Vampires, Confucianism, Christianity’s Latent Monarchism, and the Translation of Sociohorror

(Note: I’m filing this under Korean SF, though it only fits there if we define SF as “speculative fiction”: still, I think this post does appeal to a crucial question at the heart of the reception of SF and other fantastical genres in cultures foreign to the culture of a given work’s original production. So there.)

So I’ll admit it now: I’ve been watching True Blood. Yes, yes, it’s trashy. But as someone who is not very plot-minded, I have to say, it does a particular trick with a knife that I, too, am learning to do.

I’m close to the end of Season 3,  the season during which a ton of revelation has gone on regarding the world’s vampire culture. Kings, the utter fealty of a vampire to its “maker” (the person who vampirized it), the (clear, and overwhelming) social dominance of males, their clannishness (not in the World of Darkness RPG-game sense of vampire clans, but in that vampire laws relate to vampires, and do not extend to non-vampires), their clearly über-hierarchic age-based social organization (wherein the only exception to age-based relationships is raw power, whether violent or in terms of connections), and the absolute irrelevance of (American) human laws, culture, values, and life to vampire society.

Yes, yes, it’s trashy. I said that already.

The show, I think, plays this social dimension of vampirism up as horrific — which it kind of has to do, since after all they’ve gone to such great lengths to sexy up vampirism itself (to make the main romance plot workable); to me it works that way — the only real horror in the show for me is the relentless brutality and backwardsness of vampire society: a maenad in Season 2 is no scarier in itself that a psychopath in Season 1. But vampire society? Creepy, unsettling, and yet (of course) somehow all too familiar.

Kings. Kings, I tell you.

But as I was thinking it over, I found that the more I looked at it, the more vampire society in True Blood looks like a (just slightly) exaggerated version of a Confucian society. Every aspect of vamp culture in the show that I mentioned above is also something that tends to anger, annoy, mystify, or enrage Westerners living in (supposedly-) Confucian societies (like South Korea) at some point.

Which is interesting because, of course, True Blood is obviously not consciously drawing on Confucian social order as a source for its vampire culture. Confucianism is about the farthest thing referenced, and I’m quite sure The Analects of Confucius is not the taproot text of True Blood.

Unlikely, but it would have made the 2009 film about his life SO much more interesting.

So what’s going on?

Well, this puts me in mind of an interesting (and somewhat surprising) panel discussion conducted in one of the courses I’m teaching recently. Students were talking about feminism and their attitudes towards it, their understanding of feminism in Korea and why it has or has not (mostly, they said, has not) been translated well from Western cultural sources to the Korean context.

I spent some time, at the end of the discussion, in reminding them that a number of the cultural mores they ascribed to Confucianism (like the strictures on women smoking, for example, or on female sexual freedoms, or general patriarchality of society) were also major features of various Anglophone cultures until, relatively speaking, not so long ago at all. Beyond what was said in class, in the opening episode of Season 1 of Mad Men, which we watched together,  there were some pretty specific (and important) parallels with workplace and social life for women in Korea today — such as a glass ceiling so low you can barely crawl under it, for example.

On some level, if people are going to continue to see Confucius as the source of all this, then I am willing to see Confucius as a vampire to be staked. (And there are Koreans who have made the same argument, such as (in one famous case) Kim Kyong-il, who, about ten years ago published a book titled something we could translate as “Confucius Must Die for Korea to Live.” At the time, Kim was a professor of Chinese Literature somewhere in Seoul, but as for now, I have no idea.)

Still, my point was to take this claim at something other than face value, since, if we give in and ascribe it all to Confucianism, we’re left with two dilemmas: first, how to argue that it ought to change, since in a postcolonial context, certain sorts of people tend to get defensive (and conservative, in the sense of conserving “cultural heritage” even in its relatively unsavory aspects; and second, whether it’s sensible or just intellectually lazy to just go ahead and blame everything on Confucianism when it can — given the parallels in other modernized societies, at different points in their histories — be blamed just as well, if not better, on plain old patriarchy (albeit carried out under the justification of Confucianism).

After all, we would be hard-pressed to argue Confucianism as the cause of all those phenomena that horrify us so much in American culture in the late 1950sand early 60s which were so vividly played out (perhaps exaggerated, though I suspect not so much) in Mad Men (especially, I find, in the first season)… or, indeed, the fact that, as many have argued, things probably haven’t changed quite so much as we like to tell ourselves.

