For Challenge #17, “Read a classic by an author of color,” I eventually settled on this one.
The back of the book proudly exclaims that “The Story of Hong Gildong is arguably the most important work of classic Korean fiction.” It’s a tale about Hong Gildong, the son of an important minister by his concubine, which leaves Gildong a second class member of society, unable to climb the usual social ladders, despite his overstated gifts. He eventually tires of being treated as less than a proper member of the family — he is always complaining “I cannot even address my father as Father and my older brother as Brother” — and leaves home. Through a series of events, he ends up leading a bandit army, usually only robbing corrupt targets, leading to an inaccurate comparison to Robin Hood on the back of the book. And that’s only the first half of the book; one thing no one could complain of is that nothing happens in this book. There are a lot of other things one could complain about, but I’ll get to them later.
There are two very important things to keep in mind when reading this book. First, this is a pre-modern text, and does not follow the same story rules and expectations that a modern novel does. Second, it’s the product of a culture very different from a modern Western culture (and in some ways very different from modern Korea as well), so one shouldn’t judge it out of its proper cultural context.
The latter makes it more interesting to read, as it functions as a window into pre-modern Korea (the exact period of its writing is unknown; it has traditionally been dated to the late 16th or early 17th century, but the evidence presented in the introduction makes a very compelling case for dating it to the 19th century), presenting the modern Western reader with various aspects of the culture, particularly in the way people react to each other and their opinions on their own relationships. The former, however, presents some problems.
At the very beginning of the book, Hong Gildong is conceived after his father has a prophetic dream indicating that he’s about to sire a powerful child. His wife doesn’t want to sleep with him in the middle of the day, however, so he sleeps with a serving girl instead, making her his concubine as soon as he learns she’s pregnant. Not only is the resulting child abnormally smart and strong, he masters elemental magics at an early age. Consequently, there’s no hope of suspense, because Gildong outwits, outmaneuvers and/or overpowers every foe he comes across with ridiculous ease. He’s the type of overpowered character you wouldn’t get in modern storytelling, but do see in pre-modern works. (Though even in pre-modern works, the overpowered characters usually aren’t this overpowered in Western texts. Odysseus may be able to talk circles around everyone he meets, but he’s not as strong physically as many of his opponents, and the gods are stronger than him in every way. Likewise, while no human opponent presents much threat to Achilles, he runs in terror when an angry river god tries to kill him. (His own fault for mouthing off to a god, of course, but that’s neither here nor there.) Gilgamesh may have been closer to this sort of character, though I won’t say so with certainty, because it’s been too many years since I read his epic, so I’m no longer clear on some of the details.) On the other hand, unlike the overpowered characters you see in Western pre-modern works, Gildong is usually very merciful to the foes he defeats, rarely killing them. Both the back of the book and the introduction point out that this story has been reworked many times in Korean popular culture, including as movies and television shows. I have to wonder if those reworkings made him less overpowered, to give the story a more modern dramatic tension.
Despite his position as someone who has been marginalized by society for being of low birth, Gildong does nothing to reform the situation, and when the opportunity presents itself to him, he takes two concubines as well as a legal wife, thus fathering sons in exactly the position he was born into. He doesn’t seem to see anything wrong with that, either.
And while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about how this book treats women. (Or perhaps I should say, how pre-modern Korean society thought of women?) For the most part, they have very little active role in the story. The one exception is Gildong’s father’s favorite concubine. She sees how talented Gildong is, and becomes afraid she’ll lose her position as the favorite concubine, so she plots against Gildong, to the extent even of trying to arrange his death. Apparently, the trope of the “wicked stepmother” is not a Western-exclusive. (Okay, technically, yes, she’s not exactly his stepmother, but pretty close.) When are we going to see a story with a “wicked stepfather”? Uh, okay, yes, that’s off topic. But the point remains that the only woman with any real agency in the story is a villainess. From that, we might infer that in pre-modern Korea, women who had ambition and drive to better themselves (or in her case, her offspring) were considered ‘evil’. But there’s also The Legend of Chunhyang, with a protagonist heroine who wants a better life for herself, so it’s clearly not quite that simple. (Realistically, I should have found an English translation of that to read (especially since I’ve read CLAMP’s rather off-topic reinterpretation of it) but I already had this on hand, because I’ve taken classes from the translator and wanted to check it out, because how often does one get to read a book by someone one knows?) There’s also the fact that Gildong’s father is significantly older than both his wife and his concubines (though there are probably few, if any, places in the pre-modern world where that would have been unusual) and that women seem to be given little to no choice about who they’ll marry (again, not uncommon in the pre-modern world).
Okay, outside of the “wicked stepmother” thing, that wasn’t terribly informative, actually.
So…I shouldn’t have stopped in the middle of this review for 24 hours. I have totally lost the thread of what I was trying to say. *sigh*
Well, I guess one other thing I wanted to point out is how interesting it is to see Gildong’s attitude towards the society that has spurned him since birth. In a modern, Western work, he would reject that society and want to see it replaced with (or at least modified into) one that would accept people of “low birth.” That idea never even seems to occur to him. He doesn’t seem interested in helping others like himself — though he’ll point to important men of low birth from the past as reasons he shouldn’t be written off due to his birth — and just wants to improve his own lot, while not disrupting the harmony of upright and moral citizens. (The immoral and corrupt are another issue entirely.) He never resents the father who won’t acknowledge him or the older (legitimate) brother who gains all the acceptance, either.
The question, of course, comes up regarding just why this work is so important to modern Korean culture despite the way many aspects of it are unsatisfying to the modern mindset (though perhaps they’re less unsatisfying to non-Western mindsets?), and that question is succinctly answered in the introduction:
Starting from the attempt by imperial Japan to convince Koreans that they were inferior relatives who had to be civilized through colonial tutelage, the liberated but soon divided nations felt like the bastard children of foreign powers that set their destinies in motion without consulting them on their own desires for the future. As a result, the theme of being disrespected, unappreciated, and underrated by callous and unwise authority figures blind to the emotional needs and the substantial talents of the protagonist, so well portrayed in the first part of The Story of Hong Gildong, has a profound resonance in the Korean psyche. In other words, the Joseon dynasty story of a secondary son seeking to overcome the disadvantages of his background and the oppression of his society in order to prove his true worth as a man, a leader, and a ruler has become the story of modern Korea itself.
(One last note on this book, and I admit freely that it’s a shallow one. That dude in the cover illustration has an odd face with very little nose, making him look a bit like an ape…consequently every time I look at him, I think he’s Sun Wukong. There’s something very weird and slightly disquieting about that, but I can’t quite explain what.)
So, anyway, I now have two books left for this year’s challenge. Unfortunately, the new semester looms, and I’ll probably have a lot of reading to do for my class. It shouldn’t interfere with finishing the challenge (it’s only two books, after all), but I don’t think I’ll be able to tackle last year’s challenge after all. I’ve already started reading the next book on my list. It’s not terribly long, but it’s an awkward read so far (which I’ll explain in my report after I finish it), so it may take me longer than I”d like to finish it. (In the meantime, I have a post scheduled for this Saturday that should be entertaining…)