[BOOKS IN BRIEF]A renaissance monkHan Yongun (1879-1944) was a complex man whose early life reflected the turmoil engulfing the Korea Peninsula.
He married young, abandoned his wife when she was pregnant, traveled, studied and got into fights. He even belted an elderly Confucian scholar in the mid-1930s for making pro-Japan comments in public, according to the translators of Han’s work in this volume.
A Buddhist poet and political activist, Han, who wrote under the name Manhae, was one of the 33 signatories to the Declaration of Independence on March 1, 1919, and a key figure in reforming Korean Buddhism.
As a reformer, he advocated marriage for monks and nuns and pursued “Buddhist socialism,” a legacy that has sat uncomfortably in post-independence South Korea, especially as Han was a patriot who served nearly three years in jail for his role in the independence movement.
In “Selected Writings of Han Yongun: From Social Darwinism to ‘Socialism with a Buddhist Face,’” translators Vladimir Tikhonov, a professor of Korean studies at the University of Oslo, and Owen Miller, a research fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies, present Han’s non-literary works in English for the first time.
Han’s poetry has already been translated into several languages.
Whether it is the skill of the translators or the clarity of Han’s thoughts, this is a highly readable text, and readers should not be put off by the publishers’ tag that students of Korean and Buddhist studies will appreciate this book.
Such a recommendation makes the book sound too academic. While the book is heavily footnoted and full of references, Han is a compelling writer.
In particular, his travel writing is fascinating. After all, how many extant travelogues recap jaunts into Siberia or the Manchurian mountains at the turn of the 20th century?
By Michael Gibb