How Did Korea Get Fiction in the First Place?

By Charles Montgomery

The LARB Korea Blog is currently featuring selections from The Explorer’s History of Korean Fiction in Translation, Charles Montgomery’s book-in-progress that attempts to provide a concise history, and understanding, of Korean literature as represented in translation. You can read the first selection here and the second here.

Korea’s literary preferences have historically leaned toward poetry and song, a common condition in pre-print cultures as rhythm and rhyme make them easy to memorize. Even when reliable tools for writing were perfected, the survival of written materials remained quite uncertain. Unless inscribed in rock, writing is very fragile, especially when contained in bamboo books in an age when Korea often suffered invasions and had its cities looted. Consequently poetry, including poetry sung and chanted, came down from memory to memory as first form of Korean literature, just like Homer’s Odyssey in the West.

Chinese dynastic histories including the Bamboo Annals (prior to 296 BC), History of the Later Han Dynasty (compiled in the 5th century), and History of Wei (compiled 551 to 554) mention the recitation of religious oral literature by the Korean people, as well as the performance of origin myths and histories at early state meetings and in early shamanist-type rituals. These Chinese documents even describe the northern tribes as “the people who enjoy singing and dancing.” Poetry and singing were seen as a way to communicate to and build relationships between Nature, Heaven and Earth, and in this the influences of Animism and Shamanism can certainly be seen.

Korean literature began orally and in the vernacular, but slowly slid into Chinese when it moved to print. Eventually Korea’s literati, known as yangban, practiced literature solely in Chinese, while the rest of society — i.e., the lower classes and women — simply used the Korean language. As Chinese-characters were introduced, narrative folk poetry was replaced by the lyric and didactic variety known as hyangga. Simple, polished, quite lyrical or philosophical, and often short, these poems were initially recorded in Chinese characters that reproduced the sound of Korean words (hyangch’al), creating the first bridge between the two languages.

The creative process still happened in the Korean language, but when hyangch’al disappeared, the schism widened and literature became almost exclusively composed in Chinese, leaving the remainder in the hands of the singers and poets. After hyangga emerged sijo (don’t worry too much about these names; we’ll be explaining them soon), which lived alongside kasa. While sijo continued in the lyrical spirit of hyangga, kasa was didactic and entirely composed in Chinese. This split between the lyric and didactic was exacerbated by the introduction of hangeul, the Korean alphabet, which finally gave the vernacular or “common” literature an outlet in which to be recorded.

Korean poetry has had a handful of predominant forms, all partially associated with the empires under which they flourished, all of which help draw a broad outline of the development of classical Korean fiction. It is a bit artificial to use western poetic conventions to explain Korean poetry, partly because what we think of as “rhyming” is often an inconsequential achievement in modern Korean, a language whose verb forms inherently sound similar similar.

In the classical era’s “mid-rhyming,” for example, the writer of a poem arranged in five-word line would make the first, third word and fifth word play in alliteration, mid-rhyme, and final rhyme. This was possible because the poems were written with Chinese characters — and thus disappeared as hangeul gained dominance. But the idea of syllables is not sufficient to explain Korean poetry. “Korean verses allow a different number of phonemes within a metric unit and the rules of versification metamorphosize freely,” writes the scholar Cho Dong-il — which is a complicated way of saying, listen not to Korean poetry’s syllables, but to the flow of its sound.

Not much remains of the literature of the Silla dynasty, which lasted from 57 BC to 935 AD. What does survive takes the form of hyangga poetry, written in hyangch’al. The word “hyangga,” which means “rural village song” derives from what the Silla people called their empire. A total of fourteen poems were passed down in the Samguk Yusa: Legends And History Of The Three Kingdoms Of Ancient Korea (c.1285), and eleven more survived in the Tales of Kyunyo.

The first of these, recorded in the Samguk Yusa, also informs us that the poem was sung by members of the Karak state during the third moon in the year 42. This is the Seodong-yo (The Ballad of Seodong), an uncomplicated four-line lyric by a commoner named Seodong, who wrote the poem to persuade the king that the king’s daughter has slept with he, Seodong. As it happens, his poetic ruse succeeds: the princess, banished for her fabricated lack of chastity, eventually marries the author.

Hyangga forms vary, including four-line, eight-line, and ten-line poems. In ten-line hyangga, the first section introduces the idea of the poem; the second either distills or distorts feelings related to the topic; in the third, which runs for only two lines, a declaration comes to a strong conclusion. This general form of construction is quite similar to that of the sijo, which we shall discuss shortly. The Buddhist monk Weolmyeong’s Requiem for My Sister, until its rather traditional and predictable religious end, exemplifies the structure quite beautifully:

The road to life and death
Stands fearfully before us.
Without saying good-bye,
Have you left me?

The early morning wind in autumn
Scatters leaves here and there.
Though from the same branch
They know not where they’ve gone.

