The Kuunmong, to give this book its Korean title, is described by its new translator as “the most elegant of Korea’s literary novels and one of the most beloved masterpieces of Korean literature.”
Given the fact that English translations of classical Korean literature are somewhat few and far between, we have to take Heinz Insu Fenkl at his word. It’s right up there with the anonymous Story of Hong Gildong, “arguably the single most important work of classic Korean fiction,” which, translated by Minsoo Kang, is also available as a Penguin Classic. (Penguin Books, by the way, should be highly commended for its contribution to the availability of an Asian literature which is often overlooked by Western readers precisely because no-one knows much about it.)
It was also a good idea to illustrate the text with contemporary line-engravings. Professor Fenkl has produced a fluent, lively and indeed elegant translation of this work, which does its author justice and skilfully navigates between avoiding self-conscious archaism (this is a 17th-century work, after all) in the tone of the book whilst at the same time using language which has not been made to sound anachronistic or too “modern”. Kim Man-jung (1637-1692), a Korean nobleman who eventually became the head of the Confucian Academy, was writing a historical novel in a foreign language (scholars believe it was first written in Chinese) set in another place (China) and another time (the 9th century), which makes Fenkl’s use of language even more appropriate. Historical novels should certainly read as if they were set in the past, yet not use language so antiquated that readers cannot follow it.
On the surface, The Nine Cloud Dream reads a bit like a fairy tale or fantasy novel crossed with an adventure story and a bildungsroman. It actually has fairies in it, as well as ghosts, dragons, supernatural actions and various reincarnated people. There are battles, sex, and a fair amount of poetry being written as the hero progresses through the various stages of his life, all taking place in a semi-magical China of palaces, princes, princesses and emperors, with hardly a mention of anyone who is not noble or aspiring to be noble.
As its title suggests, however, Kim Man-jung has another purpose here besides entertainment. This book is about Hsing-chen, a young monk living on the Lotus Peak who first visits the Dragon King, questions his vocation and then lets himself be distracted by eight flirtatious fairy maidens on a bridge. He’s kicked out of his order by his master Liu-kuan, who tells him he has sinned. “You have turned away from the teachings of the Buddha,” he informs Hsing-chen. “and dwelt on worldly and sensual things. You have rejected your way of life here, and now you cannot stay.” Hsing-chen begs and pleads, but to no avail; his master sends him to King Yama in hell and that’s the end of him. Or is it?
Hsing-chen, to cut a long story short, finds himself reincarnated as Shao-yu, son of the hermit Yang and his wife Liu, and it is in this incarnation that he begins the adventure that we find ultimately is all a dream. It is in this form that Hsing-chen will be “punished” so that he can ultimately get on the right path, which, of course, is the Buddhist one. Shao-yu grows up to be almost supernaturally talented, virtuous and intelligent. He becomes a great general, a skilled diplomat and a superlative lover, a man whom just about every woman he meets wants to sleep with (the Empress Dowager is an exception). This looks like a rather strange punishment, but in the didactic context of Kim’s novel it makes sense. All Shao-yu’s great “successes” will turn out to be illusory, and in the end he will understand that and become a true Buddhist.
In Western literature, the equivalent book might be Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, where the eponymous hero progresses through various stages of material life after meeting Gautama (the Buddha) and deciding not to become his disciple immediately, as his friend Govinda does. Siddhartha’s quest includes becoming a successful merchant and the lover of Kamala, the most beautiful woman he has ever seen, but eventually understanding that these things are transient, and that the good life is not to be found in the relentless pursuit of individual material success or the pursuit of pleasure.
Unlike Siddhartha, who makes actual journeys, Hsing-chen, as Shao-yu, exists only in a dream, although the end result is approximately the same for both of them, and, like Siddhartha, Shao-yu becomes rich and successful before realising, when he wakes up, that it’s all an illusion.
The distinction between dreams and reality is at the heart of The Nine Cloud Dream, but the plot also has another dimension. Kim Man-jung lived and worked in the court of King Sukjong, who reigned from 1674 to 1720, and whose government was, to say the least, chaotic and scandal-ridden.
As Heinz Fenkl notes in his introduction, there was a great deal of intrigue going on amongst the women at Sukjong’s court, the “high court women, official wives and concubines.” The king was at loggerheads with his mother, and his own third wife, Queen Jang, “was the living historical embodiment of the Korean stereotype of the seductive and conniving beauty.”
Kim turns this soap-opera upside-down and replaces it with a rather unlikely story of female love, friendship and co-operation. All the women involved with Shao-yu come to love each other, and Kim turns the real-life intriguers and plotters into practical jokesters and matchmakers, thus creating an ideal court, which is, of course, revealed to be a dream. Even the Emperor likes his mother. Kim himself ran into serious trouble with Sukjong on two occasions, both involving court women, and probably yearned for a scenario where such Confucian moral values such as filial piety and valued friendship might come back, instead of the vicious, backbiting atmosphere that prevailed in Sukjong’s court, and which led to exile for some and even executions.
Kim Man-jung does not simply write a book extolling or privileging the virtues of Buddhism. He was, after all, the head of the Confucian Academy, and although Buddhism does come out as the prevailing philosophy, Kim includes Confucian and Taoist elements in the book, both of which have some impact on the progress of Hsing-chen/Shao-yu (they are, in the end, the same person).
Kim does his synthesizing of the three philosophies very subtly; for example, the number five, as Fenkl explains in his introduction, would have had “associative connections related to cosmology and social structure” as well as more obvious ones such as the Five Chinese Classics, and Kim brings it in right at the beginning of the book with a reference to “the five great mountains beneath heaven,” or the Five Peaks. Fenkl explains in clear language not just this particular use of numbers, but the even more complex use made by Kim of the number nine, as in the eight fairies plus Hsing-chen in the middle, which corresponds to Shao-yu with his eight wives and concubines.
There are other patterns here, including the circle representing samsara (the life-death-rebirth cycle) and the Taoist symbol of yin-yang. The ramifications of these elements in the structure of the novel are complicated, and to fully understand what Kim Man-jung is doing with them requires reading Fenkl’s introduction, which is learned but very accessible, and adds depth for readers who might simply read this book as a good adventure-story which, fortunately, it is, but to leave it at that would not explain why the book is a “classic”.
John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.