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Korean literature

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Korean literature , the body of works written by Koreans, at first in Classical Chinese , later in various transcription systems using Chinese characters , and finally in Hangul (Korean: han’gŭl ; Hankul in the Yale romanization), the national alphabet.

Although Korea has had its own language for several thousand years, it has had a writing system only since the mid-15th century, when Hangul was invented. As a result, early literary activity was in Chinese characters. Korean scholars were writing poetry in the traditional manner of Classical Chinese at least by the 4th century ce . A national academy was established shortly after the founding of the Unified Silla dynasty (668–935), and, from the time of the institution of civil service examinations in the mid-10th century until their abolition in 1894, every educated Korean read the Confucian Classics and Chinese histories and literature . The Korean upper classes were therefore bilingual in a special sense: they spoke Korean but wrote in Chinese.

By the 7th century a system, called idu, had been devised that allowed Koreans to make rough transliterations of Chinese texts. Eventually, certain Chinese characters were used for their phonetic value to represent Korean particles of speech and inflectional endings. A more extended system of transcription, called hyangch’al , followed shortly thereafter, in which entire sentences in Korean could be written in Chinese. In another system, kugyŏl, abridged versions of Chinese characters were used to denote grammatical elements and were inserted into texts during transcription. Extant literary works indicate, however, that before the 20th century much of Korean literature was written in Chinese rather than in Korean, even after the invention of Hangul.

In general, then, literature written in Korea falls into three categories: works written in the early transcription systems, those written in Hangul, and those written in Chinese.

Traditional forms and genres

There are four major traditional poetic forms: hyangga (“native songs”); pyŏlgok (“special songs”), or changga (“long poems”); sijo (“current melodies”); and kasa (“verses”). Other poetic forms that flourished briefly include the kyŏnggi style in the 14th and 15th centuries and the akchang (“words for songs”) in the 15th century. The most representative akchang is Yongbi ŏch’ŏn ka (1445–47; “Songs of Flying Dragons” ), a cycle compiled in praise of the founding of the Chosŏn (Yi) dynasty . Korean poetry originally was meant to be sung, and its forms and styles reflect its melodic origins. The basis of its prosody is a line of alternating groups of three or four syllables, probably the most natural rhythm to the language.

The oldest poetic form is the hyangga , poems transcribed in the hyangch’al system, dating from the middle period of the Unified Silla dynasty to the early period of the Koryŏ dynasty (935–1392). The poems were written in four, eight, or 10 lines; the 10-line form—comprising two four-line stanzas and a concluding two-line stanza—was the most popular. The poets were either Buddhist monks or members of the Hwarangdo, a school in which chivalrous youth were trained in civil and military virtues in preparation for state service. Seventeen of the 25 extant hyangga are Buddhist in inspiration and content.

The pyŏlgok , or changga, flourished during the middle and late Koryŏ period. It is characterized by a refrain either in the middle or at the end of each stanza. The refrain establishes a mood or tone that carries the melody and spirit of the poem or links a poem composed of discrete parts with differing contents. The theme of most of these anonymous poems is love, the joys and torments of which are expressed in frank and powerful language. The poems were sung to musical accompaniments chiefly by women entertainers known as kisaeng .

The sijo is the longest-enduring and most popular form of Korean poetry. Although some poems are attributed to writers of the late Koryŏ dynasty, the sijo is primarily a poetic form of the Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910). Sijo are three-line poems in which each line has 14 to 16 syllables and the total number of syllables seldom exceeds 45. Each line consists of groups of four syllables. Sijo may deal with Confucian ethical values, but there are also many poems about nature and love. The principal writers of sijo in the first half of the Chosŏn dynasty were members of the Confucian upper class ( yangban ) and the kisaeng. In the latter part of the Chosŏn dynasty, a longer form called sasŏl sijo (“narrative sijo ”) evolved. The writers of this form were mainly common people; hence, the subject matter included more down-to-earth topics such as trade and corruption as well as the traditional topic of love. In addition, sasŏl sijo frequently employed slang, vulgar language, and onomatopoeia.

The kasa developed at about the same time as the sijo. In its formative stage, kasa borrowed the form of the Chinese tz’u (lyric poetry) or fu (rhymed prose). The kasa tends to be much longer than other forms of Korean poetry and is usually written in balanced couplets. Either line of a couplet is divided into two groups, the first having three or four syllables and the second having four syllables. The history of the kasa is divided into two periods, the division being marked by the Japanese invasion of 1592–97. During the earlier period the poem was generally about 100 lines long and dealt with such subjects as female beauty, war, and seclusion. The writers were usually yangban. During the later period the poem tended to be longer and to concern itself with moral instruction, travel accounts, banishment, and the writer’s personal misfortunes. The later writers were usually commoners.

Immediately after the founding of the Chosŏn dynasty at the end of the 14th century and the establishment of the new capital in Seoul, a small group of poetic songs called akchang was written to celebrate the beginning of the new dynasty. In its earliest examples the form of akchang was comparatively free, borrowing its style from early Chinese classical poetry. Whereas the early akchang are generally short, the later Yongbi ŏch’ŏn ka consists of 125 cantos.

Books and Bao

18 Must-Read Korean Novels in English

By: Author Will Heath

Posted on Last updated: 7th September 2022

Ask anyone with at least one eye on world literature in translation which countries are putting out the most groundbreaking novels, and they will likely mention South Korea .

Korean novels frequently bend and break genres, explore often untouched social and political themes, and speak to our very souls.

korean novels in translation

Outstanding Korean Novels in Translation

If you’re looking for the best Korean novels in English translation, this list of ten is the perfect place to start.

Many of the Korean authors (and translators) mentioned here have entire libraries available for you to explore once you’ve exhausted this list.

You can also subscribe to the Korean Literature Now Magazine and browse their website to keep with the latest news, poetry, fiction, and articles.

A note on names: In Korea, family names come first, and publishers of Korean novels in translation seem to often disagree over whether or not to flip them for English language readers. Some do, some don’t. You get used to it.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo

Translated by Jamie Chang

kim jiyoung born 1982 cho nam-joo

Approaching a book like Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is an enormous undertaking; something that should be done with real consideration.

The novel has sold over a million copies in its native South Korea, has been adapted into a successful Korean film , and has been a huge spark for the fires of the #metoo movement in South Korea.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is a novel that has achieved so much, done so much good, and is now finally available to English-speaking readers.

Even knowing where to begin with reviewing it is a trial. This book is important. It really matters.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 can be seen as the novelisation of the lived experiences of every ordinary Korean woman for the past forty years. It traces the life of a single woman from early childhood to marriage and motherhood .

The book begins with her being given an appointment with a psychiatrist in 2016 after she has developed a disturbing condition wherein she impersonates the voices of, and embodies the personalities of, the women in her life both alive and dead.

This condition is what initially introduces us to her character, and it is a very clear statement to the reader that Kim Jiyoung speaks for every ordinary woman of 20 th and 21 st Century South Korea.

Everything you may have heard about Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 being an impactful and important piece of feminist fiction is true.

It is a book that brings to light the everyday misogyny, sexism, ignorance, aggression, bias, and abuse (both active and passive) that women in South Korea (and, of course, the world over) suffer and do their best to survive in this modern world.

To really get the most out of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 , one of the most powerful Korean novels, it’s important to first understand the novel’s purpose.

It is not a story with a view to entertaining us. It is a book that enlightens, and encourages anger in, its readers. Kim Jiyoung is not an individual.

She is not a character to form a bond with. She is every abuse victim. She is every woman who has encountered sexism at home, at school, in the workplace, and on the street, and who perhaps never even realised it.

Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park

Translated by Anton Hur

love in the big city sang young park

Love in the Big City is a queer Korean love story. It is a tale of hedonism and friendship; a book about looking at life from all angles: with love and hate and anger and fear in our eyes.

Divided into four acts, Love in the Big City begins with Young at university, living his best life with close friend Jaehee.

The two of them live together, party hard, sleep around, and look out for one another. But, eventually, Jaehee wants to get married and grow up.

This Korean novel’s second act explores Young’s relationship to his mother, now and in the past, and the third act sees him chasing love, finding it, being let down by it, and finding it again.

Translated elegantly and beautifully by Anton Hur, Love in the Big City considers how we live our lives when time is ticking, when there is fun to be had and things to be seen; when there are things to fear and people who want to hurt us.

This is also a novel full of charming details. Young and Jaehee, in their early days, look out for one another.

He keeps her stocked with Marlboro cigarettes and she keeps the fridge full of fruits (blueberries are his favourites).

Those details aren’t all positive — the novel doesn’t shy away from moments of pain and fear and difficulty. Young encounters homophobia and his relationship with his mother is strain in more ways than one.

Love in the Big City paints a raw and honest but ultimately kind picture of love and life in the modern day, and for that, it is one of the finest modern Korean novels.

Violets by Kyung-sook Shin

violets kyung sook shin

Kyung-sook Shin is one of South Korea’s most beloved and revered authors. One read of Violets and it’s easy to see why.

This is a feminist tale about friendship in the modern world, and about the insidious, subtle ways in which men abuse women on a daily basis.

One of the most impactful and changing Korean novels of the past few years, Violets begins with its protagonist, San, as a young girl in 1970. She lives in a small village and is a lonely social outsider.