In a sense, there are a lot of parallels between Sookie and Joan, or Sookie and Peggy, and the corporate society of Mad Men and the vampire society of True Blood: not the details, but in how familiar nastinesses are served up in slightly-estranged form.

My point is this: while to me the vampire society in True Blood looks horrific in ways that parallel very specific aspects of (supposedly) Neo-Confucian Korean culture, the basis is probably much closer to home for Americans: the very things we perceive, however dimly, in our own cultural past, against which we have revolted and which we like to think we have bludgeoned into obscurity — monarchy, very thoroughgoing sexism, strict and relatively inflexible apparent age-based hierarchy, overt and unapologetic “racism,” absolutist parental control of “offspring,” and so on. I suspect the social organization of the vampires would be far more readily intelligible and comprehensible to most of the people who lived in our Western cultural history than the “modern” culture in which Sookie and the other humans normally act.

This interaction would probably have baffled even most readers’ grandmothers, if it were shown to them back in the days when they were Sookie’s age.

Which leads me to wonder whether the angle of sociohorror, which I see as part of the horror of True Blood, would actually translate well to Korean audiences. Of course the romance element would, the sexy vampirism, the overt and explicit use of sex in the show, the magic, and other stuff would translate pretty directly — but would the sociohorror of the vampire culture translate?

Even for a lot of Westerners, I suspect,  there’s a degree of quaint familiarity to the vampire culture… after all, it’s not too far from the language used in contemporary Christian Churches in America, something I’ve always found baffling: a democratic society, fiercely proud of its democratic ideology, is full of religious people who continue to insist on calling their god terms of address from a monarchic vocabulary, even after they revolted against their monarchy, cast of its shackles, and set themselves up — as Hollywood loves to tell us over and over — as the “land of the free.” You’d think words like “king” and “lord” would have attained the insult status that anti-monarchists ascribe them, but somehow churchgoers are latent monarchists after all, on a metaphysical level.

Then again, some Churchgoers simply appear to be vampires. Not even very latent ones, either. Or maybe I’m being unfair to vampires everywhere.

All of those musings led me to wonder how, indeed, would be the most effective way to set up a narrative of sociohorror for a Korean audience. Would it be best to gesture towards those elements of social history which have taken on an aura of troublesome antiquity, would it be more effective (if, sigh, predictable and a bit tiresome) to construct it in terms of postcolonial trauma (and if so, how?), or would it use the “otherness” perceived in Western culture as the basis for a kind of chaotic, contra-Confucian type of social disorder? Or does the vampire, as a western cultural trope, come loaded with the same baggage and “just work” — whether because Koreans perceive their society as having come so far from what I see resemblances in, just as we like to think we’ve left the misogyny of Mad Men in a long-ago age, or for some other generic reason?

I think there are examples of sociohorror in Korean films — the Vengeance Trilogy by Park Chan-wook is one example, and I (indirectly) note in several forthcoming papers that, sfnally, both The Host and Save the Green Planet partake in what we could call of retroactive sociohorror (I don’t use the term in the papers, but I could easily have). Indeed, even several of the Korean SF films I’ve found less than successful have indulged in a kind of sociohorror — 2009: Lost Memories, for example, with it’s vision of an alternate Korea still under Japanese rule in 2009.  And hell, as Jinhee Choi argued in her book, there’s plenty of horrific stuff in films about high school in Korea — the ones that are generically horror films, and the ones that aren’t too.

But what about specifically vampiric sociohorror? If one set out to design a vampire society that would be as alienating to Koreans as the vampire society in True Blood is for Americans, how would one do it, exactly? In the one Korean vampire film I’ve seen (Thirst) the thrust is horrific, but it’s dubious whether the horror has a social dimension, except in that the vampires break every human rule possible. (Maybe this is vampiric sociohorror for Korea? Having not seen Vampire Cop Ricky — yes, that’s a real movie title — I have nothing with which to compare it in Korean cinema.) Maybe something more North-Korean-seeming might work, I don’t know.

How do you think would one construct it, were one attempting to translate the vampire trope into terms effective for South Korean audiences?

Series Navigation<< Forthcoming Papers on Korean SF, “Good Night,” and a Summary of “Another Undiscovered Country”천군 (<em>Heaven’s Soldiers</em>) revisited: Hanmura Ryō’s <em>Sengoku Jieitai</em> (戦国自衛隊), 독재자 (Dictator), and more Korean SF News >>

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *