Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Hwang Sok-yong: Smallpox as a 'Western' Disease?

Hwang Sok-yong
(Image from Changbi Publishers)

Yesterday, I posted on my puzzlement over Hwang Sok-yong's opening remark about smallpox "as a Western disease," and I'll have more to say about that further below, but I'd first like to quote a couple of passages on smallpox in Korea written by a couple of Westerners around 1900.

First is a passage from Reverend Daniel L. Gifford's 1898 book, Everyday Life in Korea: A Collection of Studies and Stories (Chicago: Fleming H. Revell Company):
Smallpox creates great ravages among the little folks of Korea, and parents never count their infants among the number of their children until they have had that disease. They believe there is a smallpox devil, to whom the name of Mama has been given, and whose home they say is in the south of China. The well-known symptoms break out upon a baby. At once a mutang is called, and under her direction they proceed to do the spirit reverence. The parents bow low before the sick child and address it continually in terms of the liveliest respect. If the child survives, at the turn of the disease the mutang is called again, a feast is prepared and the smallpox devil is bidden adieu, with many polite wishes for a prosperous journey to his native land. (pages 109-110)
The second, rather longer passage comes from the pen of "Mrs Bishop" -- better known as Isabella Bird -- borrowed from her 1905 book (first edition, 1898), Korea and Her Neighbours: A Narrative of Travel, with an Account of the Vicissitudes and Position of the Country, Volume 2 (London: John Murray):
The mu-tang rites are specially linked with the house daemon and with Mama the smallpox daemon. The house daemon is on the whole a good one, being supposed to bring health and happiness, and if invited with due ceremony he is willing to take up his abode under every roof. He cannot always keep off disease, and in the case of contagious fevers, etc., he disappears until the rite of purification has been accomplished and he has been asked to return. The ceremonies attending his recall deserve notice. On this great occasion the mu-tang in office ties a large sheet of paper round a rod of oak, holds it upright, and goes out to hunt him. She may find him near, as if waiting to be invited back, or at a considerable distance, but in either case he makes his presence known by shaking the rod so violently that several men cannot hold it stiil, and then returns with the mu-tang to the house, where he is received with lively demonstrations of joy. The paper which was round the stick is folded, a few fish are put into it, it is soaked in wine, and is then thrown up gainst a beam in the house to which it sticks, and is followed by some rice which adheres to it. That special spot is the abiding place of the daemon. This ceremony involves a family in very considerable expense.

The universal belief that illness is the work of daemons renders the services of a Pan-su or mu-tang necessary wherever it enters a house, and in the case of smallpox, the universal scourge of Korean childhood, the daemon, instead of being exorcised, bottled, or buried, is treated with the utmost respect. The name by which the disease is called, " Mama," is the daemon's name. It is said that he came from South China, and has infested Korea for only 1000 years. On the disease appearing, the mu-tung is called in to honour the arrival of the spirit with a feast and fitting ceremonial. Little or no work is done, and if there are neighbours whose children have not had the malady, they rest likewise, lest, displeased with their want of respect, he should deal hardly with them. The parents do obeisance (worship) to the suffering child, and address it at all times in honorific terms. Danger is supposed to be over after the 12th day, when the mu-tang is again summoned, and a farewell banquet is given. A miniature wooden horse is prepared, and is loaded for the spirit's journey with small bags of food and money, fervent and respectful adieus are spoken, and he receives hearty good wishes for his prosperous return to his own place! (pages 239-240)
Both Reverend Gifford and Isabella Bird note that the smallpox demon is 'known' by Koreans to have come from China, certainly not "The West," despite Hwang Sok-yong's opening lines to his "Author's Note," from his novel, The Guest, which I posted yesterday:
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)
After noting this 'error' yesterday, I closed my post with these words:
But this all has little bearing, of course, on the literary quality of Hwang's novel.
One long-time resident of Korea who goes by the pseudonym "Sperwer" commented:
Interesting, I would have thought that it did [have bearing on the literary quality of Hwang's novel], insofar as literature purports to say something "true".
I replied with a concession and a promissory note:
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.
Consider today's post as raising the point. It's tricky issue, for we're dealing with fiction, which makes up stories to say something 'true', so what ought we to say about an 'error' in a novelist's work? The issue is complicated by the fact that this 'error' about smallpox occurs in the "Author's Note," which is presumably not part of the fictional world created by Hwang but a framing device to enable readers to make better sense of what he's trying to say in the novel.

Yet . . . what did Hwang actually say in his "Note"?

