A Literary Analysis of Kuunmong


A Literary Analysis of Kuunmong

by Francisca CHO

Comparing Kuunmong and the Modern Novel

The Cloud Dream of the Nine is a pre-modern Asian novel, and as such, does not conform to the model of the novel as it formed in the modern West. For contemporary readers, both Western and Asian, the cultural challenge of Kim Manjung’s (literary name: Seop’o) work lies not in its remote historical setting – which happens to be ninth century China – but rather in its literary qualities, which reflect the world of seventeenth century Korea.

To begin, the characters of the novel exhibit nothing in the way of psychological depth or evolution. They are instead highly idealized, being more representative of social archetypes than of unique and individual personae. So-yoo, the main character of the frame tale, or the dream sequence that comprises the bulk of the novel, is the archetypal scholar, handsome and gifted, who lives out the idealized path of success in the Imperial examinations that determined political careers in Tang China. His eight wives and concubines are all beautiful, accomplished, and remarkably generous in their willingness to share their paragon of a husband between them. The life of So-yoo offers a most wishful vision of reality set on the Confucian model, which is dominated by a male perspective, as well as optimism in the perfectibility of secular life. The fact that this vision is ultimately rejected, via the monk Song-jin’s “awakening” from this dream, conveys the author Seop’o’s own disillusionment with romantic Confucianism and lends greater depth to his work than supplied by the surface features of his main characters.

From the perspective of literary origins, the tale of So-yoo participates in the genre of narratives originating from Tang China known as the quanqi, or “transmitting the marvelous,” and a particular subset of this genre known as the caizi-jiaren, or “talented scholar–beautiful maiden” story. Most broadly speaking, the dominant feature of quanqi is its lack of realism and its favoring of the fantastic. Its tales are populated by fox-fairies, ghosts, magical beasts and dream journeys to other worlds. Didactic commentary usually concludes the tales. These elements of fable comprise the second major departure of The Cloud Dream of the Nine from the contemporary novel. Seop’o’s departure from historical realism is compounded by yet another literary practice common to his time, which is the use of the Buddhist concept of karma as a way of forging links between major characters. Karma was a popular mechanism for romantic tales, in particular: such stories reveal that in a prior life, the lovers had an encounter that necessitates completing their romantic destiny in the present life/tale.

In The Cloud Dream of the Nine, this previous encounter is narrated in the outer tale of the Buddhist novice Song-jin, whose celibacy is disturbed by his chance meeting with the eight fairy girls of Queen Wee. The frame tale of So-yoo is, in fact, Song-jin’s dream realization of his previous temptation, and his final enlightenment is contingent upon the lesson of the illusoriness of life that he learns as a result of dreaming. From the perspective of plot, the karmic device offers a handy explanation of So-yoo’s chance encounters with his eight lovers and the ready ease of his romantic successes. There is no specificity or emotional realism in these romances, and they function more in fulfillment of a stock literary mechanism than as the central interest of the novel.

Religious and Literary Meaning in Kuunmong

Given the pre-modern qualities of our work, appreciation of the meaning of The Cloud Dream of the Nine first entails understanding the political context of its author, and the general historical significance of the novel in East Asia. As a scholar official, Seop’o was officially a Confucian, and thus aligned with an ideology that privileged historical narratives as vehicles of moral instruction, and which frowned upon fictive narratives as instruments of social corruption. Hence for Seop’o to write a work of fiction, particularly one which trumps the idealized Confucian life with the Buddhist verdict that such a life is ultimately illusory and wanting, is an act of private rebellion. Seop’o wrote the present novel in 1687, during one of his many political exiles, and only five years before his death at the age of fifty-five. His career, like that of his fictional protagonist So-yoo, conformed to the ideal model, placing on top of the state examinations at the age of twenty-eight, followed by prestigious political appointments. But like many a political minister, Seop’o suffered repeated reversals of fortune, playing victim to a system of court factionalism in which monarchical whim and marriage alliances could change careers overnight.

In this environment, literature – particularly the creative literature of fiction and poetry – functioned as vehicles of political complaint. Poetry functioned as a public as well as private practice – that is, poetic composition was a part of official state events, and poetic talent was the prerogative of the public man. Fiction, on the other hand, was a purely private enterprise, to be shared with close friends and family rather than created for public consumption. The Cloud Dream of the Nine, for example, did not achieve its literary status and broad circulation until the nineteenth century. The private nature of fiction hence made it the safest medium of political criticism, and the novels of seventeenth and eighteenth century Korea frequently voice the discontent of the socially dispossessed.

The particular interest afforded by Seop’o’s literary work is that it speaks from within the ranks of the most socially and politically privileged. In this respect, Seop’o’s novel differs from, say, Ho Kyun’s (1569-1618) Hong Kiltong, which speaks for the second sons dispossessed of wealth and office in the Korean practice of primogeniture; or the much loved narrative of Chunhyang, which depicts the powerlessness of the low class of courtesans known as kisaeng. Seop’o’s view from the top of the social hierarchy is representative of many a scholar–official in traditional China and Korea, and their special brand of discontent is enacted through the conflicting ideologies of Confucianism and Buddhism. The tale of the Buddhist monk Song-jin and the Confucian minister So-yoo, who are but one person, is a literary mirroring of men like Seop’o, who were juxtapositions of a public Confucian identity ultimately at war with a private Buddhist self.

