Tales of the Strange by a Korean Confucian Monk ~ By Sisup Kim
(Dennis Wuerthner, trans., University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 2020, ISBN #978-0-8488-2594)
Review by Bill Drucker (Winter 2021 issue)
This modern English translation of the early Choseon-era prose fiction Kumo Sinhwa (New Tales of the Golden Turtle) is a collection of five fanciful tales by the poet/scholar Sisup Kim (1435-1493), a major literary figure in the Choseon period (1392-1897). Written in the Chinese literary style, the stories have become classical Korean fiction.
The Kumo Sinhwa is an example of classical Korean literature of the period. This new study of the oldest surviving edition of the five tales examines the heavy influence of Chinese literary style from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and the Manchu Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), in addition to the Korean cultural influence. Chinese literary style heavily influenced Korea and Japan during that period. The work also ties in Korean, Chinese and Japanese history.
The attributed author Sisup Kim was a celebrated Buddhist-Confucian scholar and writer. In the centuries after his lifetime, there were biographies written about him. Generations of Kim’s family members were magistrates and military commanders. As a child, Kim displayed intellectual and writing gifts. It is said that even King Sejong heard of this precocious child.
In 1453, Prince Suyang carried out a coup, seizing the throne by killing the legitimate heir Tanjong and his loyal followers, including nobles and Confucian scholars. Thus began the reign of King Sejo (1451-1468). Kim, along with literati and state officials, became sharp critics of this illegitimate king’s rule. In 1456, another coup intended to reinstate Tanjong failed, and collaborating captured officials were executed. In protest, other state officials resigned their posts or declined to serve under Sejo. Kim remained critical, not just of King Sejo but of all rulers who seize power for their own gain.
Despite the Choseon ruler conflicts, Kim kept writing, and his work culminated with Kumo Sinhwa. Notable in the stories is the fictional scholar monk who dispenses critical remarks about the characteristics of a good king.
The book examines the five major tales in the Kumo Sinhwa collection. In the centuries of revisions, editions have been abridged, with shifts in ideological differences from Confucian to Buddhist. Erotic and more colorful passages have been muted or eliminated. The messages of authority and flilial obedience are revised in North Korean and Japanese editions. The writing includes moral lectures and strong messages aimed at the corrupt rulers of the day. “He who possesses virtue may not use force to ascent the throne.” This was clearly directed toward usurper King Sejo, but certainly applies to any abuser of power.
One of the tales, Biography of Master Maewoltang, is a biography of the author Sisup Kim. The writer praises his advanced intellect and innate goodness. His followers tell tales that the young master could command tigers, change wine into blood and unleash qi to create rainbows.
In the tale, Account of a Chop’o Game at Manbok Temple, and in Biography of Scholar Yi, the storylines describe the intimate relations of men with women ghosts. Unmarried Scholar Yang from Namwon prays to Buddha and tosses the game sticks (chop’o). He says that karma is already determined and he waits for the one promised to him. Soon, a beautiful woman appears. She tells him she is ill-fated; however, he still marries her. After her untimely death, he sells all he has, never remarries and wanders in the mountains. One night, he is comforted by his wife’s ghost who thanks him for his many offerings to the gods. His prayers have restored her good karma, and she is already reborn in another country.
In the tales, Gazetteer of the Southern Continent Yombu, and in Report of Scholar Han Attending a Banquet in the Dragon Palace, the storylines deal with dream journeys to the underworld, where the scholar meets divine beings. In Kyongju, Scholar Pak is unhappy when he fails to pass the civil exams and his hopes to enter the National Academy are dashed. Pak avoids people, but then encounters some Buddhist monks and discusses the celestial heaven and the nether world. One night, the gates of hell open and he travels to the underworld. Pak encounters the King of the nether realm. Noticing the scholar’s great intellect, the king offers Pak the throne. Waking up from the vivid dream, Pak is transformed as a person and as a scholar.
The other tales, narrated from the view of a scholar, explore Confucian and Buddhist virtues —- love, morality and principles. In intellectual encounters with monks, kings, beautiful women, and in dreams, the scholar travels on the path of self-discovery. His karma is tested by the people he encounters. His beliefs are challenged by the earthly temptations. In the end, the scholar achieves his goals toward enlightenment.
Of note is the Meiji Japanese edition (1884). It was edited and produced at a time when Choseon Korea was ending and when Imperial Japan was in the process of seizing Korea and other Asian territories. Japan could have easily destroyed the Kumo Sinhwa through its policies of eradicating Korean culture. Instead, the Japanese made its own version of the classic tales, now known as the Meiji edition.
That this happened signifies the importance of this Choseon classic, and perhaps indicates how the Kumo Sinhwa has survived through many centuries.
This is a book for Korean classic literature students, more than for general readers. Despite the brevity of these texts, the book is large, with nearly half of its 380 pages used for references, footnotes and commentaries.
The reading is slow going, even if the reader is armed with the knowledge of comparable classic Chinese literary history, Korean Confucianism and early Choseon history. The example passages are flowery and ornate in style.
This work is a significant contribution to Korean classical literature in translation. Both North and South Korea acknowledge the Kumo Sinhwa as a national literary asset. Tribute to the power sister