[Inkstone] Questioning the Canon: From Historical Significance to Popularity

  • onJune 28, 2019
  • Vol.44 Summer 2019
  • byBarbara Wall


The canonization of literary classics is a complex process that is not necessarily based solely on aesthetic excellence; it can also be led by ideological interests. Depending on which set of criteria we use to define literary classics, we find that there are various canons of “classics” and that these sets are themselves dynamic. I personally appreciate the idea of a literary canon based on pure aesthetic excellence, and I do not want to deny the intrinsic literary quality of certain texts. In a time like ours, where the commercialization of literature as munhwa kontencheu (“culture contents”) seems to be in full swing, the discussion about how to define literary quality seems to be more important than ever. In this essay, I want to explore another approach to question the established canon: taking the popularity of a story in Korea as criterion for defining Korean literary classics. By that criterion, I will argue that The Journey to the West (Seoyugi) is more a Korean classic than New Tales of the Golden Turtle (Geumo Sinhwa).



In A History of Korean Literature, Peter Lee calls Geumo Sinhwa the “earliest classical fiction in Korea,” which seems to have become the main characteristic for which Geumo Sinhwa is known. Whether the story is introduced by Cho Tongil to an academic audience in his seminal work on Korean literature or taught to Korean students for the first time in children books or textbooks, Geumo Sinhwa is usually celebrated as the “earliest classical fiction in Korea,” even before the actual content is mentioned. Heo Byeongdu, representative of the teacher association that put together “Creating a Warmer World through the Book” (Chaek euro ttatteutan sesang mandeuneun gyoso; Chaekttase), argues that the emphasis on Geumo Sinhwa as being the “earliest classical fiction in Korea” makes it very difficult to recognize its real appeal. Yi Jiha, one of the translators of Geumo Sinhwa, also suggests that while the majority of Koreans will call Geumo Sinhwa the “first” (choecho) of its kind, only a minority will have actually read it.



Geumo Sinhwa is a collection of five novellas written by Kim Si-seup (1435–1493) in the 1460s. Two of the novellas are romantic ghost stories, while the others are stories in which a scholar travels to meet a supernatural character. Since it is regarded as the “earliest classical fiction in Korea” written in Literary Chinese, the collection is firmly established as one of the core classics of Korean literature.

Julie Sanders, an expert in adaptation studies, argues that “adaptations and appropriations prove complicit in activating and reactivating the canonical status of certain texts and writers.” She even calls adaptation a “veritable marker of canonical status.” The screenwriter Howard A. Rodman explains in the foreword to Alexis Krasilovsky’s Great Adaptations (2018) that adaptations can bring books “to life.” Also, Sarah Cardwell, author of Adaptation Revisited: Television and the Classic Novel, argues that adaptations play an important role in the formation of classics. In his blog post “If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead,” Henry Jenkins argues that it is re-use, remixing, and adaptation that keep cultural contents alive. Similarly, Walter Bernhart, an expert in intermediality studies, calls this ability to spread the “fertility” of a text.

Surprisingly, despite its canonical status, Geumo Sinhwa does not seem to be very “fertile,” and there would seem to be few to no adaptations of Geumo Sinhwa in Korean popular culture today. This is all the more astonishing given the fact that the Korean classics are grist for recent Korean TV dramas, webtoons, films, manhwa, or other forms of popular culture.



To name just a few of the most popular contemporary adaptations of Korean classics, one of the most outstanding examples would be The Tale of Chunhyang. Besides dozens of film adaptations by some of the most prominent Korean directors—including Shin Sang-ok’s Seong Chunhyang (1961) and Im Kwon-taek’s Chunhyangdyeon (2000)—the Korean TV drama Sassy Girl Chunhyang (Kwaegeol Chunhyang, Jeon Gisang 2005) was also extremely successful, with viewership ratings of more than 30 percent (Joongang Ilbo 2005). The same is true for The Tale of Hong GildongHong Gildong was adapted as a serial cartoon in a newspaper (Punguna Hong Gildong 1965), and as a North Korean martial arts film (1986), as well as several other films and TV dramas.

