The other day I mentioned how I’ve been reading Peter H. Lee’s translation of the Imjin Nok (임진록), titled in English The Record of the Black Dragon Year. Lee is a scholar I’ve encountered before, mainly as an editor but also as a translator in the excellent 2-volume Sources of Korean Tradition, as well as A Korean Storyteller’s Miscellany: The P’aegwan Chapki of O Sukkwon—the latter, a book I own and I think I’ve loaned out to a friend, but which I haven’t read all the way through.
In any case, my curiosity about the Imjin Nok is pretty much rooted in the fact that it’s popular folk history: it’s composed of stories that peasants in Korea were telling about the events ongoing at the time when it was collected… and, well, as the title suggests, it was collected (and circulated) during the Imjin War, that is, the attempted invasion of Korea by Japan during 1592-98, held off by Korean and Chinese forces.
It’s also a deeply bizarre text.
Before I get into that, though, Lee’s introduction deserves a little comment. Parts of it are interesting, but I had two problems with it:
- it’s somewhat simplistic, and
- it feels padded… or, rather, it feels like much of it is padding.
It’s hard to fault him for the latter, I suppose, though I think some of the latter in fact proceeds from the former. I recently discussed how some of the generalizations Lee presents regarding fictional literature in East Asia deserve a more sophisticated analysis. At the same time, it could have been much more useful if he’d foregone the kind of plot-summary he gets into toward the end of the introduction, and instead explored precedents to elements in the narrative.
For example, he mentions in passing that one of the scenes, where a Japanese villain is beheaded, but continues to be active until hot coals are applied to the stump of his neck, seems to draw on a motif from tokkaebi stories common in Korea: I really, really wished he’d included an example of such a story. Similarly, in the very same scene, a maiden helps a warrior to kill the villain… and then she is beheaded for her troubles, with scanty justification beyond, “It’s going to be hard for me to progress if you live, babydoll!”1 Lee simply writes this off as an example of focusing on the male’s heroism, but it seems to me the event needs a little more unpacking than that.
That’s not to say the introduction is completely devoid of interesting material: his discussion of the significance of Koreans writing very idiomatically Korean expressions in Chinese letters, and as riffs on Chinese poetry—and the respect that Korean literati got when they were captured by the Japanese, as opposed to the treatment of unlettered peasants—were interesting. There’s also some interesting material on the ear- and nose-mounds that existed in Japan, grisly things made of trophies from cut from the bodies of Koreans during the Imjin War. Likewise, it’s interesting to read about the post-war repatriation efforts of Joseon people, including many who apparently were held captive even decades after the war (some as concubines or wives of samurai, but others having settled as “potters, physicians, Buddhist monks, beancurd makers, paper manufacturers, or landscape gardeners” (48). Though 7,500 individuals did make it home by 1643—46 years after the end of the conflict—Japanese records suggest that 30,000 Koreans remained “against their will.” (Since Lee doesn’t mention anyone staying of their own volition, I have to wonder whether Lee has committed a sin of omission, or a sin of assumption here.)
The introduction also contains some interesting poetry written in the years after the war, specifically the 1598 poem T’aep’yŏng sa (“Song of peace”) by Pak Illo. It captures some of the flavor of a war-traumatized consciousness:
… one morning
a million island savages
clashed with millions of innocent souls,
resolved to follow the glint of the sword.
Bones lay in heaps
on the plain,
majestic cities and imposing towns
became lairs for wolves and foxes.
The poem celebrates Koreans becoming “hunters of wild dogs” (the “island savages,” that is, the Japanese invaders) but ultimately expresses a hope for the “joy of peace.” (Lee also cites later poems that do similar things in terms of representing the Japanese invaders as monstrous and inhuman, always in traditional Chinese terminology that Lee suggests is central to the Confucian ideology.) What’s interesting about all this to me is that usually, in war poems, one sees the pattern applied for a different purpose… the contrast with Western European (and especially English-language) war poetry is interesting: most of what I’ve seen tended not to touch on the suffering of the masses, being instead primarily concerned with extolling the heroism of soldiers, either because they’ve won the battle or war, or because they failed in a tragically heroic manner.
