I’m not sure what caught my eye about the plain red cover, with the title and author in ordinary white text. Playing with Fire, a novel by Cho Chongnae, revolves around a wealthy businessman, living a happy family life in South Korea. One day, a man calls him at his office and refers to him by the name Bae Jonsu – a name he has not used since he fled the crimes he committed as a partisan in the Korean war. Throughout the novel, the reader learns more about Bae's crimes as the mysterious caller exacts a long delayed revenge.
Reading Playing with Fire, I sympathized with Bae's sensation of a slowly tightening psychological noose, even while I came to understand the extent of his crimes. This intermingling of sympathy, horror, and complicity is what Bae's family eventually comes to feel when faced with someone who has committed contemptible acts and yet still remains the person they have always known. Playing with Fire asks whether revenge should have a statue of limitations. How much moral responsibility can be assigned for past actions, and how far does that responsibility extend?
Last week, I had the opportunity to hear Cho Chongnae, the author of Playing with Fire, and more recently of The Human Jungle speak at UC Berkeley. I learned that his books have sold over ten million copies in Korea, and he is the author of three historical epics, each over ten volumes.
Famous in Korea for his quick with and willingness to speak his mind, Cho kept the audience out of their seats, laughing, applauding, shouting their assent or disapproval. I accessed all of this a few beats later, through the mediation of translation, and even so his stage presence was magnetic.
I learned that Cho had been investigated in Korea for violating national security, as some of his works dealt with the controversial period from 1945-1950. To prove his innocence, he was required to submit “objective data” to prove the accuracy of the historical depictions of partisan conflict during the Korean war. Due to its controversial nature, the period was de facto off limits to Korean scholars, so he used an American book, The Origins of the Korean War, as his cornerstone piece of historical data to fight the investigation.
When audience members asked why more of his works had not been translated, Cho Chongnae said that they are simply too long – translating one of his works means foregoing translation of nine novels by other writers, as the international market for Korean literature is limited.
These limitations impact American views of the literature of other countries. Even when we examine other countries and other cultures, we often do so through the eyes of Western mediators subject to the same constraints as ourselves - much of the fiction and history about China widely read in the West is written by Westerners.
This is why The Human Jungle reads like a breath of fresh air – well, until the gritty descriptions of corruption, violence, and prostitution sink in. The story focuses on Korean and Japanese businessmen struggling to make their way in an alien culture, succeeding only when they master the Chinese idea of “guanxi,” or business connections that bridge personal and practical concerns, and the business practice of circling a topic and clinching deals slowly, or “manmandi.”
Cho Chongnae said himself that the description of China was intended both to warn young Koreans of the perils of doing business across the straits and also shed light on the fantastic business opportunities available to the culturally astute. The true hero of the book, according to Cho, is Chon Chaehyong, a Korean student studying Chinese history and engaged to a Chinese woman. Despite this depiction of a positive intercultural relationship, for most of the book, Cho Chongnae prioritizes painting complete picture of corruption in China over realistically depicting life in a multifaceted urban world.
In the first chapter, So Hawon, a Korean doctor recently arrived to take up his plastic surgery practice, encounters a man lying in the middle of the road, refusing to leave until granted financial compensation. This sort of thing is relatively rare in China, and would not be the first sight a foreigner encounters on leaving the airport. The book constantly quotes a figure that upwards of 100 million Chinese women are prostitutes, and includes detailed descriptions of massage parlors and brothels. If anything, prostitution is overemphasized in the novel, and the vast majority of China that lives ordinary family lives is ignored. Cho presents China as a land of opulence and pollution, opportunity and baffling barriers, leaving his readers equal parts enthralled and horrified.
As someone who has lived in China, I cannot accept this cynical view of the Chinese business world. The China I have seen is a country full of people living comfortable home lives and doing their best to get ahead honestly. City centers pulsing with commerce may resemble an urban jungle, but many urban Chinese live in Xiaoqu, or housing developments set back from large roads. With their small shops and play areas for children, Xiaoqu resemble American suburbs, and the dog eat dog mentality that Cho describes is nowhere in evidence.
To depict China as a “human jungle” dangerous incomprehensible to citizens of developed countries is a form of mysticism similar to romantic depictions of the far east. Cho's opulent exterior presents China as a land apart, requiring the reader to peek between the lines to see the similarities between the Chinese landscape and our own.
So, why should you still read this book? Because, however biased Cho’s depiction of China is, it is at least thoroughly non-Western. The Human Jungle delves into Korean perspectives on Chinese current events and its analysis often strikes a chord. The fascination with Chinese culture felt by Korean businessmen and students will resonate with those who have studied abroad. Finally, the only way we’ll get more of Cho Chongnae’s fiction translated to English - the only way we'll ever be able to read the hugely influential Taebaek Mountain Range cycle in our own language - is if people read what is already here.