Black Island

  • onOctober 17, 2016
  • Vol.33 Autumn 2016
  • byKim Hoon
Black Island
Tr. Jung Ha-yun

Translator’s Note


Black Island: Between Heaven and Earth

In the kingdom of Joseon in the 19th century, Catholicism was a dangerous religion. The Neo-Confucian ruling elite viewed the faith as subversive to the feudal social order and converts faced deadly consequences: Over the course of the century, more than 10,000 men and women lost their lives on charges of heresy.

Kim Hoon’s novel Black Island is set against the backdrop of the Catholic Persecution of 1801, the first in a series of cruel suppressive measures that continued for a century until Joseon’s demise, in the end, under imperialist aggression by the foreign powers of the East and the West.

The novel centers on three brothers from the prominent and reform-minded Jeong family, who saw hope for the future of Joseon’s feudal aristocracy in the Christian view of the world. When the three brothers are arrested, however, they each choose different paths: While the eldest Yak-jong dies for his faith, Yakjeon and Yak-yong choose to live by abandoning Catholicism.

Black Island opens as one of the surviving brothers, Jeong Yak-jeon, sets out on his journey to serve his banishment sentence on the remote island of Heuksan. As he builds a new life for himself on the island—where he would remain until his death, of natural causes, fifteen years later—he confronts the choice that he has made, a choice that he, in the end, views as human, in the most contradictory and complicated sense of the word.

Rich in cultural and historical detail, the narrative is a grand polyphony of myriad voices, bringing history to life through the characters that lived it, from the power-thirsty Queen Dowager, to the slave horseman torn between his duties, his freedom and his faith.

The drama that unfolds in the novel is one between martyrs and betrayers, dreamers and survivors, refugees and their pursuers, and at the same time, one between cultures, and between worldviews.

“It is not my goal to argue about justice through words or letters,” writes Kim Hoon in his afterword to the novel, “I simply hope to say a few things about human pain, grief and hope. I would only be able to say very little. Therefore I fear, and suffer for, those who bled their way towards that distant yet definite world, one that cannot be explained by words or letters. It is here that I live.”

The first excerpt that follows is from Chapter 1, depicting Jeong Yak-jeon’s torture and trial at the State Tribunal; and the second excerpt is from Chapter 3, which introduces to the readers Manori, a lowborn horseman who soon emerges as a major character in the story.


by Jung Ha-yun
Assistant Professor
Graduate School of Translation & Interpretation
Ewha Womans University




From Chapter 1: Noble Scholar


Said the kingdom’s subjects who had been flogged, that if you were summoned for a flogging, you should crush a beehive and down it with a shot of soju a day before so the impact of the beating would spread evenly across your body, making it less painful, or, for a similar effect, drink the clear juice of radish kimchi mixed with dried horse dung powder: Every flogged man had something different to say.

Leaving the grounds after the flogging, paste big flat slices of hot bean curd onto the wounds, or rub the wounds with a mixture of a young first-time mother’s breast milk and her menstrual blood, to stop blood extravasation and restore marrow in broken bones, some also said, but again, claims varied from village to village. If the flogging continued for over three or four strikes, they said, your butthole would tear and start leaking stool water, and in order to lessen the pain, you should not tighten your hole but open it wide and let out as much fluid as possible. With stool water and blood and bits of flesh splattering in every direction, the officer holding up his wooden stick would take a step back to avoid the mess, and the added distance would help lessen the pain, said those who had received flogging, to those on their way to be flogged.

While being dragged back to the State Tribunal in Seoul from Sinji Island, where he had been serving his first banishment sentence, Jeong Yak-jeon had also taken soju with beehive powder. He was about to cross the Han River from Noryang Wharf when an old woman selling potato soup by the checkpoint noticed the noble scholar being taken in for interrogation and offered him a bowl of the beehive drink.

—Don’t know what good this’ll do… but it’s what they all drink before they head on…

The old woman’s words carried the sound of weeping. Jeong Yak-jeon could not refuse the bowl of soju. He took it with both hands, carefully, as if he were holding up a basin brimming with water. The old woman also told him about the effectiveness of stool water, which she had heard from a neighbor who had been flogged. Jeong Yak-jeon saw before his eyes the ruptured bottoms of the kingdom’s subjects who, tied to an interrogation rack in a remote village in the mountains or on an island, struggled to dull the pain of the beating by pushing out fluid from their intestines.

Neither Great Learning nor Reflections had carried on its pages a single word about the pain of being flogged.