In the opening chapter, San shares a moment of tender intimacy with her best friend. For San, this is an awakening. For her friend, it is frightening and wrong.

They don’t see each other again, and we spend the rest of the novel with San as a twenty-something living in Seoul.

When San takes a job as a florist, she develops a sweet friendship with her coworker, who soon moves in with her. But San is also at the whim of men.

She learns how men violate the spaces and bodies of women on a daily basis, in a way that seems almost invisible.

Violets has the power to reshape how we all see the social dynamics at play between men and women.

The physical and verbal weapons softly used by men to scare, suppress, and intimidate the women in their lives. It’s a novel that leaves a mark, but also a tender and beautiful narrative.

Watch our full video review of Violets

I Want to Die But I Want to Eat Tteokbokki by Baek Sehee

I Want to Die But I Want to Eat Tteokbokki

In her introduction to this incredible book, author Baek Sehee notes that her hope is for people to read this book and think, “ I wasn’t the only person who felt like this .”

To that end, I Want to Die But I Want to Eat Tteokbokki is an exercise in empathy; in the author opening up her chest and letting her darkest feelings tumble out, in the hope that you will feel understood.

Depression is isolating, frightening, and draining. Knowing there’s someone else out there who has felt this way — who still feels this way — can be incredibly comforting.

I Want to Die But I Want to Eat Tteokbokki is unique amongst these other Korean novels in that it isn’t actually a novel, but rather a kind of epistolary narrative that tracks a woman’s life through therapy.

Most chapters begin and/or end with a confession: a personal experience or a feeling related to the author’s depression and anxieties. The rest of the chapter is a transcript of a therapy session.

These sessions divulge personal experiences and opinions, and also provide us with advice and understanding from the therapist as they listen to the author’s experiences.

It feels very voyeuristic, getting to know the inner thoughts and feelings of this author so intimately, but the sense of companionship that comes from it all is so appreciated.

Writing something so revealing and honest must have taken incredible courage, but Baek Sehee has done so with the selfless desire to help others feel less alone and unique in their pain.

If you struggle with depression, or know someone who does, I Want to Die But I Want to Eat Tteokbokki is a lesson in empathy and a hug from a comrade-in-suffering.

The Plotters by Un-su Kim

Translated by Sora Kim-Russell

the plotters un-su kim

The most important thing to note about The Plotters is that it’s billed as a thriller, but it is actually far more than that.

Rather than blending genres and emerging as a kind of Frankenstein’s Monster of different styles, The Plotters rather refuses to acknowledge genre.

That is what sets this book apart and allows it the chance to surprise its readers chapter after chapter.

The Plotters tells the story of Reseng, a successful assassin raised in The Doghouse Library – a library filled with books but empty of people, somewhere in Seoul – by an enigmatic old man known as Old Raccoon.

Reseng has grown up knowing of nothing but the business of assassination, and curiously also knowing very little about that, either.

This is a piece of penetrating fiction driven by its eccentric but grounded characters, providing a unique and entertaining setting and circumstance, and telling a story subtly tied to the history and politics of modern day Korea.

After the Korean War and the separation of the two Koreas along the thirty-eighth parallel, control of North Korea was seized by the Kim regime.

What is lesser-known, however, is that South Korea too did not have democratic freedom until the 1980s, suffering through martial law for some decades.

This key aspect of Korean history plays into the story of The Plotters , as the democratisation creates a power struggle amongst assassins and leaves room for a different kind of man to take charge.

Blending this wild and wonderful story of assassins who work from an old library with real-world political events allows for some subtle commentary on the nature of fascism, martial law, democracy, and even capitalism, with regards to how these things affect the kinds of lives people can lead. Even assassins are not immune to political shifts.

The Plotters is one of the most ambitious Korean novels; something that has to be read to be believed. Its ability to defy genre, allow its plot to be carried along by comedy and eccentric characters, and keep a slow pace that takes its time without losing an ounce of momentum, is truly staggering.

It takes influence from the tumultuous events of South Korea’s recent past without becoming dry and melancholy. Most importantly of all, it is fantastically fun.

Tower by Bae Myung-hoon

Translated by Sung Ryu

tower bae myung-hoon

Tower is a truly unique and boundary-pushing piece of Korean science fiction. When we look at Korean novels in translation, too few of them are genre fiction. But that is slowly changing, and Tower is a Korean book you need to pick up and read.

As its name implies, this piece of Korean sci-fi is set entirely in an enormous tower. This titular tower is a nation unto itself, home to 500,000 people.

Bae implies that it was built on Korean soil but this is never explicitly stated.

The book is divided into a series of interconnected speculative tales, all set within this solitary tower nation known as Beanstalk.

The world-building is fantastic, as the tower needs to be a believable place in order for the author’s disparate tales to work. Infrastructure, economy, politics, and daily life all need to be accounted for and designed in a way that the reader can understand and appreciate.

The six stories in Tower are tied together by the place itself and by recurring characters and events. And each story serves to further build the world while also telling an entirely self-contained tale.

In that sense, this is a unique piece of Korean fiction that blends the concepts of the novel and the short story collection.

And each tale also, as all good science fiction does, poses an ethical, political, or philosophical quandary for us to muse over.

I’m Waiting for You by Kim Bo-young

Translated by Sung Ryu and Sophie Bowman

i'm waiting for you kim bo-young

With the spread of Korean science fiction into the West, through the hard work of talented and dedicated translators like Ryu and Bowman, we get incredible gems like this one.

I’m Waiting for You is one of the best Korean novels published in the past few years. Here’s why.

Kim Bo-Young is a legend of Korean literature, and even worked as a script editor on Oscar-winning director Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer .

With I’m Waiting for You , readers can see first-hand why she’s such a special sci-fi author. This collection of four stories is essential reading amongst sci-fi books by women writers.

The four stories in this collection actually work as two pairs.

The first and fourth stories — I’m Waiting For You and On My Way to You — are the same tale told from two perspectives: a bride and groom each making their way home to Earth for their wedding ceremony.

The second and third stories — The Prophet of Corruption and That One Life — which are also the longest and shortest tales respectively, are a blend of religion, mysticism, and science fiction.

In these two middle tales, the characters are a set of gods, and it is quickly revealed that they created Earth as a school in which they themselves can learn and grow.

The main protagonist of The Prophet of Corruption , Naban, is a single god whose prophets, disciples, and children all separated from them like cells. Individually, they spend entire lifetimes on Earth, learning and experiencing and dying.

Naban believes in asceticism as a school of learning; their children are reborn in low roles; they suffer and toil and eventually return home. But some are rebelling against this approach to living and learning.

What makes these stories so tantalisingly addictive is both Kim’s world-building and also her attempt at writing gods as characters, with motivations and behaviours different from our own.

The stories that bookend this collection are each written in an epistolary fashion, as letters to the other. In I’m Waiting For You , our nameless groom is trying to make it to Earth, and is updating his bride each time something goes awry (and a lot goes awry).

The same is true in On My Way to You , only here the bride has her own hurdles to get over. These two stories are heartbreaking. You’ll root for them, cry for them, hope against hope that things will work out for them.

The Age of Doubt by Pak Kyongni

age of doubt pak kyongni

Translated by some of the best Koean-to-English translators working in the industry right now — including Anton Hur, Sophie Bowman, and Mattho Mandersloot — this is a humbling short story collection.

Pak Kyongni was one of Korea’s most celebrated and renowned authors, writing in the decades following the Korean War and through a South Korean dictatorship.

What we have here are six stories and a commentary, all written during the 1950s and 60s, which shed a light on the ordinary lives and tragedies of everyday people during that period.

Many of these tales focus on women and their families, such as the titular The Age of Doubt , which follows a woman who lost her husband to the war and her young son to an accident shortly after.

Or the similarly titled The Age of Darkness , which details the intertwined lives of a family shaken by a shared tragedy.

Few authors have ever shaken the Korean literary landscape like Pak Kyongni, and to have a selection of her early tales translated in this fashion, in a single collection, is a true gift!

My Brilliant Life by Ae-ran Kim

Translated by Chi-young Kim

my brilliant life ae-ran kim

Adapted into a Korean film, and now available in English translation by the translator of Kyung-sook Shin’s Please Look After Mother , My Brilliant Life is a gorgeous gut-punch of a literary novel by Korean author Ae-ran Kim.

My Brilliant Life tells the story of Areum, a sixteen-year-old boy with a degenerative disease. He is not likely to live much longer, given that he has the internal organs of a man in his eighties. Before he dies, however, Areum has a gift he wishes to give to his parents:

“My plan was this: write the story of my parents from the very beginning and give this to them on my seventeenth birthday. Instead of awards or a college diploma, I would gift them this story.”

Areum’s parents were childhood sweethearts; they had him when they themselves were only sixteen. Despite being careless, they made a beautiful family together and Areum became a gift. They formed a perfect, loving family together; something truly inspiring.

Thanks to his parents and their love, Areum has lived a wonderful life, despite its length. And he is grateful for this, so he wishes to give them one final present that highlights and celebrates the beauty of their love and their life together.

Throughout Areum’s youth, his parents have romanced him with stories of their own lives, their young years, and their relationship.

He uses these stories to build his book. Meanwhile, as he compiles this final gift, he is in and out of hospital with health problems: blindness, heart failure, epilepsy, and more.

