Peace Under Heaven by Ch'ae Man-sik translated by
Chun Kyung-ja. New York: M.E. Sharpe. 1993.250pp
Peace Under Heaven is the most representative work of
fiction linking the marketplace folk humor of late Choson with modern twentieth-century
prose. Its originality is stunning, so rare is it to find writing of this
kind at the time. It is fully evolved fiction that reflects literary influences
of the traditional Korean past and the more cosmopolitan present. * *
Peace Under Heaven is an unparalleled early example of the
Korean carnivalesque dialogic novel, it is both deeply traditional and
ingeniously original. We are greatly indebted to Ch'ae for writing a novel
that so clearly reveals the enduring folk literary traditions in modern
Chun Kyung-ja deserves enormous credit for her careful
translation. Anyone familiar with the original Korean text is aware of
the daunting challenges it presents. As we have seen, the success of this
novel is in great measure due to linguistic elements embedded in the narrative
itself. The highly evocative dialog often presented in dialect flatly defies
successful translation. The natural verbosity peculiar to speakers of the
Cholla dialect, the incessant pounding of the staccato rhythms in Ch'ae's
narrative, the almost physically palpable shouts and cries that emanate
from the rooms of Yun's cavernous estate must all, in the process of translation,
either be dispensed with entirely or appear in greatly altered form. Thus
the translated version necessarily exhibits a decidedly different texture
from that of the original.
Chun could have chosen any number of important works
highly worthy of her excellent translation skills. Most would certainly
have posed far less challenge and risk and in addition would have consumed
much less of her time. But Chun clearly understood the value of this work
and the importance of rendering it into English. The English text is idiomatic
and fluid, without even the suggestion of an awkward phrase to betray the
difficulties inherent in an ambitious translation effort
of this kind. It is also gratifying to see how carefully Chun observes
the narrative boundaries of the original to largely preserve the distinctive
feature of the intimate, interactive storyteller. The translated text is
prefaced with an informative introduction by Carter Eckert.
Paul La Selle
Korean Studies Volume 20 1996 by University of Hawaii
This translation of a pre-World War II Korean novel offers
a treasure trove of satire and social criticism of life in Korea under
Japanese colonial rule.
Peopled with characters whose derelict values, personal
foibles and eccentricities dance between outrage and mirth, Peace Under
Heaven turns the world of pre-war Korea upside down.
In doing so, it pierces the veil of nostalgia and victimization
characteristic of most narratives of life under Japanese rule in Korea.
Set in 1937, the novel offers comments on traditional Korean values, the
turmoil of emerging urban modernity and political injustice and moral irony
of colonial life.
The novel is propelled by its main character, the loathsome
Yun Tusop, and by an ever-expanding portrait of his family, who are the
victims of Yun's preoccupations with wealth, status and pleasure. Yun is
a fabulously rich absentee landlord who profits from the coercive stability
of Japanese rule. When not worrying about money, his main concerns are
his health, the seduction of a child and the promotion of his dissolute
grandsons to high office in the colonial bureaucracy.
Yun's relations include non-scholars who purchase pretentious
titles, widows, a half-wit son of a concubine, scheming retainers and pimps-in-waiting.
This is not a family of rigorous Confucian propriety, political valour
or artistic attainment. Yun engages in usury, berates his tenants, rails
against colonial tenant laws and the cost of promoting his grandsons. His
wretched dependents bemoan their fate, engage each other in vitriolic verbal
battles and scheme to defraud Yun.
Seoul, the backdrop for the novel, is portrayed as a
city of cinemas, popular song festivals, red-light districts, tan pang
cigarettes, rickshaws, streetcars and bus girls. The newfangled radio and
gramophone are important symbols of the leisure-class lifestyle, and a
cynical capitalism, an obsession with cost and return, and the bartering
of things and people prevail.
This would be a source of depression if it were not for
Ch'ae's brilliant prose, his humour, his poignancy. Ch'ae honed his observational
skills as a reporter in the 1920's.
Chun Kyung-ja's translation is meticulous, no small feat
for a work that hinges on risque dialogue and is peppered with 60-year-old
This bold, insightful and honest tale is a must read
for those who can laugh at the human condition.
Michael Robinson teaches Korean History
at Indiana University,
Far East Eronomic Review