[Vietnamese] On the Mercurial Nature of Identity

  • onSeptember 25, 2020
  • Vol.49 Autumn 2020
  • byQuyen Nguyen
Vương Quốc Nghìn Năm (The Kingdom of a Thousand Years)
Tr. Nguyen Thi Thu Ha

Writing in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche, the philosopher of non-conformity, argues that “One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star,” and that chaos, as an internal driving force, prevents humankind from the danger of yielding to all conventional influences. This view is championed by novelist Kim Kyung-uk, whose 2007 historical epic, aptly titled The Kingdom of a Thousand Years, explores the profound issues of individual lives caught within entangled histories. Kim speaks to great lengths about the role of chaos in the process of writing the novel—a kind of will to power that only emerges when humans dive deep into their own selves, the same sense of trials and tribulations that his characters undergo in the fictional world of seventeenth-century Joseon.

The novel opens with a bizarre encounter between three shipwrecked foreigners with General Park Yeon, who (spoiler alert!) turns out twenty pages later to not be a Joseon native! Born Jan Jansz Weltevree of the Netherlands, he was the first Dutchman to ever visit Korea, and was subsequently assigned by the seventeenth king Hyojong to go on an expedition up north to Manchuria, part of the Qing Dynasty. The fateful encounter between Hamel, one of the three foreigners, and Park Yeon (Weltevree) becomes the first domino that triggers a chain of hidden stories behind this peculiar character. Face-to-face with three Europeans—his own people—Park ends up so utterly stricken and awkward that he cannot bring himself to verbalize the language of his estranged motherland. And of course, together with his butchered mother tongue comes his own life story, forgotten like “the name of the place that has disappeared from the map,” rendering him speechless in the face of a very simple question, “Who are you?”

This question of identity immediately transports him back in time, revealing a story that dates back twenty-six years prior: on a windy day, a young man said goodbye to his very pregnant wife to set sail for a foreign land far away. From here, we embark on Weltevree’s chaotic journey of becoming Park Yeon, from the very first moment he and two other shipmen were stranded after their ship sank on the way to Japan, and how they became captured and tried as intruders by the natives, and then released into Joseon society with no way of returning home. Under pressure to fit in with the new environment, each foreigner had a different way of reacting and behaving that more or less encapsulates the immigrant experience: persistently rejecting and resisting, or adapting quickly and picking up the language, or even sinking neck-deep in despair and desperation, ridden by unanswerable questions of identity.

The twentieth century was witness to some of the most chaotic periods in history, and we have been “sharply cut off from our predecessors” by completely unprecedented life experiences—two world wars, countless migration waves, and even the smallest changes to our everyday values. We emerge from the chaos only to find out that our daily life has undergone a terribly sudden slip, that of deadly man-made terrors, which shatters the time-space continuum, and makes glaringly obvious the hybridity, if not over-saturation, of identifications. We are no longer born, no longer live, no longer grow up and die in one single place. Temporally uprooted and spatially displaced, we not only adopt new languages but also wear the masks of new appearances and identifications. We become refugees, immigrants, exiles, the fortunate few expatriates. Yet working our ways through the chaos of Kingdom, we realize how universal these predicaments are: the trials and tribulations of Park Yeon are as complicated and modern as any events of our contemporary moment.

A continuation of the modernist tradition, Kingdom reads like a travelogue that brings to life funny yet bizarre moments caught up in the web of language and cultural barriers, complete with the European characters’ observations, commentaries, and judgments towards this exotic Joseon life, a kind of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels meets Claude Levi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques. Told through a first-person’s perspective, Park’s life story reads like a confession stripped bare of any decorations or flourishes, covering overlapping ups and downs that transform temporality into a concept as abstract and compact as a sailor’s dream.

In addition to his construction of intertextuality by borrowing extensively from elements of popular culture, Kim has showcased a highly imaginative reshaping of history, shedding light and bringing justice to a life so exciting, so larger-than-life, yet so obscured and hidden from popular view. Archives of Park Yeon have almost completely been destroyed save for the rare mention of his name in Hamel’s Journal and a Description of the Kingdom of Korea 1653–1666, which also happens to be the first Western account of Joseon Korea. Any career biographer would find the subject of Park Yeon’s life a nightmare, as there are no details of his private or political life that might paint an accurate or vivid picture of the person. Yet in Kim’s words, “the unfriendliness of history” is a blessing for any ambitious novelist.


Quyen Nguyen
Literary Critic

Author's Profile

Kim Kyung-uk debuted in 1993 with the novella Outsider published in the quarterly review Writer’s World. His short story collections are Is Leslie Cheung Really Dead? (2005), Risky Reading (2008), God Has No Grandchildren (2011), and Young Hearts Never Grow (2014). His novels are Like a Fairytale (2010) and What Is Baseball? (2013). He won both the Hyundae Literary Award and the Dong-in Literary Award.