Despite how sad this story is, it remains uplifting. It’s a celebration of love and life and family. It teaches us to be grateful for those who show us love and kindness.

It reminds us that life is something to cherish and admire and enjoy. For that reason, My Brilliant Life is one of the most poignant and powerful modern Korean novels.

The Court Dancer by Kyung-sook Shin

the court dancer

Kyung-Sook Shin has a gift for understanding her own people, her own society, with all of its beauty and its failings — this kind of gift is something that might be considered simple for anyone who is from anywhere at all, but that is arguably very far from the truth. With these skills, she has written some of the best Korean novels ever.

For Shin, each new novel demonstrates new strengths she had not previously revealed; new muscles she has not before flexed. This time she makes the telling of historical fiction seem as effortless as pouring crisp cold water into a glass.

Based on a true story — set in the final years of 19 th century Korea as China, Russia, and Japan are threatening the little nation trapped between them —  The Court Dancer is being described as a love story first and foremost: the romantic tale of a man and a woman from two different worlds, colliding in a moment of beauty.

And, sure, that’s fine, but really this is the tale of a woman born without a family, adopted into the courts of the Joseon Dynasty, romanced by a French diplomat, whisked away across the waves to foreign shores, and all the while trying to find the time to understand who she is, what she is, and what she wants out of a life that has never really been hers.

It is a tragic tale that transcends place and time to show people of all cultures that a woman’s life must be fought for.

Much of Shin’s earlier writing, in translation, has allowed non-Koreans to experience and understand the mind and the heart of the modern Korean.

With The Court Dancer , she has shown us the heart of pre-modern Korea with all the heart and mind she herself always lends to her writing.

Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah

Translated by Deborah Smith

untold night and day bae suah deborah smith

Bae Suah is one of the great contemporary authors of South Korea. Author of A Greater Music, Nowhere to Be Found, and North Station (some of the best Korean novels of all time), she has burst onto the stage that is 2020 with a topsy-turvy surrealist tale that feels uncomfortably in-line with the narrative of the 21 st Century.

Untold Night and Day is, to borrow author Sharlene Teo’s words, a fever dream of a novel; a book that is unknowably yet aggressively familiar to all of us.

Ayami is a former actress who has worked for two years at a menial position in a tiny, almost entirely unknown, Seoul theatre which puts on auditory performances for blind audiences.

She’s approaching thirty, anxious, and unsure of herself in every way imaginable. She also soon discovers that she will soon be out of a job.

What begins as a vivid setup — a drawing with thick black lines — gently begins to grow fuzzy. Ayami’s own colours start to blend, as do those of the story, and of time itself.

Reality, for us and for Ayami, slips away and loops in on itself. Surrealism, soon enough, has its nails in us and it won’t allow us to wake up.

There perhaps isn’t a more apt description of Untold Night and Day than ‘fever dream’. This parallel runs deep.

At 150 pages, the novel is short – a quick read that, like a fever dream, manages to play deceptively with time and progress.

You’ll wonder how long you’ve had your head in the book before a chapter break eventually allows you to take a breath. You might even emerge sweating and confused.

Untold Night and Day should be read with a clean and sober mind, then talked about after a few vodka shots. It’s a dirty and cracked narrative that encourages questions about our 21 st Century world and how we’re living in it.

The novel is, indeed, a Lynchian fever dream, but it demands perseverance and complete absorption.

And, honestly, even if you were to try and quit it, the book likely wouldn’t let you. Open it up and let it sink into you as you sink into it.

b, Book, and Me by Kim Sagwa

Translated by Sunhee Jeong

b book and me kim sagwa

Coming-of-age novels, and stories of self-discovery, can take a variety of forms across myriad genres of fiction, but most are typically grounded in realism, following the rules of their world.

b, Book, and Me is a story of a different sort, leaning on a fever dream surrealism that grows in intensity over time, and using ambiguity and a narrative fog to reinforce the strangeness and frustration felt and experienced by young people year after year.

It’s a layered and anxious tale that captures the dangers and mysteries of youth better than most.

The titular b, Book, and Me are our three protagonists: b is a teenage girl from a poor family living in a nameless coastal town in Korea; Book is a friend met along the way who has an obsession with reading and collecting books; and the ‘me’ refers to Rang, our initial narrator and best friend of b.

The novel is split into three parts, with the first following a few clear and beautifully depicted days and memories in the life of Rang.

The second follows b and begins to stretch itself into a feverish surrealism that mirrors her own unique fears, struggles, and stresses. The third teams the two up with Book as the walls of reality almost fall away entirely.

b, Book, and Me is one of the most creative Korean novels; it does an uncanny job of illustrating the often surreal and frightening life of a teenager growing up somewhere unknown, with vague ideas that there is more beyond their world.

The novel’s dreamlike nature is gently poured into the narrative as it moves forward and serves to reinforce the themes of the plot and the nature of its characters.

Our protagonists are likeable, their motivations clear, and their world eerily understandable in spite of its impossible qualities.

Rarely does a novel manage to be so abstract and fluid and yet so clearly relatable. b, Book, and Me is a smart, beautifully written, masterfully translated work of Korean fiction that makes for a frightening yet true-to-life story of self-discovery and friendship.

The Hole by Hye-young Pyun

The Hole Hye-Young Pyun

Here is, perhaps, an entirely new kind of frightening. We’re living in a new golden age of horror films right now, and, if Hye-young Pyun’s books are any indication, a parallel golden age of horror writing as well.

The protagonist and narrator of The Hol e is the adorably-named Oghi, whom we learn about in two forms:

In flashbacks where Oghi is presented as a successful professor and academic in a marriage falling apart.

This provides the disparity between Oghi’s successes and his wife’s failures which cause an uncomfortable rift between them.

And in the present day. We find Oghi after a car crash leaves him unable to move or even speak, only communicating in blinks and the odd twitch of his left hand.

With these contrasting Oghis — the memories of him being confident, at times callous, versus the present day where he is mute and every voice has a patronising tone — create an immediately unsettling paradigm shift.

The reader will find that, after each flashback ends, a kind of anti-catharsis sets in as we remember that, in the present day, Oghi is a prisoner in his own body; a narrator who cannot narrate. This is the first terror of the story.

The other terror comes in the form of Oghi’s mother-in-law, both his caretaker and sole remaining family member.

After losing her daughter in the same crash that left Oghi paralysed, his mother-in-law is hardly an emotionally stable caretaker. To say more would be to risk spoiling things.

Where  The Hole shines, and wherein lies its true terror, is the state of Oghi’s body and his mind. So much horror and suspense writing relies on running, hiding, chasing, and being lost.

But Oghi is not lost, and he cannot run. He is trapped from page one.

In choosing to ignore the tropes which make horror what it has become famous for, Pyun has crafted a very new kind of terror which builds on the writing of Franz Kafka, but with none of the black humour that results in staring into the void.

Instead, it replaces that with true, absolute dread which is maintained like a painfully drawn-out musical note for hours, page after page after page.

The Hole is one of my favourite Korean novels, as well as one of my favourite horror novels ever.

The White Book by Han Kang

The White Book Han Kang

Calling it The White Book feels reductive, almost wrong on purpose. Because The White Book is less a book and more an embracing feeling of familiarity.

This book — one of the best Korean novels of our time — is something you live and feel, and all of this is created by its use of empty space.

Han Kang has created a story unlike any you will have read, but beyond being a story it is very much an exploration of the familiar things in life.

There are beautiful black and white photos throughout the book, taken by Han Kang, which only add to the experience as you try to grapple with the tone of each beautiful image.

The White Book has real depth and I can’t help but feel that every reader will have a different experience with it.

Each tiny chapter of this story is titled with the name of a white thing, and the events and musings of the chapter circle its material theme.

It is this, coupled with the empty space, that so draws the reader into the very feeling of whiteness. A bleak kind of melancholy peacefulness that takes hold and gently squeezes.

The narrative flits between first and third person, but always centres on the same lone character: a Korean woman, spending a little time living in an unspecified central European city.

It is here that our nameless narrator spends her time in introspection, though the exact subject of which I dare not say.

The story has nothing in the way of true dialogue, and its chapters are short with the time between them unclear, but what is clear is the way that the character lessens the weight she carries, eases her feelings, and helps the reader lose the tension they perhaps don’t know they are holding onto as they read.

T he White Book is an experience inasmuch as it is a novel. I’d urge all Han Kang fans to read it, but also anyone looking for a very different kind of art; art which is difficult to explain and more difficult to talk about afterwards.

At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong

at dusk hwang sok-yong

Have you ever listened to Big Yellow Taxi? I like the Counting Crows version. Hwang Sok-yong is arguably Korea’s most prestigious and well-respected living author.

Following the success of his novels Princess Bari and Familiar Things , we arrive here, At Dusk .

The narrative here is split in two, with the books odd-numbered chapters recalling the life and memories of Park Minwoo, a rags-to-riches architect approaching old age, and the even chapters following the story of Jung Woohee, a twenty-eight-year-old woman who is barely making ends meet by working part-time to fund her passion for writing and directing theatre.

These two narratives have seemingly nothing in common. Until they do.

Park Minwoo’s story is a familiar one: that of a man born into hardship and poverty, working his way through a series of fascinating and intense trials and labours to arrive at the success he always dreamed of.

