‘Premodern Korean Literary Prose: An Anthology’, Michael J. Pettid, Gregory N. Evon & Chan E. Park (eds.) (Review)

As you’re no doubt aware, I’ll be spending much of the next few months focusing on the pick of last year’s fiction in translation.  However, before I begin another epic Man Booker International Prize journey, I have one last review for you all, and it’ll take us in a very different direction.  You see, while it’s good to keep abreast of current trends, there’s also a need to remember where these books came from, so today’s post sees us taking a trip back in time to learn more about the literary history of one of my specialist areas 🙂

It doesn’t take a genius to work out the contents of the Columbia University Press release Premodern Korean Literary Prose: An Anthology (edited by Michael J. Pettid, Gregory N. Evon and Chan E. Park, review copy courtesy of the publisher).  The collection guides the reader through more than a millennium of Korean literary history, beginning with remaining fragments from the late Silla era and finishing with longer texts from the Choson dynasty which ended (with Japanese domination…) in 1910.  The editors first provide an introduction setting the scene, explaining how political events affected reading and writing in Korea, and each of the following sections and texts has its own short elucidating piece.  Be warned – if you’re not keen on footnotes, open this book at your peril…

The collection progresses in chronological order, starting in the late Silla Period (around the 9th Century).  The early works consist of the few surviving brief tales, bizarre flash fiction featuring ghosts and transfiguration.  Next, we move on to the early Koryo Period (918-1392), where the style changes to histories and biographies.  The texts featured here are mainly allegorical pieces featuring characters such as Mr. Cash and Master Malt, the focal point of some rather heavy-handed moral lectures.

As Korea moved into the Choson Period (1392-1910), the literary culture began to develop more prose, particularly after the invention of Hangeul.  The introduction of the phonetic writing system allowed greater diversity in writing, both in terms of genre and in the class and gender of the writers.  Examples here include Kim Sisup’s ‘An Account of Drunken Merriment at Floating Jade-Green Pavilion’ (tr. Gregory N. Evon), in which a well-to-do young man composing poems by moonlight encounters a beautiful woman who turns out to be an immortal telling of times past.  There are also some interesting family sagas included.  In ‘A Tale of Two Sisters, Changhwa and Hongnyon’ (tr. Jongsoo Shin and Peter Lee), the arrival of a mother-in-law causes problems for two young girls (this is a story pursuing justice beyond the grave…) while Cho Wihan’s ‘The Tale of Ch’oe Chok’ (tr. Sookja Cho) follows a man through a life full of wanderings and hardship to the inevitable happy ending.

The best of these stories is ‘The Tale of Lady Pak’ (tr. Shin and Lee) which is set in the early 16th Century against the backdrop of the Manchu invasions.  There’s more than a touch of The Story of Hong Gildong here; the main figure is an unattractive bride of strange origins, who has far more to her than first seems.  Her beauty suddenly appears, as does her magic, and jealous enemies try to get rid of her, to no avail:

After being provided with a pillow, the woman lay down.  Lady Pak pretended to lie down as well but remained alert to her guest’s movements.  Presently the woman fell into a deep sleep and then her eyes opened.  From them a fireball emerged and rolled around in the room as her breathing echoed throughout the house.  Lady Pak got up and opened the assassin’s bag.  It contained nothing but a dagger on which was carved the phrase, “Flying Swallow Dagger” in vermilion.  The dagger came out of the bag and turned into a swallow, which flew about the room to attack Lady Pak.  She sprinkled fiery ashes, whereupon the bird could not maintain its form and fell to the floor.  Lady Pak took up the dagger and sat on the woman’s belly.
“Qi Hongda! she cried.  “Wake up and look at me!”

‘The Tale of Lady Pak’, p.91 (Columbia University Press, 2018)

This is just the start.  Even when the invaders arrive in the capital in overwhelming numbers, the elegant lady proves to be more than a match for any soldier foolish enough to attempt to invade her home.

Amongst the collected stories, there are a couple of extracts from longer works.  One of these is The Pledge at the Banquet of Moon-Gazing Pavilion (tr. Ksenia Chizhova), an early-17th-century multi-volume lineage model.  In the snippets available here, we meet yet another evil step-mother at work, but this time the length of the novel allows a more nuanced psychological approach.  Another work, this time hailing from late in the Choson Period, is the anonymous palace text Diary of the Kyech’uk Year (tr. Kil Cha and Michael Pettid).  This one is based on real events and shows the palace machinations that unfold as a prince bent on power aims to remove all in his way.

There are a number of shorter pieces interspersed between the stories mentioned, ranging from autobiographies, stories of wonder and some rather bawdier tales, but the anthology finishes up with a trio of famous works from a very different genre.  P’ansori, a style of performing narratives in song, is an integral part of Korean literature, and one of the highlights of this collection are the three classic examples translated here by Chan E. Park (which anyone with a background in Korean studies will probably recognise).  For example, we have the Song of Sim Ch’ong, the classic tale of a girl whose devotion to her father is unparalleled, to the extent of being prepared to sacrifice herself to help him regain his sight (as I found out a while back, the famous twentieth-century author Ch’ae Manshik produced a version with a rather less upbeat ending).

There’s also one of Korea’s most famous folk tales, Song of Ch’unhyang, in which two young lovers are separated by circumstances and an evil magistrate.  This version of the tale focuses on the end of the story, with the handsome Mongnyong infiltrating the wrongdoer’s meeting to bring him down:

Stepping forth on the wooden floor,
the inspector general spreads his fan and claps his hands.

The secret police officers,
earlier dispersed among the spectators,
gather like a swarm of bees.

With their six-sided cudgels slung over their shoulders,
they shout in a chorus of booming voices,

“The inspector general incognito is here!
The inspector general is here!
The inspector general incognito is here!”
The sky tumbles, the earth sinks,
the crowd of several hundred disperses
like a stone wall collapsing,

like ocean waves dissipating.
Would the commanding voice of Chang Pi
have been more frightening than this?
‘Song of Ch’unhyang’, p.294

There’s an interesting link to western classics here, with more than a passing similarity to Ulysses’ incognito return from a lengthy absence…

Premodern Korean Literary Prose is an interesting collection, but for several reasons, it’s probably not one suited to the casual reader.  There’s a definite focus on literal accuracy in the translation for the most part, with copious footnotes and hanja characters with readings in Korean and Chinese.  Combined with an insistence on exploring every possible allusion to classical Chinese texts, this can detract from the reading experience at times.

In addition, I couldn’t help but make comparisons with another classic collection I’ve tried, Donald Keene’s Anthology of Japanese Literature.  Keene’s work follows a similar structure, yet (for the casual reader, at least) it makes for a far more impressive experience, with introductions to several classics of world literature.  After reading the Japanese anthology, I ended up making four purchases, with more likely to follow at some point, but I can’t say that the same is likely to happen this time (and I’m not sure any would be available in translation, anyway).

Still, even with these caveats, the anthology is an interesting work, and if you’re serious with your Korean reading, one you’ll probably appreciate.  Certainly, the more you explore Korean literature, the more allusions to these stories you’ll find in what you read – having a firm grasp of premodern literary culture can only help make your adventures in modern Korean literature all the more fascinating and enjoyable 🙂


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