The curriculum of the educated gentleman unofficially included Buddhist texts, and Seop’o’s nonfictional writings attest to first hand knowledge of and reflection upon such classics as the Lotus Sutra, the Platform Sutra, and the Vimalakirtinirdesa Sutra. Seop’o’s brand of Buddhism was Mahayana, particularly Seon Buddhism, or the Korean version of Chan / Zen. Of particular relevance is the Seon tendency to depict all phenomenal reality as ultimately insubstantial projections of the mind. The goal of religious meditation is to understand this nature of the world – that it is temporary and empty of innate characteristics, so that one can become detached from it. From a literary perspective, the Buddhist lesson that life is the imaginative play of the mind, much like a dream, could not help but be applied to the nature of fiction itself. And unlike the Confucian sensibility, which ranked history both morally and ontologically above creative literature, the Buddhist worldview suggested little difference between the putatively “real” nature of life versus the “unreal” nature of worlds created by the imagination. Furthermore, if life and art are phenomenally equal, the value of art for exploring the nature of “reality” can be affirmed. Art and fiction, in other words, can function philosophically and speak of truth.

The Dream Tale

Seop’o chose to realize his philosophical practice of fiction through the literary device of the dream tale. Generally speaking, this is a frame tale in which the protagonist, always a male, harbors “visions of grandeur” and then dreams a dream in which he attains maximal success. Upon awakening from the dream, he realizes that this long life was lived in a comparatively brief dream, and abandons his ambitions, realizing their vanity. Such tales can also be found outside Asia in European and Arabic sources. In China, the dream tale surfaces as early as the Six Dynasties (fourth-sixth centuries), in Gan Bao’s Soushenji (“Record of Spirits”), and is most common to the Tang era. These dream narratives capitalize primarily on the conceit of the didactic function of the dream. The brief dream stands in for life itself, and the dreamer is spared the necessity of living out his vain ambitions in “real” life.

The Cloud Dream of the Nine, as a much later entity, exhibits the influence of Indian and Chinese Daoist metaphysical thought. In this respect, Seop’o’s work is in the same category as Cao Xueqin’s eighteenth century novel, Dream of the Red Chamber, which is undoubtedly the culmination of the dream tale genre, both in terms of literary magnificence and length. In East Asia, the didactic observation that life is nothing more than a dream is commonly attributed to Buddhist and Daoist teachings, without much discrimination between the two. Perhaps the most famous source of this adage on the Daoist side is the philosopher Zhuangzi’s butterfly dream, which is recounted by Song-jin’s own Buddhist master after Song-jin awakens from his dream: Zhuangzi recounts dreaming that he is a butterfly, and after awakening, he is not quite sure whether the butterfly is the dream, or if the butterfly is dreaming that he is Zhuangzi. In other words, Zhuangzi is not sure why his waking self as Zhuangzi is any more real and substantial than his butterfly incarnation. His point goes beyond the idea that dreams have the power to edify. Instead, it is a metaphysical inquiry about the nature of ultimate reality itself, suggesting very pointedly that the distinction between dream and reality is ultimately insubstantial.

Similarly, in Indian philosophy, the concept of maya, or “illusion,” is predicated not upon a distinction between illusion and reality, but rather on the more radical contention that the perception of anything at all is illusory. Consider the following story from the Yogavasistha: King Lavana is visited by a magician and made to dream that he is an untouchable. When the king wakes up, he goes in search of the place in his dream and discovers the village in which he lived as an untouchable, as well as the people he knew there. The dream that turns out to be real is an inverse telling of the philosophy that everything is illusion. The point is to nullify any distinction between greater or lesser degrees of reality. In the early Chinese Daoist source known as the Liezi, dreams are again used to convey this lesson. One tale, for example, concludes that the slave who dreams every night that he is a rich man leads a life equivalent to the rich man who suffers every night the dream that he is a slave.

When Song-jin awakens from his dream of his long and successful life as So-yoo, he and his master ponder the meaning of the dream. Clearly recognizable in this conversation is the variegated history of the dream tale. Is dreaming a form of edifying vicarious experience? Does it stand in for life itself, implying that life is illusory, or might it be that illusion, like literature, is how life is composed? The virtue of literature, in contrast to philosophy proper, is that multiple interpretations can be simultaneously held and appreciated.


Seop’o’s personal and literary lives reflect an ideological conflict at the heart of East Asian culture. Confucianism trained on the contours of social reality, and was absolute in its demands of filial piety, familial duty, and political loyalty. Buddhism and Daoism, on the other hand, contested the hardness of this reality. They did so not only by negating ordinary life and ambitions as vainglorious, but by inviting one to create possibilities for life shaped by the poetic imagination. Hence it is no surprise that Seop’o, and so many other men of his culture, turned to fiction and poetry for more than pleasant diversions. To be sure, from our perspective, much of this literature employs stock conceits and images that were repeatedly utilized by authors through time. Premodern Asian fiction did not know the ideal of individual genius. But in a world where identity was a highly fixed entity, creative literature was a way of imagining the self and actualizing the idea that more than one option was possible.

Francisca Cho

Francisca Cho is an Associate Professor of Buddhism and East Asian religions in the Theology Department of Georgetown University. She is the author of the only book-length study of Kuunmong in English: Embracing Illusion: Truth and Fiction in the Dream of the Nine Clouds (1996, State University of New York Press). Dr. Cho’s recent work focuses on Buddhist aesthetics, particularly through the media of literature and film. She obtained her doctorate at the University of Chicago.


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