cover image The Nine Cloud Dream

The Nine Cloud Dream

Kim Man-Jung, trans. from the Korean by Heinz Insu Fenki. Penguin Classics, $17 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-0-14-313127-4

First written in the 17th century, Man-Jung’s rollicking fantasy is a many-layered pleasure, equal parts fairy tale, religious instruction, and ode to classical Chinese literature and society. Hsing-Chen, a promising young Buddhist monk, errs in his practice, stopping to flirt with several fairies while on an errand. As punishment, his teacher, Master Liu-kuan, sentences Hsing-Chen to be reborn and forget his teachings. It’s an unconventional punishment: reincarnated as Shao-Yu, the lone son of a widowed peasant, from birth he seems destined for greatness, with a keen mind, handsome features, and a gift for poetry. He sets out at a young age for the capital, intent on sitting for the civil service examination. His humble ambitions are soon thwarted; a fortunate engagement to a highborn lady and top performance on the examination sets Shao-Yu on a path to love, power, and fame. His story, however, is a Buddhist parable, and the worldly victories and honors that Shao-Yu accrues—impressive as they are—are destined to fade. Man-Jung’s tale is a hypnotic journey, a scholarly, instructive Buddhist bildungsroman set across Tang dynasty China, and in Insu Fenkl’s skilled translation, a glimpse into the rich crossroads of religions and society therein. (Feb.)