The Court Dancer, the latest novel by Man Asian Literary Prize winner Kyung-Sook Shin, is likely destined to be read in several different ways. The first, and in some ways the most commercial, is as East-West romantic period fiction in the tradition of, say, Alessandro Baricco’s Silk or any number of English-language examples.
In late 1880s, at a time of growing international threat to the Joseon dynasty, Yi Jin, a court lady, confidante to the Queen and accomplished dancer, attracts the eye of the newly-arrived French legate Victor Collin de Plancy, at just the moment when the Queen starts to worry that Jin’s beauty might also catch the eye of the King. Jin has, fortunately or coincidentally, been taught French on the side by a French missionary. Victor is smitten, and, contrary to both tradition and protocol, asks for her to visit the Legation, where she has her first encounter with both Berlioz and champagne:
Jin took a sip of champagne and closed her eyes. It spread in her mouth a fragrance as sweet as the music floating in her ears.
More substantially, Jin finds herself attracted to Victor’s library.
Victor soon asks for her hand—Jin’s own feelings are ambiguous and remain so, but has little choice in the end—and he is permitted, indeed encouraged, to take her back to France. There, her beauty and fluency in French create a sensation; she impresses Guy de Maupassant when she reads his work at a gathering at the fashionable Le Bon Marché, and helps translate some of the first Korean literature into French. But she’s a fish out of water, and Victor takes her back to Korea, where she finds she no longer fits either.
True to the genre, we are treated to extensive descriptions of Jin’s beauty and elegance:
Her mystique wasn’t merely due to her exotic clothes. Nor was the reason she caught the eye, despite being among countless other women, because of the dazzling nape of her neck or the depth of her gaze. But her bared nape truly was pleasing when she lowered her head, resolute when she stood tall and centered, and magnetic when softly bending and twisting, drawing the touch of the hand.
Victor is earnest, honest, devoted as a puppy, and entirely blind to what is really going on.
The Court Dancer is so easy to read that one can forget that it was written in Korean.
The Court Dancer is, says the blurb, based on a “remarkable true story”. Victor Émile Marie Joseph Collin de Plancy was the actual legate to the Korean court. And the story is based on an account in the 1904 En Corée, co-authored by de Plancy’s successor Hippolyte Frandin, which begins:
Une danseuse attachée à la maison royale se distinguait de ses compagnes par son indiscutable beauté, telle même pour des yeux européens. Un jeune chargé d’affaires (il vit encore et je ne puis divulguer son nom) fut particulièrement frappé par la grâce et le charme de cette jeune femme. Il la demanda au roi Li-Hi, qui, très généreusement, lui en fît don. La danseuse, étant essentiellement esclave, dut, sans protester, suivre son nouveau maître.Quoted here.
(“A dancer attached to the royal house was distinguished from her companions by her indisputable beauty, even for European eyes. A young chargé d’affaire—he still lives and I can not divulge his name—was particularly struck by the grace and charm of this young woman. He asked King Li-Hi, who, very generously, gave her to him as a gift. The dancer, being essentially slave, had, to follow her new master without protest.”)
The dancer was called Li-Chin, the young diplomat in question was evidently Collin de Plancy; in En Corée, he takes her to Paris and then to Morocco. This intriguing story, alas, is otherwise unconfirmed. One would have thought that a French diplomat squiring an exotic Korean beauty around Paris would have attracted notice. The other Korean character in Paris did: translator, activist, political assassin and statesman Hong Jong-u, in Paris at the same time as Jin, did translate the books he—in the novel—asks her help on, and did actually kneel and kiss the hands of a French Minister.
French missionary and later bishop Jean Blanc was also very real. And Maupassant did indeed make an impression in Korean translation; the passage that Jin reads at at Le Bon Marché is about Jeanne from Une Vie, one of the characters that apparently received considerable critical acclaim in Korea, albeit a few decades later.
The Court Dancer is so easy to read that one can forget that it was written not in English (or Italian or French) but in Korean. By writing about an early Asian visitor to the West, Shin has to some extent turned the genre on its head.
The illusion of this being a mainstream English-language novel is partly due to the fluent translation by Anton Hur. (A little too fluent at times, for Hur is taken with using “gift” as a verb which, whatever one may think about this usage, is wrong for the time and tone; nor would French aristocrats carry the title “Lord”.) Adding in an important role for a benign Catholic missionary and later bishop is the sort of thing a writer might do to add more points of contact for Western readers, but then again, Christianity is important in contemporary Korea.
Of course, The Court Dancer is also distinguished by the Western protagonist being French rather than British or American, which adds certain je ne sais pas quoi to the narrative. Jin is probably grateful that her introduction to Western cuisine comes via coq au vin and mille-feuilles rather than battered cod and beer.
And Korea and Korean history are considerably less well-known than that of Japan and China, where such novels are more usually set. At some level, it is all familiar—silks, peonies, palanquins, palace intrigue, etc.—but Shin includes considerable attention-grabbing detail, including the machinations of the late Qing dynasty. Yuan Shikai was posted to Korea at the time. The presentation of China as a robust meddler in the Korean court and overseer of its foreign relations belies the normal narrative of a China succumbing to Western imperialism.
There are places where Shin’s Asian colors show, and not just in the detailed descriptions of Korean court life. On a visit to the Louvre, Jin asks why the Greek statues are in Paris rather than back in Aegean; in the Delacroix gallery, she remarks that at least this painter was French. She goes on to note that some important Korean books— seized by a French military expedition—were in French libraries, and questions Victor’s penchant for collecting Korean objects-d’art—these perhaps anachronistic political musings turn personal when she asks whether she might herself be just another piece of porcelain: “People here look at me like they look at the things you’ve collected, Victor.”
None of this quite blossoms into either feminism or true anti-imperialism, for in addition to having a soft spot for French literature, culture and personal freedoms, Jin cannot escape her own fidelity to tradition. In finding herself, and finally gaining control over her destiny, she loses everything and anyone. Like a preserved plum, The Court Dancer is bittersweet throughout.
Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books. He established the Man Asian Literary Prize and ran it for its first two years, before Shin won.
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