Even up to the moment one was tied to the rack, it remained unknowable what flogging was. Only when the wooden club struck was one capable of knowing what it was, but this recognition was not something that could be transferred into words. Books could be transferred by those who read them, and the void between books could be filled by thoughts, but beatings could not be transferred or received as words and the void between beatings could not be connected by letters or thoughts. This was why beatings were more like meals than books.

Jeong Yak-jeon could not remember whether while being flogged he had let out his stool water as the old woman had advised. He could remember nothing, whether bits of flesh had splattered, whether he had smelled his own blood or his own stool. He could not hear the testimonies of his younger brother Yak-jong, his youngest brother Yak-yong or his young nephewin-law Hwang Sa-yeong, all tied to racks. Between one strike and the next, the world turned over, again and again.

They had committed the crime of heresy

The offense of planting spies amongst the royal envoys traveling to Beijing, to pay tribute to the Great Kingdom for the purpose of communicating with Western barbarians outside the Emperor’s palace, and smuggling state-banned Catholic publications into the country, was enough to make their survival unlikely.

Since the reign of the late King, there had been reports from around the country of these heretics’ immoral acts, of irreverence for their fathers and the King. They called themselves the subjects of heaven, dismissing the significance of lives sustained and principles upheld here on earth. The Border Defense Council Minister swallowed back tears as he offered his report to the King. These heretics abolished the ritual of ancestral worship and burned memorial tablets while deluding the subjects with vicious, desultory rumors about a dead man arising from death to build a new country in another world, a country with no kings or ancestors. Men and women mingled as one in their dark and shady dens, moaning and groaning as they addressed and answered one another in their heretical names, abandoning the names that had been given them by their fathers. Their crime was spreading this treasonous spirit and immoral behavior among the people, thereby impugning the King, threatening the foundation of the kingdom and corrupting the moral codes. They attempted to destroy the world and to abandon it when they failed, therefore their crime carried the same weight as that of this entire world.

Jeong Yak-jong was beheaded in spring outside Seosomun Gate. The aging Queen Dowager ordered that he be kept alive a while longer for more severe interrogations, so that the vicious and lawless crowds around him could be uprooted. The aging Ministers urged for an immediate application of the penal code, calling for the beheading to be carried out without waiting, as was the custom, for the autumnal equinox. Jeong Yak-jong accepted persecution as he would a delicious meal, so leg-screw twists would never retrieve information from him, the high officials said, expressing concern that if he died during interrogation, it would prevent them from enforcing the righteous law of the state. The death penalty must be executed while Yak-jong was still alive in order to solidify the foundation of this kingdom, the Ministers pleaded, knocking their foreheads on the wooden floor of the Royal Council Hall.

Jeong Yak-jong was not swayed by the interrogating officer’s inquisition. He stated his actions and thoughts of his own accord, and refused to answer any other questions. His silence invited flogging, to which he again responded with silence.

…Jeong Yak-jong, what is your heretical name?

…I am Augustino. It is not a heretical name but my baptismal name.

…Outrageous. How is it that you have abandoned your real name, given to you by your father?

…It was a return to my real name. A rebirth.

…Jeong Yak-jong, you were born into a noble family and introduced at a young age to Elementary Learning to help you acquire a refined character, so how is it that you have been captivated by such a desultory phantom? Can you prove that this so-called Heavenly Lord of yours is in existence, reigning over the world

…I can indeed. It is the easiest thing to do. When a child walks toward me with a smile, I am aware that the Lord exists. When you imprison and flog the subjects in the name of the law, their screams and moans prove the Lord’s existence. And the Lord proves himself through my own heart as I despise and at the same time pity your heinous deeds.

…Tie up this obstinate criminal. Tie him up and beat him. A patrolman tied Jeong Yak-jong’s arms behind him, pulling and twisting, and pushed a stick under his arms to hang him up on the crossbeam. The penal officers began whipping Jeong’s back left and right.

…You, your two brothers, your in-laws, the entire gang are intertwined in acts of superstition and treason, coiled like a bunch of snakes, mashed together like maggots. It is as if your intestines have been adjoined so that the food that the older brother eats comes out as the younger one’s stool. I order you to give a detailed account of how you dragged your older brother Yak-jeon and younger brother Yak-yong into your heretical faith.

Jeong Yak-jong raised his head from the crossbeam where he hung and looked into his interrogator’s eyes.

