Archive for the ‘Korean Literature’ Category

The Story of Chunhyang‘ is one of the five classic pansoris of Korean literature. Pansoris are classical stories which are performed by a storyteller accompanied by music. The origins of Chunhyang’s story are shrouded in mystery and its author is unknown.

Poster of the 1961 film adaptation of Chunhyang’s Story

Chunhyang is a beautiful teenage girl who lives with her mother in a small town. She was born when her mother was in her forties – after her mother went to different temples and prayed to different deities. So her mother regards her as a magical child. Chunhyang lives her carefree, happy life in her small town when one day a new governor is appointed to that place. The governor’s son sees Chunhyang playing in her swing, and he falls in love with her. He visits Chunhyang’s home and asks her mother for permission to marry Chunhyang. But the governor’s son is nobility while Chunhyang is from a regular family. The social gap is too wide to be bridged. This marriage will probably never work. What Chunhyang’s mother does and what happens after that forms the rest of the story.

As the story is a pansori, there are lots of songs and poems in the book. Even the prose is sometimes musical, set to a rhythm. We feel that our experience will be more rich if we watch it or listen to it being performed. It has many references to Chinese poetry and mythology, and it even talks about one of my favourites, ‘The Nine Cloud Dream’. Even the famous butterfly dream is mentioned. Many of the descriptions in the book evoke the imagery of Tang dynasty poetry. For example, this one –

“The dangling sprays of the willows were silhouetted against the candlelight like the strands of a beaded curtain; to the right a phoenix tree was dripping with clear dew, like a crane startled in a dream; to the left an umbrella pine was rustled by the clear breeze, like an old and dreaming dragon; on the big plantain by the window, the first tender leaves of the season were springing like phoenix’s tail-feathers. The new lotus-flowers, like jewels from the heart of the water, were barely above the surface of the pond, catching the drops of dew;”

One of my favourite descriptions is that of Chunhyang playing in the swing –

“‘I looked at what was before me, and suddenly it was behind me,’ say the Analects. She flew forward like a little swallow darting to seize a branch of peach-blossom; and then swung backward like a butterfly that has lost its mate, buffeted against a stone by a gust of wind. Like the fairy of Wu-shan riding on the cloud to arrive at Yang-t’ai, she had a spray of leaves in her lips and a flower stuck enchantingly in her hair.”

Another of my favourite descriptions is that of the governor’s son’s calligraphy –

“When he writes a dot, it’s like a stone dropped from a high peak; when he draws a straight line, it’s like a thousand-li cloud; he writes the top of a character as neatly as can be. His style is like waves and lightning. When he makes a slanting stroke, it is like an old pine bending from a cliff. He writes the character for ‘spear’ like a spreading wisteria vine, and he draws a hook like a taut bow. Even if some of the strokes lack strength, they all have perfect form.’”

The poetry and songs in the book are beautiful, but because of the wordplay, they probably bring more pleasure when read in Korean.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Story of Chunhyang‘. It is one of the great, classic love stories. I think it will work better as a pansori performance or as a play or as a movie. I hope to watch one of the movie adaptations sometime.

Have you read ‘The Story of Chunhyang‘? What do you think about it?


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Chinatown‘ by Oh Jung-hee was the first ever Korean story that I read. I got it many years back as a present from one of my favourite friends who worked in South Korea as a teacher at that time. I can’t remember much of the story now, but I remember it didn’t create much of an impact then. This time around, the reading experience was very different. I loved it. I found it very fascinating.

The story told in ‘Chinatown‘ happens just after the Korean war in the ’50s. The place where the story happens is just hinted at, but it is revealed in the short essays at the end of the book as Incheon. The story is narrated by a nine year old girl whose family moves to this coastal town from the north. The experiences she has, the good times she has with her best friend, the poverty that her family and others experience, the happiness they manage to find inspite of life being hard, the bleakness of the post war years, how children growup very fast and get thrust into the adult world suddenly, the presence of American GIs and the adverse impact of that on Korean life – these and other things are explored in the book. The narrator’s voice is fascinating and real.

The illustrations of Nam Joo-hyun are charming and bring alive the Korea of that time. I have shared some of the illustrations below so that you can get a feel of their charm.

The essay at the back of the book says this about the illustrations –

“The streets and rooms are often drawn out of proportion, but somehow the perspective reflects the way childhood scenes are remembered. Actual places are invariably much smaller than we remember them. Without explaining whether the reason is a slip of the memory or a false rendering of time, Nam Joo-hyun renders the curious wonders of our childhood memories in her own, personal style.”

This book is classified as a short story, but it is more a long story – it is 65 pages long with 17 pages of illustrations (it is in bilingual format – so it is 65 pages of English and 65 pages of Korean) – longer than a short story, but shorter than a novella, the kind of stuff Stefan Zweig was famous for.

