Dreams of Worldly Desires

Marium IhsanFebruary 7, 2023Dreams and DesiresMedia

The Kuunmong or The Nine Cloud Dream by Kim Man-Jung originates from an eight-panel folding screen1 and has since evolved to be an integral piece of Korean literature.

It navigates history, fantasy, and romance with wit and imagination. Authored in the 17th century by Kim Man-Jung, the book was written as an avenue to find solace while the writer was in exile. Kim Man-Jung lived and worked in the court of King Sukjong, who reigned from 1674 to 1720, and whose government was, to say the least, chaotic and scandal-ridden. For the most part, The Nine Cloud Dream is a pleasant novel that follows the dashing Shao-yu across the Empire as he aces examinations, saves the nation from Tibetan invaders, and amasses an incredible collection of brides and concubines along the way.

The book opens with protagonist Hsing-Chen, a young monk from the Lotus Peak who first sees the Dragon King, wonders about his calling, but instead allows himself to get sidetracked by eight seductive fairy maidens. His teacher Liu-Kuan, who tells him he has sinned, excommunicates him. He tells Hsing-Chen, "You have gone away from the teachings of the Buddha," instead focusing on sensuous and worldly matters. Despite the desperate pleadings of Hsing-Chen, his lord sends him to the Lord of the Dead, King Yama, in hell, where he presumably perishes. Or does he?

To make a long tale short, Hsing-Chen is reborn as Shao-yu, the son of the hermit Yang and his wife Liu. It is during this life that he starts his odyssey, which we discover is ultimately really a dream. Hsing-Chen will be "punished" in this fashion so that he might finally turn onto the correct track, which is the Buddhist one. Shao-yu matures into a young man with nearly otherworldly talent, morality, and intellect. He develops into an outstanding general, diplomat, and lover, attracting the attention of nearly every woman he encounters. This appears to be perhaps an unorthodox punishment, but the fact that the entirety of wealth, power, and control is ultimately a hoax and illusion makes the concept of dreams and desires the focal point of the story.

The novel's structure illustrates existentialism and Buddhist philosophy in a way that deviates from the traditional definition of the plot as an action leading to a climax and resolution. The development of the story’s characters, while unorthodox, reaches a conclusive endpoint as it is a novel that points to the pointlessness of the material world. Though the book may seem intimidating at first, the romanticization of scenery, the eloquence of language, and the poetry within the writing make it brilliant and amusing.

This book exceeded my expectations in many ways and hence deserves a rating of 4 out of 5. The language, the development of the characters, and the unlikely way the story unfolds keep the reader grounded, and the book is an insightful pastime. Reading it is incredibly refreshing and rewarding. The notion that life is a dream is dear to Eastern philosophy. This book revolves around this notion, and even when the story is narrated, one can see the dreams and desires that reign within the protagonist (who ironically acts as an antagonist, too).

“Nothing is what it seems,” and the thought that we may wake up any minute from a dream that seems incredibly real to us is the key takeaway, apart from how indulging in hedonistic pleasures should not be prioritized at the expense of sacrificing personal ethics. Dreams of worldly desires at times are all-consuming, and while they may seem quite rewarding, in the end they often turn out to be quite the opposite. This book intricately illustrates how the pleasures of life have to be practiced moderately, rather than selfishly, which highlights the prioritization of ethics and morals over pleasurable activities.

1 An eight-panel folding screen is a traditional screen in Japanese culture that depicts different characters and stories.

Marium Ihsan is a 15-year-old from Lahore, Pakistan, who enjoys writing articles about topics she is passionate about and exploring new and interesting areas of science.