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Conception of the Hero in Korean Popular Fiction of Late Choson Period

  • Author(s): Lee, Seung-Ah
  • Advisor(s): Duncan, John B.
  • et al.


The image of a hero reflects the desires, ideals and dreams of the people of a given time. ¡°It is in times of emergency that heroes are looked for, and found,¡± as Lucy Huges-Hallett pointed out. In times of war or social disorder, people look for someone who can save them from chaos. That is why these intellectuals of the colonial period gathered to find heroes from the past. If the environment is what creates necessity for a hero, what does the type of heroic figures tell us about the past or present?

The role of heroes in premodern Korean literature is similar to what Ruhlmann depicts. They ¡°embody current values and ideals¡± which can be understood in part as Confucianism, and they also ¡°convey a powerful image of the conflicting forces at work in the society of their time.¡± Furthermore, if, as Frederic Jameson argued in The Political Unconscious, narratives are ¡°socially symbolic acts,¡± then works of popular fiction may be seen as texts representing an ¡°individual parole or utterance¡± of ¡°collective and class discourses,¡± since such works simultaneously represent perspectives of writers and readers, the literati and commoners in the Chosŏn period (1392-1897).

By investigating heroes in premodern literature, we can find an answer to the question of ¡®who created which heroes for whom?¡¯ Furthermore, it is also important to look at any differences of heroic images within the same period to see how they may vary depending on social class, gender, and region. The answer to these questions tells us about current values and ideas, in addition to class/gender conflicts of the time. This dissertation will specifically focus on Korean hero fiction (yŏng¡¯ung sosŏl; Ó¢ÐÛСÕf) in the late Chosŏn period, a genre considered to be most ¡°influenced¡± by Chinese works.

Hero fiction was the most popular literary genre in premodern Korea. For that reason, we can consider writing/reading/circulating hero fiction as a reflection of contemporary popular culture. John Storey defines popular culture in five different ways. First, ¡°popular culture is simply culture that is widely favored or well liked by many people.¡± Second, ¡°it is the culture that is left over after we have decided what is high culture.¡± Third, popular culture is ¡°a mass culture.¡± In this case its focus is on commercial culture. Fourth, ¡°popular culture is the culture that originates from the people.¡± Lastly, it is ¡°a site of struggle between the ¡®resistance¡¯ of subordinate groups and forces of ¡®incorporation¡¯ operating in the interests of dominant groups.¡±

Using Storey¡¯s five definitions of popular culture, I will examine four major works of hero fiction: A Dreams of Nine Clouds (Kuun mong) Record of Black Dragon Year (Imjin rok) and Tale of Hong Kyewŏl (Hong Kyewŏl chŏn). By examining these three hero fictions, we will be able to see how popular culture functions against dominant elite culture in the late Chosŏn period. This kind of study will be a foundation for examining the cultural, social and literary characteristics of that time.

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