that are different from the ones that they have practised traditionally; that is, they encounter numerous aspects of otherness with which they need to cope.

Otherness is not simply difference. Otherness is a kind of difference that involves relationships of power. In postcolonial studies, the process of othering “refers to the social and/or psychological ways in which one group excludes or marginalizes another group”. [4] “Othering is a process that goes beyond “mere” scapegoating and denigration – it denies the other those defining characteristics of the “Same”, reason, dignity, love, pride, heroism, nobility and ultimately any entitlement to human rights. [5]

While today the general definitions of othering, otherness, and the other are derived from postcolonial theory and its observations of the relationship between the colonizer and colonized, mainly following the gaze of the colonizer towards the colonized, the action of othering and the experiences of otherness and the other have multiple aspects, degrees and directions. The variations of these phenomena are associated with identity and have chiefly been an object of exploration of psychology and identity studies. The relationship between the Self and the O/other, along with its significance for creating self-awareness as a step towards the formation of subjectivity is central to the work of Jacques Lacan. He distinguishes between the ‘other’ and the ‘Other’. While the ‘other’ holds a resemblance to the self and is instrumental in self-awareness as a separate being, the ‘Other’ “is crucial to the subject because the subject exists in its gaze… ‘all desire is a metonym of the desire to be’ because the first desire of the subject is the desire to exist in the gaze of the Other”. [6] Thus, the ‘other’ is important for identity formation, while the ‘Other’ provides validation and secures the existence of the subject.

In relation to group identity, particularly national identity, Triandafyllidou’s concept of the ‘Significant Other’ bears resemblance to Lacan’s ‘Other’.

The history of each nation is marked by the presence of a ‘Significant Other’, which I define as other groups that have influenced the development of a nation’s identity through their ‘inspiring’ or ‘threatening’ presence. The notion of a Significant Other refers to another nation or ethnic group that is usually territorially close to or indeed within, the national community. Significant Others are characterized by their peculiar relationship with the ingroup’s identity: they represent what the group is not. [7]

Gayatri Spivak follows to a certain extent Lacan’s use of the terms ‘other’ and ‘Other’, but for her the Other is a focus of desire and a center of power, while the other is “the excluded or ‘mastered’ subject, created by the discourse of power”. [8]

Sorting out through the nuances of the various concepts of the O/other, it becomes clear that a distinction should be made between the O/other, whose function as an O/other is determined solely by the fact of his existence and presence, and the O/other whose identity is formed as result of colonial discourse and practices.

The power of discourse in defining and subjugating is expounded by Edward Said in “Orientalism”. In the relationship between the Occident and the Orient, the Occident/the West “has dealt with the Orient by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it… without examining Orientalism as a discourse, one cannot possibly understand the enormously systemic discipline by which European culture was able to manage – and even produce – the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period”. [9]

An important shift in the Western conceptions, and consequently in the discourse, of the O/other occurred in the nineteenth century. Victor Li explains that as a result of the theory of the evolution of the species being applied to history and society, time started to be regarded as evolutionary time, differences became evolutionary differences and history came to be viewed as a linear path leading towards evolution. As an outcome of this shift in thinking, the colonized subject, whose otherness was perceived in terms of exotism, came to be seen as a primitive other, lagging in its evolutional development. [10] This widespread view secured the central position of Western Europe as a center of social progress and a source of modern civilization. Every nation aspiring for progress needed to emulate Europe in order to embark on the perceived sole evolutionary path towards development.

The fact that the discourse controlled by the colonizers has spread to regions and nations that were not directly colonized by the West is rarely explored.

While colonized peoples could perceive Europe precisely as invader and colonial master (and therefore identify it with the enemy, which gave them an opportunity for resistance), the communities circumvented by colonial occupation had another vantage point and a different perception. They were not entirely excluded from colonial processes as they were exposed to the same ideas, ideologies, and stereotypes: the colonial imagination spread its power far beyond the physical colonial boundaries. In a number of ways, this imagination became global and without alternative as early as in the 18th and 19th centuries. “Lateral” communities were dragged onto the world scene where – following the Eurocentric model – they no longer wished to stay lateral: they needed visibility and recognition of their “civilization,” ownership of history and freedom; as a matter of fact, in this desire they had already interiorized the concepts, values, and symbolic hierarchies of the colonizers. The sociological mechanism of this process is rather straightforward: the local elites were educated in cross-border universities; once they found themselves back home, they took up roles as educators, revolutionaries, writers, journalists, tutors, and started disseminating a Europe-centered colonial conceptual repertoire. [11]

According to Alexander Kiossev, the ubiquitousness of colonial discourse and the social imagination that it created led numerous nations to a kind of self-colonizing. Western Europe came to be perceived as a center and a civilization source, and the newly formed nations voluntarily took the position of a periphery and natural subjects. But “while the self-colonizing nations imported ideas, patterns and stereotypes for adoption, along with them they imported something else as well: … the European vague, murky and parodical images of themselves”. [12]

Importing unfavourable images of themselves could lead some of the members of a group/ nation to participate of self-othering regarding one’s group identity, especially national identity. This occurs mainly in individuals who consider their association with another group a stronger determining factor of their identity than their belonging to a particular nation. [13]

