“Princess Bari” (2007) by Hwang Sok-yong (b. 1943)

“Princess Bari” (2007) by Hwang Sok-yong (b. 1943)

<바리데기> (2007.07.13) 글 황석영 (출생 1943년 1월 4일)

The tale of the Abandoned Princess is re-worked for our times, reflecting the modern refugee crisis, the state of non-registered migrants and citizens of the world flocking to large cities.

a book review by Gregory C. Eaves

Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016

Along the spectrum between reality and make believe, there is a transition point somewhere in the middle. It lies in between history repeating itself across seven generations, on the one hand, and then flying griffins and magical spells on the other. When does magical realism become fantasy? In that space, between Gabriel Garcia Marquez and J. K. Rowling, sits Hwang Sok-yong with his tale “Princess Bari.”

There are ghosts, shamans, spirits and ghosts of children who died of typhoid. The dog, Hindugi, behaves like a human. There are hexes, goblins and darkened temples. She talks telepathically to Chilsung, the puppy, and with her deaf and mute older sister. She can talk with dead relatives and see dead relatives. She can read a customer’s health by looking at the acupuncture meridian points on the soles of the feet, glowing here and glowing there in different colors, depending on the illness. She can read souls; she can heal souls.

As Grandmother said, “Bari inherited the gift.”

In the archives of Korean shamanism, the tale of Princess Bari is the tale of the Abandoned Princess. She is the seventh and last child of the king, a monarch who has no sons. This shamanic goddess, Princess Bari, was abandoned at birth because she was female. She travels to the underworld to seek the elixir of life, and is reborn into a new world. She has been transformed into a goddess who, like the boatman Charon across the River Styx, carries souls into the netherworld.

“Princess Bari” is a tale of a journey and a tale of many smaller stories. Virgil (70 B.C.-19 B.C.) wrote the “Aeneid” around 29 B.C. or 19 B.C. This Latin classic tells the tale of Aeneas, a Trojan warrior who fled his defeated city, traveled across the Mediterranean Sea and founded the city of Rome, all around the world. Boccaccio (1313-1375) wrote “The Decameron” in the late 14th century. This Florentine classic has 10 characters telling 10 stories each as they bide their time outside the city until the Black Death passes. Similarly, Hwang wrote “Princess Bari” in 2007. This Korean classic has one female shaman god character who floats over the horrors of a totalitarian state, the horrors of the refugee crisis in China’s Jilin and Liaoning provinces and over to London, all around the world.

Princess Bari’s fate is similar to that of many women throughout history: suffering and being expected to do “the proper thing.” Many of the human Princess Baris in our world suffer because of their parents’ actions or expectations, and have to make sacrifices because society gives them no freedom, no space to move. They suffer in society’s trap, forced to be devoted, or brave or to endure. Bari offers up her own life for the life of the king, exactly what patriarchies want of their women. Princess Bari is a heroine for all women: she makes the sacrifices and suffers in order to overcome her earthly bounds and to become superhuman. She heals the world. She can also talk to dogs, which is pretty cool.

Building on this deep pre-Buddhist foundational myth and tale, author Hwang weaves a beautiful, absorbing and well-written tale that takes our heroine, the seventh child herself, on a journey around the world. From a North Korea that is totalitarian, oppressive, poor and starving, to the Manchurian wilds of modern-day China in Jilin, to the famous port city of Dalian in Liaoning — said to be one of the most beautiful natural harbors in East Asia — and across the ocean to London, England, Bari grows as a human, learns to love in the benign, grandmotherly sense, and heals the wounds of the world. As a seer or a shaman herself, she can read a person’s ills and sense what’s wrong with them, helping them to heal. She can  communicate with animals, the dead and long lost relatives, both dead and alive. In search of the elixir of life, she finds it and heals our wounds.

“Dalian filled us with hope. The waterfront was beautiful, the city was clean and the parks were really well designed.” (middle of Chapter Five)

As for the actual world in which Hwang sets his novel, North Korea comes across as a desperate place, worse than Romania in the 1970s. If literature is to be society’s conscious, then modern day South Korea has a very, very large debt owed to its cousins north of the 38th parallel. I pity the national psyche of South Korea if it ever has to come to terms with having accepted and lived next door to the horrors of North Korea for so long.

“Bodies floated in the flooded fields and at the edges of the cities.” (early on in Chapter Three)

Throughout his career, Hwang himself has been a strong advocate for better relations between the governments in Pyeongyang and Seoul. Indeed, having visited North Korea on numerous occasions, he was thrown into jail in South Korea for fraternizing with the enemy. Upon his release, it was many years before he would write again. Then he wrote “Princess Bari.”

“As rations were cut and wages came to a stop, miners began to quit and wander around in search of food instead. Countless factories all over the country, both big and small, shut their doors.” (second-to-last paragraph in Chapter Two)


Originally written in 2007, the novel was translated by Sora Kim-Russell into English only in 2015 and put out by Periscope. The book is currently only available in the British market.

The modern novel has the shamanic myth as its warp and woof. The novel “Princess Bari” is more than a mere story of a woman. It gives voice to the protests of women in a patriarchal society. Through the telling of the myth, just as Hwang does through his novel, the shaman becomes a critic of the prevailing values of society that support the superiority of men over women. The story of Princess Bari — both shamanic myth and modern novel — is relevant both to the author and to the readership, for it is women who suffer from our male privilege.

Both author Hwang and the tellers of ancient shamanic myths create a heroine who does not accept the secular world and is able to transcend the barriers of this world. Princess Bari is able to look beyond the immediate rewards offered by this world and choose the sacred rewards beyond it and beyond the rigid Confucian-Korean system. She is a female role model who goes beyond the limits offered by Confucian-Korean society, where a woman’s worth is only measured by her role as a virtuous wife, obedient daughter and caste widow, and is thus able to heal the world.

Bari’s adventures tell women that it’s possible to follow another path and make their own decisions, beyond whatever the dominant society expects of its women. Bari knows how to adapt to a reality where she has to develop her self, but without being overwhelmed by it and without giving up her struggle to obtain recognition of the dignity of womanhood.

In sum, it’s the life of a magical child with a god-fairy shaman woman grandmother, who inherits Grandmother’s gifts and sets out across the world. Talking telepathically with dogs, in tune with the Earth, Bari can read souls; she can heal souls.

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