‘The Nine Cloud Dream’ by Kim Man-jung (Review)

Most of my Korean reading has been of fairly recent work, with the occasional journey back to the early twentieth century, but I am starting to branch out a little and examine the country’s classics.  Today’s choice certainly falls into that category as it’s one of the earliest, and most famous, pieces of Korean prose fiction, a novel that cleverly examines both the mundane and divine.  Life may be but a dream, yet, as we’ll see, that doesn’t mean that you can’t have fun along the way – and the hero of my latest read certainly does his best to enjoy life to the full 🙂

Kim Man-jung’s The Nine Cloud Dream, as befits its classic status, has been translated several times before, and Heinz Insu Fenkl is the latest writer to take on the task of bringing the tale into English.  Written around the end of the seventeenth century, the story is set in Tang China, and begins with a Buddhist monk, Hsing-chen, returning from an important visit (to the Dragon King’s underwater palace…).  On the way back to the monastery, he encounters eight beautiful fairies, and it is this seemingly innocuous encounter that proves to be his downfall – the Master of the monastery is not happy:

Liu-kuan became angry.  “You drank wine at the palace of the Dragon King!  On your return, by the stone bridge, you flirted with eight fairy girls, joking with them, throwing them a branch of flowers, which you transformed into jewels.  And since your return, you have turned away from the teachings of the Buddha and dwelt on worldly and sensual things.  You have rejected your way of life here, and now you cannot stay!”
p.9 (Penguin Classics, 2019)

This harsh verdict actually precedes an even more draconian punishment.  After a swift trip to see King Yama in the underworld, Hsing-chen and the fairies are sentenced to death, albeit with the consolation of rebirth in the mortal realm.

This is where the story proper begins, with the naughty monk reborn as Yang Shao-yu, the surprise late arrival of an elderly couple.  Shao-yu grows up to become a youth of great intelligence and beauty, and it’s only a matter of time before he heads off to the capital to seek fame and fortune.  Wherever he goes, he bowls people over with his looks, his wit and the ability to dash off poems at the drop of a hat, and it’s little surprise that he catches the eye of many a woman.  However, as the number of his female followers grows, we begin to suspect that this is less a question of good looks and good luck than a matter of fate.

The Nine Cloud Dream, for much of the story, is a fun tale following the dashing Shao-yu around the Empire as he aces exams, saves the nation from Tibetan invaders and acquires an impressive collection of wives and concubines along the way.  With its insights into the politics and life of the court, it’s a book to delight readers who have enjoyed other East Asian classics (The Tale of Genji certainly comes to mind as a work with a similar setting and protagonist).  Fenkl’s introduction mentions The Story of Hong Gildong as another example of the type, but for me there are more similarities with The Tale of Cho Ung, which also features a young man setting off to defend the kingdom.  If you’ve read some of these, you’ll know what to expect – a dashing hero with minor flaws effortlessly sweeping all and sundry before him (much like the protagonists of many modern K-Dramas, in fact).

Shao-yu’s rise to power is interesting enough (poetry, exams, his military campaigns), but in truth, it’s the women he meets that make the book.  At every stage of his journey towards success and manhood, he encounters a beautiful woman who falls in love with him and helps him along his path, whether that’s the courtesan Ch’an Yüeh, the nobleman’s daughter Ch’iung-pei or even Princess Lan-yang, the Emperor’s sister.  What is most surprising about these liaisons is that none of the women are jealous, and even encourage our young friend to maintain his many relationships:

Chin-hung thanked him, and Ch’an-yüeh said, “Since Ching-hung has slept with you in my place, I should also thank you on her behalf.”  The two women bowed to him.
That night Shao-yu slept with the both of them, and in the morning he said to them, “You cannot accompany me now because there are too many people who will gossip about us.  I will send for you as soon as I am married.
And he left for Ch’ang-an. (p.88)

Whatever you think of his love life, one thing is certain – you’ve got to admire his stamina…

As entertaining as this all is, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s a little one-dimensional, and Shao-yu’s progression towards fame, fortune and carnal fulfillment can be rather too straightforward at times.  However, what lifts The Nine Cloud Dream above other books of the type is its cyclical nature.  While Shao-yu’s life makes up the bulk of the novel, it’s no secret that this is really Hsing-chen’s story, and the simplicity of the plot, which can often be a drawback to classic novels, is actually an advantage here as it enhances the dreamlike air.  Just as in a dream, everything happens easily and naturally, with each action leading on to the next with little need to worry about possible impediments.  Kim even hints at the book’s true nature in the form of Shao-yu’s occasional dreams of an old monk on a mountain. He assumes that it’s his father (a Taoist monk who left the mortal realm once his child was born), but the truth is slightly more complicated.  The novel is a tangled web of Buddhist allusions, and the whole story is designed to show the main character (and the reader) that life is an illusion where the riches and successes we obtain are worthless in the grand scheme of the universe.

The idea of illusions and deception continues with the many tricks the characters play upon each other.  In an attempt to get a glimpse of Chiung-pei, Shao-yu dresses up as a Buddhist nun, but his future wife gets her revenge by ensnaring him in a tryst with her companion, Ch’un-yün, who plays a beautiful ghost.  There are many other little games, including several name changes and even a faked death (which seems to be taking things a bit *too* far), all reminders that the writer is twisting and playing with reality to show us that it’s all arbitrary, a dream.

There’s a further layer of complexity to the book, one that the casual Anglophone reader is unlikely to even consider, so it’s lucky for us that The Nine Cloud Dream comes with a detailed introduction.  As it turns out, the novel is more based in worldly matters than we might initially have suspected:

Kuunmong addresses this theme of reality and dream in such a way that it poignantly critiques the moral and ethical misconduct of the controversial king Sukjong, who took the throne at age thirteen and ruled from 1674 to 1720.  King Sukjong’s reign was characterized by intense factional disputes and sudden turns of the political tide due to his amorous, fickle, and shrewdly manipulative nature. (p.xi)

Kim was a court advisor whose faction waned in influence, with the writer experiencing several periods of exile as a result.  His novel, then, using an allegorical technique common in East Asian writing, transferred the action to the distant past in order to provide a thinly veiled critique of the current regime.  It didn’t do him much good (he died in exile), but the resulting work justified the effort.

Overall, you can’t help but be impressed with Fenkl’s work here.  He explains how he modelled the language of his text on old stories and legends, with the attention to detail extending to his choice of the Wade-Giles system of Romanisation for its more old-fashioned feel.  It definitely works, as the story reads very nicely indeed, and the experience is only enhanced by his comments, copious endnotes and the informative introduction: there’s far more to the book than I could ever cover here.  In a short appendix, for instance, he provides a brief example to show how even the Chinese characters used in the original text contain more layers of allusions, with visual clues helping contemporary readers to unearth more hidden meanings.

With its old-fashioned nature, The Nine Cloud Dream won’t be for everyone, but I enjoyed it, and it’s a book I’d like to reread as I focused far too much on the plot this time around.  In an attempt to get my head around the names of all Shao-yu’s women, I supect that I may have missed much of what was going on around the amorous and military action, which in itself is a nice example of what the book is all about.  It’s very easy in life to get distracted by the little things and miss out on what’s really important.  As Shao-yu and Hsing-chen eventually find out, sometimes you need to slow down a little and pay attention to what your dreams are telling you…


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