This post is about The Nine Cloud Dream, also known as The Cloud Dream of the Nine, a celebrated novel written in seventeenth-century Korea but set in ninth-century China. Often compared with Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, the novel follows one man on a journey to discover the meaning of life according to a mixture of Confucian, Taoist and---most importantly---Buddhist ideals. His fate is entwined with the fates of eight gifted, beautiful and otherworldly women in a kind of alternate reality. The story is thus a kind of collective dream of nine individuals.
See below to find out what you need to know to decide whether you should read The Nine Cloud Dream, or what you should know about it even if you never do!
"Is this the real life?"A key concept in the novel is the Taoist idea that multiple realities overlap, that all is illusion, or that we cannot know what is real. Westerners are familiar with the parable about a Chinese philosopher who dreamt he was a butterfly but then asked himself whether he might be a butterfly dreaming he was a philosopher. The philosopher in question is Zhuangzi, referred to in the novel as Chuang Chou.
The Nine Cloud Dream opens by telling of Hsing-chen, a young, handsome, devout Buddhist monk likely to become the next master of the monastery. While on an errand, Hsing-chen falls prey to a variety of worldly desires. His punishment is to be sent to the underworld and reincarnated to face those desires. Most of the narrative is the story of his human life as Shao-yu. Unlike Siddhartha, whose path to enlightenment passes through a number of dissatisfying lifestyles in sequence, Shao-yu is blessed with a career that snowballs into one grand success. When he reaches old age, however, he encounters a man who transforms him back into the young monk Hsing-chen, who then believes his reincarnation was (perhaps) only a kind of instructive vision.
"Is this just fantasy?"Regardless of whether Hsing-chen’s life is more or less real than Shao-yu’s, or equally real, or equally unreal, there are a variety of fantasy elements in the story that make it not merely a historical yarn.
For example, the errand that leads Hsing-chen off the straight and narrow path is to go and see the Dragon King in his Underwater Palace. He returns partway by riding on the wind, then pauses to flirt with eight fairy women, in part by turning the fruit on the branch of a tree into jewels. Shao-yu’s life is no less fantastical. He, too, visits an underwater king, whose shape-shifting daughter explains how to rid a lake of a magical curse.