This book is published by an indie publisher called Hollym which has published other Korean stories in this series in book format with beautiful illustrations and has tried bringing out Korean literature to an international audience at a time when Korean literature was not famous as it is today. I want to read more books from this series, but unfortunately they seem to be hard to find.

I loved ‘Chinatown‘. I want to read more stories by Oh Jung-hee and more stories in the Hollym series.

I’ll leave you with two of my favourite passages from the book.

“Dad was constantly fixing up the house. It was as if he was trying to make up for the days when we had to live in a rented room as refugees or stay up all night huddled together under a bridge or in a tent. The yard was small enough as it was, but Dad was adding rooms and putting in floors like little girls learning to sew sometimes add hidden pockets to purses and clothes. The house became riddled with narrow, tangled passageways that seemed to appear out of nowhere. There was always at least one place where you could hide and not be found.”

“An almost endless toiling of a bell came from the chapel at the back of the park…It continued steadily in measured waves and intervals. A radically restrained sound, it reduced all kinds of desires and feelings into a single ring of sound. It was like waking up from a dream and hearing a distant birdcall made on a summer night or the sound of a train passing wearily in the middle of the night. There was something fearful and secretive about the sound. “A nun must have died,” someone concluded. We knew that when a church bell rang continuously in that way, it meant that a nun was quietly dying.”

Have you read ‘Chinatown‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered ‘The Nine Cloud Dream‘ by Kim Man-Jung recently and just finished reading it.

Hsing-chen is the favourite disciple of the Buddhist monk Liu-kuan. One day his master is angry with him because he feels that Hsing-chen has strayed from a monk’s path (because of an episode involving fairies) and sends him to be reincarnated as a baby in a poor family so that he can experience the pleasures and pain of life. The master sends the fairies too, to be reincarnated as humans. Hsing-chen is born as the child to a hermit and his wife. They name the baby Shao-yu. What happens to Shao-yu when he grows up and whether he meets the fairies in their reincarnated human forms and the experiences he has and the adventures he goes through form the rest of the story.

The Nine Cloud Dream‘ is an odd book. The story it tells is set in Tang dynasty China (around 900 AD), the characters in the book are all Chinese, and the book is written in Chinese. But the author is Korean and this book is regarded as one of the great Korean classics. This makes it fascinating. We won’t bat an eyelid if something like this happens today, but in the 17th century when this book was written, it must have been odd. I did a little bit of research on this and discovered that during that time, Chinese was like the official language in many places in East Asia and Koreans mostly wrote in Chinese. This book must be one of the few surviving Korean works written in Chinese.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Nine Cloud Dream‘. ‘Enjoyed’ is an understatement. I loved it. I am a big fan of Chinese historical fantasies and this book was exactly that. The book has many wonderful strong women characters. The eight fairies who get reincarnated – each of them is amazing and unique. There are so many notes in the book which explain the finer points of Chinese history, culture, literature and philosophy. I normally refer to the notes sparingly because they disturb the flow of the book, but here I read every entry. It was fascinating. The story also had a lot of positive energy – there were no bad characters in the book. It was like reading a book version of a Hallmark movie. The characters in the story do mostly good things. Even in one situation when Shao-yu defies the Emperor and his mother, the Dowager Empress, and he is put in prison for that, we empathize with all the characters involved.

The ending of the story was interesting. I was expecting that the reincarnated characters will get back to their earlier form and maybe discuss their experiences as humans, but Kim Man-Jung delivers a totally unexpected ending. I didn’t see that coming. That ending touches on some deep parts of Buddhist philosophy and it was fascinating.

The book has an introduction by the translator Heinz Insu Fenkl, in which he discusses the history of the book, its link to Korean history and the author’s life, and the philosophical interpretation of the story. I liked most of the introduction but the philosophical analysis was a bit too much. The introduction is filled with spoilers and so it is better to read it, after you finish reading the book.

Have you read ‘The Nine Cloud Dream‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered ‘The Story of Hong Gildong‘ recently. It is a 77-page novella. I just finished reading it.

One day, Hong Mo, a high-ranking minister in the government has a vivid dream. He sees a fantastic vision in a beautiful landscape in his dream. After having this dream, the minister gets intimate with his concubine and she gets pregnant. When their baby is born, he looks very beautiful. He is given the name Gildong. As the years pass, this baby grows up to be a wonderful young man. He is great at studying and acquiring knowledge, he is also great at acquiring martial and magical skills. The only problem is that because he is a concubine’s son, he can’t become a government official like his father or join the military as a soldier. All official avenues are closed for him. Gildong is frustrated because of this. He can’t even call his father as father, and his brother as brother. His father loves Gildong but laments his son’s fate. There is a senior concubine at their home who is jealous of Gildong and his mother, and tries to plot against him and kill him. But the assassin she hires is not aware of Gildong’s strength and knowledge and skills and how he can summon magic. After this incident Gildong decides to leave home and bids goodbye to his parents. While roaming in the forest, he meets a community of robbers and joins them. What happens after that and the fantastic events that ensue are told in the rest of the story.