Literary Explorations into Incorporating the Modern Other in “Bai Ganyo” and “Mujeong

In both literary works, “Bai Ganyo” and “Mujeong”, the concept of otherness, although almost never explicitly stated, is omnipresent and serves as a motivating factor in character building and plot development. Each story in “Bai Ganyo” is told by a different character (a homodiegetic narrator), who has encountered Bai Ganyo during some of his travels and has witness the events directly. The narrating characters are shown to be leisurely spending time together telling each other funny stories about Bai Ganyo. The entertaining and binding element in all the stories is Bai Ganyo’s weirdness. Each story is meant by its narrator to top the previous one in presenting shocking accounts of Bai Ganyo’s behaviour abroad. In this way the narrating characters make a clear distinction between themselves and their less refined compatriot. They present themselves as belonging to the European cultural context. They are educated, well-mannered, appreciative of the European culture and fitting in the European environment. They are civilized and Bai Ganyo is not. Many of their descriptions of him involve repulsive images of his body – sweat, smell, dirty clothes, bad hygiene, unpleasant sounds when eating, basic sexual impulses, etc., that is in postcolonial terms, through their discourse of him, they dehumanize him. At the same time, to them he is not the foreign savage that he might appear to be in the eyes of the Austrians, the Germans or the French. They understand him, they are familiar with his background, as it is their own background as well. Despite that they are actively involved in othering him. Bai Ganyo fails to take into account the differences of the places that he visits. Everywhere he acts as he would act at home. According to the above-mentioned theorization of Alexander Kiossev on the perpetuation and internalization of colonial discourse by nations that have not been directly colonized, the narrating characters in “Bai Ganyo” can be interpreted as participating in self-colonizing in regard to their national identity and as much as they share the same national identity as Bai Ganyo, they are also involved in self-othering.

Aleko Konstantinov has been criticized for creating a character that seems to embody numerous negative qualities and for thus instilling a negative self-image in the national identity. Boyan Penev, quoted by Vacheva, on the other hand, reasons that through the character of Bai Ganyo, the public comes to self-knowledge and self-awareness. [14]

Bai Ganyo can be interpreted as resisting the taming that the colonial discourse could impose on him.

At the same time, it would be wrong to assume the existence of an authentic national or ethnic identity steeped in deep rooted, unchanged traditions. It is well-known that identity, including group identity, like ethnic and national identity, is fluid and can change in accordance with various factors. When “Bai Ganyo” was written, Bulgaria had just emerged from a nearly five-century long dominion by the Ottoman Empire, which had left its deep imprint on the Bulgarian ethnic identity and culture. In the process of the creation of the Bulgarian nation, it was only natural to strive to remove the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, also seen as the Orient by the West, on the national identity and to acquire a new progressive modern identity. According to the evolutionist thinking at the time, the modernity could only be adopted through the West. Therefore, the difference between the narrating characters and Bai Ganyo can be interpreted to be the perceived difference (at the time) between the Orient and the West, between the backwardness and the progress, between the past and the future. In this context, Boyan Penev’s statement on the enlightening and educational function of the work is plausible.

The processing of othering in “Bai Ganyo” are multidirectional. On the one hand, Bai Ganyo is an object of othering by the narrating characters. Through their discourse they construct him as other to themselves and to the perceived West. On the other hand, their shame of being associated with him, as well as their desire to belong to the Western cultural sphere constructs the West as Other, in Spivak’s terms.

While in “Bai Ganyo”, the construction of otherness occurs through the opposition between Bai Ganyo and the narrating characters, in “Mujeong”, it is set in the contrast between the two sets of characters – those that have been raised in a traditional environment and have Confucianist outlook on the world, and those that have had contacts with the West, have received Western education, and consequently share Western values, like equality between men and women, the right to choose one’s spouse and determine one’s life without interference from the family elders, etc. The narrator’s voice is prominent through the text, commenting on the actions of the characters and often giving arguments in their defence. The plot is driven by events through which the characters, representing the traditional past, grow, transform their identities and emerge as modern people. Hyeongsik and Yeongchae, to whom everything modern is foreign, slightly scary but fascinating, are construed as others to the “modern” young women, or “new women”, as they were called at the beginning of the 20th century, Seonhyeong and Pyeonguk. Everything associated with the new modern world is an object of desire, especially to Hyeongsik. Seonhyeong, Pyeoguk, their families and friends represent the Other in the eyes of Hyeongsik and Yeongchae. Even though the norms of the traditional society are shown to bring suffering to the characters who adhere to them, while the switching to western values liberates the individuals, the traditional is not alienated and denied in the harsh merciless way that we see in “Bai Ganyo”. In “Mujeong”, the tradition and the characters that represent the traditional social order are treated with mildness and compassion. The novel itself can be read as a developing argument on the necessity and the unavoidability to transform the society in accordance with the patterns of the Western civilization. Bai Ganyo remains unchanged, while Yi Kwangsu’s characters overcome their otherness and get incorporated into the new social order.

