The Nine Cloud Dream is a 17th century Korean novel attributed to Kim Man Jung about a young Buddhist monk from a sacred mountain who falls from grace by obsessing over earthly pleasures. One day, upon returning drunk from the kingdom of the Dragon King, the young monk Hsing-chen meets eight beautiful fairies barring his way back to Lotus Peak. Hsing-chen flirts with the fairies and gives them gifts of gems to get them to move from the bridge, which he must cross to get home. Later, alone in his cell, Hsing-chen thinks about the eight enchanting fairies and the possibilities of sensual and worldly delights and distinctions. Reading his disciple’s faltering heart and faith, Li-kuan punishes Hsing-chen by sending him to Hell, where he and the eight fairies are punished by being reincarnated as humans.
Hsing-chen is reborn to a hermit and his wife and named Shao-yu. Though poor, Shao-yu shows exceptional brilliance, and it isn’t long before he is renowned in his village as an incredibly handsome and talented youth. Shao-yu soon travels to the city to take the national civil service exam, where he meets the beautiful young daughter of a government minister and proposes marriage. Unfortunately, a sudden uprising prevents Shao-yu from being with his beloved and they are parted.
The uprising also thwarts Shao-yu’s chances of taking the civil service examination, which is postponed for the following year. The subsequent year, Shao-yu manages to take the civil service exam, finishing with the highest score. This success is followed by other astonishing accomplishments, and Shao-yu rises quickly in the ranks by achieving numerous military victories for not only the emperor but also the country. Along the way, Shao-yu meets eight beautiful and talented women representing the eight reincarnated fairies, who eventually become his wives and concubines.
In his twilight years, reminiscing about his various unprecedented wealth, status, and happiness with his many wives and children, Shao-yu gives everything up to live a simple life away from the city and its troubles. His wives and concubines, loyal to the very end, likewise give up their comforts and treasures to live with Shao-yu.
Hsing-chen suddenly finds himself back in his cell atop Lotus Peak shortly after meeting the eight fairies on the bridge and is informed by his master Li-kuan that he had just awoken from his dream of earthly pleasures and military achievements.
I don’t know about you, but being reborn as a handsome, talented, and brilliant man who eventually marries two princesses and keeps six concubines hardly seems like punishment, but what do I know?
The Nine Clound Dream is attributed to ancient scholar Kim Man Jung owing to similarities between the novel’s plot and his life and beliefs. Though showcasing Shao-yu’s adventures and amoral relationships, the novel also highlights the total power of the emperor. Whether or not intentional, the novel also emphasizes the role of women in a patriarchal society, which is to obey the commands of their fathers or husbands.
The new translation of this novel by Heinz Insu Fenkl is surprisingly readable and enjoyable, with numerous notes at the end of each chapter. The endnotes provide interesting information about many cultural, historical, and literary aspects of the novel and its context.
The Nine Could Dream (c. 1689) – Kim Man Jung
Penguin Classics; 215 pages (tpb)
Personal rating: 3/5