The interesting twist in the formula here is that, for Park, the trials have always been passed, and now we are treated to a backwards view of his life from the viewpoint of an ageing man who has become disenchanted by his riches and his current social, political, and financial situation.

As for Jung, her tale takes on a very different narrative flavour. It is at once lighter in tone and heavier.

Her struggles are in the present, and the immediacy of her pain and her fight for success is felt with real intensity.

All the same, she has a lot of personality on show, and her dialogue and her exchanges are packed with vigour.

The theme of the day here is very much in the steadily increasing gravity of regret that weighs down on Park as he considers his role in the modernisation and transformation of modern day Korea.

In his flashbacks he slowly begins to pine for the raw life that he had carved out and survived through in the slums of his childhood, a time when perhaps he felt more alive.

Endless Blue Sky by Lee Hyoseok

Translated by Steven D. Capener

Endless Blue Sky lee hyoseok

Korea has seen a tumultuous hundred years, with the Japanese occupation, a civil war, and finally a divide carved across its belly, separating North and South.

In the midst of such tumult, it is easy for information to be lost.

Fighting back against all of this information loss, and tearing down the barriers of language and time, is the publishing house Honford Star , who began by translating the short stories of many lost Korean writers into English.

Endless Blue Sky is Honford Star’s first full-length Korean novel.

The story of  En d less Blue Sky begins with our protagonist, the writer Ilma, travelling up to Manchuria for the umpteenth time for business and, while he is there, engaging with a Russian dancer, Nadia, whom he is deeply enamoured with.

Conversing mostly in English, their relationship blossoms quickly; and Nadia, through Ilma, has fallen in love with the fascinating world of Joseon (Korea), demanding to be stolen into it so that she might discover its fashion, its theatre, and its art for herself.

Framing this blossoming romance is a colourful cast of characters, the most eccentric of which being the actress Danyeong, a woman obsessed with separating Ilma from his foreign lover and stealing him away.

Her behaviour is so obscenely cloak-and-dagger that the reader cannot help but picture her, finger to her lips, sneaking a few steps behind Ilma, muttering to herself about love and passion from behind a fake nose and moustache.

More than once, as I read, I considered with a smile that Lee seems to exist as a wonderful opposite to Japan’s Yukio Mishima, a man of far-right conservative values who chose to espouse his nationalistic beliefs through aggressive stories of blood and betrayal.

In much the same way, Lee’s politics are not hidden here, but rather exposed for all to see. The difference is in his opposing beliefs.

While Mishima worshipped traditionalism and rejected change, Lee welcomed globalisation, socialism, and the eradication of borders.

While Mishima wrote with angst and rage, Lee wrote with love and celebration, though both wrote from the heart all the same.

Lee Hyoseok was absolutely one of the more fascinating writers of early twentieth-century Korea; a man of thrilling political philosophies and a delightfully European approach to storytelling.

Endless Blue Sky is a joy to read, with eccentric characters and a love story that twists and turns with real human depth and agency as it moves on at a swift click.

One of the best classic Korean novels and a true literary gem.

City of Ash and Red by Hye-young Pyun

city of ash and red hye-young pyun

From the writer of The Hole  (winner of the Shirley Jackson Award 2017), City of Ash and Red is a phenomenal celebration of all that is dark and wrong, and readers are in for a jolly good dystopian time with this one.

This is just more proof of Pyun’s skill as author of the best Korean novels of this century.

Our nameless protagonist (nameless, perhaps, because his name doesn’t matter, or because it’s up for debate), divorced and working as a rat catcher, he is quickly and inexplicably transferred by his company to a country only referred to as C.

Upon arrival he finds the whole country drowning in disease and rubbish, with people being dragged into quarantine, and fear and distrust in the air.

For the duration of his transfer, he has been in contact with someone named Mol, but he soon learns that Mol is not so easy to locate – the name is incredibly common in Country C.

This is the first of a hundred problems that our protagonist faces, as he is soon quarantined, released, has his luggage ‘misplaced’, is told not to come into work for ten days, and receives a call from an old friend who had married our protagonist’s ex-wife, only to be told by this friend that their ex-wife was found dead in our hero’s apartment, and he is a prime suspect.

Any fan of Kafka will recognise parallels between this tale and more than one of old Franz’s, with the key link being an overwhelming feeling of confusion, fear, and frustration. Our protagonist seeks answers, but none are to be found.

He wants to explain himself, but nobody will listen — nobody, in fact, cares. He wants to gain a firm grip on the facts, to stop his world from spinning and twisting, but the more desperate he becomes, the more life beats and berates him.

You might see why, at this point, calling this book merely Kafkaesque is not enough. City of Ash and Red is something else entirely.

The Color of the Sky Is the Shape of the Heart by Chesil

Translated by Takami Nieda

The Color Of The Sky Is The Shape Of The Heart

Note: The Color of the Sky Is the Shape of the Heart was written in, and translated from Japanese so consider it a wild card, but it remains vital to the history and culture of modern Korea.

Inspired by the author’s own experiences as a Zainichi Korean in Japan, The Color of the Sky Is the Shape of the Heart sheds a bright light on this subculture of Japanese people.

Zainichi Koreans are Japanese citizens of Korean heritage whose existence came around as a result of the Japanese empire’s occupation of the Korean peninsula.

Our protagonist, Ginny/Jinhee Park, was born of Zainichi Korean parents and raised in Japan, speaking only Japanese.

At the beginning of the novel, Ginny lives in Oregon and recounts to us her childhood in Japan, going to both Japanese and Korean schools.

From her earliest age, as a Zainichi Korean, Ginny (born Jinhee), faced discrimination and hardship. We see these hardships through visceral and painful vignettes.

We see the way that Japanese people view Jinhee and her people, and the way she was treated at Korean school as a girl who only speaks Japanese.

Jinhee is a child of two cultures but feels like she belongs to neither; discriminated against whichever way she turns.

The Color of the Sky Is the Shape of the Heart is a difficult read but it couldn’t be anything else. It asks for sympathy and understanding, and has so much to teach us about Zainichi Korean culture.

What are some "classics" in Korean literature that are available in English?

important korean literature

I'm moving to South Korea to teach English and would, if possible, like to request some classics in Korean literature in order to be at least somewhat cultured by the time I arrive. I plan to read Journey to the West, although, it's a Chinese book, but popular lore in Asia from my understanding. Any suggestions are greatly appreciated! Also, any good history books or non-fiction pieces that can help give me some perspective would be appreciated.

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Not a classic but last years The Vegetarian by Han Kang won the Man Booker Prize. Quick, interesting read.

Also super depressing, haha

Great book but interestingly enough it received a very poor reception from the Korean public before it won. I suspect it's super popular now though.

Three Generations/삼대 by Yom Sang-seop.

Samguk Yusa/삼국유사 compiled by Iryeon.

Samguk Sagi/삼국사기 by Kim Busik.

The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong/한중록 by Hong Hyegyeong, translated by JaHyun Kim Haboush.

The Cloud Dream of the Nine/구운몽 by Kim Manjing.

Sonagi/소나기 by Hwang Sun-won.

A Review of Korean History, vol. 1-3 by Han Young Woo.

Sources of Korean Tradition, vol. 1-2 by Peter Lee, Choe Yang ho, Hugh Kang.

Great Korean Portraits by Cho Sun-mie.

Non-Mobile link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samgungnyusa

HelperBot v1.1 r/HelperBot_ I am a bot. Please message /u/swim1929 with any feedback and/or hate. Counter: 15090

If you're into military history, this translated version of 징비록 might be interesting. It's basically a reflection of the Japanese invasion of Korea from the perspective of the Korean chief of staff at the time. It includes Ming China, Lee Sunshin, so on.

Who Ate Up All the Shinga is an easy book that all students read in school here. It's about growing up during the Japanese Occupation and the Korean War. Korean lit tends to be quite sentimental. I'd recommend movies if you want to get to know contemporary culture.

I think Asian media in general is really sentimental.

I will give you more general recommendations on Korean Literature than what you are asking, in hope of being helpful in your future reading as well.

I would recommend reading Park Wang-Suh (her name is written in many different ways in English - see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Park_Wansuh ). "Who ate up all the Shinga?", "Three days in that Autumn", "Weathered Blossom", "Lonesome You" are some of my favorite works by her.

Other authors I would recommend: Oh Jung-Hee (Chinatown; Rivers of Fire and other stories), Yun Heung-Gil (The Rainy Spell), Kim Yu-Cheong (The Camelias), Cho Se-Hui (The Dwarf (longer version), or The Dwarf Launches a little Ball (shorter version)).

Many of these are published under The Portable Library of Korean Literature. Other sources of Korean literature are the various series of Columbia University Press, Dalkey Archive Press (Series on Library of Korean Literature), Hollym (Series on Korean Short Stories). You can (officially) download some translated works for free from http://ebook.klti.or.kr/ebooks/m/20century.jsp

Fultons (Bruce and Ju-Chan) are possibly the best translators of prose from Korean to English. Check out some of their translated collections like "Words of Farewell", "Wayfarer", etc.

Brother Anthony of Taize is another good translator. He has some of his works available online at http://hompi.sogang.ac.kr/anthony/KoreanFiction.htm and http://hompi.sogang.ac.kr/anthony/KoreanPoems.htm . He also maintains an online list of translated works published in the journal 'Korea Literature Today' at http://hompi.sogang.ac.kr/anthony/klt/KLTIndex.htm .

http://www.ktlit.com/book-reviews/ is a good source for keeping up with latest translations (whether or not you agree with their critical analysis).

