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  • 九雲夢 Kuunmong A Translator’s Note
  • Heinz Insu Fenkl (bio)

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Illustration of “The Poem by the Way: Among the Fairies” from The Cloud Dream of the Nine by Kim Man-jung, tr. James Scarth Gale (London: The Westminster Press, 1922)

Kim Man-jung’s Kuunmong (c. 1689) predates Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe—which is often considered the first English language novel—by some thirty years. Along with Kim Si-sŭp’s Kŭmosinhwa and Hŏ Kyun’s Hong Kil-dong chŏn, it is one of the seminal works of prose fiction in Korean literature. Its status and impact throughout the years are interestingly parallel to that of Dante’s Divine Comedy; the Buddhist and Taoist themes in Kuunmong play out in Korean literary and intellectual culture in much the same way Dante’s confrontation of Catholic themes resonated throughout Europe. Both works can also be read as deeply personal and laden with individual satirical agendas.

The basic plot of Kuunmong is that of an edifying fantasy: for disobeying his master and doubting his vocation, a young Buddhist monk is made to endure an incarnation as the most ideal of men, his life full of fabulous material, martial, and sensual accomplishments. In the end the monk wakes up, once [End Page 357] again on his meditation mat, to learn that reality and dream are interpenetrating and ultimately indistinguishable.

Both Korean and Western scholars are in general agreement that Kim Man-jung (1637-1692), a member of the yangban literati, is the author of Kuunmong (although it is not established “beyond a reasonable doubt” in terms of forensic bibliography). He is said to have composed it in exile to comfort his mother. The stories one reads in biographies of Kim—about how he was especially devoted to his mother because he was born after his father’s death, how he read to her late into the night, and how she herself offered him solace when he was exiled by quoting to him from literature—are all in keeping with the Korean tradition of devoted Confucian sons. These accounts seem to be designed to highlight the narrative of Kim’s authorship and virtue, part of a Korean folk tradition that extends to most great artists and even generals like Kim Yu-shin. It is, however, a biographical fact that Kim was once the head of the Confucian Academy, and his other works, with more compelling bibliographic provenance, do resonate with some of the themes touched upon in Kuunmong.

My own reasons for accepting Kim’s authorship have more to do with features within the work itself—which I discovered in the process of translation—than with just bibliographic/ biographical evidence. With Kuunmong, these features seem to be ironically integral to the very themes in the text, which, from a Buddhist perspective, directly involve the illusion of language.1 It is important to note that while it was formerly believed that Kim composed the work originally in hangul and later translated it into Chinese, the general consensus among Korean scholars, after the discovery of an 18th-century Chinese edition, is now much closer to the reverse. This is in keeping with what I found in the process of translation: the linguistic jokes meant to be humorous when read visually in hanja with knowledge of the auditory Korean [End Page 358] are in keeping with Korean, and not Chinese, authorship; at the same time, these forms of wordplay also support the theory of Kuunmong’s initial composition in hanja and not hangul.

Kuunmong is a work constituted largely of allusions to Chinese literary texts, which in itself does not point to Korean or Chinese authorship, but the incredible degree to which the allusions are interwoven, and the way in which even casual descriptions of landscape are allusory suggests the underlying consciousness of an outsider mimicking a tradition, not an insider simply contributing to a tradition—once again suggesting that the author is a Korean. The complex interweaving of Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian themes and imagery also reads as uniquely Korean, particularly where they resonate with the overarching and interwoven themes in the infrastructure of Kuunmong, which...


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