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Hu-myŏng Yun: 둔황의사랑 (The Love of Dunhuang)

I have to admit that I read this novel to a great extent as it seemed to be about Dunhuang, a place I have always been fascinated with and which I have been lucky enough to visit. However, it turns out that the novel was well worth reading even if you have no interest in Dunhuang.

The narrator of this novel is an unemployed Korean man, who is living with and off his girlfriend. They have been together for some time but she has health problems. He had worked for a magazine but had not been happy there. The magazine has nominally been devoted to culture and entertainment but has been very unfocussed and had struggled to cover the wide spectrum of its subject. In addition, the management had not arranged for proper funding so everyone on the magazine has to do a bit of everything, which leaves our hero quite unhappy. However, there was one series which he did enjoy, on terminal sites, i.e. parts of Korean culture that were disappearing. He had heard about something called gonghu. At first he thought the reference was to kung-fu but soon learned that it was a musical instrument that was rarely played any more in Korea. He heard about one man who played it but could find no other references to it, except for reference in a song for which the lyrics still existed but not the music. However, as the series was coming to an end, he decided to pursue the matter and went, with a photographer, to see the man. When they got to his house, the door was opened by a young woman, who was the old man’s granddaughter. She said that her grandfather had died but when asked about the gonghu, she started to sing the song in a beautiful voice. Our hero was very glad that the young woman was planning to study Korean classical music.

But the job came to an end and now he is unemployed. He had moved with his girlfriend to another district and had found no further employment. He spent his time drinking but often bumped into an old schoolfriend, whom he had known from the school drama club. The friend taught drama and has ambitions to be a director. Indeed, he had directed some translations of foreign plays but was now deeply interested in traditional Korean drama. In addition, he also suggests that our narrator write a play, which he will direct. The narrator insists that, though he is a writer, he has no talent for drama. The friend suggests various subjects for a play and, in particular, suggests Dunhuang. Though it is in China, Dunhuang is relevant to Korean culture because of the Buddhist connection. The director suggests the play be about the Buddhist monk Hyecho (part of the manuscript of his journey was found in Dunhuang) and that our narrator add a story about a love affair that Hyecho has with a foreign woman (hence the title of this novel). He then introduces the narrator to traditional Korean mask dances, which is he doing with his students. The narrator is interested to see that the tradition has a lion dancing with the humans, not as an antagonist but as part of them. He is also aware that this tradition is also found in other Korean folk traditions. It is, to him particularly odd, as the lion does not exist in Korea so why does it appear in Korean folk traditions? (Answer: it comes from Indian traditions.)

All of this leads the narrator to move away from his current troubles – his unemployment, his arguments with his girlfriend and his drinking – and think more about the past of his country and its traditions – Dunhuang, the lion dance, the gonghu. He becomes very interested in the history of the mask dance and we learn a lot about it. But he also becomes interested in historical places, remembering some he has visited in the past and going to places like Seokguram. In short, he moves away from the real world and its problems to a world of the past. It is a strange but fascinating story, as it is so very unWestern in style, but very well worth reading.

Publishing history

First published 1983 by Munhak kwa Chisŏngsa
First English translation by Cross-Cultural Communications in 2005
Translated by Kyung-nyun Kim Richards and Steffen F. Richards