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Reviewed by:
  • The Jehol Diary: Yŏrha ilgi of Pak Chiwŏn (1737-1805) by Pak Chiwŏn
  • Daniel C. Kane (bio)
The Jehol Diary: Yŏrha ilgi of Pak Chiwŏn (1737-1805), by Pak Chiwŏn. Translated with Notes by Yang Hi Choe-Wall. Folkstone, UK: Global Oriental, 2010. xxi, 208 pages, notes, bibliography, appendix index. $79.00 cloth.

Many have and will greet the publication of this (partial) translation of the literary masterpiece by Pak Chiwŏn (1737-1805; pen name Yŏnam) with delight and enthusiasm. As a key Sirhak scholar and one of the most gifted writers of the entire Chosŏn period, the dearth of translations (or even studies) of Pak Chiwŏn in Western languages has long been a source of regret. As will be known by most readers of this review, the Yŏrha ilgi is, in its most basic sense, a travelogue detailing the author's voyage to Jehol (Rehe) as part of an official congratulatory mission dispatched in 1780 by the Chosŏn monarch on the occasion of the Qing emperor's birthday. However, Pak's intellectual accomplishments, as well as his political status (a Sirhak scholar and member of the Northern School of Learning and an outcast from the inner circles of Chosŏn officialdom), made of his travelogue much more than a travel diary. It is at once an often amusing, always informative, account of travel in late eighteenth-century Korea and Manchuria, a historical record, personal memoir, collection of what have become some of the most popular tales in traditional Korean literature, a running commentary on aspects of Korean history and culture, and a scathing, often satirical, exposé on the shortcomings of his own society. As the creation of such an expansive mind, the work [End Page 145] itself is wide-ranging, covering such topics as history, poetry, calligraphy, engineering, trade, agriculture, brick-making, astronomy, popular legends, and, of course, politics. That it has gained the stature of one of Korea's literary masterpieces is understandable. That it has found partial translation into English is commendable.

This being said, and as noted above, this is only a very partial translation of Pak's magnum opus, something not reflected at all in the translated title or anywhere else in the book (indeed, the front flap calls it the "first translation into English of the . . . Yŏrha ilgi"). On any account, this partial translation is certainly understandable given the scope of the original, which extends across ten volumes (a recently completed full translation into modern Korean by Kim Hyŏljo came to some 1,500 pages). The translation under review here comprises the work's first three volumes: Togangnok ("Crossing the Yalu"), Sŏnggyŏng chapchi ("Tales from Shengjing"), and Ilsin sup'il ("Gateways and Garrisons"). But even the appearance of this limited selection is to be commended, and considering the difficulty of the prose, what Yang Hi Choe-Wall, professor emeritus of Korean language and literature at the Australian National University, has accomplished with her annotated translation is truly remarkable.

It is no easy task to review a translation of The Jehol Diary. For starters, the prose of Pak Chiwŏn is noted for its multi-layered complexity and nuance. Second, Pak (somewhat ironically considering his emphasis on the practical) wrote in classical Chinese, and so a thorough review of this translation would perforce require a critical cross-examination of the translation compared to the original Chinese, no easy task and certainly beyond the scope of this review. Nevertheless, some humble words can be offered about this translation.

Taken at its most basic level as travelogue, The Jehol Diary offers the reader an engaging account of the trials and tribulations facing eighteenth-century travelers between Chosŏn Korea and China, even along such a well-traveled route. The selection translated by Choe-Wall covers about the first month (July-August 1780) of Pak's six-month voyage that took him from the Korean capital at Hanyang (Seoul) to the Qing imperial summer residence at Rehe, by way of Liaodong and Beijing. Pak and his extensive party were traveling (at least in this portion) in high summer, when the...