The Story of Hong Gildong translated by Minsoo Kang
One day a Joseon-era minister named Hong falls into a fantastical dream. The minister feels this dream is auspicious and when he awakes he wants to celebrate by having sex with his wife. Concerned about his propriety, though, she rebuts him:
“Your Lordship is a person of high position in the world and no longer a young man of excessive vitality. So why are you acting like a licentious youth in broad daylight and in view of the maids who spy upon this chamber? For the sake of your dignity, I will not comply with your desire.”
Undeterred, minister Hong encounters Chunseom, a lowborn servant girl with “nothing lowly about her character”. With her, he conceives a child, Gildong, and as a reward for her loyalty is made a concubine. So begins The Story of Hong Gildong, one of the most well-known and influential Korean folktales in which the lowborn Gildong becomes an outlaw, robbing corrupt officials in the name of the people, and eventually fulfills his destiny to be the leader of a great kingdom.
It has been adapted for screens, large and small, including the first feature length animation in South Korea in 1967 and a North Korean production from director Shin Sang-ok, who was kidnapped by Kim Jong-il, in which Gildong fights Japanese ninjas. In a recent interview, the translator Minsoo Kang himself recalls Hong Gildong being used as an advertising tool to sell products such as deodorant during his childhood in Seoul.
The tale itself is short, in three acts, consisting of a court drama, followed by an outlaw’s tale, and finally Gildong’s fantastical adventures in a made up land beyond Korea where he establishes a great kingdom on the fictitious island of Yul. As is common with older folk tales, the characters and narration may seem a bit wooden to the modern reader, but Kang assures us that these would have been revelations to readers in the mid-to-late 19th century.
However, what is most welcome in this new translation is Kang’s willingness to confront the received wisdom surrounding past interpretations of the tale as a supposedly radical text. In the introduction, part of a wider academic discussion Kang is engaged in, he explains that in addition to the questions over the origins of the story, most people in Korea have seen Hong Gildong as a radical, even proto-socialist work, thanks in large part to Kim Taejun’s seminal 1933 History of Joseon Fiction.
Kim was an ardent nationalist and communist, and writing amidst the depredations of Japanese colonial rule, he may be forgiven for seeing in Hong Gildong’s outlaw exploits a refutation of oppressive rule. But as Kang points out astutely, the text, especially the second and third acts, simply doesn’t support such an interpretation.
When Hong Gildong leaves home to find his way in the world, he falls in with a group of outlaws he dubs Hwalbindang (league of those who help the impoverished) eventually becoming their leader after he orchestrates a daring plunder of a famous monastery. However, upon careful inspection Gildong’s banditry is carefully circumscribed.
He explicitly forbids any theft from the people, but also from the king. His outlaws are only to rob corrupt officials,
“We will go after the powerful who obtained their riches by squeezing the common people and take away their unjustly gained possessions.”
Yet not even a page later he reminds his men that
“we must not forget that we are still people of this country. When the time comes, we will do whatever is necessary to demonstrate our loyalty... we will not commit acts of treason by stealing property from the common people... Nor will we take treasures being sent to the capital or money and grain being collected by the government.”
Hardly rebels striking at the heart of political order.
When it becomes clear that the king cannot handle Gildong’s powers, both mental and magical, he makes Gildong a minister of war, i.e. brings him into the political fold just as Gildong wanted as a young man in his father’s household. Gildong forsakes the outlaw life and leaves Joseon with the Hwalbindang to seek fortune and power beyond Joseon, though always in its name.
Act three is no more subversive than the second, and even finds Gildong reproducing the social order he found so constricting as a youth. Residing on Jae island, Gildong explores far and wide, eventually encountering uldongs, evil spirits who have kidnapped three fair maidens. Gildong, with his superior wits and magic, again saves the day and marries one while making the other two his concubines. One begins to wonder what version of the tale Kim Taejun was reading.
As if that wasn’t enough of a Joseon reproduction, Gildong leads a conquest of the island of Yul, “where he pacified the people”, a surely deliberate choice of phrasing by Kang that elides with euphemism the unpleasantness of conquest. The third act has been interpreted as something of a utopian vision, but this hardly constitutes a Utopia like Moore’s or even the dreadful attempts in the 20th century. Instead, assuming that it was authored in the mid-19th century, it reads more like a bit of nostalgia in a time when the social order of Joseon was coming under increased stress. There are few means of social control more powerful than myth and The Story of Hong Gildong fits that
For such a slim volume, The Story of Hong Gildong has an incredible array of implications for scholars of history, Korean literary history, and even contemporary political life. Kang’s scholarly work as an intellectual historian of 18th- and 19th-century Europe might seem odd at first blush, but his engagement with the radical contours that would spread to East Asia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries brings a welcome critical eye to a story that deserves to be cherished as a massively influential piece of fiction, but maybe not as a blueprint for a new world.