‘The Korean Vernacular Story’ by Si Nae Park (Review)

One consequence of my extended month of J-Lit reading, in addition to a pile of unread review copies, is the neglect of another of my favourite areas, Korean literature, but today’s review sees me taking on a book that ticks both of those boxes.  We’re heading back to the eighteenth century, where we’ll see a society and language in flux, and whenever great changes occur in a country, you can be sure that literary developments can’t be too far behind.  But what sort of developments are we talking about here?  Let’s find out…

Si Nae Park’s The Korean Vernacular Story: Telling Tales of Contemporary Chosŏn in Sinographic Writing (review copy courtesy of Columbia University Press) has a title it might take you a while to get your head around.  The vernacular part indicates texts that are less formal and stuffy than the classics, and it’s a word often used for common speech or writing, yet the mention of Sinographic writing shows that we’re not talking about Hangeul here, but Chinese characters.

As for the contemporary, well, it’s certainly not *our* now, that’s for sure.  In fact, what we’re talking about in The Korean Vernacular Story is the development of yadam, a genre of stories with its major development in the eighteenth century, less literary and rigid than traditional fiction styles, but still using what is referred to as Literary Sinitic, the written lingua franca of the greater East Asian region.

However, the information above still doesn’t really give an accurate idea of what Park’s book is actually about.  In truth, it focuses on one work, Tongp’ae naksong, AKA Repeatedly Recited Stories of the East, a collection of seventy-eight short tales compiled by the eighteenth-century scholar No Myŏnghŭm.  It’s a book that reflects both familiar stories and the lives of people in the Korea of the time, and Park takes a close look at both the writer and the work to explain its significance in the rise of the yadam genre, as well as examining extant manuscripts and textual variants.

The first main part introduces us to No, a minor yangban (or aristocrat) from a poor family, following him on his move from the Korean provinces to Seoul, then, as now, the dominant city in Korea (or Chosŏn):

The recognition that what happened in Seoul and how things done there distinctly departed from the way things worked in other regions was so pervasive, and the gap between Seoul and the rest of the region was so noticeable, that people began perceiving Seoul as a place with its own unique rhythm, pulse, and time.
p.35 (Columbia University Press, 2020)

His path was similar to that of a modern-day provincial writer heading off to London or New York, and it’s in the big city that he manages to find help from a wealthy family.  Thanks to their social connections, the rich cultural life and the literary influences of the metropolis, No is able to develop his knowledge and writing skills, and set himself to his task.

At this point, the attention switches to the Tongp’ae naksong itself, with No curating stories he’s found in addition to jotting down a couple of his own.  The seventy-eight inclusions can be grouped into several major themes, such as the foreign invasions of the 16th and 17th centuries (c.f. The Diary of 1636), the new phenomenon of social mobility, especially in Seoul, or the growing issue of the rights of sŏŏl (secondary sons from concubines – c.f. The Story of Hong Gildong!).  One piece, ‘The Story of a Slave Girl from Chirye’, is actually included in a bilingual version (English and Literary Sinitic) in the appendix.  It’s a rather unusual tale of rags to riches in which a clever young woman makes it all the way to a life in Seoul with a wealthy husband – and knows just how to keep the secret of her humble origins from being revealed…

Park’s major focus in The Korean Vernacular Story, though, is the actual language used to write it.  Past scholars suggested that the style reflects an oral provenance, or even a ‘translation’ from Hangeul, but Park refutes this idea, insisting that there’s much more going on:

In writing his tales of contemporary Chosŏn society, No Myŏnghŭm made stylistic choices with an eye toward building a literary medium particularly suited to telling tales of contemporary Chosŏn society.  No did so by hybridizing Literary Sinitic with varying kinds of lexical and stylistic elements that had ordinarily been off limits for literary composition so that the written text could evoke the sociolinguistic realities of contemporary Chosŏn.  What he created was a new vernacular literary medium that deliberately distanced itself from Literary Sinitic, at once a cosmopolitan written medium meant to travel far beyond Chosŏn and a classical medium meant to transcend time. (p.115)

There are echoes here of Shimei Futabatei and his work on the Japanese novel Ukigumo in the idea of having to codify a whole new style of writing in order to express what he wants to say.  Park does some excellent comparative analysis here, contrasting the sources of No’s stories with his versions, showing how the writer cuts down on flowery language, focuses on plot and introduces a narrator to carry the story along.

As fascinating as it all sounds, caveat lector: this is an academic text, with all the implications this entails.  In addition to the slightly misleading nature of the title and introduction, the book is very much about the Tongp’ae naksong, not really the yadam genre as a whole, so don’t expect too much in the way of actual stories (it would have been nice to have a few more examples, but sadly academia tends to be far less interested in translation than in theory).  There’s also a fair bit of repetition, especially at the start, which does make for slow going at times.  Finally, I need to stress that this really isn’t a book for the K-Lit (or Korean-language) novice.  There are Korean words, phrases and references everywhere, so if that sounds daunting, I’d probably stay well away.

However, anyone who does have more than a passing interest in the area will probably find The Korean Vernacular Story a surprisingly enjoyable read.  I’m very happy I tried it, and having read the books mentioned above certainly helped.  One other area where my previous reading helped set the context involved the man that became No Myŏnghŭm’s patron in Seoul.  You see, our scholarly friend was taken in and supported by a high-ranking official called Hong Ponghan, who happened to be the father of a certain Lady Hyegyŏng – which certainly enabled me to picture the scene a little more clearly…

If all these literary references turn you off, let me point you in the direction of a less taxing source of information regarding the politics, and changing society, of eighteenth-century Chosŏn.  The Korean drama Sungkyunkwan Scandal was set around this time, so if you want a quicker introduction to a yangban family in decline, ghost-writing in exams and people taking risks to achieve social status, you could do far worse than giving it a go.  It might sound strange, but it has a lot more in common with Park’s book than you’d think 😉

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