- Introduction to the Story of Hong Gildong
The importance of Hong Gildong Jeon (The Story of Hong Gildong) to Korean culture is hard to exaggerate. As a prime example of soseol (prose fiction) written prior to the modern period, it has the advantage over more esoteric works like Kim Manjung’s Nine Cloud Dream in featuring an exciting story of a righteous outlaw hero who has often been described as the Korean Robin Hood. In the twentieth century, his narrative has been retold, revisioned, and updated so many times in fiction, films, television shows, and comic books that his place as the most famous icon from classical literature is rivaled only by Chunhyang. Even the vast majority of modern Koreans who have never actually read the original work are familiar with the story of the illegitimate son (traditionally called seoeol, or a secondary child) of a nobleman and his lowborn concubine who leaves home in frustration at his inability to pursue his ambitions through government service, becomes the leader of a band of outlaws who dedicate themselves to robbing from the rich and the powerful, and eventually leaves Joseon to become a king of his own realm.
Scholarly study of the work, however, has been hampered by certain misconceptions about its origin and significance that have also been firmly established in the public consciousness through repetition in school textbooks. The most prevalent of the [End Page 221] misconceptions include the following:
1. Hong Gildong Jeon was written by the Joseon dynasty poet and statesmen Heo Gyun (1569–1618).
2. Hong Gildong Jeon is a narrative manifesto of Heo Gyun’s radical political ideas.
3. Hong Gildong Jeon is the first work of prose fiction to be originally composed in the native phonetic script of hangeul.
These ideas appeared in the pioneering work Joseon Soseolsa (History of Joseon Prose Fiction) by Kim Taejun which was first serialized in the newspaper Donga Ilbo from 1930 to 1931, and was collected into a book in 1933. It is the first full-length study of the subject that laid the foundation for all future study of classical fiction, but recently scholars have had to grapple with numerous mistakes, unsupported assertions, and ideological interpretations in the work that have solidified into standard readings through decades of uncritical acceptance. As a nationalist and a communist, Kim Taejun presented a subversive reading of Hong Gildong Jeon in which he portrayed Heo Gyun as a proto-socialist who wrote the work to criticize the feudalistic order of Joseon and who planned a revolution to overthrow the kingdom in order to create a more egalitarian state in its place.1
The sole basis for the attribution comes from the writings of Yi Sik (1584–1647), who was once a student of Heo but turned against him for reasons of court politics. In a rather unflattering portrait of his former teacher, Yi claims that Heo and his closest friends were such admirers of the Chinese bandit epic Water Margin that he wrote Hong Gildong Jeon in imitation.2 Because Yi Sik emerged as one of the most important literary figures of the late Joseon dynasty, his assertion that Heo Gyun wrote a story about the historical [End Page 222] bandit (there are a few records in the royal records of an outlaw named Hong Gildong who was captured in 1500) was repeated numerous times by various writers. There is, however, no evidence that Yi Sik had actually read or even seen the work, and none that can demonstrate that the work supposedly written by Heo Gyun in the seventeenth century is related in any way to the extant work of that title. In fact, when one considers the entire history of Joseon prose fiction that has recently emerged from numerous necessary corrections of Kim Taejun’s view on the subject, it seems highly improbable that a work of that nature, one composed originally in hangeul no less, could have been written that early.
Under the able leadership of the eighteenth-century monarchs Yeongjo and Jeongjo, Joseon enjoyed a prolonged period of peace and prosperity that also created the conditions necessary for the development of a market for...