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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Nine Cloud Dream

Kim Man-Jung

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To purchase The Nine Cloud Dream

Title: The Nine Cloud Dream
Author: Kim Man-Jung
Genre: Novel
Written: 1689 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 238 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: The Nine Cloud Dream - US
The Nine Cloud Dream - UK
The Nine Cloud Dream - Canada
Le songe des neuf nuages - France
  • Korean title: 九雲夢 or 구운몽
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Heinz Insu Fenkl
  • Previously translated as The Cloud Dream of the Nine by James S. Gale (1922), A Nine Cloud Dream by Richard Rutt and Kim Chong-un (1974), and The Nine Cloud Dream by the English Student Association at Ewha Women's University (no date)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : neatly layered tale, if ultimately too easy a ride

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Asian Rev. of Books . 8/3/2019 John Butler

  From the Reviews:
  • "Professor Fenkl has produced a fluent, lively and indeed elegant translation of this work, which does its author justice and skilfully navigates between avoiding self-conscious archaism (this is a 17th-century work, after all) in the tone of the book whilst at the same time using language which has not been made to sound anachronistic or too "modern". (...) On the surface, The Nine Cloud Dream reads a bit like a fairy tale or fantasy novel crossed with an adventure story and a bildungsroman. (...) Kim Man-jung does not simply write a book extolling or privileging the virtues of Buddhism." - John Butler, Asian Review of Books

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Nine Cloud Dream begins with a devoted -- and the favorite -- disciple of Grand Master Liu-kuan, the barely twenty year-old Hsing-chen, volunteering to pay respects to the Dragon King on behalf of his teacher. The mission goes off without a hitch -- except that the Dragon King holds a grand feast for the occasion, and, while Hsing-chen feebly protests that: "wine intoxicates the mind, and it is against my monastic vows to drink", convinces the young monk to down a couple of glasses of the stuff (arguing: "this wine is altogether different from the wine that mortals drink"). Then, on his way back to the monastery, Hsing-chen comes across eight charming fairies and banters with them a bit, and uses some of his supernatural powers to see them on their way (transforming some peach blossoms into jewels).
       It all seems rather mild stuff, and pretty harmless, but the master has rather higher standards and expectations and is not pleased when Hsing-chen returns, nor with Hsing-chen's excuses:

You, on the other hand, have lost your heart and mind to those seductive creatures. Your thoughts have turned toward a life of pleasure. Your mouth waters for worldly honor and wealth.
       And so it's straight off to King Yama -- hell ! -- for the young monk. King Yama is a bit surprised to see him, and not quite sure what to do with him; a whirlwind sweeps Hsing-chen away, and he sees himself reborn -- as an infant, named Shao-yu.
       The novel then follows Shao-yu as he grows up and finds great success as a regular mortal. From youth on, he is a paragon: handsome, smart, talented. Hsing-chen gets to experience an entirely new life, and while the going is not exactly effortless -- his childhood circumstances are pretty humble -- pretty much everything falls into the in so many ways blessed Shao-yu's lap.
       As a teen, Shao-yu heads off to take the government examinations, open to all comers -- and the avenue to a great career for those who do well in them. Along the way, Shao-yu is mesmerized by a young woman and promises to marry her (once he gets his mother's permission -- he's still too young to do it of his own accord), but an upheaval quickly follows and they lose track of each other. The examinations are delayed, too, giving Shao-yu some more time to experience some more things.
       Once he does take the examinations, he of course comes in first; soon enough, he: "had passed both the doctoral and the special examinations and the Emperor had appointed him imperial archivist" -- just the beginning of his rapid rise up the career-ladder. He also has his eyes on the daughter of Minister Cheng -- managing by a ruse to get a glimpse of the beauty -- and the two are soon engaged. Complications arise when the young Emperor finds that Shao-yu would be the perfect husband for his still unmarried sister, Lan-yang (also called Hsiao-ho). Shao-yu protests that he has promised to marry Minister Cheng's daughter, and when he doesn't immediately do as the Emperor expects he is tossed in prison.
       Soon enough the empire is again under attack, from Tibetans -- and since the Emperor understands that: "Shao-yu is my best strategist and his judgment has been sound" he makes him commanding general and sends him off to deal with the Tibetans -- which Shao-yu of course accomplishes successfully (and with relative ease). Of course, the problem of his marriage vows remains -- the Emperor and his mother, the Empress Dowager, really wanting him to marry Lan-yang but Shao-yu still set on fulfilling his original obligation. Accommodating Lan-yang is even willing to share him -- but there's the problem of status: the other girl isn't royalty, so it would be improper for Lan-yang to share a husband with her. But they devise an ingenious solution to that particular problem .....
       These aren't the only women in Shao-yu's life -- the lost first love isn't permanently lost; the beautiful and devoted maid of Minister Cheng's daughter always follows her path; and there are some other adventures and experiences along the way -- and all's well that ends well, of which there was, for pretty much most of the way, little doubt.
       Of course, there is a final twist at the end, since Hsing-chen's turn as Shao-yu wasn't just a next-life, but rather a lesson to be learnt (the title giving more than a hint of how this was accomplished): at the end, he's Hsing-chen again, and apparently all the wiser for what he went through as Shao-yu. Yes, The Nine Cloud Dream is a story of the journey to spiritual enlightenment -- though taking the somewhat odd detour of its hero enjoying -- and indulging in -- a garden of earthly delights along the way (with considerable drinking, and quite a lot of sex). At basically no personal cost, Hsing-chen gets to experience all the pleasures of mortal life -- and the life he enjoys is about as pleasurable and easy as it gets, with even his prison-stay apparently leaving him none the worse for wear and his battlefield adventures without much hardship. By living -- even if just in a dream -- Shao-yu's life, Hsing-chen basically gets to have his cake (remaining a good Buddhist -- hey, it's just a dream) and eat it too (living life to the fullest, with all the Buddhist-not-approved indulgences, as experienced through Shao-yu). This seems an odd spin on Buddhism -- sort of like the Catholic who sins all his life but still gets to punch the ticket for heaven by repenting at the last minute --, as at the end it's just this easy:
     When he had finished his teaching, Hsing-chen and the eight new nuns awakened, in a flash, to the unborn and undying truth of the dharma.
       Apparently, that's all it took .....
       It makes for an appealing and colorful journey and novel -- except that it's almost too positive. There are practically no hardships, and almost no personal tensions -- even jealousy barely rears its head -- much less real conflict -- and any that there is is only temporary: women believed dead turn out to be alive after all, while the Emperor sending Shao-yu to prison seems barely more than bump in the otherwise so easy road. This does make for a somewhat odd feel: it's rare to find a story in which there is no contrasting evil (even the enemies here -- such as the Tibetans -- prove to be little more than annoyances, not real opponents), and this lack of any tension is certainly an element readers will miss.
       Of course, The Nine Cloud Dream is very much about Buddhist tradition, and finding the right spiritual way. Translator Heinz Insu Fenkl covers a great deal of this in his useful Introduction, while the thorough endnotes provide further information about the references along the way. Filled with references and allusions, The Nine Cloud Dream is more complex and deep than a simple reading of just the story (or the above summary) suggests, and of considerable interest on these levels, too. Nevertheless, the basic arc feels just a bit too simple and neat, and the hero Hsing-chen/Shao-yu just a bit too blessed (everything coming so easy to him).
       An enjoyable, easy-going journey -- that, for a novel endorsing spiritual behavior, doesn't rub that in the reader's face -- with a great deal of interesting historical background making for an insightful broad look at the culture of (and leading up to) those times --, The Nine Cloud Dream is a fine little classic, and well worth a closer look.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 August 2019

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The Nine Cloud Dream: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Korean author Kim Man-Jung (金萬重; 김만중) lived 1637 to 1692.

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© 2019 the complete review

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