‘The Tale of Cho Ung’, translated by Sookja Cho (Review)

While most of my Korean reading has been fairly contemporary, I have started to delve a little deeper into the country’s literary past, with visits to the decades of dictatorship, the post-war years and the Japanese colonial era.  However, today’s choice takes us far further into the past.  Dating from around the start of the nineteenth century, the novel explores a much older period of history, a time of scheming ministers, betrayal, exiled royals and, above all vengeance.  Yes, there will be blood – and a little bit of magic, too 😉

The Tale of Cho Ung (translated by Sookja Cho, review copy courtesy of Columbia University Press) is another of those rip-roaring Asian classics, a story ostensibly promoting the virtues of loyalty to family and society while actually providing a crowd-pleasing body count.  The original writer is unknown, and the story that exists today, at least in this English-language translation, is the result of the many alterations provided over the years to suit the changing tastes of the target audience.  Here, not only is each reader’s experience of the book different, it appears that it actually also helped to shape the future form of the work.

The core story is a fairly familiar one.  It takes us back to fifth-century China, where an old Emperor reigns over a happy, peaceful land.  One of his most trusted officials is unfortunately forced to end his own life because of slander, but years later the Emperor is happy to receive the man’s eight-year-old son, Cho Ung, at court, hoping that he will one day be of assistance to the equally young crown prince.  The two boys prove to be well matched, and on Ung’s departure, the prince looks forward to seeing him when he returns to court.

Of course, if that was that, it would all make for a pretty dull story, and it’s here that our villains enter the stage.  The right prime minister, Yi Tubyŏng, was behind the demise of Ung’s father, and his sons make it clear that the young boy must go the same way:

“I am quite concerned that when Ung gets a position in the government, he will think about avenging his father’s death.  It would be wise to kill him before then.  But how can we accuse this little boy of wrongdoing when he does not yet hold a position in the government?”
They continued to plot against Ung.
p.4 (Columbia University Press, 2018)

When the elderly Emperor finally dies, Yi and his family are ready to act.  Having intimidated all the other ministers, they depose and exile the young crown prince and turn their attention towards young Ung and his mother.  Surely an eight-year-old boy can’t be hard to get rid of?  If ever there were famous last words, these would be right up there 😉

The Chinese setting may seem a little unusual for a Korean work, but as the translator explains in her informative introduction, this was a common enough ploy for books subtly criticising contemporary political issues.  It would take a rather dense reader to fail to see where all this is going, particular when the book’s subtitle reads ‘A Classic of Vengeance, Loyalty, and Romance’.  What follows is a Bildungsroman in three acts, in which the young boy must wander around searching for a safe haven that will allow him to grow up and learn enough to strike back against his enemies.  Along the way, he’ll become a fearsome fighter, travel to distant lands and even pick up a wife or two – all in around 140 pages.  That’s quite some life.

Cho makes for an interesting character.  He’s a precocious child, mature beyond his years, with the exception of an unfortunate spot of graffiti that puts him and his mother in danger.  The grown-up version is no less intelligent and focused, but far more destructive.  He’s a man on a mission, and that mission involves killing anyone who gets in his way – something he proves to be very good at:

Shaken and horrified, the enemy soldiers did not dare to come out, instead barring the gate tightly.  With his soldiers, Ung attacked the fortification and slaughtered the guards inside.  The dead bodies of the Sŏbŏn soldiers piled up and blood flooded the area, forming small streams.  Nobody could match Ung’s prowess.  The might of his one sword was equivalent to that of a million soldiers. (p.94)

The second half of the novel is basically one long military campaign, with the increasingly panicked impostor emperor sending general after general to stop Ung’s approaching armies, to no avail.  While there are a number of battle scenes, much of the action described concerns one-on-one conflicts, with the bouts decided by someone (literally) losing their head…

One obvious reference point here is another legend of classic Korean literature, Hong Gildong, and there are a number of similarities between the two heroes.  Both men are betrayed at a young age and subsequently driven into exile, where they gather followers and strike back at their foes.  More importantly, both become proficient in magic, and the touches of the supernatural, such as ghostly visitors and a dragon-horse that can carry Ung great distances, certainly liven up proceedings here.

There are several differences between the two heroes, though.  While Ung is a powerful character, he has his limitations and weaknesses.  The way he ‘meets’ his wife (i.e. forces her into sex) is a considerable stain on his character, and unlike with Hong Gildong, Ung’s knowledge of magic isn’t enough to simply breeze past any obstacle.  Instead, he’s forced to use his intelligence and command his troops as a mortal leader, aware of the possibility of defeat.  In fact, many of the more interesting scenes here are when the action slows, with our hero confronted by danger and momentarily unsure as to how to proceed.

Despite its position as a classic, The Tale of Cho Ung was originally vernacular literature, often related in public to the common folk, so there’s a slight tension here between entertainment and academic rigour.  Luckily, Cho (the translator, not the sword-wielding hero), while providing copious end-notes for scholars, has done great work in producing a readable text, which isn’t always the case with these academic versions of the classics.  There’s something for everyone here: you could just ignore all the notes and enjoy the story, or stop at each literary allusion and check the Chinese characters for every place name.  Unless you’re an expert in the field, my advice would be to only look when there’s something you really need to know (after the first few discussions of possible readings of place names, the eyes do tend to glaze over).

The novel certainly has the feel of a spoken tale, with the action coming thick and fast, and at times it can lack the sophistication and narrative tension of a novel.  As general after general is sent out to stop Ung and inevitably fails, the story begins to lose a little of its appeal, and you begin to wish the plot could be a little less one-dimensional.  There are a few parts where the action is more drawn out, such as in Ung’s dealings with the devious King of Sŏbŏn, a greedy monarch looking to expand his territory, and in the final major showdown with three brothers, Ildae, Idae and Samdae, each with magical powers.  Given the contrast between these high points and some of the less complex passages, you suspect that there must have been a temptation for Cho to add to the tradition of reinterpreting the text…

There are a few flat spots to The Tale of Cho Ung, but it’s great fun and a must for anyone with an interest in Korean culture.  If you like the sound of magical monks aiding warriors wielding enormous swords to slaughter improbably large armies (and who doesn’t?), then this will be one to look out for.  It just goes to show that the classics don’t have to be boring; all it takes is a touch of magic, and liberal amounts of blood, to make them worth a try 🙂

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