Literary classics offer important insight into Asia’s popular culture : Scholar Barbara Wall stresses value of bringing Korean stories to the world

Home > Culture > Korean Heritage

print dictionary print

Literary classics offer important insight into Asia’s popular culture : Scholar Barbara Wall stresses value of bringing Korean stories to the world


Barbara Wall [PARK SANG-MOON]

Korean dramas have rarely been the subject of serious academic research, much less studied alongside the great Korean literary classics.

But Dr. Barbara Wall does just that.

Currently a research assistant in Korean Studies at University of Hamburg’s Asia Africa Institute, Wall’s primary interest is how a classic from the past has “lived” through the ages, getting adapted and recreated.

One of her academic papers compared “My Love from the Star,” a highly popular romantic comedy drama series that aired on SBS between 2013 and 2014 with “The Dream of the Nine Clouds (Kuunmong),” a 17th-century novel written by Kim Man-jung (1637-92), a Confucian scholar of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).

The paper was released at the 4th Conference on Korean Screen Culture in Copenhagen, Denmark in May 2015.

The drama is about a man from another planet, Do Min-jun, played by Kim Soo-hyun, falling in love with an actress, whereas the novel is about a monk living in a Buddhist paradise sent to the human world.

In the drama, there is a scene where Do says that the book of his life is “The Dream of the Nine Clouds.”

But Wall’s paper does not examine these explicit references but more specifically the similarities and differences in male protagonists and what they mean, as well as the dream structure of the plot that can be found in both works and shared message that dreams and reality belong together.

Wall recently visited Korea to speak at a workshop hosted by the Literature Translation Institute of Korea.


“My Love from the Star” could be a parody of “The Dream of the Nine Clouds” of the 17th century, Barbara Wall says. [JOONGANG ILBO]

As the workshop was designed to discuss Korea’s classic literature and its standing in today’s global era, she revised her paper on “My Love from the Star” and “The Dream of the Nine Clouds” slightly to argue that the drama is an example that classic Korean literature has a role in contemporary popular culture and that more works must be translated.

“’My Love’ does not simply allude to or borrow from ‘The Dream,’ but it is semantically and structurally based on the novel and can thus be deemed as a covert parody of it,” she said at the workshop held in Seoul on Oct. 13.

“This shows that classic Korean literature is not irrelevant for the reception of contemporary popular culture outside of Korea. We do not only need translations of classic Korean literature for discussions in the ivory tower of Korean studies outside of Korea, but also for the understanding of popular Korean culture.”

The Korea JoongAng Daily met with Wall separately to further discuss Korean literature as well as popular culture.

The focus of her studies is the circulation, translation and adaptation of literary works in East Asia as well as construction of Korean history in popular culture. But she is also a professional translator. She has translated literary works of scholars from Joseon as well as the royal documents also from the Joseon era.

Born in Neumunster, about 65 kilometres (40 miles) north of Hamburg, Wall is fluent in Korean, Chinese, Japanese, English and German. Her interest in East Asia and its literature, in fact, began with mere curiosity as a young girl.


Barbara Wall has translated into German books about uigwe, or the documents that detail protocols for royal ceremonies of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), including a book by Han Yeong-wu about uigwe on the royal procession in 1795 to Hwaseong. [JOONGANG ILBO]

Q. How did you get interested in East Asian literature and how did you come to study it?

A. Since I was young I was extremely interested in Chinese characters. I used to [even] have a watch that had three Chinese letters on it.

When I was sixteen, I went to Japan as an exchange student where I learned the Japanese language. And I studied Japanese literature and Chinese classic literature at Heidelberg University. At college, I also learned Korean, which is how I came to study Confucian studies at Sungkyunkwan University between 2003 and 2007.

I thought if I wanted to understand the writings of the scholars of the Joseon Dynasty, I should understand the basis of their thoughts. That’s why I chose to study Confucianism - not as a religion but to understand literature of the period.

Many of your publications are about “Journey to the West” (a 16th century Chinese novel). What have you found in your studies?

“Journey to the West” is not fixed. It is believed that Wu Cheng’en wrote it in the 16th century. But the story existed from before. In fact, no one knows who wrote the original and when it was written even though it’s considered one of China’s four top classics. However, it is not important. The important thing is that it’s being recreated and as a result its form is changing.

Just like scenes from “My Love from the Star” have references to “The Dream of the Nine Clouds,” a 14th-century poem by Yi Saek (1328-96), a Korean scholar, contains references to “Journey to the West.” Also, Choi In-hun wrote the Korean version of “Journey to the West” in 1961, which is an amazing work but not translated into other languages. In these cases, “Journey to the West” is no longer “Chinese” but part of Korean literary pieces.

You’ve translated uigwe [the royal documents that detail protocols for ceremonies, rituals and other events held at Joseon courts] as well as works of Yi Ok (1760-1815). But the translation of Korean classics is mostly for scholars and not the general public. Do you agree?

Uigwe details every procedure in preparing and holding royal events, as well as the people involved and money spent. So it’s not just about history, but there is music, dance, costumes and food. For instance, there is a friend of mine who is involved in Korean studies in Vienna, Austria, who’s highly interested in music. She asked me for a copy of the translation because she’s interested in musical instruments.

Also, I was surprised to find how people were interested in works of Yi Ok. Yi was a remarkable writer: His pieces can be enjoyed as they are. But when examined further, there are political implications. I think that’s why even those who are not into Korean history can enjoy his works. A friend of mine in Germany for instance liked the piece Yi wrote about a haunted house so much that she would read it to her children.

It seems the focus of your research is how a literary piece from the past manages to survive through the ages and for that reason the nationality of the piece isn’t really important.

Yes. “What Is World Literature?” by David Damrosch examines what it takes for a literary piece to be a classic, and it says that a classic has to be fluid and resilient. It’s the same for me. For me, who wrote a literary piece and when it was written aren’t that important. I view literary pieces as something that’s alive and rather than the text itself I am interested in how people of different time periods viewed them and recreated them to make them relevant to their society, and how through this process the original piece gets changed and reborn.

It’s the same with “The Tale of Genji” [a classic work of Japanese literature]. No one saw its’ original version. In that sense, I consider the country a literary piece is born in not that important.


Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)