[Inkstone] Yeorha ilgi as a Korean Classic

  • onDecember 3, 2019
  • Vol.46 Winter 2019
  • byMarion Eggert


Can a record of a journey that took place almost 250 years ago, a long prose piece written in a Literary Chinese so complex that even experts in this idiom sometimes find it difficult to understand, a travelogue that centres on China rather than on Korea—can such a text be a classic for Korea’s twenty-first century? I would argue not only that it can, but also that it counts as being among the best candidates Korean literary history has for an enduring classic.

The travelogue in question is Bak Jiwon’s Yeorha ilgi ( Jehol Diary), written in the eighteenth century. In the summer of 1780, China’s Qianlong emperor celebrated his seventieth birthday in the frontier town of Jehol (today’s Chengde), close to Mongolia, where the emperors of the ruling Manchu dynasty used to spend their summers. The birthday festivities were meant to demonstrate the power of the dynasty which had recently annexed vast territories to the west of China, including Tibet. Thus, the congratulatory embassy from Korea which had been sent to Beijing, the capital, was ordered to travel onwards to Jehol in order to add to the diversity of nations that paid their respects to the emperor. No subject of the Joseon throne had set foot there before. The embassy was led by an official named Bak Myeongwon, and he had taken along his younger cousin Bak Jiwon (1737–1805), also known as Yeonam, who was in his early thirties at the time and already a well- known man of letters.

This journey was an extraordinary opportunity for Yeonam. More than ever, visiting China had by the mid-eighteenth century become a kind of Grand Tour for inquisitive minds in Joseon. While official court politics despised the Manchu rulers of China as barbarians and still dreamed the impossible dream of re-conquering China for the fallen Ming dynasty, awareness now grew among the more open-minded literati that the Qing Empire actually flourished both politically and culturally. Seeing this with one’s own eyes became a major opportunity for Korean intellectuals to acquire a sound, up-to- date understanding of the world at large. And as before, taking part in an embassy was almost the only way to come into direct contact with Chinese literati and catch up with literary and intellectual developments on the mainland, still conceived of by the Korean educated elite as the centre of civilisation.

Bak Jiwon made the best possible use of this opportunity. During the journey, he astutely observed Qing customs and it’s lifestyle, highly attentive to details of everyday life, especially technology; he eagerly talked to people from all walks of life on the road; he used whatever chance he had to converse with literate people, be they of Manchu, Chinese, or Mongol ethnicity, through writing in so-called “brush talks”; and he took copious notes of what he saw and heard. Having returned home after roughly half a year of travel, he composed his travelogue, a massive work that runs to about 1,500 pages in the most recent Korean translation.

Yeonam was not the first to write such an extensive record of his China experience. Gim Changeop (1658–1721) had forged the path with his Beijing travel diary of 1712. Different from earlier travellers, he wrote his diary not just as a dry record of events but in a fully developed narrative style, pioneering the detailed descriptions of seemingly mundane experiences from which Yeorha ilgi also derives part of its fame. Half a century later, Hong Daeyong (1731–1783) further expanded the stylistic and generic potentials of travel writing by delivering a variety of texts instead of a single record: a narrative diary in the Korean vernacular; a Chinese language text in the monograph style, with thematic chapters on different aspects of his experiences and observations; and a reconstruction of his brush-talks with Chinese gentlemen he befriended in Beijing. The work of Hong, who was a close friend of Bak Jiwon, had been instrumental in changing the outlook of progressive Korean intellectuals on what to expect from China under Manchu rule. It had also changed how it was possible to write about China—Hong was the first Korean to objectify China by choosing an encyclopaedic approach to describing the country in Literary Chinese, and he proved an excellent narrator in Korean.

With Yeorha ilgi, Bak Jiwon built upon the achievements of his predecessors and developed the art of travel writing to unprecedented heights. His work is even more creative in terms of genre than that of Hong Daeyong’s. It consists of two parts: an actual diary comprising roughly the first half of the text, divided into seven chapters with individual titles (an innovative feature for Joseon diaries), and interspersed with texts from different genres; and eighteen miscellanies ranging from extended conversation records over brief descriptive essays to notes of a seemingly academic nature. Taken together, Yeorha ilgi features fiercely satirical fictional stories (one in each of the two parts) as well as lyrical essays, geographical treatises and long emotional inner monologues, a discussion of the different perceptions of horses and humans as well as a conversation on a moonlit night on how inhabitants of the Moon may look towards Earth at the very same moment. Arguably, no other text in Korean literary history makes use of so many different literary and linguistic registers. This is also due to the fact that Bak was extremely conversant with Chinese literature of all ages, far beyond the canon, and did not hesitate to make use of it. In the diary, we find echoes of “heterodox” works such as the Zhuangzi as well as of Chinese vernacular literature. This was one of the reasons Yeorha ilgi triggered a “literature rectification movement” by which conservatives at court wished to contain the influence of the work.

For influential it was, until today. Bak’s contemporaries literally tore the manuscript from his hands—chapters circulated before he could even finish them. This was not only due to its revolutionary literary style. What fascinated eighteenth and early nineteenth century readers most was the text’s intense questioning of the Joseon literati’s self-positioning in the world, now that traditional Sinocentrism had come to an impasse. Bak Jiwon did not provide clear- cut answers; instead he unfolded through his complex narrative the many aspects in which the multi-ethnic, flourishing Qing could provide inspiration for new Joseon identities. In the late nineteenth century, the diary was valued for its engagement with Western knowledge and advocacy of political reforms, and thus, Bak Jiwon became a figurehead for the twentieth century’s search for indigenous “sprouts of modernity.” From this rather austere image, he was rescued early in the twenty-first century by the public intellectual Ko Misuk who, in a well-received monograph, focussed attention on Bak’s exquisite sense of humour, his deep-seated scepticism and his seeming refusal to commit to a fixed ideological standpoint, thus rendering him a post-modernist avant la lettre.

Bak Jiwon and his masterwork cannot be fully captured by any of these interpretations. The multifocality and polyphony of Yeorha ilgi is an important precondition for its lasting appeal to readers. However, my claim that this text has the potential to be a classic for contemporary Korea is not based on an assumption of any protean nature of the text. It cannot be stretched to indiscriminately fit changing reader expectations. Rather, what makes this text a real candidate for being regarded as an enduring classic is its deeply ingrained humanism. Bak knew about his own limitations—his ethnic and class prejudices, for example—but he continually strove to overcome them. His work is testimony not only of knowledge gained through travel, of a dialogue between cultures, but also of epistemological struggle and of an individual’s journey towards wisdom. As such, it remains relevant, as long as readers have command of the hermeneutical competence necessary for unravelling its complexities.


by Marion Eggert
Professor, Section of Korean Language and Culture
Department of East Asian Studies
Ruhr University Bochum