Contemporary Novelists Shed the Past: The Birth of the New Historical Novel

  • onNovember 1, 2014
  • Vol.16 Summer 2012
  • byKim Hoon

Historical dramas are so popular that whenever Koreans picture a famous historical figure, the first face that comes to mind is that of the actor who played that person on television. Historical novels as well have inspired the observation that “Koreans are bingeing on history.” Recently, there has been a tendency to view historical novels as a form of healing, in which modern readers find solace in the trials and tribulations of historical figures in novels. By empathizing with the difficulties faced by people of the past, people find the key to unlocking their own struggles.

Historical novels are as educational as they are entertaining. Readers who are not satisfied with what can be gained through textbooks alone learn how to analyze history from their own perspective. The other charm of historical novels is that they offer up not just simple historical facts but enable readers to enjoy the language, customs, and rich cultural details of other times. Given the abundance of historical records in Korea, including the The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, the future of Korean historical novels looks bright. Particularly in this era of one-source multi-use media, the form of storytelling that holds the widest popular appeal is the historical novel. It has taken center stage in this era of infotainment—the compelling combination of information and entertainment. Likewise, in the Korean TV drama industry, historical novels are becoming a very important source of story ideas.

Prior to the 2000s as well, there were many historical novels in Korea. But if they were ordinarily shelved as popular fiction, the current batch of historical novels is blurring the lines between popular and literary fiction. The opening shot fired on this new renaissance of historical novels was Kim Hoon’s Song of the Sword. Based on the life story of Yi Sun-shin (1545-1598), Song of the Sword was recognized for its simultaneous popular appeal and literary value. Kim Hoon’s signature meditative prose style, combined with the first-person narrative told from General Yi Sun-shin’s point of view, received an enthusiastic response from readers.

The next title to receive a positive response was Kim Young-ha’s Black Flower, which infused old historical subject matter with a refined sensibility. Black Flower tells the story of the first Korean emigrants to Mexico, who were sold to Henequen (agave cactus) plantations a hundred years ago. Korean audiences were already familiar with their story because of the movie Henequen, but when combined with Kim Young-ha’s unique imagination, their story has taken on a new tone. Black Flower showed that historical novels do not just stop at being old stories. Kim Young-ha cast off the antiquated speaking style associated with historical dramas and vividly depicted historical figures by reinterpreting them through a modern frame.

Novels can create synergy with TV dramas, even when they are not directly related to each other, simply by virtue of sharing the same central characters. That was the case with the TV show “The Great Queen Seondeok.” The script was written specifically for television and was not based on a novel. But the runaway popularity of the show helped draw attention to the novel Mishil by Kim Byeola, in which the title character is depicted as Queen Seondeok’s foe. It was a rare case in the Korean publishing world of a successful television show making a novel successful, rather than the other way around.

When a historical novel is widely loved by the public, it increases the numbers of writers who specialize solely in writing historical novels. One such success story is Lee Jung-myung. Through such works as The Deep-rooted Tree and The Painter of Wind, Lee succeeded at grafting the strengths of the historical novel with the strengths of the mystery novel. The Painter of Wind was based on modern speculation over whether the famous Korean genre painter, Shin Yun-bok, was a woman. Also, The Deep-rooted Tree, was made into a television show that became wildly popular. By grafting onto mass media, Korean historical novels are successfully reinventing themselves.


1. Song of the Sword
Kim Hoon, Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2012, 398p, ISBN 9788954617246
2. Mishil
Kim Byeola, Hainaim Publishing Co., Ltd.
2012, 504p, ISBN9788965743323
3. Black Flower
Kim Young-ha, Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2011, 367p, ISBN 9788954610131
4. The Deep-rooted Tree (2 vols.)
Lee Jung-myung, Millionhouse Publishing Inc.
2004, 305p, ISBN 9788991643154 (Vol.1)


Kim Hoon, Song of the Sword

There are many reasons why Koreans are crazy about Yi Sun-shin. He was not only an extraordinary naval commander but a charming person as well. The courage he showed in defeating hordes of Japanese invaders with a ridiculously small fleet when the country was on the verge of being lost gave immense hope to the Korean people.

