Introduction to Kuunmong: The Cloud Dream of the Nine

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Introduction to Kuunmong: The Cloud Dream of the Nine


by Susanna FESSLER

The Cloud Dream of the Nine (Kuunmong) is a seventeenth century Korean novel set in ninth century China. On the surface it is an entertaining tale of a young man who travels through two lifetimes accompanied by eight beautiful maidens; at its core, it is philosophical novel about Buddhism and Confucianism. The author, Kim Manjung, wrote the novel while in exile, reputedly to console his mother. The result has pleased thousands of readers in the following ages.

The Literary Context of the Novel

Literature in Korea has complex past. As in most traditions, Korean literature began with verse in its many and varied forms. The earliest verse dates to the Three Kingdom period (roughly the fourth through the seventh centuries), although much has been lost and in many cases the only extant remnant of a work is its title. This early verse was composed before the Koreans had developed their own writing system, and was written using the writing system developed in China, but with Korean syntax. The Chinese language also played a role, and was used by educated Koreans for both official communications and for various other forms of literature. Although Korean and Chinese are not in the same language family, this convention persisted. It was not unlike the convention of using Latin as an official language throughout medieval Europe. Later, when the Korean script (hangul) was developed, there was a distinct division between works composed in Korean and works composed in Chinese.

The use of Korean script emerged largely in the seventeenth century, which is when Kim Manjung (1637-1692) wrote The Cloud Dream of the Nine. Scholars long thought that The Cloud Dream of the Nine was initially composed in Korean and later translated into Chinese. However, in the late twentieth century the discovery of an early eighteenth century Chinese version of the text and subsequent studies concluded that it is likely Kim Manjung composed this work first in Chinese, and that it was later translated into Korean. Consequently, some scholars hail this work as the first great Korean novel; others decry that it is not really Korean at all, being composed in Chinese and set in China. It is useful to note that Kim was not the only author composing works of this nature; there are hundreds of other works from this time composed both in Korean and Chinese.

Regardless of the linguistic taxonomy of the novel itself, it was clearly part of an active age of development in Korean literature. The growth of a literate readership during Kim’s time helped spur a production and distribution of literature that was unprecedented. Prose was coming into its own in Korea, as it was in the West. (Kim’s contemporaries in Europe included Molière, Locke, and Defoe.) And, although verse continued to be composed in the centuries that followed, prose has largely taken over as the most popular form of literature in modern Korea.

The Philosophical Context of the Novel

The Cloud Dream of the Nine reflects the philosophical and literary values of Kim Manjung’s time and earlier ages, both in Korea and in China. Kim was a product of yangban (“two orders”) culture, the society that resulted from the complex Sinicized bureaucratic structure of the Yi (Choseon) Dynasty. Briefly, yangban culture followed the Confucian example of requiring civil service examinations of the elite in order to place them in the hierarchy of the government and, by extension, society. Kim Manjung, a bureaucrat, did not fare well in this system, and he died in political exile. Nonetheless, the importance of Confucian values – benevolence, propriety, filial piety, loyalty, righteousness, and reciprocity – were deeply instilled in the author and his contemporaries.

Confucianism is in essence an ethical system, one that does not attempt to explain the metaphysical nature of the world – or that it defers usually to Taoism. Confucianism is based on what are known as the “Five Classics” and “Four Books,” historical and literary texts of ancient China. Confucianism holds that one is duty-bound to obey the structures of society; the system mandates inequalities – men are superior to women, elders are superior to juniors. These inequalities are in the interest of maintaining a natural harmony, not in the interest of political tyranny. Most importantly, the reward for societal obedience is a peaceful, balanced, and just life in this life. That is, there is little or no concern with an afterlife, or a subsequent existence. Confucianism was and is profoundly influential throughout East Asia, and is largely the tradition behind what is currently termed “Asian values.”

At the same time that Confucianism ordered society in Korea, Buddhism was the predominant religion. Whereas Confucianism stressed proper behavior in a current world, Buddhism focused beyond this life to lives before and after. That is, Buddhism holds that one’s life is but one of an almost infinite number of lives in a cycle of death and rebirth. The petty concerns of this life are insignificant when put in the context of the larger whole. Concern with and focus on prosaic, mundane issues cloud one’s ability to see beyond this life, and an inability to see beyond this life dooms one to the continuous, meaningless cycle. Escape from this cycle can only come from dedication to the Buddhist teachings. This dedication requires that one jettison the creature comforts of luxuriant living and the emotional ties to family and friends. Although this is a great demand, the Buddhist scriptures emphasize (as does Kim Manjung when he quotes them) that “all is illusion” and clinging to this illusion is in vain.

Thus Confucianism and Buddhism presented two conflicting philosophical approaches for the seventeenth century Korean author, as they did for the ninth century Chinese characters in this work. Kim Manjung’s novel asks the ageless question: what is the meaning of life? In this sense, although the author and characters are thousands of miles and hundreds of years away from our own time, they are faced with a common human conundrum that transcends time and space.

