The Story of Hong Gildong

  • onAugust 2, 2016
  • Vol.32 Summer 2016
  • bySteph Cha
The Story of Hong Gildong
Tr. Minsoo Kang

As translator Minsoo Kang notes in his introduction, “The Story of Hong Gildong is arguably the single most important work of classic (i.e. premodern) prose fiction of Korea, in terms not only of its literary achievement but also of its influence on the larger culture.” It’s one of those books that Koreans tend to know about, even if they haven’t necessarily read it for themselves—Hong Gildong is such a dominant figure in Korean consciousness that his name is used as a conventional placeholder, as “John Doe” is used in the US. As a second-generation Korean-American, I’d never heard of Hong Gildong, and had to reckon with the fact that I quite literally didn’t know the first thing about Korean literature. My parents, on the other hand, are quite familiar with Hong Gildong jeon; my mother read it in junior high.

There are thirty-four extant manuscripts of the text, with variations major and minor. Kang’s translation follows the longest and likely oldest of these surviving manuscripts, the pilsa 89. While Korean textbooks and other dominant sources attribute The Story of Hong Gildong to Joseon dynasty poet Heo Gyun (1569-1618), Kang presents evidence that the book is much more recent, authored by an unknown man of secondary commoner status looking to produce mass market fiction in the midnineteenth century.

This theory makes a certain intuitive sense—the novel chronicles the life of Hong Gildong, an exceptional man with humble origins who becomes Korea’s own Robin Hood-style outlaw hero. His father is a government minister, but Gildong is an illegitimate son—Minister Hong impregnates a servant girl named Chunseom (“She may have been lowborn, but there was nothing lowly about her character”) after waking from a vivid dream in which “[a] blue dragon appeared, shaking its beard, glaring with its frightful eyes, and opening wide its red mouth.” Gildong’s magnificence and glorious destiny are immediately apparent; he’s “a precious boy whose face was the color of snow and whose presence was as grand as the autumn moon,” who seems to exhibit great strength and intelligence from the moment of his birth.

But his extraordinary nature doesn’t extinguish his low status. He cries to himself, “I have been born into a situation in which I am barred from following my ambitions, and I cannot even address my father as Father and my older brother as Brother.” This injustice is a central theme, not only of Gildong’s childhood, but of his entire saga. It becomes, at times, repetitive—there is a lot of lamenting about lowborn status and thwarted ambitions (his very specific dream is “to enter government service and eventually become a high general in the hope of one day receiving the royal insignia of the minister of war”).

Gildong’s refulgent superiority causes great turmoil in the Hong household: his high ambitions and attendant resentment cause tension with his father and a senior concubine named Chorang, barren and jealous of the minister’s love for his son, “plotted his murder every single day.” She comes up with a “wicked stratagem” involving a shaman, a physiognomist, and an assassin. When the ten-year-old Gildong slaughters his attackers—using his strength, cunning, and the “magical arts of invisibility and metamorphosis”— he takes leave of his family and “wandered about like a f loating cloud, making the whole world his home and finding uncomfortable rest wherever he could.”

Out in the world, Gildong finds his destiny, first becoming the leader of the notorious Hwalbindang—a group of bandits who “go after the powerful who obtained their riches by squeezing the common people and take away their unjustly gained possessions”—then becoming king of his own kingdom on the island of Yul. All of this happens in seventy-seven pages.

Gildong is often ruthless and scheming, and he says things like, “You are like little children who could not possibly understand my deep stratagem.” Still, he’s a fun hero to follow, an underdog despite some superpowers, and his adventures have the quickmoving magnetism of myth. The Story of Hong Gildong lacks some of the elements readers of contemporary fiction may be used to—nuance and three-dimensional characters, for example—but it offers strong emotional beats and a certain classical allure.

Hong Gildong jeon represents not only a letter from Korea’s past, but one that modern Korea has selected and preserved as one of its core narratives. As Kang points out, Korea has had its fair share of humiliations since the Joseon era, and it’s likely no coincidence that this story has “a profound resonance in the Korean psyche.” To read The Story of Hong Gildong is to get closer to the soul of Korea, to listen to the stories she tells of herself. 


by Steph Cha
Author of Follow Her Home