Korean literature

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Book Report: The Story of Hong Gildong

Published August 15, 2017 by Iphis of Scyros

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.

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