Oh my dear sister, to see you again in Amitabha’s Paradise,
I shall wait, perfecting Buddha’s way.

(Translation: Robert Fouser)

During the Goryeo dynasty of  918 to 1392 AD, the use of hyangch’al disappeared as conventional Chinese characters came to dominate Korean literature. Hyangga itself did not entirely disappear, but turned from a literary form into a religious one, leaving the so-called Goryeo Songs as a legacy. The elimination of hyangch’al meant that no even approximate way to write down “native” Korean poetry remained, so it continued primarily to be expressed orally. As Chinese characters became the de facto written language of Korean literature, and the Goryeo dynasty become increasingly mannered, Korea’s literati began to look down their nose at poetry composed in hyangch’al, refusing to record and reproduce it. In its place, they developed a new form of poetry, the kasa.

Although primarily oral, kasa lived long enough to be recorded in hangeul during the later Joseon dynasty. Unfortunately, for political and linguistic reasons, the new dynasty was not particularly interested in saving the literature of the previous one. Through conscious destruction and indifference, much literature was lost, though the popularity of kasa itself continued to grow, achieving its greatest heights toward the end of the Joseon era. As the Goryeo dynasty declined, this loss of literature overtook much of the Goryeo works as well. When the Joseon succeeded the Goryeo, it adopted a policy similar to that the Goryeo’s of expunging the “inappropriate” and “obscene” poetry of the recent past — and so barely sixty works of Goryeo poetry survive.

The kasa had two forms: shorter, with one stanza, and longer, with up to thirteen. Each stanza includes a refrain in the middle or at the end intended to establish the mood of the piece or tie the stanzas together. More loosely structured than its predecessors, and took on far bolder topics, even love. It often discussed such subjects rather bluntly, though often also didactically, a quality that over over time saw the kasa lose popularity to the more lyrical sijo. Kisaeng, the officially recognized Korean female courtesans, often performed the kasa, which may give some clue as to the reason behind their directness and sexuality relative to their predecessors. Although kisaeng technically ranked among the lowest in the Korean caste system, they were also entertainers of great skill who sometimes worked for yangban or the court.

Relatively unimportant during the Goryeo period, the kasa became more robust and well-known in the Joseon dynasty in the form of works like the Manjeoncheun, an anonymous love poem likely from the mouth of a kisaeng. Most readers will note a narrator shift towards the end:

Were I to build a bamboo hut on the ice
Were I to die of cold with him on the ice,
O night, run slow, till our love is spent.
When I lie alone, restless, vigilant,
Only peach blossoms wave over the west window.
You have no grief, welcome the spring breeze.
I have believed those who vowed to each other;
“My soul will follow yours forever.”
Who, who persuaded me this was true?
“O duck, beautiful duck, why do you come
To the swamp, instead of the shoal?”
“If the swamp freezes, the shoal will do.
A bed on Mount South, jade pillow, gold brocade.
And beside me a girl sweeter than musk,
Let us press our hearts together, our magic hearts.

Non-kisaeng female writers were generally not published during either the Goryeo or Joseon dynasties, but the record hints that yangban women did write thousands — probably hundreds of thousands — of kasa in hangeul. This was mainly anonymous, and is today known as kyubang kasa, or “inner-room kasa,” so named because the women’s rooms in a traditional hanok house were located toward its center. Mostly instructional in nature and typically given to a younger woman on the occasion of her marriage and departure to her husband’s house, these poems transmit advice and admonition from one generation of women to another:

Listen, my dear child,
Tomorrow is the day of your leave-taking.
Leaving your parents’ home,
You will be entering your husband’s.
As your heart must be,
So is mine, also uneasy.
Your things loaded on a white horse
And the gilt saddle firmly tied down.
As I send you off out the gate
I have much advice to give you…

Neither spellbinding as literature nor intended to be, these vessels of exemplary advice. But in many cases these kyubang kasa, passing from generation to generation,  came to include many other kinds of passages. In fact, while the most common form of kasa was admonitory, the kyubang kasa also included the “songs of lament” and the “songs of flower viewing” — the latter perhaps hinting at the rather philosophical or even effete tendencies sometimes evinced by poetry of the era.

During the Joseon period, from 1392 to 1897, Korean poetry shifted to the sijo. The original sijo poets were yangban who wrote poetry to pass the time and amuse their friends. There is an amusing split here: while “serious” literature was still supposed to still be composed in Chinese characters, or hanja, apparently Goryeo-era yangban had begum to “slum” in hangeul. This may help explain both the spread of hangeul itself and the continued popularity of the sijo form. Its themes, consequently, were often Confucian in nature and focused on loyalty. Sijo had three stanzas (often expressed in lines) of four feet each and can be compared, in some ways, to the Japanese haiku, though the sijo’s longer form allows for greater explication of themes and more syllabic flexibility.

