Katherine Beaman reviews The Nine Cloud Dream by Kim Man-Jung

Translated from the Korean and Chinese by Heinz Insu Fenkl (Penguin Books, 2019)

The Nine Cloud Dream (Guunmong, 구운몽, 九雲夢) is a seventeenth-century fictional work by Kim Man-Jung, a member of Korea’s ruling class and a political figure who was exiled toward the latter end of the Joseon dynasty. It was originally written in hanja, Chinese characters, the primary alphabet used for literature and letters in Korea at the time, as opposed to hangul, the Korean alphabet. Set in China during the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD), a period whose governmental structure was similar to that of Korea’s Joseon dynasty, The Nine Cloud Dream functioned as a cautionary tale, critical of the values of Korea’s then ruling monarch King Sukjong. Originally published in English in 1922, it was the first literary work to be translated from Korean into English, thanks to James Scarth Gale, a Canadian Presbyterian minister who also translated the first Western novel into hangul, Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Penguin Books now brings us a new translation by Heinz Insu Fenkl, who emulates the tone of a historical novel and uses Chinese naming conventions to approximate more closely the text a seventeenth century Korean reader would have encountered.

With many elements of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism incorporated into its plot and form, The Nine Cloud Dream is the story of a young monk named Hsing-Chen who is derailed from his path to enlightenment after encountering and lusting after eight mythical fairies. For his sins, he and the eight fairies are banished to the Underworld, where it is decided that he shall be reincarnated as Shao-Yu, a man so resembling a model of idealism that he may as well be a philosophical thought experiment. Shao-Yu rises from poverty through the ranks of the Tang government, encountering each of the eight fairies in their reincarnated forms and taking them as wives and concubines. After he comes to the realization that his life of prestige and spoils does not satisfy him, Shao-Yu awakens once again as the monk Hsing-Chen, his whole life as Shao-Yu having been one brief dream.

Understandably, in his 1922 translation James Scarth Gale did not expect his readers to have knowledge of Buddhist symbolism, the canon of Chinese poetry, or the relationship between The Nine Cloud Dream’s historical setting and its role as a political commentary. For instance, rather than directly referring to the Diamond Sutra by name, Gale attempts to summarize its philosophy for the reader. In other instances, direct allusions to such Chinese poets as Li Po are omitted outright. Fenkl’s translation, in contrast, refers his readership to a comprehensive collection of endnotes that explicate cultural references and some of the intricate wordplay involved in Kim’s Chinese characters.

Gale and Fenkl differ too in their approaches to the poems included in the novel. While Gale tends to use an end-rhyme scheme, an approach likely to appeal to the aesthetic values of his early twentieth-century readership, Fenkl prefers to let lyrical word choices convey the poetry’s emotional subtext. This is how Gale renders one particular poem:

Willows hung like woven green,
Veiling all the view between,
Planted by some fairy free,
Sheltering her and calling me.
Willows, greenest of the green,
Brushing by her silken screen,
Speak by every waving wand,
Of an unseen fairy hand.

Meanwhile, Fenkl translates it thus:

The green silky willow, its slender wands
veiling the bright pavilion—
Why have you planted it?
Was it your exquisite taste?
The long willow drapes, their deep green hue
’round the radiant pillar—
Take care and do not break them,
for they are fragile and they move my heart.  

Elsewhere in the novel, Fenkl’s concise, poetic translation creates a more readable text that engages the senses in a palpable way. Describing the setting in which the young monk Hsing-Chen encounters the eight fairies, Fenkl’s translation reads, “It was springtime, and myriad flowers filled the valleys below like a pink mist. The air was fresh and alive with an untold variety of birdsong.” The same passage in Gale’s translation reads, “All the flowers were in bloom; the streams beneath them sparkled with silvery brightness. There hung a tent-work of flowers and leaves like a silken canopy. The birds vied with each other in the beautiful notes of their singing.” Fenkl’s is a novel one touches, inhales, and hears; Gale’s is a novel one observes.

Given Gale’s background as a Presbyterian missionary, it is likely that he would have taken an interest in the moral implications of the Confucian and Buddhist belief systems represented in The Nine Cloud Dream. Theological differences in the way relationships between sin, materiality, and the mind are conceptualized can be revealed by comparing the two translations of this work. Gale’s translation tends to suggest that one’s destiny is controlled by external forces, choosing wording that blames material temptations for characters’ sins. Meanwhile, for Fenkl it is the mind that is the source of sin. For instance, in Gale’s translation, Hsing-Chen says “though evil thoughts assail me, I will keep my spirit awake against them,” whereas Fenkl’s translation implies a greater amount of autonomy and assuredness of the mind against sin by inverting the subject and object and rendering the same passage as “I faced temptation, but I came to my senses and controlled myself.” Gale’s Christian upbringing is also evident in the language he uses to describe Hsing-Chen’s relationship to samsara, the Buddhist cycle of birth and rebirth an individual undergoes before attaining enlightenment. In Gale’s translation, Hsing-Chen describes his sin of lusting for the eight fairy maidens as “damage of my soul,” implying permanency and condemnation. Fenkl’s Hsing-Chen describes this as “harm to my progress,” suggesting instead a mere temporary deviation from the path toward enlightenment. It is easy to imagine that Gale, as a religious leader from a theological background that dictates that humans will inevitably succumb to sin and temptation, might feel a kinship with a young monk who falls short of the demands of his vows.