In both literary works, otherness is also presented through space and place. Bai Ganyo appears as strange, foreign, alien and non-belonging to the environment of the European cities. In “Mujeong” certain places, like the Western-style house of the church elder, the tram and the train are set as representing modernity. These places function as spaces with different social order. The crucial transformations of the characters occur in these places only and they are shown to evolve from non-belonging to belonging to the modern environment.

The gentler approach to otherness and the presented possibility for overcoming it in “Mujeong” can be explained by Korea’s different cultural environment and past. The geographic remoteness, the cultural and language distance from the West have undoubtedly protected the country from an intensive exposure to the colonial discourse. When “Bai Ganyo” was written, Bulgaria was emerging from a painful past, while Korea had no apparent reasons to deny its past.


Modernity and modernization are often regarded only in the context of progress and development. In reality, the processes of modernizing a society are complex and tumultuous. By looking at the connection between modernity and otherness, we have shown the mechanism through which the West emerged as the Modern Other in relation to the rest of the world. The analysis of literary works from Bulgarian and Korea, reflecting the modernization processes in the respective countries, has shed light on the influence of the colonial discourse in choosing a path for social development, and has also underlined the significance of past experience in coping with otherness on a national level.


[1] Вачева, А. (2006). „Бай Ганьо“: неканонично. LiterNet. Retrieved on 09.01.2022. [Vacheva, A. (2006). „Bai Ganyo“: nekanonichno. LiterNet.]. Retrieved on 09.01.2022.

[2] Giddens, A. (1990). The Consequences of Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1.

[3] Giddens, A. (1990). The Consequences of Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 4.

[4] Ashcroft, B., Griffiths, G., at al. (2013). Postcolonial Studies: The Key Concepts. London and New York: Routledge, 188.

[5] Gabriel, Y. (2012). The Other and Othering: A Short Introduction. Retrieved on 08.01.2022.

[6] Ashcroft, B., Griffiths, G., at al. (2013). Postcolonial Studies: The Key Concepts. London and New York: Routledge, 187.

[7] Triandafyllidou, A. (2001) Immigrants and National Identity in Europe. London: Routledge, 32.

[8] Ashcroft, B., Griffiths, G., at al. (2013). Postcolonial Studies: The Key Concepts. London and New York: Routledge, 188.

[9] Said, E. (2003). Orientalism. London: Penguin Books, 3.

[10] Li, V. (2006). The Neo-primitivist Turn: Critical Reflections on Alterity Culture and Modernity. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 3-45.

[11] Kiossev, A. (2011). The Self-Colonizing Metaphor.,exchange%20with%20the%20colonial%20center. Retrieved on 09.01.2022.

[12] Kiossev, A. (2011). The Self-Colonizing Metaphor.,exchange%20with%20the%20colonial%20center. Retrieved on 09.01.2022.

[13] Pawlak, M. (2015) Othering the Self: National Identity and Social Class in Mobile Lives. In: Cervinkova H., Buchowski M., at al. (eds). Rethinking Ethnography in Central Europe. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 23-40.

[14] Вачева, А. (2006). „Бай Ганьо“: неканонично. LiterNet. Retrieved on 09.01.2022. [Vacheva, A. (2006). „Bai Ganyo“: nekanonichno. LiterNet.]. Retrieved on 09.01.2022.


Ashcroft, B., Griffiths, G. & at al. (2013). Postcolonial Studies: The Key Concepts. London and New York: Routledge.

Gabriel, Y. (2012). The Other and Othering: A Short Introduction. Retrieved on 08.01.2022.

Giddens, A. (1990). The Consequences of Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Kiossev, A. (2011). The Self-Colonizing Metaphor.,exchange%20with%20the%20colonial%20center. Accessed on 09.01.2022.

Konstantinov, A. (2010). Bai Ganyo: Incredible Tales of a Modern Bulgarian. Edited by Victor Friedman. Translated by Victor Friedman, Christina Kramer, Grace Fielder and Catherine Rudin. Wisconsin University Press.

Li, V. (2006). The Neo-primitivist Turn: Critical Reflections on Alterity Culture and Modernity. Toronto: University of Toronto Press

Pawlak, M. (2015) Othering the Self: National Identity and Social Class in Mobile Lives. In: Cervinkova, H., Buchowski M., at al. (eds). Rethinking Ethnography in Central Europe. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Said, E. (2003). Orientalism. London: Penguin Books.

Triandafyllidou, A. (2001) Immigrants and National Identity in Europe. London: Routledge.

Вачева, А. (2006). „Бай Ганьо“: неканонично. LiterNet. Retrieved on 09.01.2022. [Vacheva, A. (2006). „Bai Ganyo“: nekanonichno. LiterNet.]. Retrieved on 09.01.2022.

Брой 50 на сп. „Реторика и комуникации“, януари 2022 г. се издава с финансовата помощ на Фонд научни изследвания, договор № КП-06-НП3/75 от 18 декември 2021 г.

Issue 50 of the Rhetoric and Communications Journal (January 2022) is published with the financial support of the Scientific Research Fund, Contract No. KP-06-NP3/75 of December 18, 2021.