Based on a variety of sources, including the The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty and Yi Sun-shin’s own War Diary, and infused with the writer’s modern imagination, Song of the Sword opened a new era for historical novels. This is because the novel describes the figure most beloved by Koreans in vivid detail, as if he were alive today. With the loss of his beloved third son in battle, bereaved of his mother during the war, stripped of his official post, and slandered and thrown in jail despite winning the war—Yi Sun-shin quietly endured a level of suffering that no person should endure, all while defeating hundreds of ships with a mere dozen of his own and becoming a victor who would go down in history. His undying desire, not to be a hero or to earn the king’s approval, but simply to die a warrior’s death, is a source of inspiration for many people to this day. Kim Hoon’s concise and powerful prose cuts straight to the reader’s heart, leaving its mark like Yi Sun-shin’s own sword.

Kim Young-ha, Black Flower

King Sejong the Great. General Yi Sun-shin. King Jeong-jo, the visionary reformer. Lim Geok-jeong, leader of a peasant rebellion. Hwang Jini, the famous gisaeng. Jeong Yak-yong, the great philosopher. These are the great figures Koreans encounter most often in historical novels. Most of the historical novels in existence are told in the form of life stories that describe the rise and fall of heroic figures. But Kim Young-ha’s Black Flower overturns this cliche. Black Flower features none of the historical figures most known to Koreans. In 1905 the Russo-Japanese War was in full roar. Korean migrant laborers boarded the British ship, S.S. Ilford, bound for Mexico. The suffering those 1,033 migrant laborers endured in that foreign land is known by many through the news and movies. But Black Flower goes beyond the usual humdrum adventure story. It sheds light on the many desires felt by priests and shamans, aristocrats and royalty, and court eunuchs and other figures that had not yet been completely modernized. They endured cruel labor exploitation on the Henequen plantations, but each came to live different lives. They each took their own path, whether that was participating in the Mexican Revolution or founding a new anarchist state known as New Korea.

Kim Byeola, Mishil

We usually believe that women’s lives are far more advanced in the modern era than they were in the premodern era. But that is not always the case. Though there was no official guarantee that women could enter society, there were always cracks that could be taken advantage of. Mishil was an extraordinary heroine who had royalty and noblemen alike wrapped around her finger. She had both feminine charm and political charisma, and skillfully manipulated the social hierarchy of the Silla dynasty even while surpassing its limitations. Kim Byeola’s Mishil resurrects Mishil, a figure not often handled in official histories, as the protagonist of a literary work. Most female protagonists of existing historical novels are figures like Hwang Jini, Queen Inhyeon, and Nongae, who are already given a great deal of attention in textbooks. But Mishil won readers over because of her novelty. She has been reinterpreted by modern readers as an image of a woman who is much more refined than modern women. Author Kim Byeola describes the Mishil she created as follows: “The Mishil that I know is someone who is at once every woman in the world and someone who surpasses all of them.” Mishil has once again drawn attention, along with the runaway popularity of the television show “The Great Queen Seondeok,” and interest in her as a historical figure, rather than just as a character in a novel, has rapidly increased.

Lee Jung-myung, The Deep-rooted Tree

His face is on Korea’s ten-thousand won bill. He, King Sejong the Great, is one of the historical figures most respected by Koreans. Not only did he invent Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, he also worked hard to improve the welfare of the common people and to develop a variety of scientific equipment, including a sundial and water clock. But most Koreans only learn about this king from test answer sheets. Lee Jung-myung’s The Deep-rooted Tree reveals his lesser-known side. Through the format of the mystery novel, King Sejong the Great is explored beyond that of the model king that we have always known. This mystery novel, that recalls Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, charms readers and became a much talked about novel from the moment it was published due to its shocking subject matter: a series of murders that take place amongst the scholars engaged in the creation of the Korean alphabet. Also made into a television show, The Deep-rooted Tree was praised for taking Korean style faction (fact + fiction) to a new level. Lee offers the following interesting definition for historical novels: “I think of historical novels as a type of wrong answer. It is a great and entertaining wrong answer, of course. There can only be one right answer, but hundreds of wrong answers. So are those hundreds of wrong answers useless? I don’t think so.” Lee also says that historical novels “turn fossilized history into living and moving fantasies.” In this way, it is the imaginative power of fiction, beyond textbooks, that predicts a bright future for historical novels.