On the other hand, Geumo Sinhwa is not the only Korean classic to have fallen into near obscurity. Kuunmong (The Dream of the Nine Clouds), written by Kim Manjung (1637–1692) in 1689, shares a fate similar to that of Geumo Sinhwa. While generally praised as the first literary work written in Korean that would fit into the Western concept of a novel, popular adaptations of Kuunmong are rare. David Damrosch argues in his influential monograph What is World Literature? that it is the variability of a literary work that enables its circulation. Only if a work is variable enough to adapt to other places and times can the work circulate. The religious context of Kuunmong and the fact that the male protagonist enjoys life with a harem of eight women might be one of the main stumbling blocks when adapting the work. Since the harem plays a central role in the story, it limits the work’s variability. One of the very few popular adaptations of Kuunmong that solved this problem is the Korean TV drama My Love from the Star (Byeol eso on geudae, Jang Taeyu 2013–14).10While the male protagonist in Kuunmong has a relationship with eight different women at the same time, in the TV drama the male protagonist has a relationship with several reincarnations of the same woman.

Kuunmong and Geumo Sinhwa are Korean classics that are both celebrated for being “the first” of their kind, which means the canonization of both works was not based on popularity, but mainly on alleged historical significance. While Geumo Sinhwa is regarded as the “earliest classical fiction in Korea” written in Literary Chinese, Kuunmong is praised as the first Korean novel written in Korean, but neither the content nor the story plot of either of them would seem to be variable enough to be adapted to different times and places.



While Geumo Sinhwa is, despite its near absence in popular culture, generally considered to be one of the core classics of Korean literature, Seoyugi (The Journey to the West) is, especially in the academic world, never considered to be a Korean classic although it is ubiquitous in popular culture in Korea. The story universe of Seoyugi is constantly 

growing, through Korean webtoons, films, TV series, manhwa, and computer games, as well as through exhibitions or festivals.11 Although most people know Seoyugi through these variations, academics still tend to assume that the “real” Seoyugi is merely the rarely read Shidetang edition of the 100-chapter novel allegedly written by Wu Cheng’en in China at the end of the sixteenth century. Of course, Seoyugi cannot be considered just a Korean classic, since many cultures keep contributing to its multicultural story universe. In any case, it is definitely part of Korean popular culture, and if we take the criterion for being considered a classic to be popularity, Seoyugi can be considered to be more a Korean literary classic than Geumo Sinhwa.


1 Lee, Peter H. 2003. A History of Korean Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 262.
2 Cho Tongil. 2016. Hanguk Munhak Tongsa [A comprehensive history of Korean literature]. Paju: Jisik saneopsa, Vol. 2, 487.
4 Kim Si-seup. 2018. Geumo Sinhwa, 25th print. Trans. Yi Jiha. Seoul: Minumsa
5 Sanders, Julie. 2006. Adaptation and Appropriation. London: Routledge, 22 (emphasis mine).
6 Sanders, Julie. 2006. Adaptation and Appropriation. London: Routledge, 6.
8 Bernhart, Walter. 2015. “From Novel to Song via Myth: Wuthering Heights as a Case of Popular Intermedial Adaptation.” Essays on Literature and Music (1985-2013) by Walter Bernhart, ed. Werner Wolf. Leiden, Brill, 394.
9 Yu, Myoungin. 2011. “Kuunmong und die koreanische Literaturwissenschaft: Wissenschaftsgeschichte als Provokation [Kuunmong and Korean Literary Studies: Intellectual History as Provocation].” Bochum, PhD thesis, 27.
10 Wall, Barbara. 2016. “Self-mockery of the Korean Wave (hallyu) in the Korean drama My Love from the Star and the role of the seventeenth-century novelThe Dream of the Nine Clouds.” Journal of Japanese and Korean Cinema, Vol. 8, 73–87.
11 Wall, Barbara. 2019. “Dynamic Texts as Hotbed for Transmedia Storytelling: A Case Study on the Story Universe of The Journey to the West.” International Journal of Communication, Vol. 13, 2116–2142.

by Barbara Wall
Assistant Professor
University of Copenhagen