Q&A with Minsoo Kang, Translator of The Story of Hong Gildong

The Story of Hong Gildong

Five hundred years ago there was a bandit in Korea named Hong Gildong. His life inspired a story that has been told countless times since then–the story of a magical boy who joins a group of bandits and becomes their king. To celebrate the new English translation of The Story of Hong Gildong, we asked Minsoo Kang a few questions.

When did you first encounter the story of Hong Gildong?

The figure of Hong Gildong is so ubiquitous in modern Korean culture that anyone who grew up in the country would be familiar with the hero as a part of his or her childhood memory. So I cannot pinpoint when exactly I first encountered him, in the same way as it would be impossible for most Americans to remember when exactly they first discovered Superman or Batman. His story is indeed so well known that most Koreans can recite Hong Gildong’s lament at his condition of being an illegitimate child, how he cannot even “address his father as Father and older brother as Brother.” Even here in the United States, I am rather delighted whenever I mention my translation project to Korean-Americans and they respond by saying “Hong Gildong! My childhood hero!” I have memories of reading children’s book as well as comic book versions of The Story of Hong Gildong, and watching animated shows about him on television. Like the vast majority of Koreans, however, I never bothered to read the original Joseon dynasty work because I thought I already knew the story. It wasn’t until I was an undergraduate, in the United States, that I read the English translation of the shorter gyeongpan 24 version that was rendered by Marshall Pihl in the 1960s. Eventually, my fascination with the work, especially in the many ways it contradicted my preconceptions about it that were based on modern retellings, led me to the much longer pilsa 89 version which is what I have translated for Penguin Classics. I am sure that most Koreans and Korean-Americans who are familiar with the story only from their childhood will find many aspects of the original work both surprising and fascinating, as I did when I delved into its content and history.

You compare Hong Gildong to Robin Hood, and that seems apt. They’re both “noble robbers,” as you say. But it seems that the story of Hong Gildong was written down much earlier than the story of Robin Hood, which was told mostly through ballads for many years. Do you think the fact that Hong Gildong was always written down changed the way it evolved, compared to Robin Hood?

Stephen Knight, who has written a comprehensive work on Robin Hood legends, has shown that the English figure first appeared in literary works all the way back in the fourteenth century and has reappeared in many different forms since then. From my research I see a major difference in the way the Hong Gildong stories and the Robin Hood stories have been transmitted. There was a real-life bandit named Hong Gildong who, according to the royal records of the Joseon dynasty, was captured by the authorities in the year 1500. It is possible that since then stories about him were told and transmitted orally in the course of the next three centuries, but that is in the realm of pure speculation since not a single evidence has been found of a popular Hong Gildong tradition. Based on the latest scholarship on Joseon dynasty fiction, it seems evident that the work we know today as The Story of Hong Gildong was first composed in the nineteenth century (not in the seventeenth century by the poet and statesman Heo Gyun, as it has been traditionally supposed). While there are over thirty different manuscripts of the work with some differences in content, they all tell basically the same story that consists of three parts – first, Hong Gildong’s childhood in the Hong family compound; second, his activities as an outlaw leader; and third, his adventures in foreign lands that culminate in his becoming the king of his own realm. The Robin Hood tradition is much more complicated in that there was no single narrative of his life, but rather many different episodic tales of his adventures. It was not until the Renaissance that he was turned into a nobleman who was unjustly deprived of his land (earlier versions describe him as a commoner or a yeoman), and it was in the Romantic era that he was depicted as a partisan in the Saxon-Norman struggle in the time of Prince John and King Richard I (earlier versions has him operating during the time of an unspecified King Edward). Stephen Knight has convincingly argued that the work that was probably the most influential in creating a coherent narrative for Robin Hood was not the written works from the Middle Ages onward but the 1938 Errol Flynn movie, which most people think is the definitive story of the outlaw. What I find interesting about this difference in the way the stories of Robin Hood and Hong Gildong have been transmitted is the opposite ways in which they have become familiar to their respective audiences. The story of Hong Gildong began as a single coherent narrative but in the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, countless variations have been created in children’s books, comic books, animated films, television dramas, and modern fiction. Robin Hood, on the other hand, first appeared in many discrete tales that were not part of a single narrative, but he became the protagonist of a unified story in the modern era, mainly in the medium of cinema.

Who would you say is the second most important character in the story of Hong Gildong, after the hero? Because he isn’t really defined by a single villain, is he?

