Korean Literature
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Korean Literature

The Korean Romeo and Juliet — Review of Horace Allen’s ‘The Faithful Dancing-Girl Wife’

He was not an ordinary man” goes the story, “in addition to a handsome, manly face and stalwart, he possessed a bright, quick mind, and was naturally clever. A more dutiful son could not be found.”

And just what counts as dutiful in this day and age? Obsessing over your father’s health and whims with the energy and dedication of a budding serial killer; guiding Dad’s head to the pillow each night, and greeting him with a smile when he opens his eyes in the morning. This is the fluff and ceremony of Choson, Confucian Korea.

Once he has finished massaging his father’s shoulders, spoon feeding him his breakfast, and praying over his daily happiness, our extraordinary young man has a few hours of daylight left for himself. Here he wanders the countryside, drinking-in “the beauty of the scene along with the balmy, perfume-laden spring zephyrs.”

He also takes endless fun from mistreating his faithful servant and bullying the local men. Ruling over the whole district, his father is a Prefect, which allows his sixteen year old son to saunter through both streets and fields with the air of a prince-in-waiting.

All of this harmony, hierarchy, and natural order is broken, appropriately, by a girl: “angelic face”, “ravishing beauty”, “the prettiest view he had ever seen”. Her age is anyone’s guess and clearly not important, but unsettlingly she is playing on a child’s swing.

Dumb with amazement” our pubescent prince runs down the hill in a sweaty mess to meet her. But he is clearly not the most athletic boy, because by the time he gets to her house she has long since grown bored of the swing and jungle-gym, and has gone back inside.

His charming first impression goes like this: “demand[ing] her name” from the housekeeper (it is Chun Yang Ye or Fragrant Spring). Happy with this information, he begins yelling from the door-step “I yah! Superb; I can see her then, and have her sing and dance for me”, “Go and call her at once, you slave.”

But if you are thinking that our young prince could, and should, work on his manners and his seduction, then what is there to say about the “slave” who relays the message in the tone of a slut-shaming priest:

[It’s] the governor’s son, and he wants to see the Fragrant Spring.

Who told [him] my name?

Never mind who told him; if you did not want him to know you, then why did you swing so publicly?

She meets him, she smiles, and that’s more than enough: “you must be mine, you must marry me”, “heaven must have intended us to be man and wife.”

From here you can probably see where this is going! Of course Chun Yang is a girl, and so who is she to reject the little prince’s offer. But the problem is rather one of fathers and families. Our two young lovers come from different worlds, and are also bound to marry when, and to whom, their parents choose for them. They are star-crossed lovers… but not without options: “we can be privately married just the same.”

And so we have our story of woe… Juliet and her Korean Romeo!

But what we have before us with The Faithful Dancing-Girl Wife also comes through the pen and questionable discretion of Horace Allen.

A missionary in late-Choson, Allen dug deep into Korean literature, hoping to connect Western readers with his adopted home. The first trouble with his project however, was also the trouble he had in this specific instance: selection. With different titles, details, lengths and characters, The Faithful Dancing-Girl Wife was, and still is, ubiquitous across the peninsula. And based on what we have before us, Allen seems to have made his choice based on the relative popularity of the Seoul edition (gyeongpan).

Allen had another motivation for this as well, an unshakable idea about Korean culture, something that pushed his translation from restatement to reinvention. As the first American Presbyterian to arrive in Korea, Allen had few people to bounce his first impressions of the country against. Still he landed on something remarkably close to the truth, even if a touch reductive: Korea was stiflingly, rigidly, unpleasantly patriarchal.

This is where Allen imposes himself too much over the text, flushing each scene with a red-hot masculinity, overly submissive women, and a mistrust of even the slightest glimpse of sexuality. Further on top of that is a hard and constant slime of social hierarchy.

So despite his obnoxious behaviour, our young prince is built into a saviour of sorts, even when he is abandoning his new wife. At all moments she is falling over herself to be grateful for the prince’s attention; her emotions never properly articulated beyond a motherly concern for her husband. Always the happy captive to the higher world of men and their shifting morality:

If you go to Seoul you must not trifle, but take your books, study hard, and enter the examinations, then, perhaps, you may obtain rank and come to me. I will stand my hand shading my eyes, ever watching for your return.

With only half the characters allowed to develop and grow, the translation jumps and turns and pauses and lurches and twists with a nauseating inconsistency. Allen was no champion of the overly-male Korea he found shining-in from all directions, but he was a diagnostician. So when he describes Chun Yang as a “faithful wife, who became the mother of many children”, make no mistake, he is talking her up in the highest possible terms that would be comprehensible at that time… in the only way that would make sense to those around him.

In its final form, Allen’s translation reads almost as a coming-of-age novel, with only one central character — the journey of our young boy from adolescence to adulthood. And deep in the trenches of men and their misbehaviour, the translation nearly brushes over the key tension between our warring families, which is less Capulet and Montague than Prince and Pauper. A hierarchical strain that drains the life from the story, but which also keeps it shakily coherent.

Running the risks of cursed households, our besotted teenagers marry in secret and scoff at the risk of being disowned; vowing from there-out to “live and die” together. Each night once their parents nod off they sneak out to frolic, hold hands, and even dare to take swigs of “medicated wines”, stolen in advance from dusty liquor cabinets.

Until the inevitable happens that is, and our boy’s father manages to finally pull enough strings and get his son a cushy job at the treasury department… in faraway Seoul. Our hero is “struck dumb” his new wife suicidal “we must die, we cannot live apart”, and still, when push comes to shove, that freshly made marital promise is abandoned in a blink.

In fair Verona neither gang violence, nor murder, treachery, poison, criminal charges, nor banishment could hold love apart. Here in Choson-Korea all it takes is a job!

Soon a love triangle forms, Chun Yang finds herself “chained and thrown in prison”, and the neighbourhood cries in unison at the tragedy of heartbreak. Despite moaning-on about it to everyone within earshot, and talking-up her own convictions and courage, Chun Yang never does find the stomach to kill herself. Instead, of course, our young truant returns, saves the day as all good men should… and ruins the polish of our Shakespearian analogy.

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