[Inkstone]The Nine Cloud Dream – In Praise of Love that Overcomes Hate

  • onMarch 28, 2019
  • Vol.43 Spring 2019
  • byTomoyuki Someya

The civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is, along with John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, one of the defining speeches of the twentieth century. King’s speech is praised for its anti-discriminatory content and support of non-violence, but this speech is also one of the most famous because King, an African American who tasted the bitterness of years of discrimination, overcame hatred and chose to speak instead about love and dreams.

When I read Kim Man-jung’s The Nine Cloud Dream, I could not help but think of King’s speech. Kim (1637-1692) was a seventeenth-century Korean intellectual. According to the Nishiura Chronology, The Nine Cloud Dream was completed in 1687. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the people of the Korean peninsula suffered unbelievable tragedies. Yet Kim produced a work that speaks to the importance of love and dreams, not just in Korea, but across all of East Asia.

The Nine Cloud Dream is set in China during the Tang Dynasty. The story begins when the young Seong-jin, who had been training in the heavens, meets eight beautiful fairies. Seong-jin’s heart is overcome with passion for the eight fairy maidens, and he can no longer focus on his Buddhist rites. His teacher, the Master of the Six Temptations, learns of Seong-jin’s state, and uses his powers to have him reborn in the human world as Yang So-yu and experience the world of desire. The eight fairies are also reborn in the human world, and, after many twists and turns, each encounters Seong-jin again in human form. While So-yu achieves glory in the human world, he also realizes its limits and returns to heaven to begin the long journey to becoming a Bodhisattva.

But this is nothing more than the frame of the story. The tale’s true focus is how, despite both the successes (passing the imperial examinations and marrying a princess) and difficulties Seong-jin encounters as a human, he still meets and marries the eight fairies. Together, the nine build their own unshakable world of love. Altogether, eighty or ninety percent of the novel is dedicated to So-yu’s adventures in the human world and the construction of a world of love for his eight lovers. What truly makes this novel unique is how it so passionately extols the importance of love in such a wide variety of human ventures. The episode wherein So-yu meets Ka Chun-un, the reincarnation one of the eight nymphs, is a perfect example.

One day, deep in the mountains, So-yu meets an unimaginable beauty. He falls head over heels in love with her, and they begin to meet frequently. So-yu is thus surprised to happen upon her grave and discover that the unlucky maiden is already deceased. His friend, Thirteen, consults with the supernaturally-gifted Master Du out of concern. Master Du warns So-yu that he is in love with a spirit and that continuing his meetings with her will endanger his life. So-yu, however, refuses to listen to Master Du and tries to see Chun-un again, but she fails to show. The flustered So-yu then hears a woman’s voice. The voice informs him that a magical charm was hidden in his topknot, and because of that, Chun-un could not approach him. Surprised, So-yu grabs the charm, saying “I cannot hold back my anger, I will destroy this charm,” and breaks it into pieces. So-yu discovers that it was his worried friend and the master who sneaked the charm into So-yu’s hair. He then sings praise to the depth and strength of his love: “Whether it is this world or the next in which we meet, our love shall know no divisions.”

It is frequently suggested that this episode served as the basis for the charm-breaking scene from the ghost story “The Record of the Peony Lantern” in the collection of Chinese supernatural tales, Jiandeng Xinhua. “The Record of the Peony Lantern” is the story of Qiao Sheng of Mingzhou (modern day Zhejiang Province). He falls in love with the ghost Shufang. Though he manages to free himself thanks to the scarlet charm he receives from High Priest Wei, Qiao ultimately destroys the charm, becomes possessed by Shufang, and is killed. While the stories both revolve around magic charms, there is an important difference between the two. In the China of “The Record of the Peony Lantern” (and also in Japan, where ghost stories were heavily influenced by those of China), charms and magic belong to the realm of the gods and must be treated with great care. However, in the words of Kim (and So-yu), charms and magic are broken into pieces for the sake of a greater good. Kim places human love in higher esteem than magic and spells. This portrayal of magic feels incredibly fresh even in our modern day where religion has lost most of its sway; one need not even mention how radical it must have been in the seventeenth century.


The value Kim placed on love and passion is most obvious when we consider the circumstances of the eight female characters. If we were to look at the ranks of all the female leads, we would find among them a princess, court dancers, and even an assassin. Comparing The Nine Cloud Dream with romances from other countries further elucidates this key feature of the work. For example, if we were to contrast it with the model love stories of Japanese literature, The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, completed at the end of the tenth century, and The Life of an Amorous Man by Ihara Saikaku, written at the end of the seventeenth century, we’d see that while the male leads certainly do have relationships with many women, they tend to be of one type. In The Tale of Genji, Hikaru Genji has relationships with ten or so major characters and other minor ones as well. Yonosuke of The Life of an Amorous Man, we are told, has slept with 3,742 women. Certainly, these are large numbers, but there is no variety in the women’s circumstances. In the case of Genji, most of his encounters are with court ladies, while Yonosuke courts only prostitutes and commoners. In contrast, So-yu takes women of every class as wives and concubines. While there may only be eight of them, one could consider these eight female characters as an attempt to represent a world bound together by love for all women.

But why would Kim try to depict such a world? He lived during an era of previously unseen violence and wrote this work in the postwar period. He survived the devastation of his country’s land by the Japanese invasion of Korea, and also the further loss of dignity brought about by the Qing invasion. During this era, the people of the Korean peninsula suffered greatly, and naturally, they had great resentment towards both the Japanese and the Qing. But Kim did not write a story of resentment. He responded to the situation with love. His stance is made clear through So-yu. When So-yu becomes a general and must respond to enemy aggressions, he does not rely on military force, but rather succeeds in ending conflicts through diplomatic means. Even when he is attacked by the assassin Yo-yeon, his words overflowing with love overcome her, and he transforms this enemy into an ally.

Just like Martin Luther King Jr.’s words which continue to resonate in our global world, Kim’s spirit of love and dreams is absolutely necessary in modern East Asia. That spirit which praises love and dreams so highly deserves respect in Japan and China as well. If we do not give it its proper due, postwar Asia will one day revert to prewar Asia, and history will be nothing more than a repetition of past follies.

Tomoyuki Someya
Professor, Ibaraki Christian University