The coming-of-age novel gives a modern twist to a classic love story

“Chunhyang” Jin Renshun (Seoul Selection)

A modern twist on one of Korea’s most beloved folktales, “Chunhyang” puts a mother and daughter’s quest for individuality at the fore, instead of the well-known romance between Chunhyang and Yi Mongryeong in the original “Chunhyangga,” or “The Story of Chunhyang.”

Written by Jin Renshun, an acclaimed ethnic Korean writer in China, the novel was first published in Chinese in 2009. The story of Chunhyang, the daughter of a courtesan, and her mother Lady Hyang, who was only a minor character in the original version.

“Chunhyang” was translated into English and Korean by Seoul Selection, a Seoul-based publishing company specializing in Korean literature in translation. The book will arrive in domestic bookstores on December 5.

“Chunhyang” by Jin Renshun (Seoul Selection)

The novel is divided into two parts — the first part about Chunhyang’s childhood and the second part about her adulthood.

The story begins with the narrator Chunhyang saying, “In Namwon Prefecture, when people mention my name, they say it like this: ‘Miss Chunhyang of Lady Hyang House’.”

The first part focuses on her mother, Lady Hyang. Chunhyang’s mother, the daughter of an apothecary, is an unparalleled beauty. Her beauty is so praised that the people of Namwon point out everything that can be connected to Lady Hyang in some way.

She fell in love with the deputy commissioner who loved her so much that he turned the “five-room apothecary’s cottage” into an “imposing and luxurious villa” called Attar Lodge.

Later, Attar Lodge becomes home to several poor people brought by Lady Hyang.

Among those rescued by Lady Hyang are Gimsu, the son of a courtesan; Sodan, the thief’s daughter; Mr. Bongju, an impoverished but noble gentleman; and Eungil, a woman abandoned by her husband because of her skin.

Gwanghalluwon Garden, known as the scene

Gwanghalluwon Garden, known as “Chunhyangjeon” site (Cultural Heritage Administration)

Each chapter in the first part of the book presents how these people ended up in the courtesan’s house through Chunhyang’s eyes as a child and how they build unique relationships with her.

In particular, Gimsu is a handsome boy, a year older and half a head taller than Chunhyang. He was brought in to deal with the lack of “fire element” in Chunhyang’s saju, or wealth.

The innocent yet mischievous moments between Gimsu and Chunhyang evoke delicate feelings of first love in the young protagonist. Namely, Gimsu helps Chunhyang to eat rice for the first time, since before she only ate honey and petals.

“As the little things that Gimsu carried away with his spirit entered my little belly, his words entered my heart, which shone like those fireflies,” Chunhyang says.

Although imprisoned in Attar Lodge, Chunhyang lives her childhood to the fullest. She becomes interested in medicine like her grandfather, experiences a subtle conflict with a girl her own age named Sodan, learns about life through Mr. Bongju’s teaching, and is very cherished and loved by her nanny Eungil.

However, Chunhyang keeps her distance from Lady Hyang, calling her “Lady Hyang” instead of “mother”. Lady Hyang is depicted more as the mistress of Attar Lodge, respected by the household and always busy with her guests. However, there are several parts where Lady Hyang and Chunhyang are shown in the same light, especially regarding their fragrance.

The word “hyang” in their names means fragrance in Korean. Lady Hyang’s scent is mentioned many times — Chunhyang’s father says that “a strange aroma penetrated deep into his lungs” when he first met her. She also once said, “A woman’s beauty can only dazzle a man’s eyes; A woman’s scent can win a man’s heart.”

Chunhyang is very sensitive to smell. Even as a young woman, Chunhyang “could easily tell if, when she (Lady Hyang) washed her hair that morning, she had a few drops of rice wine and vinegar in her shampoo or what kind of flower extract she added to her bath water. “

Gwanghalluwon Garden, known as the scene

Gwanghalluwon Garden, known as “Chunhyangjeon” site (Cultural Heritage Administration)

In the second part of the novel, Chunhyang turns 18. On her birthday, Chunhyang and Sodan go on a trip to Namwon Market, where Chunhyang meets Yi Mongryong, the outgoing Prefect of Namwon’s son.

The two fall in love at first sight — Chunhyang is reminded of Gimsu when she sees Mongryeong narrow his eyes and “the way his mouth turned up at the corners.”

But Mongryong, who first mistakes Chunhyang for Lady Hyang, feels only a passing sympathy for her.

Chunhyang describes Mongryong’s heart as “a great, accommodating soul, worldly ambition and other women.”

Meanwhile, a new prefect named Byeon Hakdo is assigned to Namwon. At the end of his term in Namwon, he will reach retirement age. He is determined to marry Chunhyang and threatens Mrs. Hyang to let her daughter marry him.

Lady Hyang comes up with an idea to thwart Byeon’s plan, while Chunhyang also has a secret weapon to fight hierarchy and gender oppression. As the story draws to a close, Lady Hyang and Chunhyang make decisions that are completely different from the original ending we know.

For this novel, Jin won the 2012 Junma Literary Award, one of the four major national-level literary awards in China for ethnic minority writers. She is a member of the presidency of the Chinese Writers’ Association and the president of the Jilin Writers’ Association.

Author: Hwang Dong-hee ([email protected])

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