While much of the Korean literature I’ve read focuses on the writer’s home country, occasionally we do get to see what Korean authors make of the wider world. Quite apart from the books looking at life across the border (e.g. Yi Mun-yol’s An Appointment with my Brother), my reading has taken me to Australia (Kim In-suk’s The Long Road), Vietnam (Hwang Sok-yong’s The Shadow of Arms) and even Mexico (Kim Young Ha’s Black Flower). Today’s choice takes us to a new destination, with another well-known Korean writer shifting his gaze northwards, his focus this time on Korean businessmen trying to make it big in the world’s largest market. There are certainly fortunes to be made, but they’ll have to be careful too – it’s a jungle out there…
At the start of Cho Chongnae’s The Human Jungle (translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, review copy courtesy of Chin Music Press), plastic surgeon So Hawon, plagued by misfortunes back home in Seoul, is making a new start in Shanghai. He’s met by long-time ex-pat Chon Taegwang, his contact in the Chinese metropolis, and is driven to his hotel. On the exhausting trip past enormous buildings, and through insane traffic, a man on a bicycle crashes on to the asphalt in front of their car, leading poor So to curse his luck. Chon, however, is completely unfazed by the incident, calmly telling the surgeon to prepare for a lengthy delay – and as they wait, they see the ‘injured’ cyclist sneak a crafty glance up to see what the men in the car are doing. Welcome to the jungle…
Like So, we are naive newcomers to modern China, a blend of high-technology and low-hygiene, and Chon, as the character linking most of the scenes, is our guide. The Human Jungle is less a novel and more an introduction to the wonders of the Middle Kingdom. As we zoom between Shanghai and Beijing, Xi’an and Nanjing, Qingdao and Guangzhou, following a selection of wealthy natives and foreign visitors hoping to latch on to China’s economic miracle, we get just a glimpse of what China has become – and what it might be in the future…
Cho Chongnae is a man for big books, best known for a trio of multi-volume historical works (T’aebak Mountains, Arirang and Han River), but The Human Jungle was originally serialised in a newspaper, later appearing as three short novels (each selling over a million copies in Korea). The English edition combines the three parts into one book, omitting nothing apart from superfluous repetition from the original newspaper serialisation. While his major works were focused squarely on his home country, in this one Cho turns his gaze in the direction of China, a place Koreans are obviously fascinated by.
In terms of a plot, I’d have to say that there isn’t really one that stands out. The book consists of a series of scenes following characters we’re gradually introduced to over the course of the first part, many of them from Korea. Apart from Chon and So, we meet Kim Hyon’gon and Ha Kyongman, two businessmen working hard at opposite ends of the country, as well as Chon’s nephew, Chaehyong. A student at Beijing University, he’s taking a rather different approach to life in China, changing his major from Business to History in an effort to learn more about his adopted homeland (and stay close to his Chinese girlfriend, Yanling). There are also a handful of other foreigners featured: Japanese salarymen, Toyotomi Araki and Ito Hideo; French Cartier rep Jacques Cabang; and then there’s Asian-American executive Wang Lingling, the beautiful president of Gold Groups, a company doing big business on the East Coast.
The Human Jungle‘s focus is on the growing reality of China as the new economic superpower, and the need for outsiders to adapt. Of course, the main reason for entering the country is financial:
In its worship of the money god, capitalism is clear-cut and straightforward, cruel and merciless. Lured by the awful power of that god, salesmen were infantry fighting a silent battle on the frontlines of enterprise. But to what end? What was the gain?
(Chin Music Press, 2016)
The point here is that there’s a lot of money to be earned in China if you’re smart enough to find it. A Chinese expression pervading the book is ren tai duo (‘so many people’), and while that’s bad for those wanting a quiet life, it’s great for people with a clever idea. The sheer size of the Chinese market means any success can be stratospheric.
