Haboush examines how, after the Imjin War (1592-1598) and the Manchu invasions (1636-1637) the Korean state relied on commemorations of the Imjin War as a means of creating a national identity
The opening of Master P’i’s Dream Journey is similar to the opening of Dream Journey to Talch’ŏn. A private scholar, P’i Tal, who is fond of (p.140) traveling, arrives at a lonely field somewhere in ... [Show full abstract] Kyŏngsang Province at twilight and finds moss-covered bodies, partly eaten by vultures, strewn as far as the horizon. Moved by this sight, he composes a poem. A monk appears and informs him of the horrors and atrocities that the people of the region suffered at the hands of the Japanese invaders. He tells P’i that, of thousands upon thousands of dead bodies lying there, only one was claimed and buried: a Master Yi, after ten years of neglect, came from the capital and, after making desultory inquiries concerning the circumstances of his father’s death, selected a body and gave it a generous funeral. The monk, who remains anonymous, plays the role of a Greek chorus exposing the horrors of the war and venality of humanity. He intimates that Master Yi chose the wrong body and that he buried his “father” for ulterior motives. This burial, the only burial in all those years, merely accentuates the terrible state of disorder. P’i then crosses a hill and, in a lonely village, finds lodging. As soon as he falls asleep, he is inducted into the dream world.
The unburiable bodies in Dream Journey to Talch’ŏn and Dream Journey to Kanghwa Island—anonymous soldiers and women who died by their own hands to keep their honor—imagined at their moments of death represent the scarred political body of the Chosŏn state and the bankrupt patriarchy. These two groups of dead were among those included in public commemoration. They were either sacrificed to or given honors. Seeking to fulfill its role as the agency that appeased communal sorrows and thus to repair its scarred image, the state vigorously engaged in these activities. In insisting on the unburiability of these dead, the dream narratives contest the resolution adopted by the state. Presumably composed in different postwar periods, the two narratives embody different “contemporary structures of feeling.”⁷⁹ The unburiable bodies of the anonymous soldiers signify a search for a resolution that remains elusive and thus indicative of a Sartrean sense of the nonthetic. The unburiability of mutilated female bodies underscores a much more urgent crisis of identity. Nevertheless, the criticism directed at the state and the patriarchy seems to have been embedded in an acute sense of humiliation and self-reproach that was pervasive among the male elite after the Korean capitulation to the Manchus.