Book Reviews 

An Introduction to Classical Korean Literature from Hyangga to P'ansori by Kichung Kim. Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1996. 231 pages. 

An introduction to classical Korean literature written in English that is both interesting to general readers and has depth of scholarship sounds like a near-impossible combination. Professor Kichung Kim's aim in writing this book was just that combination, and he has fully achieved that aim. 
In this book Prof. Kim invites the readers to share his exciting exploration into the body of literature which remains shrouded in mystery, imperfectly understood, and unduly neglected. In the eleven chapters of this book he makes it accessible to a general readership and successfully infects the readers with his love for and enchantment with it. 
Prof. Kim begins by taking a good look at the problem of defining what is Korean literature, which is not a rhetorical or an imaginary question at all but a very real one, as the Korean alphabet was invented only in the mid-fifteenth century, and even thereafter the literati continued to favor the Chinese script for all serious composition. 
The second chapter captures the exquisite suggestiveness and mystery of the hyangga, the vernacular poetry of Shilla Dynasty. Reading hyangga is an extremely intricate process, as the texts utilize some Chinese characters for their meaning value and some for their sound value. Prof. Kim is baffled, like the rest of us, by those lines and passages in hyangga which refuse to yield up meaning, but he also finds in their cryptic lines exquisite suggestiveness. Here, for example, is an old man's offer to climb a cliff to pluck a flower a passing dignitary's young wife admires: 

If you would let me leave 
The cattle tethered to the brown rocks, 
And feel no shame for me, 
I would pluck and dedicate the flower! 

Why does he say he would climb and pluck the flower only if she should "feel no shame for [him]"? Is it because he is self-conscious about his age and appearance? We don't know, but we are charmed. 
In chapter three, Prof. Kim finds the source of the incomparable lyricism of the best Koryo Dynasty (918-1392) songs in the interplay between their origin in orally transmitted folk songs and their later adoption as court music. Unlike the majority of scholars, he finds great functional and musical value in the meaningless (or meaning undiscovered) "refrains" interspersed through Koryo songs. He speculates that they probably represent the sound of the instrumental accompaniment. He also discusses in this chapter the theme of parting and loss that is one of the central themes, if not the central theme, of Korean literature. He finds the reason for the theme's prominence in the many national calamities - the Mongol, Japanese, and Manchu invasions, the Japanese occupation, and the Korean War, to name just the most obvious examples - which invariably meant for Koreans the loss of, separation from, or abandonment by loved ones. Over the years, Koreans have learned to accept separation as an inevitable part of life, and this reconciliation is responsible for the lyric pain found in so much of Korean poetry.  
In chapter five, Prof. Kim demonstrates the charm and versatility of the light, succinct and poignant lyric poem called shijo. He analyzes the three-part structure of shijo - intimation of the theme, elaboration, and resolution - and locates the attraction of shijo in "[the] unassuming, unselfconscious lyricism that seems to give [it] a kind of constancy that wears well, for it speaks in the same clear voice each time we encounter it." The account of his experiment in shijo composition with his students shows that shijo has ample potential for becoming a universal medium. 
Prof. Kim exhibits extraordinary sensitivity and powerful sympathy for the frustrations and anguish of oppressed women in chapter six, which is devoted to the literary output of Yi Dynasty women. As Prof. Kim notes, "Choson women were not allowed to be whole but were merely a stunted half serving either as a wife who bore children and managed the family and household, or as an occasional lover and playmate." So, they were desperate, determined women who broke the powerful taboo on women's self-expression and wrote about their bitterness and grief. Or they were kisaeng (female entertainers), "[whose] privilege of freedom was her bondage." The kisaeng wrote not only romantic love poems, as befitting their primary role as lovers, but drew on their sad privilege of freedom to write witty, sarcastic verses. There are other gems of prose and poetic works by women, many of which are anonymous. 
Chapter seven deals exclusively with Ho Kyun, who was something of a male rebel and a most unorthodox thinker. Hong Kiltong, the hero of Ho's celebrated fiction written in the Korean script, becomes a righteous bandit and champion of the poor, in defiance of the discriminations he suffered as an illegitimate son. Hong Kiltong contains supernatural feats and fantastic adventures; Ho's "Lives" written in hannum script, in contrast, are sober and realistic appraisals of his society, calling for an end to the collective blindness of his own yangban class and a commitment to value a man for his abilities and accomplishments rather than his lineage and social status. 
Chapter nine focuses on Pak Ji-won, another pioneer thinker and critic of the Yi Dynasty social structure. Pak is famous for his journal which contains his reflections on how to reform and strengthen the country; allegorical fables; a Utopian fiction; and other pieces of indeterminate genre. Prof. Kim finds especially intriguing Pak's story of a faithful wife who starved herself to death after her husband's demise. Was hers an act of virtue? Is the social system that honors a widow for following her husband in death a good one? The author didn't clarify his stance on this question. So, Prof. Kim provides the entire story (or essay) to let the readers decide for themselves. 
Discussion of the complexity and thematic double-vision of pansori, often described as the Korean operetta, constitutes chapter ten. It is impossible to convey verbally the fascination and exhilaration of a virtuoso performance of pansori. However, the keen critical spirit and imaginative fertility of the libretti (the basic text upon which the singers improvised and extemporized) may be appreciated. 
The concluding chapter brings the readers up to the threshold of "modern" Korean literature--that is, up to Yi Kwang-su's first "modern" novel "Heartlessness." Prof. Kim describes how, faced with the crisis in national sovereignty, patriotic scholars tried to make hangul, the Korean alphabet, a suitable medium for expressing the entire range of human thoughts and emotions and thus an adequate tool for enlightenment. The impact of the Korean translation of the Bible is also given the attention it deserves. 
In all, An Introduction to Classical Korean Literature gives a very good overall view of Korea's literary heritage from ancient times to the nineteenth century. Through the book the readers not only make a pleasurable acquaintance with the masterpieces of classical Korean literature but also learn about the historical circumstances, ideologies, conventions and attitudes that gave birth to the literature. Prof. Kim skillfully weaves just the right amount of background information into the literary analysis of the works, so the readers' attention is never diverted and the pace of reading never flags. 
My only reservation about this book is that Prof. Kim, obviously out of modesty and deference for senior scholars and translators, tended to use existing translations and refrained from pointing out their inaccuracies and inadequacies. His modesty is part of the charm of this book, and gives it the authority of judicious, unbiased discussion.  
However, in providing translations, I wish he had been more self-assertive. 
In this book Prof. Kim covered most of the works of Korean classical literature of primary importance and undisputed literary value. It is hoped that he will produce a sequel to this volume, expanding his studies to less discussed but no less intriguing works, such as short stories written in Chinese script, much "folk" and religious literature, important diaries and journals, and political and philosophical tracts of great literary value. 
The publication of this book is a very timely event for Korean studies. With interest in Korean literature rising in the U.S. and elsewhere, this book will be an excellent text to those with serious scholarly interest in Korean literature and will provide refreshing and interesting reading material to all lovers of literature.

Reviewed by Suh Ji-moon
Professor of English, Korea University