|Hong Gildong jeon|
|Revised Romanization||Hong Gildongjeon|
Hong Gildong jeon (Hangul: 홍길동전; hanja: 洪吉童傳) is a Korean novel, often translated as The Biography of Hong Gildong, written during the Joseon Dynasty. Hong Gildong, an illegitimate son of a nobleman and his lowborn concubine, is the main character of the story. Gifted with supreme intelligence and supernatural abilities, he steals from rich and corrupt aristocrats, which has drawn him comparisons to famous bandits like the English folk hero Robin Hood and Australia’s Ned Kelly. Historical sources point to the existence of a bandit named Hong Gildong who was arrested in 1500, but the historical inspiration for the character was the Korean bandit and folk hero Im Kkeokjeong, who lived in the early 16th century.
Since the novel first appeared, the character of Hong Gildong has become a mainstay of Korean culture and literature. In Korea today, Hong Gildong is a common placeholder name, similar to John Doe in the United States. Charles Montgomery of the website Korean Literature in Translation explains, “In Korean literature Hong Gildong is legion. He is a fixture from one of the most important early novels in Hangul – he is the first truly ‘Korean’ main character.” Professor Minsoo Kang writes in the foreword to his translation, “The Story of Hong Gildong is arguably the single most important work of classic (i.e., premodern) prose fiction of Korea, in terms of not only its literary achievement but also of its influence on the larger culture.” NPR’s Ari Shapiro explained on Fresh Air, "Sometimes, a single character can help define a country's sense of self. Here in the U.S., you might think of Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby or Superman. In North and South Korea, it's Hong Gildong.”
Various versions of Hong Gildong jeon exist, each including different details but following the same skeleton and timeline. The story is usually divided into three equal parts, each occurring in different settings.
The first part is set in the residence of the Hong Family. After waking from an auspicious dream, the High Minister, Hong Mo, lies with a lowborn maid, who conceives Hong Gildong. The story then shifts to Gildong’s childhood where he masters his physical, mental, and magical abilities. The first part concludes with Hong Gildong stopping an assassin’s attempt on his life and then leaving the Hong residence, unsatisfied with his status as a secondary son.
In the second part, Hong Gildong becomes the leader of a band of outlaws whom he names Hwalbindang (“league of those who help the impoverished”). Gildong and his band steal from locations where wealth is held throughout the country, like storehouses and temples. As his robberies become bolder and more frequent, he draws the attention of the King and ultimately ends up leaving the country in self-imposed exile.
The third part takes place in the country of Yul. Hong Gildong starts over with the Hwalbindang at the island of Jae and then overthrows the King of Yul to become King. He rules as a benevolent king and begins his own family at Yul, in which he treats his secondary and primary sons equally.
Authorship of the novel is generally attributed to Heo Gyun (허균), a radical intellectual who long dreamed of changing Korea into a fair society with less strict class hierarchies. The first attribution to Heo Gyun is from the writings of Yi Sik (1584–1647), his former student. Furthermore, Heo Gyun is said to be the author because of his radical ideas of political revolution, which are projected in Hong Gildong’s journey from secondary son to king. It is believed Heo Gyun wrote the book during the late 16th or early 17th century.
However, in recent years, emerging scholarship has contradicted previously accepted theories on the authorship of Hong Gildong jeon. In a 2013 article in Azalea: Journal of Korean Literature & Culture, Minsoo Kang argues that the claim for Heo Gyun as author of the novel is based on flawed and biased scholarship. He proposes instead that the extant version of the novel was written around the mid-19th century, or not long before that, "by an anonymous writer of secondary or commoner status."
Hong Gildong is often viewed as a reflection of its time. Depending on the Heo Gyun authorship model or the one that Kang proposes, this perspective differs. Kang suggests that peace and prosperity in 18th century Korea under the rule of Yeongjo and Jeonjo allowed for increased social mobility and literacy. This led to the development of a market for popular fiction, and Hong Gildong jeon is exemplary of these kinds of novels.
There are more than 34 existing manuscripts of Hong Gildong jeon. Scholars are uncertain which, if any, is the original manuscript, but some evidence suggests that the pilsa 89 manuscript is the oldest surviving version.
In addition to its reputation as a literary work, Hong Gildong jeon has become widely known in Korean culture through various adaptations across different mediums. The story has inspired films, TV shows, comics, literary re-tellings, and video games, and continues to be frequently adapted. Korean rapper G-Dragon makes several references to him in his lyrics. For example in “Knock Out,” he says, “They call me Hong Gildong.” There is a Hong Gildong theme park in Jangseong County, traditionally thought to be the character’s birthplace, and a Hong Gildong festival is held in Jangseong each year.