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Authors: Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Minsoo Kang

The Story of Hong Gildong

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PENGUIN
CLASSICS

THE STORY OF HONG GILDONG

MINSOO KANG
is an associate professor of history at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, specializing in the cultural and intellectual history of Western Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In addition to articles in numerous journals, he is the author of
Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination
and the coeditor of
Visions of the Industrial Age,
1830
–
1914
: Modernity and the Anxiety of Representation in Europe.
He is also a fiction writer and has published the short story collection
Of Tales and
Enigmas
.

PENGUIN BOOKS

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375
Hudson Street

New York, New York
10014

penguin.com

This translation, in different form, appeared in
Azalea: A Journal of Korean Literature and Culture,
vol.
6
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Korean Institute),
2013
.

The Story of Hong Gildong
is published with the support of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea (LTI Korea).

Translation, introduction, and notes copyright ©
2016
by Minsoo Kang

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

eBook ISBN
978
-
0
-
698
-
40661
-
2

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA

Ho, Kyun,
1569
–
1618
.

[Hong Kil-tong chon. English]

The story of Hong Gildong / translated with an introduction and Notes by Minsoo Kang.

pages cm—(Penguin classics)

Includes bibliographical references.

ISBN
978
-
0
-
14
-
310769
-
9

I. Kang, Minsoo, translator. II. Title.

PL
989
.
27
.K
9
H
613
2016

895
.
13
'
46
—dc
23

2015018815

Cover illustration: Sachin Teng

Version_1

This translation is dedicated to the memory of Michael Henry Heim (
1943
–
2012
), a truly great translator whom I had the privilege of knowing as a man of remarkable wisdom and
kindness.

Introduction

The Story of Hong Gildong
is arguably the single most important work of classic (i.e., premodern) prose fiction of Korea, in terms not only of its literary achievement but also of its influence on the larger culture. In the modern era the iconic narrative has been retold, revised, and updated countless times in fiction, film, television shows, and comic books. Even Koreans who have never actually read the original work in full are familiar with the tale of the illegitimate son of a nobleman and his lowborn concubine who leaves home in frustration at the treatment he receives from his family, becomes the leader of a band of outlaws who dedicate themselves to robbing the rich and the powerful, and finally leaves the country to become the king of his own realm. Most Koreans can recite the hero Hong Gildong's lament at his condition as an illegitimate child, that even though he is a sturdy man of great talent he is not allowed to “address his father as Father and his older brother as Brother.”

A figure as quintessentially Korean as Robin Hood is English (one could mention other heroic outlaws like Song Jiang of China, Nezumi Kozo‐ of Japan, Juro Jánošik of Slovakia, Salvatore Giuliano of Sicily, Ned Kelly of Australia, and Jesse James of Missouri
1
), the presence of Hong Gildong in Korean culture is ubiquitous even today. One apparent indication of this is the widespread use of his name as the generic cognomen in the manner of “John Doe.” Instructions on how to fill out forms commonly use Hong Gildong to indicate where one's
name should be written, and the English-language Wikipedia article “Korean Names” features an illustration with “Hong Gildong” in both the
hangeul
phonetic script (
) and Chinese ideograms (
).
2

Despite the importance of
The Story of Hong Gildong
to Korean literature and culture, scholarly study of the work has been hampered throughout the modern period by certain misconceptions about its origin and significance. Unfortunately, these misconceptions have been firmly established in the public consciousness through repetition in Korean school textbooks. The most prevalent of them are the following:

1
.
Hong Gildong jeon
(
The Story of Hong Gildong
) was written by the Joseon dynasty
3
poet and statesman Heo Gyun (
1569
–
1618
).

2
.
Hong Gildong jeon
is a narrative manifesto of Heo Gyun's radical political ideas.

3
.
Hong Gildong jeon
is the first work of fiction to be originally composed in
hangeul
, the phonetic script invented by King Sejong the Great in the fifteenth century.

In modern scholarship, these ideas became widespread through the colonial-era literary scholar Kim Taejun's pioneering work,
History of Joseon Fiction
(
Joseon soseolsa
), which was first serialized in the newspaper
Donga ilbo
from
1930
to
1931
, and then collected in book form in
1933
. As the first full-length study of classic Korean fiction, it has exerted an enormous influence on all subsequent works on the subject. Many of the most influential texts on traditional Korean literature repeat most of Kim's ideas, sometimes verbatim. As a nationalist and a communist, Kim Taejun presented a subversive reading of
The Story of Hong Gildong
, in which he portrayed the purported author, Heo Gyun, as a protosocialist who planned a revolution to overthrow the kingdom in order to create a more egalitarian state in its place and wrote the work to criticize the feudalistic order of Joseon.
4
Recently, however, scholars have had to grapple with numerous
mistakes, unsupported assertions, and ideological interpretations in
History of Joseon Fiction
that have solidified into standard readings.

The sole basis for the attribution of the work to Heo Gyun comes from the writings of Yi Sik (
1584
–
1647
), who was once a student of Heo but later turned against him for reasons of court politics. In a rather unflattering portrait of his former teacher, Yi claims that Heo and his closest friends were such admirers of the Chinese epic novexfl of heroic bandits
Water Margin
(
Shuihuzhuan
) that he wrote
Hong Gildong jeon
in imitation.
5
Because Yi Sik emerged as one of the most important literary figures of his time, his assertion that Heo Gyun wrote a story about the historical bandit (there are a few records of an outlaw named Hong Gildong who was captured by the authorities in
1500
) was repeated numerous times by various writers. There is, however, no evidence that Yi Sik had seen such a work, and none that can demonstrate that the work ostensibly written by Heo Gyun in the seventeenth century is related in any way to
The Story of Hong Gildong
as we know it today. In fact, there is no record of anyone actually having read a work entitled
The Story of Hong Gildong
until the second half of the nineteenth century.

