The Nine Cloud Dream (Kuunmong) by Kim Man-jung is a beguiling, multilayered vision where we follow characters from life to life through enchanted landscapes, love affairs, poetry and music competitions, politics, strategy, practical jokes, social advancement, and spiritual searching. Heinz Insu Fenkl has given us something very special in this vibrant and entrancing new translation by providing a deeply informative introduction for one of Korea’s earliest classics.

Ordinarily, much of our experience in life involves constraint. We are ever aware of what is required of us: the limitations, the dos and don’ts, the red and green lights, death and taxes, rent and time. But then we listen to music, watch movies, play online games, read and dream; we enter other worlds. Perhaps these are mere distractions, but perhaps something else can happen. Such moments may open gateways.

The Nine Cloud Dream is a novel alive to such possibilities. It was written in Korea in about 1689. The Joseon dynasty had ruled for 300 years and would continue for another 200 years. Nonetheless, as the author of this miraculous book found, even within a culture and government of such stability, individual life was not so stable. A king’s favor was fickle. The life of a high-ranking courtier was subject to gossip, faction, and precipitous falls.

Kim Man-jung was born in 1637 to a ruling-class family. He ascended quickly through the government examinations and soon established himself at King Sukjong’s court. He attracted the king’s favor with his quick intelligence, cultivation, and ingenuity. Nonetheless, he was exiled several times for finding himself on the wrong side of such seemingly small conflicts as the proper period of mourning for a deceased queen. Finally, in 1689, he was banished to Namhae, a bleak island far from the capital. Under those constricted circumstances, his imagination flourished. There he wrote this novel and, soon after, died. Folklore has it that he wrote the book to entertain his mother, who was distraught that her son was so far away. No one knows whether she enjoyed The Nine Cloud Dream, but it has delighted readers ever since.

To read is to find oneself, at least partially, disembodied and reborn, to live not exactly in this world but in a different realm. In this altered dimension, the senses still function and the mind is engaged. But here we can move from place to place, time to time, being to being. In the domain of reading, we can explore what is unknown, what is frightening, what is desirable. We can identify with the longings we hold most enduring. Yet we, the readers, do not experience much that is inescapable. In books we ourselves cannot die. The Nine Cloud Dream plays on all of this.

To read is to find oneself partially reborn, to live not exactly in this world but in a different realm.

The outlook and aspirations prevalent in Korea in Kim Man-jung’s time were an amalgam of three traditions. The social outlook was Confucian and emphasized the need for strict hierarchical relations between heaven and monarch, monarch and subject, husband and wife, parent and child, elder and younger. The view of the cosmos was derived from Taoism, which focuses on finding the human place in the wordless unfolding of nature. Gods and goddesses, shamanesses, immortals, spirits of mountains and streams are the living embodiments of this way. Thoughts and practices relating to the spiritual world were articulated in the Buddhist teachings, most especially those concerned with compassion and freedom from the endless transitory illusions brought about by cause and effect (karma) and conflicting emotions.

The Nine Cloud Dream

by Kim Man-jung Translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl, Penguin Classics, February 2019, 288 pp., $17, paper

In Korea at that time, and in The Nine Cloud Dream, the Hwaeom (Huayan) school, whose doctrines emerged from the Avatamsaka Sutra, was particularly influential. Here, it is said that the practitioner-bodhisattva “passes through as many eons as dust motes in ineffable Buddha-lands, reaching all places throughout the ten directions without going anywhere. Nonetheless, he travels to every land . . . to inquire about the Path without pausing, giving up, resting, or growing weary.” This is a vast view of worlds simultaneously unfolding within worlds and of beings changing and moving freely between them.

Illustration of Heinz Insu Fenkel
An associate professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz, Heinz Insu Fenkl is also an author, editor, translator, and folklorist. (Portrait Illustration by Yann Legendre)

The novel begins in Tang dynasty China, as a monk finds himself distracted from his vows by eight transcendent beauties who visit the monastery. His discipline has failed, and his teacher, bitter and disappointed, expels him. Lost in the mountains, he dies and is brought before the King of Death, as are the fairy-women who entranced him. All nine are hurled and dispersed into the world of the living. The monk is reborn into the family of a poor scholar who soon dies. The former monk is now Shao-yu, a young man of great intelligence, good looks, and charm. He moves upward in the world, absorbing wisdom he receives from various immortals and assisted by eight women who fall in love with him.

His extraordinary gifts for poetry, music, and strategy enable Shao-yu to charm and master the world. These arts serve as portals to unsuspected dimensions, and with each partner he seduces, he inhabits a different and dreamlike bliss. Thus, many times over, he experiences life as “a dream, and yet not a dream; real and yet not reality.” He ascends to the highest level of society, finally becoming the emperor’s brother-in-law. His mother joins him in the capital, where he lives happily with all eight wives together with con-sorts. The family’s reputation is now secure: Shao-yu inhabits a world of complete domestic and social harmony. And perhaps if it were the only world, it would remain in harmony. But it is not.

The life of the monk resumes as he suddenly wakes. “You went seeking your desires, and now you have returned, for they have faded,” says the monk’s teacher. The monk resumes his practices. The teacher dies. The monk becomes his successor. We have reached the book’s conclusion and return to our own lives. In the instant when Kim’s story of marvels has ended, our engagement in our usual life resumes. And perhaps, if only in that unsettled moment of transition, we sense we are, as it says in the Avatamsaka Sutra, “devoid of substance, unmoving” but encompassing all.

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