If you are also interested in Korean Poetry, I would suggest starting with the two Columbia anthologies - Columbia anthology of Traditional Korean Poetry and Columbia anthology of Modern Korean Poetry. Both give a fair overview of 2000 years of Korean poetry within the constraints of available quality and quantity of translations. It would be another long post to go into specific poets.

/u/woeful_haichi has already given you good suggestions for classical works. I will second the suggestion for "Sources of Korean Tradition, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2", published by Columbia U. Press, that take you directly into the original source works related to Korean history and culture, and are surprisingly readable.

Please look after Mom by Shin Kyung-sook

A quick read about family duties, growing up poor, and handling problems within a massive aging population.

I don't know if it's a classic. It's okay.

Hey OP! I'm currently in a class called "modern korean fiction in translation" and it's being taught by Bruce Fulton, known for being an incredible translator and very well known.

I can give you a list of the books I'm reading (which are collections of short stories, translated by him and his wife) or send you the emails I get from him which are translations of other readings.

This term the course has 82 readings in total, so you can have a lot to choose from if you wish. :)

Let me know if you're interested!!

I am! Can I have the list, please?

My partner bought 'Weathered Blossom' and 'The Snowy Road' for my family at Christmas.

You can get bilingual versions from Hollym ,which is useful if you're also studying Korean.

The short stories of Hyeon Jin-geon, particularly A Lucky Day. Just remember that the early 20th century was a particularly dark time in Korean culture...

I was recently looking for an English translation of this. Do you know of one?

I haven't read any Korean books (even though I'm korean myself), but amazon sells a collection of translated Korean literature. It's under "Library of Korean Literature".

I'll link one below.


Toji 토지, by Park Kyongni 박경리 is the one with the most renown from what I've heard. Pretty long though. Only the first book has been translated to English.


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important korean literature

Korean literature

important korean literature

Korean literature is the body of literature produced in Korea or by Korean writers. For much of history, it was written both in classical Chinese and in Korean, first using the transcription systems idu and gugyeol, and finally using the Korean script hangul. It is commonly divided into classical and modern periods, although this distinction is sometimes unclear.

The development of Korean Literature is quite unique due to the creation of a complete new language and writing system by the great King Sejong in 1446, the hangul. Sejong wanted that everyone could have access to culture but by that time Chinese characters were essential in philosophy and literature. Therefore, hangul remained neglected by the literati and were considered useful only for women and for low class people.

A tension always existed between those preferring hanmun, Chinese characters and those trying to give its value to the Korean language. In consequence a debate arose on what should be considered as truly Korean Literature. Under the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945 some Korean scholars aimed at recovering what was purely Korean in language and literature. They hoped to remove what was foreign. After the liberation others tried to focus on what was the true spirit of Koreans without excluding the works written in Chinese characters.

Today there is a common agreement to accept both types of works in Chinese characters and in hangul as part of the Korean literature heritage. Furthermore interesting researches are done on the traditional oral literature of the early period since Korean literature was first orally transmitted and sometimes written much later either in mixed form, like hyangchal, or hangul.

Although Korean modern literature, particularly in its form of short novels, is much more appreciated today and translated into foreign languages, the classical part is substantial and of great value. Like in other world literature poetry was one of the first literary forms. Koreans always loved to sing and dance and the first poems were sung.

Other literary Gentry like historical and autobiographical appeared around the thirteenth century but the novel genre took slowly shape only around the fifteenth century. The Confucian atmosphere long predominated either in poetry or the beginning of novels but Sirhak scholars played a role in infusing new ideas through satirical short stories opening people to modernity. Women also were very creative in poetry and autobiographic genres and made the feminine voice heard particularly from the beginning of the twentieth century.

The appreciation of Korean literature requires a balance in the exploration of classic, modern and contemporary literature, various genres as poetry, autobiographies and novels. Some long novels, although they are not known, are of great value. Furthermore Koreans have excelled in certain genres like Sijo poetry and short novel that express more adequately their mind and emotion.

Classical literature

Classical Korean literature has its roots in traditional folk beliefs and folk tales of the Korean peninsula. Other influences include Confucianism , Buddhism , and to some extent Taoism . Traditional Korean literature, written in Chinese characters (hanja), was established at the same time as the Chinese script arrived on the peninsula. Korean scholars were writing poetry in the classical Chinese style as early as the fourth century. Some historians exclude these forms of literature from Korean literature, arguing that they were merely forms of Chinese literature.

Others argue, however, that the fact that Chinese characters were used is not reason enough to exclude the literature from the classical Korean canon, particularly since it reflects Korean thought and experience. Under Unified Silla , a national academy was founded to promote Korean literature. For most of the era, Korean upper educated classes were bilingual, speaking Korean but writing in Classical Chinese like Japan, Vietnam.

Hyangga 鄕歌 향가

The word hyangga means "native songs," from Korea in opposition to the Chinese songs. Hyangga poetry was written in Korean using modified Chinese characters in a system that is called [idu]이두 吏讀 , literally "clerk's writings." Specifically, the variety of idu used to write hyangga was sometimes called "hyangchal향찰 鄕札." Under the Hyangchal system, Chinese characters were given a Korean reading based on the syllable associated with the character. The Hyangchal writing system is often classified as a subgroup of Idu.

Idu was a clever system whereby Koreans, who spoke a language much different from Chinese, would use Chinese characters to express Korean. The key to the system was to use some Chinese characters for their intended purpose, their meaning, and others for their pronunciation, ignoring their pictographic meaning. On the surface, it appears to be a complicated, even incomprehensible system, but after using the system one become comfortable with certain characters consistently standing for Korean words, and others representing Chinese.

Such texts were deciphered only in the first half of the twentieth century. The deciphering of the hyangga, line by line, word by word, is comparable to an archaeological work.

Hyangga was the first uniquely Korean form of poetry. Only twenty five survive. The Samguk Yusa 三國遺事 Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms by the monk Iryon (1206-1289) contains fourteen poems and the "Gyunyeojeon," a set of biographies of prominent monks, contains eleven poems. Both these classic works were written much after the Silla dynasty, in the subsequent Goryeo dynasty, yet the record appears to be based on no-longer-extant records actually from the Silla period.

Hyangga are characterized by a number of formal rules. The poems may consist of four, eight or ten lines. The ten-line poems are the most developed, structured into three sections with four, four, and two lines respectively. Many of the ten-line poems were written by Buddhist monks. And Buddhist themes predominate the poems. If most of the hyangga are Buddhist in theme and inspiration, they contain also a broad range of themes which are reflected in a variety of poems such as folk songs, elegies to heroic hwarang knights, requiem for a sister, didactic poems, Shaman exorcism or Buddhist prayer-poem.

Many of the poems are elegies to monks, to warriors, and to family members. The Silla period, especially before unification (668) was a time of warfare and the hyangga capture the sorrow of mourning for the dead while Buddhism provided answers about where the dead go and the afterlife. A typical hyangga is the Ode for Life Eternal, or perhaps, the Ode for Nirvana. The poem is a song that calls upon the moon to convey the supplicant's prayer to the Western paradise, the home of Amita (or Amitabha—the Buddha of the Western paradise). The poem's authorship is somewhat unclear; it was either written by a monk or, one source says, the monk's wife.

Some had a Confucian tone like this poem describing the unflinching and noble spirit of the hwarang.

Goryeo (Koryo) songs 長歌 Changga

These songs of Goryeo are called long poems in contrast with the later period Sijo that included only three lines. Only twenty one of these poems have been transmitted. Differently of the hyangga which often had a religious tone these changga anonymous were mostly secular songs expressing the life of ordinary people but their transmission has become complex due to the use by the court with some modifications. They were first transmitted orally and later on written down at the end of the fifteenth century and at the beginning of the sixteenth century.

The Koryo songs are considered as the oldest Korean songs. Experts have it that these songs which were transcribed into hangul, giving not only the sense but also the sound. They give the impression that one hears the people of that time. The themes of these poems deal with simple life close to nature but they focus mainly on the theme of love which can be ordinary love, the parting of someone or special forms of love like the mother's love.

The poetic form of the Goryeo songs is known as byeolgok . There are two distinct forms: Dallyeonche (단련체) and yeonjanche (연잔체). The former is a shorter form in which the entire poem was put into a single stanza, whereas the latter is a more extended form in which the poem is put into several stanzas. The Goryeo songs are characterized by their lack of clear form, and by their increased length. Most are direct in their nature, and cover aspects of common life.

Sijo and Gasa 時調 歌詞

Sijo and gasa are closely linked to the development of hangul in the early Joseon period. As hangul was created, akjang was developed as a way to note musical scores using the Korean script. King Sejong himself is credited with a compilation of Buddhist songs. The word sijo is made of time and harmony. This form of poetry is also called tan-ga 短歌 by opposition to changga since it is short, made only of three lines with a pause in the middle of each line.

Sijo (literally current tune ) was common in the Joseon period. Although its poetic form was established in the late Goryeo period, it did not become popular until the Joseon period. Many of the sijo reflected Confucian thought; the theme of loyalty is common but many other themes are dealt with: Regrets about aging, sorrow over spurned love or loss of power and honor, reaffirmation of loyalty to a lost cause.