The Story of Hong Gildong‘ is the story of a son who yearns for respect and legitimacy, a ‘Robin Hood and outlaws’ type story, and also an Arabian Nights style magical fantasy, all woven into one. It is a pageturning, fast-paced, wonderful read. I loved the character of Gildong’s mother, Chunseom. She comes only in a few scenes, but she is gentle and kind and beautiful. When the story starts, she is a maid and then she becomes a concubine and a mother, and then a robber’s mother. By the end of the story, she is the Dowager Queen with three daughters-in-law who love her and respect her. I cried when I read the scene in which she meets her daughters-in-law for the first time.

The edition I read had an interesting introduction by the translator Minsoo Kang, in which he discusses  who was the actual author of the story and how old the story is and whether it is the first ever story written in Korean script (hangeul). All very fascinating to think about.

I think ‘The Story of Hong Gildong‘ would be even better experienced as a movie or a TV series or as a mahwa comic. I want to watch the movie / series and read the comic sometime.

Have you read ‘The Story of Hong Gildong‘? What do you think about it?

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I got Ven. Jiheo’sDiary of a Korean Zen Monk‘ as a present from one of my favourite friends who worked in South Korea as a teacher for a few years. The book seems to be hard to find and I don’t know anyone who has read it.

This book is a diary of a Korean Zen monk when he was at a three month winter retreat at a Buddhist monastery called Sangwonsa temple. The book covers the important happenings during this retreat, the formal practices and the informal happenings and conversations. Some of the informal happenings are fun to read – for example, when some of the monks, whom we expect to be wise, steal potatoes and bake them and enjoy a midnight treat and the monk who manages the stores tries to outwit them. Ven. Jiheo also introduces us to Korean Zen Buddhism through this book – on how people opt to become monks, the two main types of monks and the differences between them, how a monastery works democratically with respect to decision-making, how monks are not exempt from compulsory military service, how life is hard for monks who get sick, how everyone puts their hands up and work together while preparing for the winter, the different practices that monks follow to help them achieve enlightenment including being awake for a whole week during a retreat – these and more are described in the book. There are philosophical debates in many places in the book which are fascinating, and towards the end there is even a comparison of Buddhism and Existentialism.

There are beautiful black-and-white water colour sketches at the beginning of every chapter which bring the atmosphere of the book alive and enhance the reading experience. I’m sharing a few here.

Not much is known about the author of this book, Ven. Jiheo. He seems to have become a monk after finishing university and he  wrote this book in the early ’70s when he was probably around 35 years old. What happened to him after that and whether he is still around is not known. It seems to be a mystery. I seem to remember a story that he left the manuscript of this book in the monastery and that is how it was discovered and no one knew anything about him. But I’m not sure whether I read this or whether this is just my imagination or something I dreamt during the wee hours of the morning, because I’m not able to find this story anywhere. It clearly is a mystery.

I’m not a religious or spiritual person, but I enjoyed reading this book very much. It was beautiful and calming and therapeutic like Zen Buddhism is.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“A Seon monk is not a product of fate but a creation of karma. Fate is what was determined for you before you were born, and there’s no way you can change it; karma refers to what you choose with your own free will in the present. Thus, fate is inexorable but karma is malleable; fate is fixed while karma can be changed by your intentional actions; fate implies limitation and karma confers possibility.
      It was my fate to be born poor but it is my karma (actions) to become rich when I grow up. It is my fate to be born a human and not a louse or a flea but it is my karma to choose Buddhism as my spiritual refuge and aspire to Enlightenment.”

“For Seon monks, next to the hwadu, the most insistent thought is about food. The craving for food strongly suggests that monks haven’t really eliminated their desires, but that they have merely deflected them or put them on hold. It also demonstrates that the most basic human instinct is to consume food. I’ve concluded that the most compelling human fear derives from hunger…A sutra teaches : “Do not love anyone, do not despise anyone. You suffer because you can’t meet the one you love often enough, and you suffer because you encounter those you dislike too often.” We should remain distant from the feelings of love and hate. Live with detachment. The monks knew this teaching better than anybody else yet they violated it because of hunger. They overate. Instant karma.”

“The forty-something monk had a unique habit. No matter what temple he visited, he would bust off the hinges of any locked door he encountered. He believed that Buddha’s disciples shouldn’t have anything to hide or valuable enough to steal. He said he felt frustrated whenever he encountered a locked door. It reminded him of the sad bondage of sentient beings who are entrapped by ignorance and rotten karma.”

Have you read ‘Diary of a Korean Zen Monk‘? What do you think about it?

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