The basis of numerous films, TV shows and comic books, Hong Gildong is a brief, rollicking piece of popular entertainment featuring a legendary outlaw endowed with superhuman powers. Like Robin Hood, he steals from the rich to give to the poor, and rights injustices committed by corrupt officials, but also winds up with a kingdom of his own. The interest of this work derives both from the brio of its storytelling and its status as a cultural artefact of late Joseon-period Korea. In his introduction, translator Minsoo Kang argues against the traditional attribution of authorship to poet and politician Heo Gyun (1569-1618) in favour of a much later publication in the mid-19th century, at a time of political crisis and the growth of a mass-market readership that preferred exciting plots to the edifying texts consumed by the scholarly elite. Edification is not entirely absent in this instance, but excitement, humour, wonder and sentiment are far more to the fore.
There are three sections. The first deals with the hero’s birth and his troubled upbringing as the illegitimate son of a high-ranking minister; the second relates his criminal exploits; the third takes the action out of Korea―first to China, and then to two fictional islands, of which Hong Gildong becomes king. The hero’s illegitimacy (his mother was a servant, and subsequently concubine, of the minister) is the motor for the plot, as all his discontent derives from the discrimination faced by illegitimate sons in an austerely hierarchical society. For all his astonishing strength, intelligence and virtue, the young Gildong realises from an early age that government posts will be barred to him; worse, he is denied the full affection of his father, who, in spite of the high regard in which he holds his son, is such a stickler for propriety that the boy is forbidden from addressing him as father.
The father-son relationship and its place within the dynamics of the Hong family is the main concern of the first section. Minister Hong is described at the beginning as an honourable man, but his behaviour throughout is questionable. Most disturbing is the conduct that leads to Gildong’s birth. Following an auspicious dream featuring a dragon, the minister tries to sleep with his wife (or, as the text puts it, makes ‘apparent his intention to become one with her in a decorous manner’), but is rebuffed on the grounds of his age and dignity. Instead, he sleeps with a young servant girl:
Although Chunseom was only a servant girl, she had a gentle nature and her demeanor and actions were always as proper as those of a respectable maiden. She may have been lowborn, but there was nothing lowly about her character. When the minister approached her so suddenly with an authoritative air and made apparent his ardent desire for her, she dared not resist his advance and allowed him the use of her body. From that day on she never ventured outside the house and showed no interest in other men. The minister was so impressed by her loyalty that he made her a concubine.
The domineering exertion of his power to satisfy his lust is bad enough; it might have been even worse had not Chunseom demonstrated her ‘loyalty,’ which is what persuades the minister to raise her status to that of concubine. It is clear that had Chunseom acted differently, Minister Hong might easily have kept her as a servant girl, or even cast her out, after getting her pregnant. Chunseom’s unswerving devotion, which is the mark of her virtue, might suggest an uncritical endorsement of male privilege, just as Gildong’s continuing reverence towards his father might suggest an uncritical endorsement of patriarchal authority, but the minister’s actions (particularly his gullibility in the face of the scheming of his senior concubine, which leads him to consider having his own son killed) leave him open to a heap of criticism, thus lending an ambivalence to the text. Similarly, while the adult Gildong displays to the Joseon king a mixture of impish defiance and firm loyalty, the king’s repeated failure either to capture the outlaw or utilize his talents within the state, as well as the implicit royal tolerance of ministerial abuses, weaken his authority. There is certainly an anti-authoritarian streak to this text, exemplified by the narrative’s clear endorsement of Gildong’s refusal to simply accept the second-class status society (including his father) would force on him, and the story has often been read as a subversive work. But, as Kang writes in his introduction, the subversive elements co-exist with more conservative attitudes (Gildong wishes rather to be recognized and awarded by the state than to overthrow it), resulting in an uneasy ambiguity perhaps reflective of the ambiguity and uneasiness of late Joseon politics, and also of the conflicting impulses within the popular market towards defiance of conventional morality and adherence to it.
The second section is the most entertaining, yet it also tests the tension between rebellion and obedience almost to breaking point. Gildong does not assemble his band of thieves from scratch, but rather wins control of an already successful outfit after a demonstration of his prowess; once the command is his, he warns that disobedience will be punished according to military law, refashioning his group so that it resembles the model of the royal army. Later, a general tasked with apprehending the criminal is seized and brought before ‘a great king dressed in a silk robe and a jade belt’ who sits on a high throne, and when the hero executes corrupt officials, he does so in the guise of a government inspector. Even as a bandit Gildong replicates the Joseon state, half as rival, half as loyal imitator. The motives by which Gildong claims to be guided aren’t always as pure as he claims, either. His first act of daring as leader is not a raid against an overbearing landowner or oppressive governor, but the looting of a Buddhist temple, its hapless monks being no match for the hero, who humiliates them with a glee bordering on the sadistic. Following the stunt’s success, he gives a speech to his men, solemnly commanding them not to steal from or harm the common people, or to take grain being collected by the government. Sure enough, he soon after steals grain from a local administrative centre. Perhaps we are to understand that this is not grain reserved for the common people, but the store of the yangban, or ruling class―but even if this is the case, would not the store simply be replenished at the commoners’ expense? In order to prevent innocent people from being punished for his crimes, Gildong advertises his own responsibility, but in doing so dishonours his family, breaking his parting promise to his father. As the outlaw’s notoriety spreads, the Hongs become increasingly endangered, yet each time Gildong promises to hand himself in for their sake, he eludes capture right at the last minute. His antics are funny, but there’s a strain of callousness, even cruelty, in the laughter. And what is his great aim in all of this? The demand he makes of the king is that he be appointed minister of war, yet in return he vows to leave the kingdom, which would leave him incapable of carrying out the duties of his post. It would seem that all he wants is an empty title free of any obligation to work.
Gildong’s powers being too great for Joseon to safely contain them, it is only natural that he should leave, just as he leaves his family. It is hard to see what other direction the story could have taken. Defeat and a glorious death, perhaps, but the problem would then have arisen of what to do with his family, as the relatives of traitors and rebels were deemed to share the offender’s guilt, and were often executed. Destroying the Hongs would have struck too sombre a note, so some potentially distracting device to save them would have been necessary. A reformed hero who renounces banditry and reaches an accommodation with the state would have been a terrible let-down, and so the simplest way to achieve a satisfactory ending is to remove the action from Korea. Granting him an invented kingdom to rule over, with his outlaw companions as his ministers of state, is an obvious conclusion. What is striking is that the fantastic elements actually decrease on fictional soil; there’s a bit of monster fighting in China, but once Gildong is made king of his make-believe island, he largely concerns himself with matters of ritual, ceremony and protocol; when he conquers new territory, it is through mostly conventional military means (no qualms about invading other lands, of course―might is right). The ending, though, is unexpected, calling to mind, of all things, Oedipus at Colonus―an oddly effective note of mystery and grandeur on which to end a diverting yarn.