The History of Korean Modern Literature: Classical Lit

Korean Literature InfluencesAs part of my preparation for my presentation at the 10 Magazine Book Club on March 31st, I’m going back to try to address some of the gaps in my knowledge of Korean lit (and prepare a short book/essay explaining Korean literature to my potential listeners)…. The first step of that is to fix up my bad understanding of Korean Classical literature…

Here is the first bit of that, talking about the classical lit and working through the first two major poetic forms of Classical Korean Literature.

Korean literature can be divided into two parts, classical literature, and modern literature. Roughly speaking, classical literature endured until the 20th Century, and the colonialization of Korea by Japan, and modern literature began at about the beginning of the 20th century. However, you can’t understand Korean modern literature if you don’t understand its predecessor. In general, Korean literature moves between two poles, one featuring tremendous emotion and the other featuring control, both personal and social. These poles are the result of the early influences on Korean literature, which were Shamanism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. Shamanism, particularly influences Korean emotionalism, while Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism in different ways influences the tendency to control and be controlled. Combined, these influences created an early literature expressed orally, and one portraying a love of and relationship to nature within which man was just one part of the larger picture. The literature was often quite mannered, with evil deeds punished, good deeds (eventually) rewarded, and a series of relationships structured by loyalty – to the King, to parents, to elders, to friends and to ‘proper’ sexual relations, meaning chastity.

One of the ongoing tensions in understanding Korean literature is the question of the two “alphabets” used in Korean literature. For centuries, the “alphabet” of Korea was actually Chinese characters. To read, write and study in Chinese was the mark of a cultured man – in many ways Chinese characters were to the Korean intelligentsia exactly as Latin and Greek used to be to the educated man in the Western world. One of the implications of this is that much early literature in Korea was heavily influenced by Chinese thoughts, although by no means to the exclusion of uniquely Korean experiences and expressions.

Korea’s literary preference has always canted towards poetry. In a pre-written environment this is common to many cultures as the rhythm and rhyme of poetry makes it much easier to memorize. In addition, written materials we, perhaps unintiutively, less robust. Unless writing is inscribed in rock, it is very fragile and the bamboo of which early books were composed was fragile during a time that Korea was often invaded and had its capitals trashed. So, poetry, passed down from memory to memory, was the first form of Korean literature. Korean poetry has four predominant forms; Hyangga, Pyolgok/Changga/Koryo Kasa, Sijo, and Kasa and these forms are partially associated with the empires in which they flourished.

Very little remains of the literature of the Silla Period (57 BC to 935 AD). What does remain is the form of Hyangga poetry, which was written down in hyangch’al script (please see sidebar). The word Hyangaa means “rural village song” deriving from what the Silla people called their empire. A total of fourteen poems were passed down in the Samguk Yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms) and 11 more have been passed down in the Kyunyojon (Tales of Kyunyo). The form of Hyangga is varied with some 4-line, 8-line, and 10-line poems. What is interesting to note is that in comparison to Western poetry these poems are quite short, and as we shall see this tradition partially continued as Korean literature developed. Thematically, the Hyangga are Buddhist and/or warrior-based and they are often euologistic – a manifestation, perhaps of the Korean love of social structure.

During the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392 AD) the use of hyanggch’al disappeared as conventional Chinese characters came to dominate Korean literature. Hyangga did not entirely disappear, but it became a religious form rather than a literary one. The new form of poetry was the Koryeo Kayo (or Pyolgok). As with the Hyangga, this form was primarily oral, but it lived long enough to be recorded in writing (Hangul) in the Joseon Dynasty. The Kasa took two forms, a short (one stanza – dallyeonche (단련체)) form and a longer form (yeonjanche (연잔체) of multiple stanzas ranging up to thirteen. Each stanza includes a refrain in the middle or at the end that was intended to establish the mood of the piece or tie the stanzas together. In addition, the Kasa was less formally structured, and took on far bolder topics including love, which was often discussed rather bluntly. The Kasa was often performed by Kisaeng (see sidebar), which may give some clue as to why they were more direct and sexual than their predecessors.


18 thoughts on “The History of Korean Modern Literature: Classical Lit

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  2. Dear Kuiwon,

    Some begins in the next post (already up) which discusses Sijo and Joseon Kasa. More will sneak through in the “Literature” section, since Pansori is often categorized that way.

    OTOH, if you have resources that I should look at for inclusion, I’d love to see them. This series of posts is partly an attempt to educate myself, so any input is valuable to me.

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  4. I would recommend looking up Shi by Kim Satgat. I believe there is a book with English translations of all of his poems written in Literary Chinese (he did write a few in mixed script). You can also try scouring online in the Korean blogosphere. There are plenty of Korean translations of Shi written by Korean authors. Databases I recommend are: and

  5. Aah.. I have not seen that… There is a recently translated book of his poems that I have in hand. I’ve been struggling where to fit him in because his story is so good (I also saw your article about a Kwon Pil in which you mentioned similarities to Sakkat – LOL, you’ll notice I’ve blogrolled you since that day). What you are seeing on the site are rough drafts for a much larger project that will include many sidebars and graphics and I want to figure out how to fit Sakkat into that. My knowledge is weak. If you don’t mind, I’ll hit you up on email so we can discuss this further?

  6. I am not sure how much of a help you can be. I actually didn’t know about Kwon Pil until about two or three months before I published that post. Having said that, you’re welcome to email me. Kim Satgat has a quite story. Most Koreans who’ve never read anything he wrote in the original Hanja probably know about him.

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