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