Sunday, August 30, 2020

Fortnightly Book, August 30

All things conditioned
are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, shadows--
like dewdrops, like a flash of lightning,
and thus shall we perceive them.

Kim Man-jung, also known as Seopo, lived during the prosperous but highly tumultuous reign of King Sukjong, in the Korean Neo-Confucian Joseon dynasty. Having been born in a well-connected but poor family, raised by only his well-educated mother, he began to achieve success when he attained the highest score on the civil service examination. It was King Sukjong's practice to maintain his power by playing factions against each other, and switching which faction he supported as it fit his aims and, sometimes, his whims; Kim Man-jung was exiled at least twice because of this, and in so doing was getting off easily, since more dangerous factional partisans were sometimes executed instead of exiled. It was during one of these exiles that he perhaps wrote Kuunmong, The Nine Cloud Dream, supposedly to comfort his mother over his fall from grace and, it is generally thought, as a veiled criticism of Sukjong. It would become one of the central works of Korean literature. I will be reading it in Heinz Insu Fenkl's Penguin Classics translation. I might compare it occasionally with the old Gale translation.

Hsing-chen is by Buddhist standards a brilliant and promising monk. But sent on a mission by his teacher, he lets himself to be persuaded to drink wine by the Dragon King and then to be distracted by eight fairy maidens, thus deviating from the Buddhist way. What is worse, he tries to hide this. As a result, his teacher sends him to Buddhist hell, and thence he is reincarnated into the new life best suited for working out his moral issues -- as Shao-yu, the boy who is destined to have everything, receiving the karmic punishment of endless talent, endless wealth, endless respect, endless success in politics and with women. And in that life he will learn that all of these things have no more substance than a dream.

Heinz Insu Fenkl discusses the work and how he came to translate it for The Korea Society: