Book Reviews


The Descendants of Cain by Hwang Sun-won. Translated by Suh Ji-moon and Julie Pickering. M.E.Sharpe/UNESCO Publishing, 1997. 181 pages.


The translators' preface to the novel tells me, as an American reader, that the book in my hands is a text much loved in Korea, a constant bestseller since its first appearance in 1954: a classic. Therefore, to a Korean audience there is no need to rehearse the plot of this well-known story for its own sake. I shall concentrate rather on the narrative details that bear upon my reception of the book as someone for whom it comes as a new experience, one made possible through this recent translation into English.


Faced with the new, one looks for something familiar as a means of orientation. I quickly found that in the situation, and also the source of conflict, central to the novel: the fact that the young landowner, Pak Hun, has had as his housekeeper for the past three years a young woman, Ojaknyo※, daughter of his father's overseer, Toso※p, and so of a lower social stratum. Class barriers, therefore, make their sexual union unacceptable-though not unimaginable, as a dream of Hun's early in the novel makes clear. Moreover, though separated from her battering husband, Ojaknyo※ is married. The erotic tension of the novel thus has its genesis in a domestic scene analogous to that in a Western classic, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, though with significant reversals. In both a young woman lives as paid domestic in the house of a man to whom she is deeply attracted. In Jane Eyre, however, the situation is reversed in that Rochester (unknown to Jane) is the one who is married.


In both novels, then, a situation of intense, and therefore intensely erotic, intimacy coupled with the seeming impossibility of sexual union or even overt sexual expression creates a deeply romantic and universally appealing ambience. But there the usefulness of Bronte's novel as orientation marker stops, for the romanticism in the English novel's style- its strong moments of expressed emotion - is at the opposite pole from the constant reticence and reserve of Hwang Sun-won's. Ojaknyo※'s silent abnegation makes her devotion very unlike Jane Eyre's, and Pak Hun is a world away from Edward Rochester.


The allusion to Cain in the title leads the reader to expect a violent story, and indeed violent events punctuate the plot, from the murder of the villager Kwo※n which acts as catalyst to events that follow, to the armed fight with Toso※p, which comes as the story's climax and conclusion. The distanced consciousness of Hun is, however, the medium through which we witness these events, and as a result they occur, until near the end of the novel, in what seems like an almost preternatural and thereby extremely powerful quiet. Powerful but puzzling. With that very word the translators point out that Hun's "utter passivity may seem puzzling to Western readers, but his 'gentle' upbringing renders him helpless against brute force and raw emotions" (vii). I fully agree with this social understanding of what is going on, but I sense the need for additional insights drawn from psychology as well.


Looking again, in my puzzlement, for parallels drawn from what is for me more familiar literature, I found myself seeing Hamlet-like qualities in Hun. We get hints of Hun's deepest feelings not through the narrator's exposition or any personal revelations from Hun himself but through accounts of dreams or of memories or of objects upon which his gaze concentrates. These passages have an interiority analogous to Hamlet's solioquies; they offer what T.S. Eliot calls an "objective correlative " for an unstated interior complex of thoughts and emotions, though they remain mysterious in that they do not spell out those feelings in an overt way. Then too, like Hamlet, Hun is a man in the grip of mourning. As sign of that, we see him time and again in the novel at the clearing which encloses the family tombs. How much this site is for him a literal retreat from life becomes clear when Ojaknyo※'s husband, Ch'oe, tells Hun that he is coming to reclaim his wife the next day. Hun draws back even from giving Ojaknyo※ any prior warning of her husband's intention: "it was up to them to decide what to do. All he could do was stay out of their way so they could talk it over freely." With a paragraph break, the next sentence reads: "He went up to the old tomb site"(59).


The "turn" of the plot to the novel's resolution in its last three chapters also takes place at this tomb, as does the concluding battle with Toso※p. Hun's cousin Hyo※k- who has some of the quality of the active young Laertes or Fortinbras in highlighting contrast to Hun's Hamlet- finds him at the tomb "contemplating some new pasqueflower shoots" (125), and tells him of the ever increasing danger and of his own decision to head south of the thirty-eighth parallel. Hun not only decides to join Hyo※k but agrees to the dangerous mission of taking a message to Pyongyang, his first outright action in the book. Even then, however, he himself experiences it as a form of escape from his subdued but tormenting involvement with Ojaknyo※: "Hun rose from his spot by the tomb. Actually, leaving for the South would settle things with Ojaknyo※, if nothing else"(127).


What is the source of Hun's mourning?- or rather, what are its sources, for there seems more than one? The loss charted and noted through all the events of the novel is first of all that of Hun's entire way of life as a man of the landowning class in the face of that class's destruction. Retreat before this unimaginable and violent change is understandable, but it does not really explain Hun's sexual passivity through the previous three years -and earlier, for that matter -and the novel insists that we consider this aspect of Hun's psychology also. We learn as part of the background material of the novel that Hun's father had died of a heart attack two years before liberation from Japan. Close to the literal center of the book, during Ojaknyo※'s struggle with typhoid fever and Hun's nursing of her, which are also the story's emotional center and turning point, we are given the information that Hun knows the perils of typhoid very well: "His mother died when her heart gave out during the fever"(65).


Since the villagers' anger against Hun as a landowner, along with their fear of punishment by the authorities, keeps everyone away from the house, Hun becomes Ojaknyo※'s sole nurse-a daring and touching reversal of their social and gender roles on Hwang Sun-won's part. With the information we have about Hun's mother we also realize that in nursing -and thereby saving- her, he is also assuaging his grief for his mother. Then too, his mother's bosom, mentioned early through one of his childhood memories as a source of comfort (13) elides with Ojaknyo※'s breasts, exposed to him in her delerium, though she has never let her husband see them. However, in Hun's condition of mourning, Ojaknyo※'s association with the maternal is an even further block to his experience of desire.


Finally, also, as a Christian reader, I see another possible source of Hun's passivity. Though a Biblical allusion is central to the title, no specific mention is made in the novel of Hun's religious belief. Still his actions in several instances are consonant with religious aversion from the violence we are all capable of as Cain's descendants. His first emotion on hearing of the murder of Kwo※n is a "hot surge" of angry joy, but that quickly changes to pity for Kwo※n's half-starved family and for the farmer himself (15). Similarly, Hun's feelings when he sees the desperation of the Japanese in Pyongyng changes from an angry sense that they are getting what they deserve to a feeling of sorrow (134).


Nevertheless, this admirable awareness of other people's suffering, is vitiated-made less admirable, at least-in that it contains a fear of violence bordering on cowardice. So when Hun as a youth had come upon Toso※p violently beating a farmer, he hangs back, "helpless and bewildered." It is Ojaknyo※ who courageously comes to the man's aid, and though Hun then saves her from her father's wrath, he does so passively, as it were, by placing his body between her and the thresher in Toso※p's hands, and '"Toso※p couldn't beat his master's son"(26). This fear in the face of violence fuses with Hun's sexual passivity and helps explain Hun's strange liking, even admiration, for Ojaknyo※'s brutal, swaggering but strongly sexual husband, Ch'oe. So, in the rapid denouement, when Hun hears that Ch'oe has been killed (a plot convenience the author provides in order to spare Hun the guilt of adultery as he finally asserts his manhood), he almost immediately comes also to the realization that it is his responsibility, not Hyo※k's, to kill the ever more violent Toso※p.


The difficult moral path Hun must walk is mapped for us on a single page describing his dreams the night before he is to carry out this murder. In one dream he recalls his youthful, and still operative, fear of bloodletting: "Stop, please stop the blood!"he had cried. On the other hand, he must not give into bloodlust; his fearless exclamation, "Let it flow!" moves him forward in the dream to near-drowning in blood (168). This painful dilemma finds a resolution at the moment before he must knife the unsuspecting Toso※p but finds himself quailing at the thought: "Suddenly Hun realized that he may have brought Toso※p here not to kill him but to be killed by him." With a paragraph break, the next sentence reads, "That thought gave him strength. He took the dagger from the hole and threw himself at Toso※p's broad back with a shout"(179). As an assertion against his own passive drift toward death, this willingness to take life becomes a necessity. And again, though Toso※p's condition is not fully clear when the novel ends, it seems that he will survive so that Hun's escape from Hamlet-like passivity into courageous action does not bear the taint of murder, particularly the murder of his beloved's father. At the same time, in Freudian terms, the father has been symbolically murdered, and Hun, the too dutiful son, is freed thereby into manhood.


I am not in a position to compare this translation with the original, but at every turn one gets the sense of spareness, immediacy, clarity yet also haunting and at times dream-like obscurity that the translators describe as characteristic of Hwang Sun-won's lanuage. To give just one example (though others have already appeared in passages quoted above): when Hun is tending Ojaknyo※during her illness, his gaze rests on a pine knot in the sliding door: "It caught the sunlight and let off a strangely transparent glow, a reddish color, but what kind of red was it?" (66). A few pages later that strong visual image conflates with one of "a cluster of wild lilies growing from a crevice in a large, dark rock" (70), which in turn links to allusions throughout the book to the stone formation called Maiden Rock. Thus the novel, in its seemingly loose but actually closely woven texture, demands not just reading but careful re-reading, as would a poem. The care is more than rewarded by the pleasure thus gained.


Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi

Stanford University








Chong Yag-yong: Korea's Challenge to Orthodox Neo-Confucianism, by Mark

Setton, State University of New York Press, 1997. (ISBN 0-7914-3174-6)



The Choson Period (1392-1910) in Korea is well known as a period when Neo-Confucian orthodoxy dominated the political, philosophical, religious, and social landscape. It is also a period when this same orthodoxy became so inextricably tied to factionalist politics and regionalist agenda, that by the late Choson period it had became an obstacle to modernization, national independence, and the creation of a democratic state. Before it was abandoned, though, there were serious attempts to re-envision the Confucian tradition, to make it more practical and more responsive to the ethical and social needs of the Korean people, to reestablish the relationship between Confucian self-cultivation and political application, and to free it from its centuries-long preoccupation with metaphysical questions. It was these two latter issues, the supposed conflict between self-cultivation and political practicality and the endless debates about metaphysical problems that had divided Korean scholars regionally during the 16th century and had led to political factionalism in the court. By attacking the metaphysical theory of Neo-Confucian orthodoxy, these late

Choson scholars sought to recover something of the practical Confucian humanism of the pre-Ch'in period and to overcome the apathy of an entrenched bureaucracy in regard to the lives of the common people. Foremost among these reformers was Chong Yag-yong (1762-1836), also known as Tasan.


Setton's study of Tasan, his intellectual heritage, his place within the history of Choson Confucian philosophy, and his philosophical innovations and reforms is a timely one. At no other time has there been as much interest in Korea's early modern period as there is today. Tasan represents for many today a seminal thinker and founder of political modernization. His writings about the relationship between government and the people appeal to modern Koreans concerned with democratic values. His call for reform of administrative structures and law so that government may better serve the needs of the people resonates in the minds of modern Koreans who wish to make their own society more equitable and just.


While the modern use of Tasan is dictated by the needs of Koreans confronted by issues of modernization, participation in the global economy, and the shift from authoritarian military rule to civilian government, Tasan's own world and world outlook was very different from that of Koreans today. Understanding what Tasan's philosophical contributions meant within the context of 18th and 19th century Korea and how those contributions were related to conditions created in the 16th and 17th centuries is a whole other matter.


Setton's study does much to clarity and to contextualize what Tasan and other reformers of the period were attempting to do. Native Korean scholarship and current Korean interest in Tasan assumes that as a member of the Practical Learning Movement (the Shirhakp'a), Tasan attacked Neo-Confucian learning and orthodoxy in order to replace it with some form of modern utilitarianism or pragmatism. This is far from the case. Setton demonstrates in his first chapter (Tasan's Intellectual Heritage) that Tasan's critique of Ch'eng-Chu Learning was done from within the Confucian tradition, not from outside it. His concern with developing an integrated ethical philosophy that would transform the nature of Korean government was in fact as much a continuation of the earliest Choson period Confucian concern for "practical affairs" as it was a critique of the excessive Korean dependence on and sacralization of the authority of the Ch'eng-Chu tradition of Neo-Confucian Learning. Setton also demonstrates that Tasan built this philosophy upon the work of his immediate predecessors, who, like Tasan, were influenced by the writings and insights of members of the Evidential Learning Movement in Ch'eng China and the Ancient Learning Movement in Tokugawa Japan. Setton rightfully argues that it was not "in spite of Neo-Confucian learning" but as a part of a centuries-long Neo-Confucian attempt to understand the classics, that Tasan's philosophy and critique of Ch'eng-Chu learning should be understood. Tasan was as orthodox a Confucian scholar as the Sung scholars he criticized.


Setton also does the reader a service by dealing with the issue of factionalism in the Choson period. Modern Korean scholarship on the Practical Learning reformers all but ignores this issue, as though Practical Learning emerged as a new stage in Korean thought only after factionalized Neo-Confucianism had declined. Tasan was himself a member of the opposition Southerner lineage, and we should expect that his philosophical critique of Ch'eng-Chu orthodoxy was as much motivated by the need to attack the establishment ideology that kept Southerners out of the government as it was an attempt to recover the true and practical meaning of Confucian texts. Setton demonstrates that factional disputes were indispensable in the development of Practical Learning and served to open up new areas of inquiry and investigation into the meaning of Confucian ideas. Southerners benefited from their own exclusion from government and when they turned to the investigation of such "unconventional" and "unorthodox" traditions as "Western Learning" (Catholicism). Evidential Learning, and Ancient Learning they did so in the full knowledge that they were defending their right to freedom of interpretation in the face of an increasingly conservative and narrow-minded bureaucratic adherence to Ch'eng-Chu orthodoxy. Southerners adopted from these movements the spirit of "verification of the facts" and applied it not only to their reexamination of the classics and the Ch'eng-Chu commentarial tradition, but also in such fields as history, geography, technological development, and policy proposals for reform. Tasan's own call for a return to "classical learning?(susahak) though not the direct result of a factional dispute, was nevertheless a product of his own factional allegiance to the Southerners and their tradition of criticism that began with Yun Hyu (1617-80) and was carried on by Yi Ik (1681-1763).


After giving the context for understanding Tasan, the history of Confucian factionalism, and the various issues that became part of the Practical Learning movement, Setton turns to a philosophical analysis of Tasan's "classical learning." This is the longest and most complicated section of the book since Setton is dealing with Tasan's own commentaries on classical texts, which include comments and criticisms of the Ch'eng-Chu commentaries on the same texts. Setton focuses on Tasan's reinterpretation of the Four Books and the Book of Changes, texts that were at the heart of Ch'eng-Chu Learning. Through philological and historical reconstruction of the meaning of those texts and through an analysis of how those texts were interpreted in the commentarial tradition of the Ch'eng-Chu school, Tasan was able to demonstrate that on the issues of human nature, self-cultivation, and the practical ordering of society the Ch'eng-Chu school had misinterpreted the meaning of the classics. He showed how extraneous (Buddhist and Taoist) elements such as principle and material force (li / ch'i) had been introduced into Confucian tradition by the Sung philosophers and had become the basis for the elaboration of a system of fixed cosmological objects (virtue, mind, nature, heaven, principle) that had no basis in the classical texts and even obscured their meaning. In Tasan's view, the introduction of static ontological categories into the discussion of ethics robbed the Confucian tradition of its dynamic and person-engaging character. Tasan argued from the classics that human nature was dynamic and characterized by graded levels of appetites, desires, and affective tendencies that seek fulfillment through right action. Human nature was not the embodiment of a cosmic principle (or a Buddha-nature) that had been obscured by physical, social, and mental endowments, as Ch'eng-Chu commentators had argued. This reformulation of the understanding of human nature allowed Tasan to enunciate an understanding of self-cultivation (the pursuit of the morally satisfying) as a psychological process of deliberate and autonomous choices that would result in human happiness. It also allowed him to abandon the cosmological dualism that was present in Ch'eng-Chu Learning and had been the focus of centuries of debate and speculation. Since self-cultivation or moral action could only be done through engagement with the outside world, Tasan argued that there could be no conflict between the Confucian goals of self-cultivation and the right ordering of society. The right ordering of society through moral action was itself self-cultivation and the only medium through which one could personally acquire sincerity of the will and the rectification of the mind. When applied to the area of politics and social leadership, Tasan could argue that all humans were equal in their ability to produce right relations (virtue) and were not hampered in doing so based upon their mental or physical endowment. Moral leadership or the ability to arouse the people to moral action came from the people as a whole, who, according to Tasan, selected leaders from among themselves.


Tasan's "classical learning" thus is a repudiation of the moral determinism implied by Ch'eng-Chu Learning and its inability to accept the Mencian proposition that all human were potentially sages. Tasan restricted the meaning of virtue and self-cultivation to the objectification of moral tendencies. Great sages like Yao and Shun were not moral by nature, but by self-nurture. The practical ethics taught by Confucius and Mencius was nothing more than the nurturing of natural moral tendencies, not the uncovering of a virtuous nature endowed at birth.


Finally Setton compares Tasan's critique of Ch'eng-Chu Learning to that of Ch'eng Evidential Learning scholars and Tokugawa Ancient Learning scholars and notes where there were direct influences and where there were differences. Setton demonstrates that it was the Tokugawa scholars who seemed to have had the greatest influence on Tasan and themes and attitudes developed in Japanese scholarship resonate in Tasan's personal writings. This last chapter is intended to show how Tasan's philosophy represents a major contribution to the development of Korean Confucanism in the 19th century even while it benefits from and builds upon contemporary scholarship from abroad.


This study does an admirable job in advancing our knowledge of Tasan's philosophical contribution to late Choson period Confucian philosophy by demonstrating how Tasan built upon the intellectual trends and insights of Chinese, Japanese and Korean predecessors and contemporaries. By doing this comparative analysis, the peculiar nature of Tasan's philosophical reformulation comes into sharp focus. Setton also grounds Tasan firmly within the history of Confucianism within Korea and demonstrates that Tasan's work, though a direct challenge to the Neo-Confucian orthodoxy of the day, must be seen as being part of an ongoing tradition of Confucian scholarship, rather than, as some moderns think, being opposed to it.


John I. Goulde

Sweet Briar College