A reader from the Judeo-Christian or Muslim tradition might still be puzzled by Kim’s presentation of the question. However, it is important to remember not only that Buddhist and Confucian values differ from other traditions, but also that Kim Manjung has created a caricature of these values in his work. The Buddhist hero, Yang Song-jin, is a monk who lives in a miserable cell, eats meager fare, and spends most of his time in prayer. The Confucian hero, So-yoo, passes all bureaucratic examinations with ease, wins military campaigns with a word, indulges happily in liquor with abandon, and easily finds himself with eight wives / concubines. Kim Manjung purposely gives the reader an example of the extreme in both cases, and although this is arguably a didactic novel, it is unlikely that the reader is meant to identify directly with either character. Much ink has been spilt on the unrealistic nature of these characters and the consequent poor value of the novel, but I believe the reader really need not concern himself with this. In the end this lack of verisimilitude is of little consequence; one can easily suspend disbelief and indulge in the adventure, as one does when watching a contemporary Hollywood film. In other words, the modern reader should not walk away from this novel in disbelief at the behavior of the characters, but rather should look beyond their surface behavior to the values that drive them. It is there that the message of the work lies. The entertaining flourishes are merely a sweet indulgence to help the more serious question take hold.

The Cultural Context of the Novel

Modern readers of this novel are often surprised by the behavior of the characters. A few points one should keep in mind while reading are as follows: First, polygamy was an accepted practice in Tang China, and was not an indication of lasciviousness. Therefore, although So-yoo’s eight mates are seen as excessive by the end of the novel, his initial desire to have more than one mate is quite acceptable. Second, heavy consumption of alcohol was common, in part due to Taoist ideas about inaction and alchemy. Thus, when the characters partake in drink we are not necessarily meant to think poorly of them. Third, fraternization between the unmarried sexes, at least in the upper class, was restricted to such an extent that potential lovers often courted through words alone, usually poetry. Thus, the ability to compose good poetry was highly valued. Finally, propriety was paramount, particularly in the Confucian sense. The characters debate at length such issues as which woman should be considered first or second wife, not because they are petty but because proper positions were seen as necessary if social harmony were to be maintained.

The Historical Context of the Novel

This novel is set in the early ninth century in China. The country at that time was unified, although its borders were smaller and differed significantly from what they are today. There was a central bureaucracy, headed by the Emperor, whose dynasty (the Tang) had been in place since ad 618.

In the eighth and ninth centuries the Chinese faced the expansion of Tibetan forces (often referred to as proto-Tibetan or Turfan) from the west; these forces were formidable, and briefly managed to take the capital city of Chang An in 763. It is no surprise, therefore, that Kim Manjung makes the Tibetan forces the major foe for his hero, So-yoo, the general of the emperor’s army. One should note, however, that “Tibet” is a loose concept here, and is not the same as the geo-political entity of today. In sum “Tibet” here means the area to the west of Tang China, what is northwest China today.

The government rank system reached its maturity under the Tang. We are told of So-yoo’s promotions to Chief Minister, Minister of State, and Chief Commissioner and Minister of War, none of which mean much to the uninitiated reader. Short of drawing charts here it is difficult to convey the prestige that each promotion brought, but the reader can rest assured that each promotion was noteworthy and indicative of So-yoo’s exclusive and elite position in the bureaucracy.

It would seem that Kim Manjung did not model his characters on any real historical figures, but the setting he chose – minus the magical dream sequences – resembles what we know about Tang China.

The Cloud Dream of the Nine Today

The Cloud Dream of the Nine remains popular and can be found in print today in Korea (in both the hangul and Chinese versions). Like classical literature in other traditions, though, it is not a bestseller.

This translation, by Rev. James S. Gale, was originally published in 1922 by Daniel O’Connor at the Westminster Press. Gale (1863-1937) was a Canadian who resided for over thirty years in Korea as a Christian missionary. His translation is relatively complete and accurate, although there are some exceptions to this rule (see below). In 1974 Richard Rutt published an English translation titled A Nine Cloud Dream (Seoul: Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch), and in 1973 a consortium of translators from Ewha Womens University in Seoul published an English version also titled The Nine Cloud Dream. The only other language into which the work has been published is Mandarin Chinese. Until this reprint, however, all of these translations remained obscure, held by only a few dozen libraries around the world.

Although Gale’s translation is very readable, the reader should note that he often took liberties with the poems in order to make them rhyme in English. The original form of the poetry follows Chinese poesy, which has its own set of complex rules, few if any of which can be easily conveyed in English. Gale also chose to transliterate the characters’ names in Korean, even though the action takes place in China. Rutt, on the other hand, chooses the Chinese transliteration. For example, Gale writes “So-yoo” where Rutt writes “Shao-yu.” Also, in the tradition of early translations from Asian literature, Gale omits certain short passages at his discretion. For example, when Kim Manjung quotes a short passage from the Diamond Sutra in the last scene, Gale omits it. In the end none of this much changes the content of the book. Gale’s translation is in the spirit of the original, and continues to bring this classic to a western audience.


Susanna Fessler

Susanna Fessler is Chair of the Department of East Asian Studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She obtained her doctorate in East Asian Literature from Yale in 1994. Dr. Fessler has lived, studied, and taught in America, Japan, Taiwan, and the People’s Republic of China. Her current research involves Meiji period travelogues of the West, specifically of Japanese travelers in America and Europe. Her publications include Wandering Heart: The Work and Method of Hayashi Fumiko (1998, State University of New York Press).

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