Gale also betrays the values of his time and position by referring to Shao-Yu’s love interest as being “lady-like,” placing an emphasis on her “modesty;” meanwhile Fenkl refers to her as “graceful.” Female characters are often described in lavish terms, as “the first dazzling rays of the morning sun” or “like a wild rose covered in morning dew.” They are often presented as precious objects and landscapes to admire, just one example of Shao-Yu’s many material indulgences. In spite of this, Kim Man-Jung not only abundantly represents female characters but is also vocal about the moral implications of women’s subservience to men within Confucian structures. Many of the women in The Nine Cloud Dream have conversations about poetry and friendships which are unrelated to their relationship with Shao-Yu. They make vows not only to him, but also, and often in a way that takes precedence, to each other. Although these women cannot by any stretch of the imagination be said to be liberated, Kim is critical of the way in which their livelihoods are subjected to the whims of those who are above them hierarchically. Their enlightenment is of little concern compared to that of Shao-Yu—it is Shao-Yu who must realize the harm he has caused by succumbing to material extravagances at the potential expense of his wives and concubines. The women in the novel often express discontent with the ways in which societal demands contradict each other, such that they are not able to fulfill their duties, yet they do not seek to subvert the structures that govern their place in society. Ch’iung-Pei, for instance, believing her marriage to Shao-Yu is destined to fall through as a result of an imperial order that he marry the emperor’s sister instead, knows that failing to fulfill her duties as a daughter will bring shame on her family and so resolves to devote herself to her aging parents and prays that she may be reborn as a man.

In order to bypass the demands of Confucianism and propriety imposed on them, many characters, both male and female, adopt disguises. Shao-Yu dresses as a Taoist priestess in order to obtain an audience with Ch’iung-Pei, whose encounters with men are restricted before she is engaged to be married, according to rules governing her gender and class. In doing so, Shao-Yu risks compromising Ch’iung-Pei’s virtue. Later in the novel, the emperor’s sister conceals her identity by dressing as a peasant woman in order to meet Ch’iung-Pei, wanting to know more about this woman vying for Shao-Yu’s affections and for whom he is risking imperial punishment. After Shao-Yu embarks on a military campaign and Ch’iung-Pei is found to be of virtuous character, the emperor makes a legal exception which allows Shao-Yu to marry both women, demonstrating that exceptions to Confucian codes of behavior can be made for individuals of high standing. By writing characters who use deceit and deception to navigate contemporary social norms and structures, Kim Man-Jung satirizes the immoral decision-making of the Joseon King Sukjong––although not without consequence. Kim Man-Jung was exiled multiple times, first for criticizing the King’s failure to properly mourn his first wife, then for denouncing his poor treatment of a scholar-official, and finally for condemning his decision to replace his second wife with a consort.

Politics aside, even readers without knowledge of its historical and cultural context will find The Nine Cloud Dream an engaging read, full of fantastic creatures, sex, and debauchery. One woman pranks Shao-Yu by disguising herself as a ghost and making love to him; he does not question her nature, justifying their encounters by saying that ghosts and humans have been known to conceive children and sustain relationships with each other. At another point in the story, the Dragon Princess, a siren-like aquatic creature, transforms herself into a human in order to be with Shao-Yu. In both of these instances, as with the reincarnation of the fairies at the beginning of the novel, the line between human and fantasy is as thin as any other line separating dreams from lived reality. These transformations mirror Hsing-Chen’s reincarnation, in which he is able to escape the repercussions of his sins by realizing that a path of material indulgence is not one which leads to long-term satisfaction. By calling into question the transient nature of reality, and by implying that an individual’s moral missteps may educate him toward a life of more prudent judgment, Kim demonstrates the hope that King Sukjong himself may be able to overcome his perceived moral failures.

With so much disguise and transformation, it is obvious this is a novel that seeks to establish the ephemerality of identity and experience. The Nine Cloud Dream is a series of head-spinning escapades embedded within a fable of existential import. While Shao-Yu’s adventures are certainly entertaining, it is the lesson Hsing-Chen learns that Kim asks the reader to carry with them. This message is reinforced through etymology: the young monk Hsing-Chen’s name means “original true nature,” whereas his name in reincarnated form, Shao-Yu, means “small visitor,” referring to his transient state of being. Shao-Yu and his women are described as idealistic beings, without fault in terms of poetic capability or beauty—and this flawlessness makes them seem inhuman. Shao-Yu suffers few consequences from his sins, but Hsing-Chen does; and, like Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, he is able to transcend his humanity precisely for that reason.

In its structure the novel is representative of Buddhist philosophy and existentialism in a way that does not adhere to the conventional conception of plot as action building toward a climax and resolution. The events of Shao-Yu’s life occur as wavelets of action, gently building and resolving. His realization that his life of success and valor is not fulfilling does not occur dramatically; rather, he comes gradually to this realization, as though a circadian rhythm is naturally rousing him from his sleep. Ultimately, as with many of the cycles we encounter in life, the book concludes much as it began. Hsing-Chen awakens from his dream and must continue on his path through the cycles of samsara, during which he will undoubtedly experience new dreams and life cycles in which he will sin anew and once again evaluate where his values lie. To the reader, the wayward monk, or the Joseon King who finds himself swept away by dreams of fantastic adventures and material success, Kim Man-Jung issues a wake-up call and points them toward a source of more eternal fulfillment. Yet it is only through making our own mistakes and realizing for ourselves the smallness of material pleasures that any of us may internalize Kim’s lessons.