Sijo are characterized by a structure of three stanzas of four feet each. Each foot contains three to four syllables except on the third stanza, where the 1st foot is supposed to have 3 syllables and the 2nd foot can have as many as seven. Sijo are thought to have been popular with common people. Among the sijo most cherished by the Koreans is this poem written by Chong Mong-ju who, although a Confucian scholar, expressed his loyalty to the last king of Koryo and refused to serve the new dynasty created by General Yi Song-gye in 1392. It movingly expressed the value of an unchanging heart.

Gasa is a form of verse , although its content can include more than the expression of individual sentiment, such as moral admonitions. Gasa is a simple form of verse, with twinned feet of three or four syllables each. Some regard gasa a form of essay. Common themes in gasa were nature, the virtues of gentlemen, or love between man and woman.

The evolution of Korean literature

New literary genres.

Besides poetry other genres were taking shape during the Koryo period, mostly during the age of the military under the dictatorship of the family Ch’oe. There are several activities related to different literary genres:

1. Historical writing: Kim Pu-sik (1075-1151), Samguk sagi 三國史記 with a Confucian view and later on Iryôn (1206-1289), a Buddhist monk Samguk yusa 三國遺事, history of the three Kingdoms . As previously mentioned part of the hyanggya were included in the Samguk Yusa in Chinese characters .

2. Biographical works like the Tongmunsôn, Eastern Korean Anthology of Literature (1478, 1518) with various texts such as memorials, inscriptions and critical writings. Tongmunson 東文選 is an anthology with an encyclopedic dimension going back as far as Koguryo but mostly written during the Koryo period. Another text is the kongbangjôn 孔方傳 of Im Ch’un (1170). Chuk puinjôn, 竹夫人傳 the story of Madame Bamboo of Yi Kok (1297-1351) speaks of objects or animals as if they were human beings. It was a way to criticize the king’s court and social problems. It makes us think of the fables of Aesop in Greece or La Fontaine in France .

The birth of Korean novel

We are used to read all-made books of literature or well printed novels but the appearance of Korean novels and world literature novels are quite recent. They are the fruits of many attempts and gropes during history. Therefore the genre of Korean "novel” slowly took shape. It is first spoken not of novel but of “romance.” Among the pioneers of this genre we find Kim Si-sup (1435-1493) with his Kûmho sinhwa, new stories of Kûmho, among them the story of Student Yi peers over the Wall.

People spoke too quickly about novel. The genre influenced by Chinese literature still remains at that tome within the atmosphere of Taoism with the dimension of fantastic reality and dreams. Like Rabelais (1494-1553) in France Kim Si-sup was an eccentric monk and both were trying to bring new ideas into society. Both used the fantasy and imagines to awaken the mind of their contemporaries. Often Kim Si-sup counted tales of wonder and love affairs between mortals and ghosts and dream journeys to the underworld or to the dragon palace.

A special place must be made for Hô Kyun (1559-1618), and the story of Hong Kilton. Although this short work is considered as the first real Korean novel, it is closer to a “short story.” It is the fictive biography of the bastard of an aristocrat, in the style of a Chinese story. The hero gathers around him rebels to correct social ills. As an illegitimate son he fights to be recognized and accepted as a legitimate member of the literati. The utopian place he built resembles the Confucian society. Hô Kyun lived at the time of Shakespeare .

The research in the direction of novel within the classical atmosphere is best illustrated by Kim Man-jung (1637-1692)'s story A Nine Cloud Dream 구운몽(九雲夢). This story of a young Buddhist novice dreaming in his cell of achieving the worldly life of a Confucian scholar and coming back to his cell as a monk to be chastised by his master because of his desires was very popular. It was popular for the many adventures, amorous encounters but also for its poetry. It carried two contradictory dreams that usually people have, one for wordless success and the other for a withdrawal from the world to find serenity and peace. Kim Man-jung relies in fact on the three spiritualities of Buddhism , Taoism , and Confucianism .

However, "A Nine Cloud Dream," as its name indicates was all about dreams, it did not present fable characters, true concrete situations to which the reader can rely. The hero has already achieved at 16 years of age scholarship, career, family… the story is not related neither to T’ang China or to the seventeenth century Korea . It is just a blend of romance and fairy tale as it was described. As a consequence this story does not qualify yet as a modern novel.

The role of women in literature during the Choson period

Women unfortunately were discouraged to get educated like men, even in the yangban families. The worst situation was for women belonging to the working classes because they had to assume the hard tasks in the fields and at home, even weaving. The condition of yangban wives was better materially but they were forced to stay home, to serve unconditionally their in-laws and were not allowed to write and certainly not to publish.

Despite this condition imposed under rigid Neo-Confucian principles that would require discussion not a few women during the Choson dynasty have proven a strength of independent character, of revendication and of of literary creativity which draw admiration today. Some of those women remain as a model like Lady Yun, mother of Kim Man-jung (seventeenth century) and Lady Shin Saimdang, mother of Yi I , Yulgok (sixteenth century). Yulgok's mother is not just remembered as an excellent educator of her son but as a creative woman in calligraphy , delicate painting and moral direction.

Two other women are recently rediscovered for her talents in writing and the expression of Korean emotions, Ho Nansorhon (1562-1590) and Lady Hyegyong (1735-1805). Ho Nansorhon was a very talented young woman who suffered to be constantly left alone by her yangban husband. Often in despair she poured out her sorrows and dreams in her poetry. Every Korean remember the beginning of her 50 lines kasa:

Although she lost her two children she was able to share the pains of other suffering people surrounding her.

Lady Hyegyong (1735-1815) is now known worldwide for her Records made in distress 恨中錄. Born in a yangban family she was chosen at a young age as a princess, the future wife of prince Sado son of king Yongjo (1724-1776). The relation between prince Sado and his father deteriorated and was embittered by the intrigues of rival political factions. Pushed by anger Yongjo ordered his son put into a rice chest. Sado died in this horrible condition after a few days. Traumatized by the event Lady Hyegyong tried to commit suicide then worked at protecting her son's life, the future great king Chongjo. First she buried these memories deep in her soul until the day she decided to write about it. In this way started to take shape her famous memoirs.

Lady Hyegyong wrote her memoirs four times starting with the happy memories of her childhood in her family, the difficult separation to enter the palace and the good moments near the royal family. It was so far a writing of personal matter. Only in 1805 was she able to face the horror of the past and to tell the truth that the king's son had been really murdered. Nobody was allowed to express views on historical matters outside the official records. Those records did not mention any murder of prince Sado. The memoirs of Lady Hyegyong, therefore, take a a great significance in going over the individual level and daring to point out to a great injustice. In doing so Lady Hyegyong, as a woman, was opening a way of truth which can be still meditated today and was showing the power of literature.

Toward modern and contemporary literature

The contribution of sirhak scholars.

The Sirhak movement is well known for his contributions in politics, economy and philosophy at a time of encounter with new ideas coming from the West as early as the seventeenth century but which were in full swing from the middle of the eighteenth to the middle of the nineteenth century. See articles on Sirhak, Song-ho Yi Ik and Jeong Yak-young, Tasan.

However, it is less known that prominent members of the Sirak had real talents in literature and particularly contributed with their satirical stories. These authors used their pen with humor to attract the attention of the readers, amusing them by caricaturing people of society particularly the yangban but in fact depicting the situation of a sick society and insulating ideas of reform. One of the most popular Sirak writer was Yonam, Park Chi-won (1737-1805) known for his Jehol Diary giving account of his travel in China . Park Chi-won wrote a series of powerful short novels such as The Story of Master Ho, A Tiger's Reprimand, The Story of a Yangban , The Life of Mrs Park of Hamyang, a Faithful Wife, with comments.

Evolution among historical difficulties

Moving into the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century we enter a period of trouble in Korea with the severe persecution against Catholicism and Western ideas in 1801 which repeated itself several times until the last part of the century. The Taewôn’gun (1864-1871) was opposed to any opening of the West and Korea was known ass the hermit kingdom. Is only at the end pf the nineteenth century that Korea signed treaties with Western nations and thought seriously about modernization.

A lot of debates were taking place among the intellectuals as to open or not to the West. Yi Hang-no (1792-1868) was for a continuation of traditional Confucianism considered higher morally against the Western science and religion considered as barbarians whence his motto repelling the barbarians and praising the Chinese, wijong ch'oksa. Modern Korean literature developed against the background of the Joseon Dynasty 's fall. This first period of modern Korean literature is often called gaehwa gyemong (Enlightenment). This period was to a large extent influenced by the 1894 Gabo Reforms which introduced Western-style schools and newspapers emerged. Many newspapers published sijo, gasa, or even serial novels and led to the emergence of professional writers.

Sinchesi (new poetry) was established, and contributed to the formation of modern free verse poetry (jayusi) . Sinchesi abandoned the fixed meter found in classical Korean poetry, influenced by the French verse libre. Ch'oe Nam-son (1890-1957) played an important role with a literary magazine called Sonyon, the Adolescent. Ch'oe inaugurates the new poetry movement by his From the sea to children, 1908 inspired by Byron. Many biographical works were published in the late Joseon period where the main character was often depicted as a hero. These works cultivated patriotism and national consciousness.