In any case, I think it’s likely that Lee was required to extend the introduction in part because the actual text is so short that it barely fills sixty pages. Indeed, this is one of the few books I’ve seen that includes a complete Korean original (one of a number of versions of the text, note: while I wish Lee had gotten into the differences between versions, it seems he’s done that elsewhere) along with the complete English translation. I would never criticize that: having the original text will be handy, obviously, though perhaps only to a few people. I only mention it because I suspect it was included mainly to fill out the book and justify actually doing a hardback edition. A very expensive hardback, note.
But the main attraction is the translation itself, and while it is short, it definitely is worth a gander. I personally found it pretty fascinating, in part because of how much it defied my expectations. From the folk stories and fairy tales that have remained in circulation in South Korea into the present, I had anticipated it to be lacking in supernatural events, but actually, the opposite is true. Parts of the The Record of the Black Dragon Year felt like they wouldn’t be out of place in a fantasy-adventure computer game—a Korean version of Skyrim, say—and other parts reminded me (in a general sense) of fantastical stuff that wouldn’t really be out of place in a comparable anime/manga setting.
For one thing, the heroes in the story are literally superhuman. Here’s one example:
… in Koksan in Hamgyŏngm there was a person whose surname was Kim and his given name was Tŏngnyŏng. He could lift three thousand pounds and was nine feet tall. His swordsmanship and military tactics matched the Taoist magic of Huang-shih Kung of old. (72)
That’s one of the more subdued descriptions, too, though we should remember that Koreans were probably shorter at this time: nine feet tall would be closer to double a normal man’s height (as opposed to today, when it’s more like one-and-a-half times the height of a lot of men). Another Korean hero, Kang Hongnip, wears a helmet that weighs 1800 pounds, and armor made out of dragon scales, and of course, to ensure he is evenly matched as a villain, the Japanese general Kiyomasa gets the same over-the-top treatment:
Stretching his lips two feet wide and gnashing his teeth, Kiyomasa put on a twin-phoenix helmet and a three-thousand-pound suit of armor. He came forward shouting like a white tiger that grips a person in his mouth while perched on a steep cliff with a waterfall. (88-89)
In the battle from which the description of Kiyomasa is taken, weapons and armor have names like “Blue Dragon Sword”, “Shooting Stars Mallet” (a weapon that weighs three-thousand pounds, incidentally)—not quite “Stormbringer”, but pretty close!—and in the sky above the battle, a figure materializes:
With a sound like thunder from the air, a general appeared wearing a Heaven Gold Helmet and Green Cloud Armor, riding Red Rabbit, brandishing a Blue Dragon sword, and wearing a three-pointed beard. With eyes glaring like a phoenix’s, he shouted, “Ignorant Japanese raiders, hear what I say! Despite your tiny domain you intend to swallow Chosŏn whole? How can you possibly expect to live? I am Marquis Kuan Yünch’ang of the Three Kingdoms period! My sword has no mercy! Receive it!” (90)
That’s actually Kuan’s second appearance—he showed up to terrify Kiyomasa once before—and Kuan isn’t the only ancient Chinese figure to make an appearance, either: elsewhere, the ghost of an ancient Chinese general turns up to encourage and praising a Korean commander, playing the role of ghostly Yoda to a T. Later, another of the text’s Korean superheroes, Kim Ŭngsŏ, starts quoting back this sort of language as he hacks his way through Japanese generals, which is interesting: it feels like the author is, in a sense, literally militating the whole of Chinese cultural and literary-historical tradition against Japan. Given the Japanese respect of Chinese letters that even Korean prisoners of war during the Imjin War noted, it feels as if the author trying grounding objections in what are sees a trans-cultural philosophical or ethical values taken as given on the basis of ancient Chinese authority.
