Literary Saloon
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.

the Best
the Rest
Review Index




to e-mail us:

support the site

In Association with Amazon.com

In association with Amazon.com - UK

In association with Amazon.ca - Canada



In association with Amazon.it - Italia

the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Tale of Cho Ung

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Tale of Cho Ung

Title: The Tale of Cho Ung
Author: {unknown}
Genre: Novel
Written: (ca. 1800) (Eng. 2018)
Length: 162 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: The Tale of Cho Ung - US
The Tale of Cho Ung - UK
The Tale of Cho Ung - Canada
  • A Classic of Vengeance, Loyalty, and Romance
  • Korean title: 됴웅젼 or 조웅전 / 趙雄傳
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Sookja Cho

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

B : engaging if rough and tumble adventure-tale; well-presented edition

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 15/11/2018 Terry Hong

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) dramatic adventure filled with royal intrigue, swashbuckling wars, filial duties, multigenerational revenge -- and, of course, a swooning love story. (...) To ensure a smooth, narrative experience, Cho makes reading the 138-page adventure straight through easily doable, clearly separating the story from additional information, keeping even footnotes relegated off the page until after the final line. Readers might close the book fully satisfied with a glimpse of vernacular fiction from another time, a faraway culture while digesting a bit of sociopolitical history. But beyond simply enjoying literature-in-translation, Cho’s contextual enhancements (totaling an additional almost-100 pages) are emphatically laudable as well as rewardingly readable." - Terry Hong, Christian Science Monitor

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.

- Return to top of the page -

The complete review's Review:

       In her Introduction, editor and translator Sookja Cho notes that The Tale of Cho Ung was: "the best-selling fictional narrative of the late Chosŏn period" -- while explaining also that it existed in a large number of versions, of widely differing length -- the longest Seoul edition, at 22,170 characters, only a third of: "a typical Wansan edition" (the first known of which has 70,700 characters). The helpful Introduction explains some of the interesting and revealing variations in the text -- what elements were left out or focused on; which ones were particularly embellished where -- with this English version based on the "oldest extant woodblock edition from Wansan", but also drawing on modern and scholarly editions. As to its date: apparently it "could have been composed at any time during the two hundred years or so between the inception and the blossoming of vernacular Korean stories" -- though generally narrowed down to somewhere around: "the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century"; it's quite remarkable to see how specifics about such a prominent and popular, and relatively recent text, remain unknown -- as also there is no record of who its author might have been.
       The story is set in the fifth century. A minister to Emperor Mun, Cho Chŏngin, was falsely accused by: "the villainous right prime minister, Yi Tubyŏng" and the minister committed suicide. He left behind a pregnant widow, Lady Wang; the son she then bore was Cho Ung.
       Introduced to the emperor when he was seven -- the same age as the crown prince --, the mature child made a great impression on the emperor. Yi Tubyŏng immediately started to worry about Cho Ung finding favor and began plotting against him. With the emperor's death, Yi Tubyŏng quickly assumed power, proclaiming himself emperor and naming one of his own sons crown prince. The eight-year-old Cho Ung wrote -- and signed -- a declaration denouncing Yi Tubyŏng on one of the palace gates -- and he and his mother fled the city.
       Yi Tubyŏng put a bounty on their heads, but Lady Wang and her son are helped along their way and find refuge. When he turned fifteen, Cho Ung felt compelled to see more of the world and set out on his own. His journey is an apprenticeship of sorts, as he finds various forms of support -- material (a sword, for example) and otherwise. He also comes across the beautiful Maiden Chang, and, rather than going through the usual proper procedures to obtain her hand (which she is certainly open to) is overcome by his lust for her, and: "Maiden Chang's will could not defeat Ung's desire"; he also sets out immediately after that, leaving Maiden Chang kind of hanging .....
       Cho Ung is drawn increasingly into battle, and there are a series of contests with the Sŏbŏn soldiers and officers -- but Cho Ung is a great fighter and clever strategist, and enjoys success after success. Maiden Chang and her mother conveniently find their way to Lady Wang, and the family is made whole (though Cho Ung does take another wife, too). The crown prince is saved, and the showdown with an increasingly desperate Yi Tubyŏng is inevitable -- as also is its outcome.
       The Tale of Cho Ung is a fairly engaging tale of adventure, and the more carefully laid-out episodes -- such as some of the battle-strategies, or some of the surprising encounters -- are very good. There is some suspense, as ominous threats loom large -- but they generally only do so briefly. There is a sense of desperation at times, but even as Lady Wang and Maiden Chang at different times see suicide as the only way out, they quickly find another escape.
       The most disappointing aspect of the story is how everything is laid out for Cho Ung: prophecies, in a variety of forms, repeatedly point where to go to (where he is then always taken care of) and promise that, despite some temporary hardships, everything will work out fine. The magnificent three-ch'ŏk sword he covets is destined for him, and so he's basically served it up on a platter (though at least there's some awkwardness until he actually approaches the man offering the sword), while he similarly is served up golden armor and a helmet (though that too at least comes with a decent story to it). Similarly, Cho Ung has little trouble in battle. There are fighters who briefly seem they might be nearly his equal -- but ultimately Cho Ung prevails (and there is never any doubt he would, too, which kind of lessens any tension).
       Oddly, too, the villainous Yi Tubyŏng is out of sight for most of the story, after he has come to power; as such, he makes a somewhat disappointing adversary. At least some of Cho Ung's rivals are more present, which certainly works better, but it's odd that the main one isn't more center stage.
       There's also a lot of head-lopping-off brutality -- and even beyond the quick work of those, it's a shame that some of the confrontation scenes aren't embellished more. So for example one exciting encounter is presented, in its entirety, as:

     Suddenly, a flood of roaring white tigers appeared and stalked Ung. Ung desperately ran away but could not escape the fiercely pursuing tigers, which overtook him. In desperation, Ung threw the head of the emperor's messenger to the tigers. They bit and batted it and, after playing with it for a while, ate it and left.
       Which seems a bit anticlimactic .....
       The somewhat crude brutality, and the impulsiveness -- heads are lopped off at slight provocations; Cho Ung can't keep himself from violating Maiden Chang, despite knowing it goes counter to everything proper -- is also somewhat disturbing. Cho Ung is not particularly gracious in victory, either -- so, for example:
     Ung an Kang Paek were pleased with the outcome of the battle. They went to the pit and saw Iltae dying inside, riddled with spears. Showing no sympathy, Ung ridiculed Iltae, "Listen, traitorous Iltae. You went against heaven's wish and devised an evil plan. Now, you will die by your own scheme. If you still have some courage left in you, try climbing out of the pit alive." At Ung's insult, Iltae's anger exploded, and he died instantly.
       Indeed, there's an over-the-top abruptness, a sense of overkill, to many of the encounters -- even when Cho Ung is not involved. Another man sets his sights on Maiden Chang, for example, and:
Still yearning for Maiden Chang, the prefect hastily prepared the betrothal gifts and sent them to the Chang family along with the message: "If my marriage proposal is not accepted, I will arrest both mother and daughter and beat them to death."
       But, admittedly, there is a clear sense of immediacy, and of exactly where everyone stands: there's some toying with romance, but mostly it and diplomacy do not figure high in the action. (Once Cho Ung has won over Maiden Chang she basically simply assumes a function, rather than being much of a love-object any longer.)
       Sookja Cho's presentation of The Tale of Cho Ung is well-thought-out and very good; she mentions: "This translation is intended for both the scholar and the general reader with an interest in classical fiction", and it should indeed satisfy both kinds of readership. The Introduction provides a good overview, and the translation is straightforward and accessible -- with then a wealth of thorough endnotes (over 250 just for the 130-odd pages of text) explaining terminology and references, providing a welcome deeper layer of insight into the story.
       The Tale of Cho Ung feels a bit rough -- perhaps a result of there being no single definitive version of the tale, making for something of a grab-bag feel to any arrangement -- but it's a reasonably appealing adventure story. Certainly, it is of literary and historical interest; read in combination with the supporting material, there's a lot to be found in it beyond the mere story.
       It's certainly of some interest, and quick and short enough to make for a decent read even without close engagement with the endnotes.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 December 2018

- Return to top of the page -


The Tale of Cho Ung: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

- Return to top of the page -

About the Author:

       The author of The Tale of Cho Ung is unidentitfied.

- Return to top of the page -

© 2018 the complete review

Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links