The dimension of "han" 恨 in Korean literature

The concept of han 恨 which appears in the title mentioned of Lady Hyegyong's memoirs has been emphasized a lot by Koreans. Han was expressed in various ways through poems, autobiographies and novels but is not easy to define. Important researches are done today to precise this concept like Lee Younghee's Ideology, culture and han: traditional and early modern Korean women's literature.

Han is a difficult term to translate into English… For example it has been seen as resentment, lamentation, sentiment, hatred and regret… All writers conclude that han is a sentiment that can be transcended, defining han as a willingness to overcome difficulties and not to give in when faced with an unhappy situation. [3]

Han, therefore, has both negative and positive aspects. Analyses have it that the accumulation of rejections, despises and refusals under the rigid ruling of Neo-Confucian society have caused individuals, particularly women, to build up inside huge resentments. At the same time people looked for easing and defusing these resentments. Buddhist practices, Shamanist rituals of kuts and later on Christian beliefs played an important role in this positive undoing. Han has been expressed through poems called 내방가사(內房歌詞), like this young woman dreaming to visit her parents, what she was not allowed to do by her in-laws.

Kim Myeong-sun 김명순 (金明淳 1896∼?) is supposed to have written in 1917, one of the first novels The Suspicious girl 의심의 소녀 that confronts directly the social problems of Korea. There are no dream and happy ending but a description of bland facts. The story portrays a young mother who kills herself because of the injustices of the concubinage system. Kim Myeong-sun is among the first women to refuse to blame herself or summit obediently to unjust rules like concubinage and to denounce the responsibility of men who freely abuse younger women when they impose chastity to their wives at the cost of sacrifice. Her novel makes heard Korean women’s voice.

Wanting love, she received none; she yearned for freedom, but in vain. She even requested a separation but he would not grant her wish. And so she continued to suffer his suspicions and abuse. Thus imprisoned, her despair had deepened…. On a blossoming April day, when even tiny nameless pieces of grass trampled by horses hoofs seemed to awaken, she ended with a dagger what would have been the flowering of her young twenty-four years. [3]

Reflections on modern and contemporary literature

With the modern and contemporary periods Korean literature went a complex path due to its East Asian heritage and his encounter with the West. Attempts have been done in various ways to adapt to the West or imitate it or to create in a specifically Korean manner. Debates are still going on.

It was the heritage of both the evolutions of Silhak and Tonghak that three sources of Korean culture—the Northeast Asian heritage, the substructure of the native tradition, and the knowledge given by Western impact intermingled with each other and transformed themselves into a firm base for Korean modern humanities. [4]

Colonial period

During the Japanese rule of Korea (1910–1945), speech and the press were restricted, affecting the Korean literature of the time. Many expressions of the late Joseon period, with their focus on self-reliance and independence, were no longer possible. With the Samil Movement in 1919, a new form of Korean literature was established. Many writers exhibited a more positive attitude, trying to cope with the national situation at the time. Literature focused on self-discovery, and increasingly on concrete reality. Artistic endeavors were supported by national newspapers.

Many novels of the 1920s centered around the themes of the suffering of intellectuals who drift through reality. The lives of farmers were often depicted as pathetic. As the Japanese government strengthened ideological coercion during the 1930s, Korean literature was directly affected. Many novels of the time experimented with new literary styles and techniques. Under the Japanese occupation Koreans had to imitate Japanese adaptation of Western civilization. But despite this situation many Korean scholars achieved a lot in history, language and literature, combining what was Korean and Western.

Yi In-jik (1862-1916) is considered as the one of the father of modern novel and a precursor of modern theater. He is specially remembered for his Tears of blood, Hyoruinunmul of 1906. Two other important writers are Yi Kwang-su (1892-1945) with his Mujong The heartless, and Kim Tong-in (1900-1951) with his historical novels. In the 1920's a literary naturalist trend is launched by writers like Yom Sang-op (1897-1963) and Yi Sang (1910-1937). Han Yong-un (1879-1944) and Kim So-wol (190201934) are the poets depicting the during that period the plight of colonization. Maturity was reached in poetry in the 1930's with Chong Chi-won (b.1903), Yi Yuk-sa (1904-1944), or Yung Tong-ju (1917-1945).

After the liberation

After 1945, there was a good start of genuine Korean studies but it was lost again with the Korean War. After the War academic researches were much influenced by the U.S. There has been a continuing argument that even in Korean humanities general theories of a non-empirical scientific background had to be imported from the West. Modernization meant Westernization.

After the liberation from Japan in 1945, Korea soon found itself divided into North and South . The Korean War led to the development of literature centered around the wounds and chaos of war . Much of the post-war literature in South Korea deals with the daily lives of ordinary people, and their struggles with national pain. The collapse of the traditional Korean value system is another common theme of the time. In the post-war period, a traditionalist movement emerged: going back to the roots of traditional rhythms and folk sentiments. Other poets are linked to an experimentalist movement, attempting to bring new experiences to Korean poetry.

In the 1960s many writers started to reject post-war literature as sentimental escapism. While some Korean authors reflected traditional humanism, writings by many others reflect deep alienation and despair. They sought to engage the readers with the political reality of the time. This led poetry and literature in general to become an important means of political expression. Also remarkable for the development of literature in 1960s was the influence of Western modernism. The 1970s saw the emergence of literature that was anti-establishment and dealt with the concerns of rapid industrialization , such as the neglect of farmers. At the same time, literature concerned with the national division (bundansoseol) became more popular. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the national division is still a common theme, but classic stories are also popular. Some North Korean writers are very highly appreciated in the South and in 2005 writers from both Koreas held a joint literary congress.

Korean literature abroad

Until the 1980s, Korean literature was largely unknown outside of the peninsula. The kind of works translated has become increasingly diverse, and the quality of the translations has improved. Flowers of Fire was one of the first anthologies of Korean literature published in English. In non-English-speaking countries there are fewer Korean works translated. The increased popularity of Korean film has increased interest in Korean literature.

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Korean literature.

Few works by Korean writers have been translated into English or other languages and thus Korean literature and Korean writers are not very well known to people outside of Korea. In recent decades as Korea has become more well known so too has its literature. One of Korea's most famous classical writers is Kim Shisup (Maewolddang, 1435-93), a court official who left the imperial court to wander the countryside to draw inspiration for his writings. Among the well known Korean poets are Oaek Sik and Kim So-wol.

Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Korean classical literature was written in Chinese, and the late Koryo and early Choson sijo poems dealt mainly with the theme of loyalty. The kasa form of Choson poetry expressed individual sentiments and moral admonitions. After the creation of the Korean alphabet, many works of fiction were written in Han'gul and royal ladies wrote novels depicting their personal situations and private thoughts. Modern literature started in the mid-nineteenth century as a result of the new Western-style education and the Korean language and literature movement. The themes of twentieth-century literature reflect the national experiences colonization, postliberation division of the homeland, the Korean War, urbanization, and industrialization. Translations of literary works began to appear in foreign countries in the 1980s. The novelists whose works have been most widely translated are Hwang Sun-won and Kim Tong-ri. [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

A distinctive position in traditional Korean literature is occupied by a type of poem known as the sijo — a poetic form that began to develop in the twelfth century. It is composed of three couplets and characterized by great simplicity and expressiveness: My body is mortal, commonly mortal. My bones end in dust, soul or no soul. My lord owns my heart, though, and that cannot change.

This poem is by Chong Mong-ju (1337-92), a Koryo Dynasty loyalist who was assassinated at the foundation of the Yi Dynasty. The poet refers to his political choice not to side with the new government. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Many of these poems reveal a sensitivity to the beauties of nature, delight in life's pleasures, and a tendency toward philosophical contemplation that together produce a sense of serenity and, sometimes, loneliness. Frequently the poems reveal a preoccupation with purity, symbolized by whiteness: Do not enter, snowy heron, in the valley where the crows are quarreling. Such angry crows are envious of your whiteness, And I fear that they will soil the body you have washed in the pure stream.

Korean Folk Tales and Stories

Korea has a very rich folk culture. Folk stories from Korea both resemble folk stories from other countries and have a character all their own. Popular folk tales often describe conflicts between good and evil and right and wrong with animals, ghosts, demons and mountain spirits. According to Britannica.com: Korean narratives include myths, legends, and folktales found in the written records. Legends include all those folk stories handed down orally and not recorded in any of the written records. These legends were long the principal form of literary entertainment enjoyed by the common people. They deal with personified animals, elaborate tricks, the participation of the gods in human affairs, and the origin of the universe. The principal sources of these narratives are the two great historical records compiled during the Koryo dynasty: Samguk sagi (1146; “Historical Record of the Three Kingdoms”) and Samguk yusa (1285; “Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms”). [Source: Du-Hwan Kwon, Byong-Wuk Chong, Peter H. Lee, Britannica.com]

Oral literature includes all texts that were orally transmitted from generation to generation until the invention of Hangul—ballads, legends, mask plays, puppet-show texts, and p’ansori (“story-singing”) texts. In spite of the highly developed literary activity from early in Korean history, song lyrics were not recorded until the invention of Hangul. These orally transmitted texts are categorized as ballads and are classified according to singer (male or female), subject matter (prayer, labour, leisure), and regional singing style (capital area, western, and southern). The songs of many living performers, some of whom have been designated as “intangible national treasures” by the South Korean government, are still being recorded.