However, it must be done Chinese style, and the businessmen hoping to strike it rich have many lessons to learn. One is the concept of manmandi (slowly, slowly) – pressuring partners to close a deal quickly won’t get you very far in China. Of even more importance, though, are your connections with locals:
Guanxi had a counterpart in Korea, but it was broader – connections, backing, and a network all in one. The emphasis on bloodline, home region, and school ties had crippled the nation. But in China, it was the foreign firms who found themselves crippled and trying to gain footing. Wandering a human jungle of relationships, losing their direction, stumbling and falling, they scrambled for guanxi, which was invisible and elusive, but almost palpable.
We see the importance of these guanxi (connections) throughout the book, with many done deals dissolving into nothing because of a false step or a quiet word from the competitor’s guanxi. Cultivating these connections involves cutting people into the deal or softening the tension with lavish meals and gifts. After a decade in China, Chon is an expert at playing this kind of game, knowing the importance of devoting time to building relationships and playing the long game.
One thing I’d have to say about The Human Jungle is that I wouldn’t really consider it to be an overly literary work. The translators have done an excellent job, but the writing, in terms of style, is unlikely to appeal. More importantly, the characterisation isn’t all it should be, and there’s a hell of a lot of info dumping throughout the book; often, conversations exist simply to inform the reader regarding Chinese society and history. In some places, the story morphs into non-fiction travel writing, a Korean businessman’s guide to China – it’s interesting, but it’s not really literature.
To a western reader, Cho’s novel may also come across as a little chauvinistic, in fact downright xenophobic in places. The Koreans are the good guys, willing to put in the hard yards to bring success to their company (and, by extension, their country), and they do their best to fit in with the local community (Ha Kyongman even organises beach-cleaning expeditions and local festivals for the elderly). Cho bends over backwards to have his characters explain away any Chinese peculiarities as normal and acceptable, stressing the positive relationship between the two countries.
The portrayal of the Japanese, by contrast, is extremely negative. Unlike the heroic Koreans, they show no desire to learn the language, and with their families left behind in Japan, they’re free to visit massage parlours and live it up. Stereotyped as arrogant and dim-witted, there’s a suggestion that they deserve the vitriol that comes their way when the political tension increases:
Finally Chon logged onto Weibo, and was met with an inferno of public opinion. Feeding on the flames of two thousand radio and television stations, the blaze engulfing the world’s largest netizen audience, some six hundred million people, was incendiary. In any nation, an international land dispute was a sensitive subject, involving both populism and jingoism. What Chon now saw in the mass of nameless citizens was anti-Japanese populism amplified into hate-spewing xenophobia, a brutal jungle of bloodthirsty words and blazing rage.
Later in the novel, we see anti-Japanese riots in the streets and raids on massage parlours known to be haunts of Japanese businessmen. There’s a lot of bad blood between China/Korea and Japan due to recent history, and it all comes out here…
Despite these uncomfortable aspects, The Human Jungle is a fascinating book overall, and if you treat it as a guided tour through modern China, there’s a lot to like. Cho shows us both sides of the country, the enormous luxury hotels and high-tech hospitals alongside crippling air pollution and people defecating in the streets. In addition, the writer’s descriptions of little-known aspects of Chinese business culture, such as the acceptance of ernai (lovers for big businessmen) will undoubtedly raise an eyebrow of many Anglophone readers. Cho is mainly concerned with pointing out contrasts with Korean society, but there’s plenty here for everyone else too.
While the sympathetic Chon is the closest we have to a main character, young Chaehyong is perhaps the most representative figure. In changing his major and attempting to learn more about Chinese culture, he’s the embodiment of the Korean desire to understand its near neighbour. In a symbolic ending to the novel, his bow to Yangling’s parents seems less a sign of respect to future in-laws than kowtowing before a superior force. It’s a clever summary of the novel’s main idea, a portrait of a rising power and a warning to the rest of the world. China is here – you’d better learn how to deal with it…