‘Hyecho’ follows Korea’s travelogue tradition

By Yang Sung-jin
Published on The Korea Herald: June 6, 2008

Hyecho (704-787), a Korean Buddhist monk from Silla Kingdom, is a fascinating traveler. He did not believe that enlightenment was possible in a small room at a quiet temple. To see the world with his own eyes, he made a journey that was unfathomable in terms of scale, recording what he saw on the road in India, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, fighting off all sorts of life-threatening elements.

Hyecho wrote a travelogue titled “Wango-cheonchukguk-jeon” (Memoir of the Pilgrimage to the Five Kingdoms of India), which had been lost for many years until it was discovered by Paul Pelliot in Dunhuang grotto in China in 1908.

Kim Tak-hwan was mesmerized by Hyecho’s bravery and passion and how it produced one of the best travelogues in Korean history. He was particularly impressed by Hyecho’s concise and straightforward descriptions.

“When I was taking the same route Hyecho took, I was on the train in a great desert area. And it took a dozen hours even by train. In contrast to today’s travelogues filled with all sorts of sundry episodes and exaggerated feelings, Hyecho described only facts,” Kim told reporters at a news conference held last week in Seoul.

Kim Tak-hwan talks about his new historical novel, “Hyecho,” at a news conference last week.

Hyecho’s description about the desert route that perhaps lasted more than 10 painful days was just one sentence: “I walked to the next destination.”

Unlike other travelers who tend to inflate and embellish their experiences, Hyecho drew a strict line between what he actually did and what he just heard from other people during his four-year journey.

Kim’s new historical novel titled “Hyecho” has taken a cue from Hyecho’s dry but truthful writing style. Kim, known for his talent in weaving a tale based on historical facts, searched for ways to celebrate Hyecho’s great journey in his new literary project, and he realized there was no other way but to repeat the actual route Hyecho took about 1,400 years ago.

Cost was a big problem. To secure the funds, Kim applied for a content development contest organized by a state agency and his idea was adopted as a new project. With the grant money, he traced all the major regions Hyecho traveled, writing down what he felt and taking photographs. When he finished the exhausting travel, he produced a documentary video about Hyecho and also set up a website that features all the pictures he took and related text materials.

In the two-volume novel, Hyecho and Go Seon-ji, a Chinese general of Goguryeo descent, are central characters in a storyline that features their fateful encounter as well as the cultural landscape of the turbulent period.

Author Kim introduces two different timelines: present and past. First, Go Seon-ji meets with Hyecho in a massive desert and the two get swept into lethal developments in the present tense. Second, Hyecho’s experiences about the journey, recorded in the documents he was carrying around, are described in a first-person perspective in a way that sheds light on how much suffering he had gone through.

One twist is that Kim creates a third main character named Kim Ran-su, a Silla merchant who believes Hyecho’s travelogue, written in the upper-class language of Hyangchal, contains a secret leading to a treasure trove. By the time Hyecho notices his writings are in the hands of Kim Ran-su, he finds his previous memories about the trip gone due to a traumatic incident. And Hyecho has to read one page of what he wrote for Kim Ran-su in order to retrieve his travel record and also his own memory.

The novel portrays Hyecho’s experiences in detail, many of which seem extremely painful and often unbearable, even considering that he is on a religious pilgrimage. Kim Tak-hwan’s refined prose, bolstered by plenty of short sentences, amplifies the dramatic effect as Hyecho overcomes one life-threatening crisis after another.

Kim, who has done extensive fact-finding travels for his previous novels, said that there is a common ground between travel and writing.

“Just like we take one step at a time when we travel, we have to write one word at a time,” he said.