Minsoo Kang (photo by Mia Ulmer)
Minsoo Kang (photo by Mia Ulmer)

That is an intriguing question that points to an essential part of the narrative. It is true that none of Hong Gildong’s opponents are significant characters since it is made clear that they are no match for the hero who easily outwits and defeats them. I think the most important secondary character is his father, High Minister Hong, since so much of Hong Gildong’s actions are determined by his troubled relationship with him. Modern readers would find it interesting that the story initially presents Minister Hong as a distinguished and upright man, but he has no qualm about forcing himself on a servant girl or treating his son in a demeaning manner. That could be read as a critique of the traditional household system of the Joseon dynasty that was based on Neo-Confucian principles. Even as the hero finds it necessary to leave home and embark on his adventures as an outlaw, it is clear that his father’s disapproval continues to haunt him. Also, in the Confucian tradition the father and the king are symbolically linked (i.e. the king as the father of all his subject), so when Hong Gildong explains himself to his monarch he laments his condition as an illegitimate son in the same way that he did to his father. It is significant then that he becomes an outlaw because of his father’s disapproval, and he ends his activities as an outlaw after he receives the approval of the king in the form of an official appointment. And in the last part of the narrative, the hero’s ultimate rise to full manhood begins with his being reintegrated into his family, through his participation in his father’s funeral and burial rites. That allows him to go on to become a king in his own right as well as a father. In that sense, The Story of Hong Gildong can be read as a narrative of the vicissitudes of the father-son relationship in Confucian culture.

In your Introduction you mention that this is an inherently conservative story – by the end, Hong Gildong is redeemed in the eyes of the King and contributes to honorable society. Does the story of Hong Gildong “have it both ways” by glorifying a rebellion while ultimately capitulating to the rule of law? Do you think that’s part of the reason why it endures?

I would not describe The Story of Hong Gildong as a work that is inherently conservative, but I understand why my introduction might have given that impression. The first modern Korean literary critic who interpreted the work was Kim Taejun who discussed it at length in his pioneering work on the history of Joseon fiction that was published in the 1930s. As a radical nationalist and a communist, Kim offered a subversive reading in which he depicted the narrative as a revolutionary anti-feudalistic writing. Since then, the work has continued to be taught in Korean schools as one that is critical of the Joseon political and social system, written by a statesman who held proto-socialistic ideas. There are many ways in which the content of The Story of Hong Gildong defies such a reading, including the hero’s desire to work within the established system as a government official, the lack of a vision of an alternate political system, and, most importantly, the fact that when he becomes a king he replicates the traditional dynastic system in his own realm. I found it necessary in the introduction to push back against the subversive reading of the work that has become the standard reading, but that is not to say that I regard it as essentially conservative. Hong Gildong’s lament in the first part is a powerful protest against Joseon dynasty policy toward illegitimate children, and the depiction of an outlaw as a hero would no doubt have been scandalous to respectable society. But one must read those elements in the proper context of the extent and limit of the literary imagination in the late Joseon dynasty, the ways in which the work does feature many scenes and ideas that are critical of the status quo but also the ways in which is still conforms to traditional ways. So one can find plenty of textual evidence to support both a subversive and conservative readings of the story, but that always leads to a partial understanding of the narrative as a whole. In the final analysis, the attempt to fit any complex work of literature into one of the binary categories of subversive or conservative is a futile one that can only lead to simplistic readings. My emphasis on the more traditional aspects of the work was an attempt to bring balance to the interpretation of the work.

What are some of your favorite adaptations and updates of the story of Hong Gildong?

My nostalgic favorite is the first animated version of the story, directed by Sin Dong Heon and based on his brother Sin Dong Wu’s comic books, that was released in 1967 which was also the very first animated movie made in South Korea. The depiction of Hong Gildong in the film, of a sturdy youth dressed in a blue vest and a small yellow hat, is the dominant image that modern Koreans have of the hero not only because the movie was a huge success but because it was used in countless advertisements in the 1960s and 70s. Given the fact that the animated Hong Gildong is the one that most Koreans and Korean-Americans are familiar with, I was particularly pleased with Sachin Teng’s cover illustration for the Penguin Classic as it is an original take on the image. One of the most fascinating modern versions is a live-action movie from North Korea that was released in 1986 (available to be viewed in full on YouTube). It is basically a martial arts movie, but the most interesting aspect of it is the original additions that reflect North Korean propaganda. The country’s extreme xenophobia is reflected in the last part in which Hong Gildong has to fight against Japanese ninjas who have come to Joseon to steal its treasures and women. Another film that is readily available to be viewed in the U.S. (on Netflix) is the South Korean film The Righteous Thief (2009, original title: The Descendants of Hong Gildong) a comedic action film set in modern day Seoul about a family, whose members are descendants of Hong Gildong, who steal from corrupt rich people and donate their takings to charity. Only viewers who are familiar with The Story of Hong Gildong will be able to get the funniest jokes in the movie.

Minsoo Kang is an associate professor of European history at University of Missouri-St. Louis. He is the author of Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination and coeditor of Visions of the Industrial Age, 1830–1914: Modernity and the Anxiety of Representation in Europe. He is also the author of a short story collection, Of Tales and Enigmas.

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