…My older brother Jeong Yak-jeon and my younger brother Jeong Yak-yong are weak-willed and feeble-minded, incapable of sustaining their faith. My brothers regarded Catholicism as nothing more than a marvelous story, and never followed the Commandments nor possessed the ability to convert others.

These words were probably true to Jeong Yak-jong’s heart. Whether Yak-jong’s heart also carried the intention to allow his two brothers a few more days of life on this earth, Jeong Yakjeon could not sort out. He could not push his thoughts further to answer this question. He could not sort it out, but Yak-jong’s testimony reduced the two brothers’ sentence to banishment, sparing them death. As they travelled south together to serve their respective sentences, neither Yak-jeon nor Yak-yong uttered a word about Jeong Yak-jong’s death. Neither spoke about it. Both knew that neither of them could.

When he was about to go under the sword, Jeong Yakjong had requested that he be allowed to die while lying on his back, gazing up at the sky. The enforcement officer accepted his request. His last luxury in this world.

…Now come, Dear Lord.

Jeong Yak-jong accepted the sword with a smile on his face, his eyes on the high sky. The sun was setting over the city walls, the sunset spreading across the western sky over Seogang. Yakjong’s smile was peaceful, abloom with the joy of someone receiving a grand prize. The executioner, holding up his sword, was frightened by this smile, and his fingers fumbled with the handle. He gulped down one drink after another as he danced in a circle, round and round. He was unable to cut through Yakjong’s neck in a single strike. He struck his sword again on the half-severed neck. Jeong Yak-jong’s head fell off after two lashes. His face, separated from the body, was peaceful.

pp. 11-17



From Chapter 3: Manori


Manori was a groom at the post station in Jeongju, Pyeongan Province. He led horses that carried provincial officers on public duty, cut grass to feed the horses, washed them, brushed them, and checked them for lice. When Manori approached, the horses in the stable pulled out their heads and puffed air through their noses. Manori had a long face and deep, large eyes, which gave him a horse-like appearance. He was tall with thick joints and a curved back, so when he got down on all fours, he very much resembled the animal. Elderly villagers had given him the name Manori, which meant one who led horses on the road. He did not dislike the name. No one, not even the elderly villagers, knew who Manori’s parents were. Some said he was the child born between a local shaman and a straggler from a failed rebellion on a southern rice-growing plain across the Mangyeong River, who had fled to Pyeongan Province after being chased by royal forces; and some said he was abandoned on the road by a widower scholar who had been carrying the child on his back as he headed to Samsu Gapsan to serve his banishment sentence. The insurgent who had stolen into the village was reported to the authorities and beaten to death, and the banished scholar froze to death before reaching his place of exile in Gapsan, so there was no way of knowing who Manori’s father was, but then again, no one asked after the roots of a lowly stable hand attached to the post station.

When the big floods came and covered the plains then drained away, puddles that were not there before came to be, inside which appeared carps and frogs and minnows the size of a finger, and water chestnuts took root. Manori believed that human lives were also shaped like this, the way fish and insects spawned after they emerged, seemingly on their own, inside puddles that had materialized out of the blue. On spring days, as he gazed at the puddles, at fry biting at the surface and water plants spouting bubbles, Manori’s face would spread into a smile. The fry, tiny like needle tips, glittered with newborn life. Fish did not have families. Manori did not miss or wonder about his unknowable parents. He was thirty-two and had yet to marry.

The post station was of the lowest grade among provincial offices. It was not only low in rank but reeked of horse dung, which made not only the officials from the capital but the local officers look down on the stable staff and flaunt their power. The Defense Inspector of Jeongju, who was in charge of the post station, never headed this way, being a man who possessed a knack for lush prose and a lavish appreciation for the arts, and spent his days idling and drinking in Pyongyang at the invitation of the Governor. Magistrates appointed to or being replaced mid-term from villages along the Yalu, despite their junior sixth rank status, took out horses and horsemen from the station for their courtesan concubines and baggage, and even local clerks pulled out a horse to ride on when heading out to take the census. Provincial officers took out horses when they visited courtesan’s saloons or went for a picnic out at the pavilion, and when young, hardy magistrates headed out to the river for some fresh air after dinner, they demanded palanquins, with a guide leading the way, bells jingling. Officials traveling from Seoul to northern posts sent back their Hwanghae Province horses upon arriving in Jeongju. The rugged mountains and snow-blanketed highlands between Jeongju and the Yalu River were left for horses from Pyeongan Province to manage. Pyeongan horses were a crossbreed between the region’s indigenous mountain horse and a Jurchen northern breed. They were sturdy and intelligent. Even when they chomped down thornbush, they passed hard, sticky dung, and they could travel far on little food. They could gallop at full speed without panting or puffing, and they were obedient toward men, whether familiar or not. When it came to a Pyeongan horse, Manori could tell from just the color of its coat if it was healthy, and from its gait whether its horseshoes fit the hooves comfortably. When a horse had a broken horseshoe, it sank to the ground and pushed out the hurting hoof toward Manori.

Manori had been to border towns like Chosan and Ganggye while leading horses for provincial officials or military officers headed out to the Yalu River. Noblemen never trotted their horse but had a groom lead it, even on flat land. The horse would pace with the groom, so riding was no faster than walking. Horses accustomed to being walked forgot how to kick and gallop on four legs and were at a loss when the rider spurred them on. The royal envoys to Beijing crossed the continent at walking speed as well. Manori could not understand why one would have a groom lead the horse, but he could not bring up this question to the noblemen on horseback.

For Manori, walking the road was as easy as sleeping. Walking, to him, was not something that required effort. He walked the way he breathed. Even at nightfall, when riders were tired and horses sank to the ground, he had energy left in his hands on the reins. When you made it to the other side of a high and steep mountain, you came across a village inhabited with people, and when you crossed a wind-stricken plain there would again appear a village against the backdrop of hills. Manori was marveled, and comforted, by the fact that there were roads between villages for men to go back and forth. Men could travel, not only from one village to the next but also the other way around, encountering one another as they crossed paths, then going their separate ways again, but in the end, the road was always left unoccupied for anyone to pass through. On the road there were people who came and went, but no one who owned it.

That the essence of human life was about people moving toward people was what Manori had learned on the road. When a man went from a village in the east to a village in the west, those in the eastern village would say he was going but those in the western village would say he was coming, so on the road coming and going was one and the same, as was passing and approaching—this was what Manori had learned as he walked, his hands resting on the reins. He was a man of few words, and the lords on horseback did not speak to the lowly groom except to say, How long until we arrive at a tavern? I shall stop to relieve myself, I shall take a rest, We shall get back on the road. It was the road that constantly spoke to Manori, and as he walked, he felt words blossom inside of him in response, but he did not speak and kept walking. He always held his piss and only when the official on the horse stopped the horse to relieve himself, did he walk off faraway to piss with his back turned.

Manori was quick and diligent, was never reproached or beaten by the aristocrats on horseback. Sometimes the wind splattered horse piss, staining the rider’s coat. The official would change right there on the road and Manori washed the pissstained cloak by a brook, which he then hung from a pole to dry as he walked. When they crossed a rapid stream, he first led the horse to the other side and carried the official on his broad back.

The officials would sometimes give Manori a few coins for taking them on their long journeys. Manori did harbor some thoughts about buying a blank title warrant by saving his tips and relieving himself of his lowborn status. He would like to open a tavern on a piece of land near the road that led from Jeongju to the Yalu, by a brook with plenty of grass for horses, and to raise quality breeds for his own business, offering food and lodging and transport for travelers. With a blank title warrant, he could purchase a ranked government post, albeit a fake one, evade labor conscription, and escape his lowly standing. Although the prices of blank warrants that were distributed amongst the eight provinces had dropped due to low sales, the going price for a warrant for erasing lowborn status was worth five calving cows, not an amount that could be raised by saving tips.

The road always stretched forward, which made it easy to forget roads that one had passed, but on the return journey it was the past roads that stretched forward, and this time it was the road that had stretched forward that was forgotten. The road always belonged to the one treading it, step after step, and only while he was on it, which was why, at the end of the road, one’s memory became blurred, difficult to recall. When, upon returning after a long time on the road, Manori cleaned the horse dung in the stable and dried hay to feed the horses, he always wondered if the roads between the mountains and plains on the other side of Cheongcheon River, and the road along the plains around Jeongju, which he had his eyes on to set up his tavern, had dissolved in rain and snow and disappeared. This was why he awaited the day when he would once again set out on the road, his hands on the reins. 


pp. 38-43
Translated by Jung Ha-yun

Author's Profile

Kim Hoon is the author of eight novels, one short story collection, and an extensive range of non-fiction. He received the Dongin Literary Award in 2001 for his breakthrough historical novel Song of the Sword, which was followed by many other honors, including the Daesan Literary Award. His books have been translated into Chinese, French, German, Japanese, and Spanish.