Tuesday, November 20, 2012

North Korea: "Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven"

Update: I have decided to disqualify this book as my North Korean text. Previously, it was listed as Book 110.

Well, this is embarrassing. I wanted to buck the traditional representation of North Korea as a Communist dystopia (which it is) by focussing on its glorious past. It used to be the more developed bit of the Korean peninsula, doncha know; the centre of a whole lotta history. But now I'm bussing out of Singapore to Penang overnight and I've just realised the great Korean epic  Yongbieocheonga was in fact compiled by Sejong the Great in the city of Hanseong, better known today as Seoul.

Alamak! But not to worry. The songs in this 15th century work are composed in praise of Sejong's ancestors: they're the six dragons of the title, Mokjo, Ikjo, Dojo, Hwanjo, Taejo, Taejong. And they did indeed wander through what's now North Korea, before conquering the hell out of the Goryeo Dynasty and setting up the Joseon.

Quick explanation: we don't know who wrote these 125 brief cantos. But we do know their purpose: they were written both to glorify the roots of the scholar-emperor as well as to instruct him on the proper paths to take into future (yep, literati get to tell the emperor what to do! This was the age of Neo-Confucianism).

The poems are also the first ever text written in Hangul, invented specially by Sejong. It's a moment of transition: the annotations were inscribed in the scholarly language of Chinese, as were many of the words within the poems. Pretty much all the allusions being made are to Chinese history: other emperors of the Zhou and the Han and the Tang - these guys are trying, almost for the first time, to build up their own culture, and they need to resort to crutches to do so.

The reason why you don't see this selling in airport bookstores is that it's actually quite difficult to read: the brief poems contain such allusions to specific incidents in history that you've got to switch over to the annotations all the time to understand them, breaking up any sense of reading rhythm (me, I just skipped them on a first read and looked at them later).

What makes things even worse is the fact that there are no names involved - it's the annotations that tell you whether we're talking about Taizong of China or Taejong of Korea, that the false claimant is the usurper King Sinchang of Goryeo.

Oh, but if you do read the annotations, such fun! These kings are pimps: shooting down magpies, two at a time with a single arrow, and being honoured by snakes; getting their armies rescued when they encounter gods in the forms of white-haired old women and white-bearded old men; shooting black dragons out of the sky when they're battling white dragons after being warned by dreams (yes, archery is a big theme here; it's also used for fortune-telling); fending off Red Turbans and Japanese pirates. Even the queens get into the action, handing their husbands armour and feigning sickness so as to meet with them and warn them of developing conspiracies.

But I've no more time to go on babbling; I have a boyfriend to meet and a bus to catch.

[Insert a link to Songdo, where in 1399 a white dragon with fish-scales shining in the sun appeared on the roof of Taejong's submerged palace, foretelling his elevation to the throne.]

Representative quote: 


The Four Ancestors knew no rest.
In how many places did they swell?
How many rooms
Did their houses contain?
Living in multi-storied palaces,
Enjoying halcyon days,
Let Your Majesty not forget this!

Next book: The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, from Japan.

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