The Foresight of Dark Knowing

Chōng Kam nok and Insurrectionary Prognostication in Pre-Modern Korea

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John Jorgensen
Korean Classics Library: Philosophy and Religion
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawai'i Press
    , June
     462 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As the first Western language translation of the Chŏng Kam Nok, John Jorgensen’s The Foresight of Dark Knowing: Chŏng Kam Nok and Insurrectionary Prognostication in Pre-Modern Korea, is an event in international Korean Studies. The Chŏng Kam Nok is a prime example of the prophetic and dissident literature of Korea, but has remained in the shadows of academic research in the 20th century. Despite the diversity of the texts that make up the collection of prophecies, the Chŏng Kam Nok corpus offers a unique interpretation—through the viewpoint of literati groups removed from power or marginalized in society—which is key to reconsidering the History of the Yi Dynasty (1392-1910).

Expressed in deliberately veiled terms (glyphomancy) or coded according to divinatory terminology (numerology, cycles of time, Five Phases, hexagrams), the reader needs to be aware of the political and social issues alluded to in the various texts. To enable interpretation of such obscure writings, Jorgensen provides the necessary contextual explanations and an interpretation key, displaying his knowledge of languages, techniques, and primary sources. Previous translations of the Chŏng Kam Nok, in Japanese and Korean (Yi Minsu, 1985), were not suitable for academic purposes given their lack of these vital sections. However, Jorgensen achieves this eligibility by providing a critical English translation reference—supported by 1,263 footnotes—and abundant historical contextualization.

The “Translator’s Introduction” forms an abridged version of divinatory and political dissidence history during the Chosŏn dynasty, including contradictions between nativist geomancy, forbidden in the 15th century, and Chinese orthodox geomancy imported into the court since the establishment of the Yi Dynasty (39-194). These contradictions include the history of plots, rebellions, social frustrations, secret societies, censorship, and political propaganda posters (kwaesŏ), that illustrate the evolution of the political and social turmoil. Although the Koryŏ Period (918-1392) is not affected by predictions that the Yi Dynasty would overthrow it, Jorgensen’s treatment of this period (50-82)—during which nativist political geomancy (Toson writings, milgi or pigi, pibo geomancy, geomancy of capital cities) was founded—is remarkable. His introduction constitutes a unique synthesis of international research—quoting among others Korean, Japanese, Chinese, American, and European sources—confirming the Chŏng Kam Nok as a major corpus of premodern historiography. The introduction is of interest to historians, experts, and students, and should be developed into a separate work examining the political and social history of dissidence under the Chosŏn.

To initially understand the Korean mentality, then denigrate the colonized populace, various works and versions (classical Chinese and Korean) that compose the Chŏng Kam Nok were collected by Ayukai Fusahoshin (1864-1946) and published for the first time by Hosoi Hajime in 1923. It is the re-editing of the Chŏng Kam Nok in 1981, with an introduction by An Ch'un'gun, that helped to popularize the corpus and spread its influence. Using Hajime’s 1923 edition, Jorgensen translates the thirty-two main texts of the collection, separating them into those that can be connected to historical events (the choice of the new capital of Hanyang, the rebellion of Chŏng Yŏrip in 1589, the Imjin Japanese invasion, banishment of Yu Hyorip in 1628, and others through the end of the 19th century) and those attributed to diviners, geomancers (Chŏng Kam, Chŏng Pukch’ang, Nam Sago, Tu Sach’ong, Yi, Tŭgyu, Yi T’ojŏng, and Chŏng Sun), and Buddhist monks (Yixing, Ŭisang, Tosŏn, Muhak, and Sŏsan). Jorgensen’s introduction and translation notes allow for the interpretation of the Chŏng Kam Nok according to the political and social requirements that existed at the time. Even though the dynastic regime on which it was based has disappeared, the Chŏng Kam Nok's narratives continued to nourish or legitimize new religious movements in the 20th century through the notion of providential (messianic) “True man” (chin’in), and its contribution to Korean studies cannot be ignored.

The criticisms that can be made about the book are minor and come from a desire to examine the questions raised by Jorgensen’s translation. Additionally, the absence of a systematic critical and comparative analysis of the extant versions, in particular the differences between those in Classical Chinese and Korean, is regrettable. Jorgensen’s chronological approach, while providing historical context, does not allow for the contemporary analysis a thematic approach could have provided nor does it attempt to make a connection between the Chŏng Kam Nok and Korean oral tradition. Finally, while the bibliography is extensive, it does not adequately address South Korean research on Chŏng Kam Nok done in the 2010s.

As a “first step into the world of the pre-modern Korean dissenters and rebels from their perspective,” The Foresight of Dark Knowing: Chŏng Kam Nok and Insurrectionary Prognostication in Pre-Modern Korea is a welcome addition. Jorgensen’s historical introduction and translation reference make it a noteworthy contribution to a field formerly restricted to specialists.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Yannick Bruneton is Professor of Korean Studies in the East Asian Languages and Civilizations Department at the Université Paris Diderot.

Date of Review: 
February 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Jorgensen is Senior Research Fellow at the China Studies Research Centre at La Trobe University.


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