Korea in Grimmelshausen

Simplicius Simplicissimus in Korea
The First Appearance of Korea in Western Fiction (1668)
By Minsoo Kang

Younghill KangKorean-Americans, like all immigrants and children of immigrants, have to navigate their way through different cultures in order to create their identity in the midst of the divide that has also become a intermingling vortex between the East and the West. For those who found literature, whether as avid readers or writers, a useful tool with which to explore the issue, works from the past that have made the earliest attempts at it can be a source of inspiration. For instance, the history of Korean-American creative writing began with Younghill Kang (1898-1832) and his two memoir-novels that were published in the 1930s (The Grass Roof, 1931, and East Goes West: The Making of an Oriental Yankee, 1937). Pearl BuckThe next major Korean-American novelist was Richard E. Kim (1932-2009) who wrote a trio of English-language novels that take place in Korea (The Martyred, 1964, The Innocent, 1968, and Lost Names, 1970). On the obverse side, namely fiction written by Western writers that feature Korea or Korean characters, Pearl Buck’s The Living Reed (1963), set in Korea during the fall of the Joseon dynasty and through the Japanese colonial period, is thought to be the first. But in the course of reading a German novel that was published three hundred years before, I came across a rather startling passage.

SimplicissimusHans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen’s Der Abentheuerliche Simplicissimus (The Adventurous Simplicissimus, 1668) is virtually unknown in the English-speaking world, but in Germany it is regarded as a classic of early modern literature, an epic picaresque novel on par with other such masterworks as Rabelais’s Gangantua and Pantagruel and Cervantes’s Don Quixote. It is also an important source on the horrific Thirty Years War (1618-1648), the ultimate carnage of the religious conflicts that began with the Reformation that resulted in the gutting of central Europe. Much of the story is thought to be based on the author’s own experiences as a youthful victim of kidnapping by soldiers and his participation in the last phase of the conflict as a combatant himself. The vast majority of the novel takes place within in the Holy Roman Empire, particularly in Grimmelhausen’s home territory of Hesse, narrating a darkly humorous tale of Simplicius Simplicissimus, an innocent simpleton of peasant stock who is subjected to the horrors of war until he eventually becomes a ruthless and greedy soldier who gains wealth and power only to ultimately lose it all. The last parts of the book, however, take an unexpectedly fantastic turn as he not only travels to an underwater kingdom of fairies but also to Moscow where he ends up working for the Tsar. He is sent by the ruler to the southern city of Astrakhan to set up a factory for making gunpowder when he falls into the following fantastic misadventure.

I was captured along with some others by a band of Tartars and carried off…deep into their territory… My captors exchanged me for some Chinese goods with the Niu-chi Tartars and they presented me as a special gift to the King of Korea, with whom they had just made a truce. There I was held in respect because there was no one who could match me with the cutlass and because I taught the king how to hit the bull’s-eye with his musket over his shoulder and his back to the target. Consequently he granted my humble request to give me my freedom and sent me via Japan to the Portuguese in Macao.1

‘Tartar’ was a term used by Europeans to refer generally to the various peoples of central and northern Asia, particularly Mongolians, and ‘Niu-chi Tartars’ specifically to the Jurchen people of Manchuria (one of their alternate names was ‘Nurchen,’ some European maps marking their territory as ‘Niuche’) on the northern border of the Korean peninsula.

UntitledPersian or Arabian merchants in China became aware of the Kingdom of Goryeo sometime after the foundation of the dynasty (918) and spread the name of the place across Eurasia in the distorted form of Corea or Korea. By the seventeenth century, Europeans were aware of the place that was east of China and in the vicinity of Japan, but there was so little information about the place that some sixteenth and seventeenth century maps show Korea as an island.2 Hendrick HamelIt was in the same year that Simplicissimus was published that the very first European book on Korea that provided detailed information on the country by an actual traveler there appeared. The Dutchman Hendrick Hamel’s (1630-1692) Journal of the Unfortunate Voyage of the Spewer, is an account of how he and his shipmates were held captive in Joseon dynasty Korea from 1653 to 1666.3 The Dutch text was published in a French translation in 1670 and in English in 1704.

European merchants, envoys, and explorers have provided eyewitness accounts of China since the Middle Ages, so the great empire was used as a setting in a number of important medieval literature. For instance, the court of the Mongolian conqueror of northern China, Genghis Khan, appears in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (‘The Squire’s Tale’ in which the ruler is named Cambyuskan); and the fictional travel narrative of the knight John Mandeville takes the character to the capital of the Yuan emperor, the narrative based on the actual account of the missionary Odoric of Pordenone. In comparison, the Korean episode in the seventeenth century novel is late, but it is still significant as it may be the first time the place is used as a setting in a major work of Western fiction.

It is, admittedly, but a very brief mention, and it appears only as a generic faraway land in an exotic locale that Grimmelshausen did not use his considerable creative imagination to elaborate on. But the passage is still worthwhile noting for its occurrence three centuries before Younghill Kang tried to come to terms with his identity as a Korean who is also an American and the celebrated American novelist Pearl Buck attempted to put herself in the shoes of Koreans and tell the story of their struggle in a time of subjugation. As the first registration of Korea in the European literary imagination, one might consider it the first modest building block in the bridge between Korea and the West.

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1 Johann Grimmelshausen, Simplicissimus, trans. Mike Mitchell (Sawtry: Dedalus, 1999), 426.
2 For early Western accounts of Korea, including maps, see Brother Anthony of Taizé and Robert Neff, Brief Encounters: Early Reports of Korea by Westerners (Irvine: Seoul Selection, 2016).
3 Hendrick Hamel, Hamel’s Journal and a Description of the Kingdom of Korea, 1653-1666, trans. Brother Jean-Paul Buys of Taizé (Seoul: Royal Asiatic Society, 1993).

Minsoo Kang

Minsoo Kang is an associate professor of history at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. He is the author of the history book Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination, the short story collection Of Tales and Enigmas, and the translator of the Penguin Classic edition of the Joseon dynasty novel The Story of Hong Gildong. His book-length study of The Story of Hong Gildong is forthcoming in 2018 under the title The Invincible and Righteous Outlaw: Hong Gildong, the Noble Robber of Korea, in literature, history, and culture.

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