I had cited him in the English translation by Kyung-Ja Chun and Maya West, but Hwang wrote the original in Korean, so I checked with my wife, who tells me that the term actually used by Hwang is seobyeong (서병 [西病]), which literally means "west disease," i.e., a disease from the west, which would ordinarily just imply that smallpox came from a place to the west of Korea. That would most likely be China, the country directly west. If one wanted to specify "The West" as the source of smallpox in Korea, my wife explained, then the term seoyangbyeong (서양병 [西洋病]) would have been used, for it literally means "Western Disease," a disease from The West.

Why, then, did the translators render seobyeong (서병 [西病]) as "Western disease"? Note the capitalized "W" of "Western," indicating a place rather than a direction. Let's look again at the fuller passage posted yesterday:
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)
Since both Christianity and Marxism arrived from "The West" (though the process of their 'entry' is actually more complicated than this), then Hwang would appear to be interpreting the direction seo (서) for "west" in the term seobyeong (서병) to mean the place seoyang (서양), "The West," as it would mean in the more precise seoyangbyeong (서양병).

Did Hwang thus misunderstand the Korean expression seobyeong (서병) to mean "Western disease" . . . or was he knowingly punning on seoyangbyeong (서양병), as though seobyeong were shorthand for that? Since Hwang is Korean, then a misunderstanding would seem unlikely, which leaves a pun as the more likely, but if so, why did the translators render seobyeong as "Western disease"? A pun would have better been conveyed by "western disease" instead, which retains the ambiguity between "western" as a direction and "Western" as a place.

Experts are welcome to comment on various aspects of this conundrum.

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At 9:13 AM, Blogger Sperwer said...

Interesting exegesis, but perhaps a little labored and a bit too focused on the trees rather than the forest. I can't cite chapter and verse right now, but I believe that viewed synoptically, and in the context of the more or less contemporaneous discourse about Korea's intercourse with the outside world at the fin d'siecle, there can be no doubt that, whether "Western" is capitalized or not,it is meant to convey the notion of a specifically "Western" import. That the uncapitalized word might also convey simply the westerly direction, and thus China rather than (apparently) the "West", actually fits into this view, since it was from China that Korea was first exposed to Western cultural influence, both in terms of religion (Catholicism) and "modern" science. But NB that even in this case it is the fruit of "Western" Learning that is being transmitted. If there is some wordplay here it seems to revolve around this phenomenon of the change in the status of China as a source of Korea's traditional Eastern Learning to the source of (the problematic) Western Learning - a transformation that preceded and to some extent parralleled China's change from Korea's (ostensibly) protective Big Brother to an exploitative imperialist interloper in the 'Western" mode (as epitomized by the Residency of Yuan Shi-Kai in the 10 year period between the Kapsin Coup and the First Sino-Japanese War (1894.

At 9:27 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I tend to agree with you, Sperwer, but I'm taking this slowly, deliberately focusing on the trees because I want to get the details right first.

Moreover, I want to read the entire book before I pass judgement.

(And I will have to pass judgement in an official capacity next week, but enough on that point.)

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:48 AM, Anonymous John Thornton said...

Hi, this is John Thornton from Mr. Hwang's US publisher, Seven Stories Press -- your posts about The Guest popped up in my Google alerts for Mr. Hwang. At the risk of spoiling the party, I strongly suspect it's our fault that the capitalization was lost -- "western disease" would look very much like an error that we'd "correct" to Western disease in proofing without knowing the Korean original.

I also wanted to call your attention to our translation of Mr. Hwang's The Old Garden, the first sixty-odd pages of which we're serializing on our website for the book here -- it's a very different kind of book, and I'd be interested to hear what you think of it (and of our translation.)

At 3:01 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Mr. Thornton, thanks for visiting and commenting. I was planning to dig more deeply into this issue this morning, but I didn't have a chance to check with my wife.

There's a passage later in the book in which the grandmother explains smallpox as a 'Western' disease, and I want to have my wife take a look. I'll get back to this point in another post soon.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Experts are welcome to comment on various aspects of this conundrum."

Horace, I think your ego needs a little deflating. Please cut out the oily undergraduate pretensions.

At 8:04 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, I prefer to be called "Jeffery."

And I'm entirely serious. Experts are welcome to comment.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:42 PM, Blogger voodooqueen126 said...

Hi, I came to this website trying to find out what and how Koreans treated smallpox? Would a doctor have been involved at all? Would they have served the sick child special food (porridge, chicken soup, mushroom soup etc) how would they have nursed the child?

At 6:22 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Try this article by Robert Neff: "Korea's Unwanted Guest: The Child Killer."

Jeffery Hodges

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