Kim Ŭngsŏ and Kang Hongnip eventually do so well at the business of hacking apart Japanese generals that the ruler of Japan eventually decides he needs to marry them into his family to subdue them and take over Chosŏn… a gambit that of course ultimately fails… despite the Japanese monarch throwing at them the prettiest teenaged girls he can scrounge up.
Taoist magic is also a recurring feature of the text, used throughout both in magical assaults, but also outside of combat, such as to conceal oneself, to control the weather, and so on. Apparently Taoist magic was a basic element of any and all military training, as far as Joseon era storytellers were concerned… and not just for Koreans, but also for Chinese and Japanese generals and warriors. Indeed, there’s loads of this kind of sorcery used throughout the story, along with other bizarre supernatural stuff: horses run across the ocean (by leaping up to the clouds); dead villains remain animated and conscious, attempting to reattach their heads until the stumps are burned with coals. The ghosts of an ancient Chinese general makes an appearances, encouraging and praising a Korean commander, too.
All that’s pretty fun and interesting, given how stripped of magic and the supernatural the Korean folk legends that have remained popular are. I thought this had happened in the early Joseon, but maybe it’s an artifact of modernization, or maybe it is in fact part and parcel with the Neo-Confucian conservativism that rose as a response to the Imjin War itself. I’m not sure, but it’s fun to see all that magic and supernatural stuff in a Korean historical setting.
Oh, and in a scene near the beginning, the famous Admiral Yi Sunsin (who only appears briefly, and is beheaded by the Japanese in this account) actually takes his fleet underwater to kill off thousands of Japanese. (This was all the more astonishing since I’ve recently written a story where Yi ends up fighting the Japanese from underwater… I used a very different spin, but I’m glad there’s some folkloric basis for the idea.) In The Record of the Black Dragon Year, Yi has built “thousands” of turtle ships, rather than the more limited number her actually hand on hand for his clashes with the Japanese navy. Yi also superhuman, carrying a seven-foot-long sword around while riding on his Mongolian horse.
However, in contrast with the focus Yi gets today, he—and the naval warfare in general—barely figures into the narrative here. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, and it doesn’t surprise me: it’s well-known to anyone who’s actually studied Yi that his rise to the role of nationalist hero is really a modern phenomenon. That said, he only gets a couple of pages here. In part, because he dies (at the beginning of the text, though in actual history it was at the end of the war), but also because the stories in the book mainly are concerned with land battles and exciting, awesome swordplay and superheroism.
There was also some stuff that was just plain weird, and which I think probably deserves a little more attention from a modern reader than Lee offers. For example, the material dealing with the assassination of the Japanese commander “Chosŏp” (when his troops are occupying Pyongyang) is interesting: basically, Kim Ŭngsŏ enlists the Japanese commander’s favorite (Korean) concubine, a Korean woman named Wŏlsŏn, to help him kill the commander. (The text pays a lot of attention to her face, “as beautiful as jade” and her bright red lips.) She cooperates, basically getting he commander drunk and then convincing him to go outside of his tent and meet up with her older brother. None of that is particularly disturbing: once you invade and occupy someone else’s country, you pretty much forfeit the right to complain when they respond by tricking you outdoors in the middle of the night and kill you.
No, what’s disturbing is that after Chosŏp is dead, Kim Ŭngsŏ basically goes ahead and congratulates Wŏlsŏn on a job well-done… well, at first:
“Your loyalty is unparalleled. Even though we’ve captured a fierce tiger on Mount Ch’o, you have killed the hero of the day. If I let you live, it will be difficult for me to succeed. Since your loyalty will be made known to posterity, even as a lonely spirit, do not resent me.” As he finished speaking, he beheaded Wŏlsŏn and put the head on the wooden beam and rushed out as if he were flying. (77-78)
That’s a little more extreme than what Lee hints at in the introduction: it’s not just focusing on the “heroism” of Kim Ŭngsŏ: Wŏlsŏn basically is told she has to die for him to win the war. Whether the underlying idea is that his heroism will be diluted if he must share the credit for the assassination, or he’s purging Korea of a woman tarnished by contact with the Japanese (or freeing the woman from her own fallen state), or something else entirely, I can’t say… but what’s frustrating is that Lee doesn’t. Unpacking this moment would be worth more than half the material in the introduction combined, if you ask me.
