Welcome to the Jungle: The Great Jungle by Jo Jung-Rae

  • onOctober 27, 2014
  • Vol.22 Winter 2013
  • byPark Sungchang
The Great Jungle (3 vols.)

Korea has recently shown a heightened interest in China. Books that examine the past, present, and foresee the future of China have been published, and the media treats the questions related to China with great importance. Just as the U.S. had once established its global supremacy, will China surpass the U.S. in a power struggle 30 years later and dominate the world with Chinese values? If a new Chinese order actually becomes established in the middle of the 21st century, what will happen to Korea? However, there has yet to be a single work that portrays China with a detailed, dynamic narrative of characters that come to life.

The writer Jo Jung-Rae is a novelist that has been dealing with modern and contemporary Korean history head on. He has built a large readership with what is commonly referred to as the 20th century Korean modern history trilogy: Taebaek Mountain Range, which deals with the tragedy of ideological conflict and division; Han Kang, which portrays the miracle of the Han River; and now Jo has rendered the giant, complicated question called China in a three volume novel, The Great Jungle. In contrast, Korean novels have lately dealt more with descriptions of humble everyday life; Jo has instantly eliminated the crisis of narrative by raising the significant question of “What does China mean to us?”

In The Great Jungle, Jo offers a profound understanding and insight of China based on his wide knowledge of Chinese history: the turbulence that China experienced in the 20th century, the intuition of the current Chinese circumstances as a rising global power, and the everyday life, culture, and mindset of Chinese people. His in-depth reasoning, along with an exciting plot and various characters, tells us this work is perfectly capable of being read as a living and breathing Chinese Studies textbook.

As the title of the work indicates, present-day China is compared to a kind of jungle. For instance, Shanghai, the main setting of this novel, is depicted as a densely packed, almost suffocating jungle of skyscrapers, higher than the sky itself. In other words, current Chinese society is like a thick jungle consisting of entangled human desires. Everyone struggles and competes against everyone else, or has a quid pro quo relationship for profit depending on the situation, all of which occur in that jungle. In addition, the jungle, in which all kinds of trees are intricately entwined, symbolizes the incomprehensible and disorderly nature of Chinese society. A group of various characters appearing in this novel show that China is, in fact, not easy to understand even though many people say that they know the country.

Jo coolly examines a Chinese society that is prevalent with all kinds of capitalist desires, but at the same time, he asserts that China should be considered objectively with genuine interest and affection, not simply as a business partner or a means of making money. In order to do that, an extensive understanding of Chinese history and culture is necessary before one can reach the fundamental question, “What does a true neighbor mean?”

China and Korea, which are so near and yet so far, have been maintaining a relationship for a long time. It should go without saying that the two should acquire a deeper mutual understanding to strengthen the foundation of their relationship. In this context, the campus couple in this novel, Song Jaehyung, who is Korean, and Li Yeling, who is Chinese, carries particular significance. Because the conclusion has great implications relating to the future of China and Korea, the couple goes beyond the barriers of nationality and culture, overcoming biases against each other, and plans for the future with love. We can at last proudly say that we have a profound novel that deals with China head on in Jo Jung-Rae’s The Great Jungle. 

Author's Profile

Jo Jung-Rae (b.1948) made his literary debut in 1970 with the short story “False Charge,” which appeared in the monthly magazine Hyundae Munhak. His childhood experiences of the Korean War and Yeosu-Suncheon Rebellion inspired numerous literary works like Taebaek Mountain Range (10 vols.) and Arirang (12 vols.). The Great Jungle (3 vols.) is Jo’s most recent publication. His works have been translated into English, French, German, Japanese, Chinese, and Swedish, and adapted into movies, manhwa, TV dramas, and musicals. He received the Hyundae Literary Award and Korea Literary Award.