What do you do when you’re given a magic sword and a “dragon horse”? You sally out into the wicked world, of course, rescue maidens in distress, overthrow evil kings and chop off a great deal of heads while shouting over and over again variations of “Stretch out your neck and receive my sword!” However, as you fight manfully to restore your Crown Prince to his throne, which has been usurped by a wicked, scheming Prime Minister, you demonstrate at the same time the supreme Confucian virtues of filial piety and loyalty as well as respecting your teachers and learning how to become a good judge of people.
As with Western classics like Beowulf or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, this fast-paced Korean martial classic features a hero who must learn about himself before he can achieve his great status, and serve others before he can become great himself. As the short verse at the end says, “Let us study and learn so that we can be loyal to our country,” the proper desire of a selfless hero like Cho Ung (“Ung” actually means “hero”) will prove himself to be. All this is delivered to us in a fluent, engaging translation by Sookja Cho, who teaches Korean at Arizona State University. She also supplies a fascinating introduction which fills in everything a Western reader needs, as well as quite copious end-notes which will satisfy scholars.
The Tale of Cho Ung is splendid entertainment, bildungsroman and a serious commentary on human morality all rolled into one.
The genesis of this anonymous tale, which (by the way) takes place in medieval China, is interesting. Apparently, as Sookja Cho tells us, someone was listening to a story (it could well have been this one) in a tobacco shop and was so caught up in the tale that he actually attacked the storyteller! This shows just how important public storytelling was to Korean audiences in late Chosŏn (17th-19th centuries) times, and how prone some people were to “losing track of the line between the real world and the imaginary one.”
It was the listening rather than reading audience who influenced these tales as they were handed down from one storyteller to another, and for them the stories they heard supplied them with wisdom, “reconfirmed their norms and values, and helped them make sense of their world.”
If we need a Western parallel, we need look no further than Beowulf, where the values of the warriors, such as loyalty to rulers and kinsmen, and the duties of the rulers towards those warriors are set out, reinforcing through the hero’s actions what people wished to believe about their society. What Cho Ung fights for in this book is not that dissimilar to what Beowulf was fighting for. And his life is also similar to that of a knight such as we might find in Arthurian legends like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, setting off on a quest, surmounting all kinds of obstacles and endlessly fighting for the good, encountering supernatural beings, wise hermits, strong evil warriors, and eventually, if he’s lucky, settling down with the woman he loves, herself a chaste heroine, whose loyalty to Cho Ung even leads her to advise him at the end to take a second wife.
It’s interesting how familiar the pattern of Cho Ung’s adventures actually might be for Western readers, who will recognise in them many parallels to their own cultures. As noted above, evil kings, maidens in distress and warriors going through tough childhoods may be found everywhere in literature, expressed through the same stories and literary tropes, of which we never seem to tire.
In some ways Cho Ung is a generic hero; he embodies all the virtues that were considered desirable in a society largely governed by Confucian morals. He respects his emperor, his elders and teachers, he is fiercely loyal to his mother and to the memory of his father, and he is patriotic. Above all he is a tough warrior who also knows, at least on a few occasions, that he needs to be merciful, and not all his enemies lose their heads or get bludgeoned to death.
His tender side emerges as he falls in love with Maiden Chang, and he expresses his sorrow in poetry when he is parted from her; the less martial side of Cho Ung serves to show readers that he isn’t just a one-dimensional hero with no flaws. He is often impetuous or angry, but he also expresses sorrow and longing when it comes to his family or his beloved. For example, he beheads Woltae, the beautiful girl who has been sent to suborn him by the treacherous king of Sŏbŏn, who wants to keep Cho Ung where he can watch him and decide what to do with him. The king sends another girl and Cho Ung decides to take her with him when he leaves Sŏbŏn because she wants to be reunited with her mother, a sentiment which appeals to his sense of filial piety. Far from whipping out his magic sword and shortening her by a head, Cho Ung “asked her about her lineage and her deeds … and then he slept with her.”
Cho Ung was, as we have noted, a shrewd reader of people. Also, in spite of the various supernatural elements which punctuate the story (as they do in Western heroic sagas, too), the protagonist emerges by the end of the book as a human figure who can operate under his own steam, someone perhaps readers might wish to emulate in their everyday lives. After all, doesn’t everyone want to be Superman, or at least catch a little fragment of his superpowers? And, perhaps, we live in days when it would be good if someone came along to “repair the world,” as Sookja Cho puts it.
This book was painstakingly constructed by Sookja Cho from many different versions, beginning with the Wansan editions of 1857, which are considered the “representative commercial versions” of the story and are the longest, the shorter Seoul version, and a number of others. No one knows who the author might have been, but there are many editions of it, and at the time they circulated through a book-rental system. In short, it could have been described as a best-seller, although, as Sookja Cho points out, its popularity declined and it did not attract much scholarly interest over subsequent years.
Professor Cho has therefore done a great service to Korean literature by translating this once-popular work and offering it to an English-speaking audience, likely not as familiar with Korean writing as with Japanese or Chinese, especially in regard to literature produced before the twentieth century.
She has skilfully navigated the difficulties posed by a work that mixes didacticism and moralising with elements of poetry (there is quite a lot of this in the book) and the colloquial tone of an orally-transmitted story. It’s probably the latter which helps persuade readers that Cho Ung is a flesh-and-blood human being as well as a military hero and moral exemplar. There is, for example, no love-interest or sex in a heroic saga such as Beowulf, and the eponymous hero, for all the magnificent poetry, is somehow rather one-dimensional or symbolic, a sense which is reinforced by the formal structure of the poetry. Cho Ung, on the other hand, is just as much a person as an embodiment, and this element is what makes the work exciting and readable.
The Tale of Cho Ung is splendid entertainment, bildungsroman and a serious commentary on human morality all rolled into one, which makes it a book for all kinds of readers.