The form of the sijo is semi-regular: three lines of fourteen to sixteen syllables each, with a total between 44 and 46. Readers often first encounter sijo in an “idealized” western structure based on syllable count, but this ideal is complicated and often inaccurate. A more natural way to explain the sijo is that its topic is introduced in the first line, explored in the second line, given a surprise twist at the outset of the third line, and then concluded by the end of that line, a structure intended to create an aesthetically “complete” poem that unfolds in a brief space, but without hurry.

Sijo originated with the yangban’s expression of philosophical or religious concerns, but in the eighteenth century its popularity quickly spread among common people. With this new mass popularity, the form also began to change, ultimately splitting into the p’yong (flat) and changhyong (long) sijo. The new sijo also tended to be less rarified, often focusing on commonplace emotions and satire. The first sijo compilation, the Cheonggu Yeongon, was not printed until 1728, but many individual works remain scattered in the private collections of the families of the yangban who wrote them.

The sijo below was composed by the famed Admiral Yi Sun-sin in 1599, on the eve of a battle with the Japanese — a battle he won, but in which he was unfortunately slain:

At Hansan Island Fortress
Moon-bright night on Hansan Isle, and I sit alone atop the lookout.
I hold my great sword by my side, and as my worries deepen.
From somewhere comes the single note of the Mongol flute, piercing to the very bowels.

Interested readers can find it translated in Richard Butt’s The Bamboo Grove: An Introduction to Sijo.

Pansori, or “story-in-song,” is still enjoyed today. Believed to have developed from the shamanist chants of southeastern Korea in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, pansori differs from those in not being based on religion, and in fact often focusing on more tangible subjects including the yangban and issues of social structure. It began in the second half of the Joseon era (during the reign of King Succhong, or Kim Yeongjo, between so 1674 and 1776) and was most likely — though there is no definitive proof — an outgrowth of shamanic practice in Jeolla-do. But pansori subverts shamanism, and in fact often mocks. To western eyes, pansori may seem less like literature and more like song-and-dance, but Korea considers it a literary form (and recognized, of course, as song and dance as well).

Presented as an up to eight-hour-long narrative musical performance with two performers, a drummer and a singer, it consists of two internal musical forms, the main song called ch’ang and rhythmic spoken passages called aniri, with the latter serving as kind of thread running through and connecting the former. Pansori emerged from a primarily oral tradition, and one that revolved around superhuman characters, myths, and the like, but by the late Joseon period it had evolved into a set of stories based on more typical events using human characters. The plots, therefore, became increasingly “true to life.” Pansori mixed prose and verse as well as vernacular language, including slang, sarcasm and jokes, with the more traditional classical language of the past.

In terms of literary “quality,” pansori was a kind of pastiche that included well-known truisms, a surprising amount of earthy humor, and a mixture of high- and low-level speech (the Korean language has formal registers for communication between equals and those who are not equal, for various reasons including age, education, and sex). As time went by, this latter set of opposites caused pansori, initially the literature of the common man, to split into two schools: a common version representing entertainment for the masses, and another that continued to depict the lives of the royal court.

Pansori began in the oral tradition, but passed down from generation to generation, they became increasingly memorialized in print as well. There were two different stylistic strands:the sung (indicated by the Korean word ka) and the written (cheon). According to Kim Hyunggu, the three most popular pansori novels were Tales of Shim Cheong, The Tale of Chunghyang, and The Tale of Heungbu, the last of which remains popular as a children’s tale.

As the popularity of these and similar works grew, and as they were transmitted in first oral and, from eighteenth century on, written form, novels that appealed to common tastes were increasingly prevalent, partly due to the fact that they were also now available in hangeul. Over time, pansori moved away from relentless focus on one main character, and so-called “family novels” became more popular. This period represents the first mercantilization of Korean literature, when we can first see the focus of the works themselves move away from the self-expression and meditations of the yangban to material crafter for success in the emerging fiction market.

The length and breadth of pansori, as well as the general appreciation for the form, lead to its becoming, in a sense, the first “common” literature of Korea. As it began to spread in printed form, it gave first form to the Korean “classic” novel. Peaking in the nineteenth century, pansori entered a slow, apparenly inevitable decline thereafter. Performances of it can still be seen in Korea, usually in extremely truncated forms, and only in locations of formal cultural presentation such as the National Theater at Mt. Namsan.

Before we can continue to the creation of the “classic” novel and the invention of literature as we know it now, we must take a short detour next time to discuss perhaps the most important development in the emergence of a common Korean literature: the unprecedented creation of a national alphabet, hangeul.

Related Korea Blog posts: 

Where is Korean Translated Literature?

What Shaped Translated Korean Literature?

Looking Back at Modern Short Stories from Korea, the Very First Collection of Korean Fiction in English

The Triumph of Han Kang and the Rise of Women’s Writing in Korea

Bright Lies, Big City: Korean Authors and Seoul

 

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