Finally, there’s the material at the end of the text, where the patriotic warrior-monk Samyŏngdang—also known as Yujeong, and cast here as some sort of a vengeful nationalist Bodhisattva—is sent to Japan to negotiate the release of and repatriation of Joseon prisoners. The Japanese try to kill him, but he performs miracles, mostly by using Chinese characters to obtain magical effects: when he’s put in a kind of hot-box (a metal room heated to a scorching temperature) he survives by inscribing words like “ice” and “cool” on the walls and on his cushion. This bowls over the Japanese, who finally decide to comply with his demands for peace and the return of prisoners.
Now, Buddhist monks famously patricipated in the war, playing an important role in the retaking of Pyongyang at one point, in fact, it’s hard to believe that a Bodhisattva would actually impose these kinds of terms on a surrendering nation (and as required for the sparing of the Japanese monarch’s life), even one that was egregiously aggressive towards its neighbours:
“Every year you must submit as tribute three thousand human skins, three thousand pounds of bronze, three thousand pounds of peony bark, and three thousand pounds of other Japanese goods.” (112)
I hope I may be forgiven for chuckling at the term “Japanese goods,” which bring to mind the image of Japanese ships laden with duty-free shop goods (SK-II, manga comics, bottles of saké and shochu, and instant ramen, I suppose?) wending its way across the channel that separates Japan from Korea. But the three thousand human skins, that’s a lot more ominous, and it brings to mind the Mongolian Buddhist temple in Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle with its grisly discussion of the flaying of human skin by a former Japanese military man stationed in Manchuria, to the iconographic use of flayed human skin in Mongolian and Tibetan Buddhist art. I don’t know what the link is, but there’s something deeply odd, and apparently transcultural, at work here. If it’s anything more than the profusion of Buddhist gods and demons that wear capes or clothing made of human skin, I’m not sure what it is, but I’d like to know!
There is a threat that follows: Samyŏngdang claims that there are a thousand “Living Buddhas” (Bodhisattvas) in each of Koreas provinces—totaling eight thousand in all—who will rise up and kick Japanese ass, should Japan try this kind of stunt again, is an interesting threat. While I don’t know enough about Japan to say whether it’s correct, I get the sense from another book I’m reading (Jerome Ch’en’s biography of Yuan Shih-K’ai) that at least part of the reason Japan had such a nasty attitude towards Korea was because of historical resentment dating back to the Imjin War.
I also found it interesting that the text concludes with the declaration of a vegetarian feast on the fifteenth day of the seventh month (of the lunar calendar) as a celebration of the Bodhisattva Samyŏngdang’s concluding the war, and the Chosŏn king’s sharply improved esteem and reverence for Buddhism.
So, as I say, there’s a lot that is interesting here. It’s worth the SPR listed on the publisher’s site—$27—but the prices on Amazon.com and Abebooks are just plain insane. There’s no way the book is worth even $100, let alone $200 or $1300! Still, unless you’re really interested in the narrative, I think your best bet would be to find it through interlibrary loan… at least, until the University of Hawai’i publishes a paperback version. (If that day comes.) Until then, maybe they still have hardbacks available, though it seems odd that Amazon.com wouldn’t carry new copies if it weren’t out of print.
I can hardly call the work indispensable. Where I work, the library has two copies, and neither one seems to have been signed out by anyone but me: for the copy I read, I definitely was the first person to handle it. But then, I get that feeling with a number of the books I’ve signed out from work, so that doesn’t say much. It is worth a read, if you can get your hands on it, and I think some people would enjoy it very much indeed. I did.
Okay, yes, I added the “babydoll,” but he does seem to be that cavalier about it.↩