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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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