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'The Story Of Hong Gildong' Helps Define Korean Sense Of Identity


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. He's an illegitimate second son with otherworldly talents who goes on to become a rebel leader and a king. Here's a taste of his story.

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Gildong addressed the bandits. We have committed a criminal act that will be reported to the capital, so they will surely come after us. I worry that when they fail to catch us, innocent people will be blamed and executed. If that were to happen, we would be responsible.

SUNMOON OH: He was a thief but not bad thief - good thief.

SHAPIRO: That's Sunmoon Oh in Seoul. Our producer there, Haeryun Kang, asked her and a few other Koreans to tell Americans one thing about "The Story Of Hong Gildong."

JUSTIN KIM: "Hong Gildong" - it's basically trying to just steal from the rich people to just share with poor people.

HAERYUN KANG, BYLINE: Do you guys like the story?

OH: Yeah.

SALLY JEON: Yes, of course.

KATIE PARK: I didn't really like the story, no. "Hong Gildong" is more famous for its name. Like, in Korea, when people call somebody who they don't know, they just call somebody Hong Gildong.

H. KANG: Oh, so it's kind of like John Smith.

PARK: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly.

SHAPIRO: That was Katie Park, Sally Jeon and Justin Kim. And if you want to read "The Story Of Hong Gildong" but don't read Korean, you're in luck. There's a new English version out now. Minsoo Kang translated the story, and he joins us now. Welcome.

MINSOO KANG: Thanks for having me. This is great.

SHAPIRO: Is it true that on government forms in Korea, you will see the name Hong Gildong as a placeholder the way we would use John Smith or John Doe?

M. KANG: Absolutely. It's a placeholder name that's used everywhere. I've actually been to a funeral home where they show different types of gravestones, and they had the name Hong Gildong on it.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Really? Give us a quick summary of the plot. What actually happens in this tale?

M. KANG: You have the main character, Hong Gildong, who is born into the family of nobility, but his mother is a low-bone concubine within the house. And as a result, because he's not full nobility, he's not allowed to pursue his ambitions. He leaves home and becomes a leader of a band of outlaws who take from the rich and punish corrupt officials.

But once the king recognizes him and offers him a position in government, he sort of spares the king the embarrassment of having a ex-criminal working for him by leaving the country. And he conquers a new territory and eventually becomes a king.

SHAPIRO: How do you think American audiences will respond to it?

M. KANG: Well, I think American as well as Western audiences in general will immediately recognize him as a Korean Robin Hood.

SHAPIRO: Yeah - stealing from the rich, giving to the poor.

M. KANG: Yeah, except there's actually technically no specific scene where he actually gives to the poor although he says he's going to do this.


SHAPIRO: Why do you think this character is so essential to the Korean sense of self-identity?

M. KANG: Well, I remember during my last year in grad school, I attended a wonderful conference on the Jewish myth of the Golem.

SHAPIRO: Oh, yeah, the clay statue that comes to life and defends the village.

M. KANG: Exactly. Writer Thane Rosenbaum had an interesting take on why it still fascinates especially Jewish American writers in their contemporary fiction, which is that the Golem is really the best example of a Jewish superhero.

But he also pointed out that it's a problematic superhero because considering all the terrible things the Jews have gone through in the modern era, where was this hero? Same exact thing could be said about Hong Gildong in Korean history - that he's a - sort of a genuine native Korean superhero who also speaks to the kind of experiences that Koreans had in the modern era because it's been one sort of major historical tragedy after another.

SHAPIRO: Do you remember your first encounter with this character?

M. KANG: It's part - I mean - and for anybody who grew up in Korea, "Hong Gildong" is part of the culture. It's hard to escape it, so that's impossible to answer as if I would ask an American, you know, when was the first time you encountered Superman or Mickey Mouse?


M. KANG: In fact, I was very delighted when I encountered Korean-Americans who immigrated to America when they were young. When I mentioned them the project even they go, oh, Hong Gildong, my childhood hero. That's great.


SHAPIRO: Well, Minsoo Kang, it's been a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

M. KANG: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Minsoo Kang's English translation of "The Story Of Hong Gildong," with its father-son intrigue, banditry and vanquished demons comes in at a brisk 77 pages. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.