Hwang Sok-yong and smallpox as 'Guest' in Korea
I'm reading a lot of Korean literature in English translation these days for some committee work that I've gotten myself engaged in. Actually, I got engaged in it for God knows what misperception -- on the part of those who invited me -- that I might in some way be qualified to judge the quality of literature in translation.
This work has turned out to be rather time-consuming, but the upside to the task is that I've been given several free copies of very good literature to read.
Anyway, I was looking over my copy of Hwang Sok-yong's novel, The Guest (translated by Kyung-Ja Chun and Maya West), and I found myself puzzled by the opening lines to the "Author's Note":
When smallpox was first identified as a Western disease that needed to be warded off, the Korean people referred to it as "mama" or "sonnim," the second of which translates to "guest." (page 7)In fact, I was not merely puzzled but entirely surprised. For the American Indians, smallpox was a Western disease that wiped out entire populations lacking even the smallest degree of inherited immunity. But smallpox brought to Asia, or at least Korea, by Westerners? That seemed unlikely, so I did some checking around and came upon Robert Neff's article "Korea's Unwanted Guest: The Child Killer," published in OhmyNews (2007-04-09). Of smallpox in Korea, Neff writes:
Unlike the Americas, Asia was more than familiar with the disease, and the arrival of Westerners was not associated with the disease. In fact, unlike the American Indians, Koreans had long suffered under the disease.As Neff further explains:
Depending on the historical source, smallpox was introduced into Korea from China in 583 or 586 and two years later made its appearance in Japan. It was for this reason that many of the Korean people believed smallpox was the work of a Chinese demon -- a demon they named "mama," but treated as an honored guest. Because smallpox was the work of a demon, there was no need to see a doctor. Instead, mudangs (Korean shamans) were summoned to convince the "guest" to depart.Smallpox is thus in the historical record some 1300 years before many Westerners began to enter Korea. According to Fenner et al., in the 1988 WHO report Smallpox and its Eradication, smallpox was already in Korea by the 6th century AD, for the disease had appeared in Japan by then by way of Korea:
There were . . . repeated introductions [of smallpox] from China and Korea. As early as the 6th century, cultural and trading contacts were increasing between China and Japan, both directly and via Korea. Buddhism was first introduced into Japan from Korea in AD 552, and further contacts were made later that century. Smallpox was introduced at about the same time, and the Japanese were perplexed to know whether to ascribe the pestilence to their indigenous Shinto gods or to the new Buddha. (page 216)Note that smallpox was apparently spread by Koreans to Japan along with Buddhism, which makes Hwang Sok-yong's words above particularly ironic, especially when quoted in their fullness:
When smallpox was first identified as a Western disease that needed to be warded off, the Korean people referred to it as "mama" or "sonnim," the second of which translates to "guest." With this in mind, I settled upon The Guest as a fitting title for a novel that explores the arrival and effects of Christianity and Marxism in a country where both were initially as foreign as smallpox.A Japanese author might well write a novel about the cultural imperialism bringing a new religion and a new disease from Korea and come closer to the historical reality than Hwang does in his "Author's Note."
As smallpox reached epidemic proportions and began sweeping across the nation, shamanic rituals called "guest exorcisms" were often performed to fight against the foreign intruder. The Guest is essentially a shamanistic exorcism designed to relieve the agony of those who survived and appease the spirits of those who were sacrificed on the altar of cultural imperialism half a century ago. (page 7)
But this all has little bearing, of course, on the literary quality of Hwang's novel.