In a
2012
article, Lee Yoon Suk, an expert on classic Korean fiction, published his discovery that Kim Taejun was, in fact, not the first modern scholar to attribute
The Story of Hong Gildong
to Heo Gyun.
6
Given the importance of the work to Korean culture and identity, it is rather ironic that it was a Japanese scholar named Takahashi Toru (
1878
–
1967
), a professor of Joseon literature and Kim Taejun's teacher at Keijo‐ Imperial University, who made the problematic attribution in
1927
. Takahashi also made the further claim that Heo Gyun must have originally written it in Chinese characters since noble
yangban
writers like Heo eschewed the use of
hangeul
, which they referred to derogatorily as
eonmun
(vulgar script). The contrary but equally problematic notion that
The Story of Hong Gildong
was the first work of fiction to be composed in
hangeul
was not made until
1948
by Yi Myeongseon in his book
History of
Joseon Literature
(
Joseon munhaksa
).
7
While it appears to be the case that the work was first written in the phonetic script, neither Yi nor anyone else has provided any evidence that it was the first
hangeul
fiction.

The general view that
The Story of Hong Gildong
was written in the seventeenth century by Heo Gyun as a kind of literary manifesto of his radical politics is based on a series of historical and literary myths. An objective assessment of Heo Gyun's life reveals him to be an excellent literary scholar but a substandard government official and a political opportunist who was ultimately executed not for attempting to foment a revolution that would usher in an egalitarian state, but actually for running afoul of powerful figures in the royal court. It is unfortunately the case, however, that the attribution of the writing to him and the interpretation of the story as subversive of Joseon's feudal order remain the standard views of the work in Korean scholarship.

Recent research and reassessment of the history of Joseon dynasty literature have yielded a much more plausible picture of the origin of
The Story of Hong Gildong
and its historical context. Under the able leadership of the eighteenth-century monarchs Yeongjo (r.
1724
–
1776
) and Jeongjo (r.
1776
–
1800
), Joseon enjoyed a prolonged period of peace and prosperity. The increased social mobility and rise in literacy also created conditions necessary for the development of a market for popular fiction written for a mass audience. Unlike the moralistic and esoteric fiction written by
yangban
writers for
yangban
readers, the new works featured exciting and sensational plots that were designed primarily to arouse emotions and to engage interest in the flow of the story line. There are numerous examples of such works—centered around a heroic individual who embarks on a series of action-filled adventures—that were written in the late eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth century (e.g.,
The Story of Jo Ung
,
The Story of So Daeseong
,
The Story of Yu Chungryeol
, and
The Story of Jeon Uchi
, to name just a few) and bear close resemblance to
Hong Gildong jeon
in plot, style, and
themes. There is not a single example of that kind of narrative being produced in Joseon prior to the second half of the eighteenth century.

In all probability, the extant work entitled
The Story of Hong Gildong
was written around the middle of the nineteenth century, or not long before that, since the first reference to it in terms of its content, rather than in connection to Yi Sik's attribution of the work to Heo Gyun, does not appear until
1876
, in the introduction to an edition of the war fiction
Record of the Black Dragon Year
(
Imjin rok
).
8
Its author was likely an anonymous writer of secondary or commoner status, rather than a noble
yangban
, who sought to profit from the market for popular fiction. The work should, therefore, be properly regarded as a mass-market fiction from the late Joseon period, when the dynasty was undergoing one major political and social crisis after another that would lead to its downfall with the Japanese colonization of
1910
.

For those who are unfamiliar with traditional East Asian literature, the numerous references in
The Story of Hong Gildong
to Chinese history, philosophy, and literature may give the impression that the writer must have been a highly educated person, perhaps an impoverished
yangban
reduced to writing popular fiction for money. But most of the allusions—like the idyllic state of affairs under the rule of the ancient monarchs Yao and Shun, the literary prowess of the poets Li Bai and Du Mu, and the assassination attempt on the King of Qin by Jing Ke—were so well-known that you did not have to be a particularly learned intellectual to be familiar with them. Comparable examples would be a Western writer's use of Helen of Troy as the symbol of supreme feminine beauty or Alexander the Great as the archetype of a military genius, which would indicate some but not necessarily a high level of education. So the work's literary and historical value should be appreciated in the context of popular rather than elite culture, embodying the desires, anxieties, frustrations, and fantasies of the urban populace of nineteenth-century Korea. With the story's historical context established, it is possible to undertake a
proper analysis of its key themes and their engagement with late Joseon culture.

 • • • 

The narrative of
The Story of Hong Gildong
is divided into three parts of near equal lengths, each of them taking place in a completely different environment with its own levels of realism and fantasy. In the opening section, which is set entirely in the compound of the Hong family, there are imaginative descriptions of the dream that High Minister Hong (the father of the hero Hong Gildong) has before conceiving his son, of Hong Gildong's sensational physical and mental abilities, and of the magic he uses to thwart the assassin Teukjae's attempt on his life. Aside from those fantastic elements, the first part provides a highly realistic portrayal of family life in a nobleman's household, complete with a wife, concubines, and children both legitimate and illegitimate. It also paints a convincing portrayal of tensions within the household among its members. For instance, the senior concubine, Chorang, worries that the birth of the extraordinary son by the junior concubine, Chunseom, would cause her to lose the affection of Minister Hong and, consequently, her status in the household hierarchy. This was a legitimate concern that would have plagued such women. But the main drama centers on Hong Gildong's life as a secondary son and the frustrations he feels from his inferior treatment. This has led many scholars to characterize
The Story of Hong Gildong
as protest literature against the Joseon dynasty policy toward illegitimate children.

BOOK: The Story of Hong Gildong
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