Monday, October 12, 2009

Hwang Sok-yong and smallpox as 'Guest' in Korea

The Guest
Hwang Sok-yong
(Image from Seven Stories Press)

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.

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)
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."

But this all has little bearing, of course, on the literary quality of Hwang's novel.

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At 9:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...some committee work that I've gotten myself engaged in..."


For some odd reason I'm finding your wording somewhat amusing. If, by some unfortunate circumstance, you were describing a similar situation from your native Ozarks - would that be kinda like saying, "I seem to have stepped in...?"


At 10:11 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Something like that, I reckon.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:58 AM, Blogger Sperwer said...

<>But this all has little bearing, of course, on the literary quality of Hwang's novel.<>

Interesting, I would have thought that it did, insofar as literature purports to say something "true".

I'm off to the University of Leiden to take part in a week-long colloquium about the topic of the creation of historical representations by others than professional historians, e.g., film makers, TV docudrama producers, novelists, wiki "authors" etc., etc.. This seems like a good example of the creation of (false) historical consciousness that itself becomes an historical fact with which to reckon.

At 11:06 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Good point, Sperwer, if we're speaking of more than the aesthetics of style, and over breakfast with my wife this morning, I was already reconsidering my words (which were a bit hedged, anyway, you may have noted).

I might raise the point in my next post, which will have a bit more to say.

Enjoy Leiden in the new, radically multicultural 'Europe' -- and return safe and sound with some topics to discuss over beer.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:16 PM, Anonymous Charles said...

Indeed, the tradition of referring to smallpox as "a guest" is very much in line with the shamanic tradition in Korea. I'm surprised that wasn't mentioned.

I'm curious, though: how's the novel itself?

At 7:37 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Charles, I mention the shamans in connection to smallpox, but you must mean something more specific.

I'll be blogging again tomorrow, and shamans come up again.

As for the novel, I haven't yet started reading it.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is well known that Hwang Sok-yong is an anti-American pro North korean toady.

At 3:49 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, I suppose that I'll find out when I read the book, but my impression is that he's more complex than that, for The Guest was criticized in North Korea -- or, at least, Hwang makes the claim that it was. I'll try to find out for sure, but this sounds plausible since the quote that I noted sounds rather critical of Marxism (as another 'Western' disease).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:28 AM, Blogger Sperwer said...

Anonymous' post comes off as nothing more than hysterical name calling, unsubstantiated as it is by any literary or other evidentiary basis.

You might find more interesting B.R. Myer's scathing reecent review of the English translation of another of Hwang's novels, The Old Garden found here:

And here's the money quote:

"The striving for simplicity and emotionality among students bewildered by long reading lists is, as the historian Ernst Nolte once wrote, “almost disgustingly easy to explain.” Harder to understand is why a man of Hwang’s age and experience would want to present this striving as something the world needs more of. … The hunch that we are dealing here with an ideology even sillier than Marxism is confirmed in one of Yoon Hee’s lines: “It’s a fight that has continued for over a hundred years since we opened up the port.” In other words, Korea’s problems began when it ceased to be the Hermit Kingdom. The penny drops: this is how the students could have fought so heroically against a pro-American dictator in Seoul, yet found so little cause to criticize the paranoid nationalist thugs in Pyongyang."

At 7:51 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Interesting quote, Sperwer. It tends to conform to my impression of Hwang in The Guest -- in the sense that I think him to be, foremost, a Korean nationalist.

However, I must acknowledge that The Guest has exceeded my expectations, for it clearly portrays the North's propaganda as lies. I'll have more to say about this tomorrow . . . if I have time.

Jeffery Hodges

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