Korean folk tales are closely tied to religious traditions and usually have shamanistic, Buddhist, or Confucian themes. While Confucian tales tend to be moralistic and didactic, Buddhist and shamanistic tales are highly imaginative and colorful, depicting the relationships among spirits, ghosts, gods, and men in many different and often humorous ways.

The development of a Korean alphabet (today known as han'gul), in the fifteenth century gave rise to a vernacular, or popular, literature. Although the native alphabet was looked down upon by the yangban elite, historical works, poetry, travelogues, biographies, and fiction written in a mixed script of Chinese characters and han'gul were widely circulated. Some vernacular literature had what could be interpreted as social protest themes.

Famous Korean Folk Tales and Stories

Folk heros that everyone knows include Kim Il Dong, a sort of teenage Korean Robin Hood; Shimchong, a loving daughter who helps her blind father regain his sight; Hungbu and Nolbu, a pair of brothers, one rich and greedy, the other poor and generous; and a clever rabbit and his adventures in the King of the Sea. Many folk tales feature “tokkaebi”, frightening but humorous demons that sometimes have only one eye and hop around on one leg. Tokkaebi are usually depicted with a magical spiked club and a heron growing out of the top of their head. These mischievous creatures enjoy playing nasty tricks on bad people and rewarding good people with wealth and good fortune.

Chollima is a mythological winged horse that flew great distances during the day and performed heroic feats for Koreans in their time of need. North Korea uses the legendary creature to motivate its people to strive for excellence. Koreans also know the story of a Buddhist monk that dreamed he was a half-brown, half-white ox, symbolizing yin and yang, good and evil.

According to Britannica.com: The most important myths are those concerning the Sun and the Moon, the founding of Korea by Tangun, and the lives of the ancient kings. The legends touch on place and personal names and natural phenomena. The folktales include stories about animals; ogres, goblins, and other supernatural beings; kindness rewarded and evil punished; and cleverness and stupidity. Because the compiler of the Samguk yusa was a Zen master, his collection includes the lives of Buddhist saints; the origin of monasteries, stupas, and bells; accounts of miracles performed by Buddhas and bodhisattvas; and other tales rich in shamanist and Buddhist elements. The compilations made in the Koryo period preserved the stories of prehistoric times, of the Three Kingdoms, and of the Silla dynasty and have remained the basic sources for such material. Later compilations made during the Choson dynasty served as a major source of materials for later Choson dynasty fiction. [Source: Du-Hwan Kwon, Byong-Wuk Chong, Peter H. Lee,Britannica.com]

One of the earliest vernacular stories was The Tale of Hong Kil-tong by Ho Kyun. The protagonist, Hong Kil-tong, was the son of a nobleman and his concubine; his ambition to become a great official was frustrated because of his mother's lowly background. He became a Robin Hood figure, stole from the rich to give to the poor, and eventually left Korea in order to establish a small kingdom in the south.

Other vernacular writers included Kim Man-jung, who wrote The Nine Cloud Dream, which dealt with Buddhist themes of karma and destiny, and The Story of Lady Sa. Pak Chi-won's Tale of a Yangban gave a realistic account of social life in eighteenth-century Korea. In 1980 Korean scholars discovered a nineteenth-century vernacular novel that told of the complicated relationships among members of four yangban and commoner clans over five generations in a very detailed and realistic manner. At 235 volumes, this work is one of the longest novels ever written.

Korean Creation Myth

According to legend, Korean civilization began on Mt. Paektu (a volcano with a crater lake on the present-day China-North Korea border) on the third day of the 10th moon in 2333 B.C. with a meeting between Hwanung (the son of the creator God), a bear and a tiger at a magic aldewood tree. The animals said that they wanted to be human so Hwanung told them that their wish would be granted if they passed a test: stay in a cave for 100 days and eat nothing but mugwort and garlic. The impatient tiger failed the test but the bear passed and was transformed into a woman named Ungnyo ("bear woman"), who mated with Hwanung and produced Tan'gun, the progenitor and first king of the Korean people.

The first Koreans purportedly lived in the legendary first Korean city of Asadal. It was originally thought that if Asadal indeed existed in some form it was in Manchuria somewhere, but recently North Korean scholars said that found "evidence" that it was located on a site of present-day Pyongyang.

When Tan'gun returned to heaven at the end of his life, his descendants were ruled by a new king named Han. A state known as Han Chosun was purportedly established and prospered in the Taedong valley of northern Korea by 1000 B.C. A recent interpretation of the bear woman is that she came from a bear totem tribe. Tan'gun established the kingdom of Choson ("Morning Freshness," often translated as the "Land of Morning Calm") around today's Pyongyang. To distinguish it from the later Choson Dynasty, it is now referred to as Ko ("Old") Choson.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Tangun legend tells of the birth of Korea’s first king and the foundation of the first Korean state, (Old) Choson, in a date often calculated as 2333 B.C. The Korean calendar enumerates the years from this date. Though based upon earlier sources, this oldest surviving account of Tangun was recorded by the Koryoperiod Buddhist monk Iryon (1206-1289) in his Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms (Samguk yusa).”

Korean Creation Myth Story

The Wei shu tells us that two thousand years ago, at the time of Emperor Yao, Tangun Wanggom chose Asadal as his capital and founded the state of Choson. The Old Record notes that in olden times Hwanin’s son, Hwanung, wished to descend from heaven and live in the world of human beings. Knowing his son’s desire, Hwanin surveyed the three highest mountains and found Mount T’aebaek the most suitable place for his son to settle and help human beings. Therefore he gave Hwanung three heavenly seals and dispatched him to rule over the people. Hwanung descended with three thousand followers to a spot under a tree by the Holy Altar atop Mount T’aebaek, and he called this place the City of God. He was the heavenly King Hwanung. Leading the Earl of Wind, the Master of Rain, and the Master of clouds, he took charge of some three hundred and sixty areas of responsibility, including agriculture, allotted life spans, illness, punishment, and good and evil, and brought culture to his people. [Source: Sourcebook of Korean Civilization, edited by Peter H. Lee, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 6-7, : Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ^^^ ]

At that time a bear and a tiger living in the same cave prayed to Holy Hwanung to transform them into human beings. The king gave them a bundle of sacred mugworts and twenty cloves of garlic and said, “If you eat these and shun the sunlight for one hundred days, you will assume human form.” Both animals ate the spices and avoided the sun. After twentyone days the bear became a woman but the tiger, unable to observe the taboo, remained a tiger.

Unable to find a husband, the bear.woman prayed under the altar tree for a child. Hwanung metamorphosed himself, lay with her, and begot a son called Tangun Wanggom....In the fiftieth year of the reign of Emperor Yao, Tangun made the walled city of Pyongyang the capital and called his country Choson. He then moved his capital to Asadal on Mount Paegak, also names Mount Kunghol, or Kŭmmidal, whence he ruled for fifteen hundred years. When, in the year kimyo [1122 B.C.], King Wu of Chou enfeoffed Chi Tzu (Kija) to Choson, Tangun moved to Changdanggyong, but later he returned and hid in Asadal as a mountain god at the age of one thousand nine hundred and eight.

Korean Poetry

According to Britannica.com: “There are four major traditional poetic forms: hyangga (“native songs”); pyolgok (“special songs”), or changga (“long poems”); sijo (“current melodies”); and kasa (“verses”). Other poetic forms that flourished briefly include the kyonggi style in the 14th and 15th centuries and the akchang (“words for songs”) in the 15th century. The most representative akchang is Yongbi och’on ka (1445–47; “Songs of Flying Dragons”), a cycle compiled in praise of the founding of the Choson (Yi) dynasty. Korean poetry originally was meant to be sung, and its forms and styles reflect its melodic origins. The basis of its prosody is a line of alternating groups of three or four syllables, probably the most natural rhythm to the language. [Source: Du-Hwan Kwon, Byong-Wuk Chong, Peter H. Lee, Britannica.com]

“The oldest poetic form is the hyangga, poems transcribed in the hyangch’al system, dating from the middle period of the Unified Silla dynasty to the early period of the Koryo dynasty (935–1392). The poems were written in four, eight, or 10 lines; the 10-line form—comprising two four-line stanzas and a concluding two-line stanza—was the most popular. The poets were either Buddhist monks or members of the Hwarangdo, a school in which chivalrous youth were trained in civil and military virtues in preparation for state service. Seventeen of the 25 extant hyangga are Buddhist in inspiration and content.

The pyolgok, or changga, flourished during the middle and late Koryo period. It is characterized by a refrain either in the middle or at the end of each stanza. The refrain establishes a mood or tone that carries the melody and spirit of the poem or links a poem composed of discrete parts with differing contents. The theme of most of these anonymous poems is love, the joys and torments of which are expressed in frank and powerful language. The poems were sung to musical accompaniments chiefly by women entertainers known as kisaeng.

The sijo is the longest-enduring and most popular form of Korean poetry. Although some poems are attributed to writers of the late Koryo dynasty, the sijo is primarily a poetic form of the Choson dynasty (1392–1910). Sijo are three-line poems in which each line has 14 to 16 syllables and the total number of syllables seldom exceeds 45. Each line consists of groups of four syllables. Sijo may deal with Confucian ethical values, but there are also many poems about nature and love. The principal writers of sijo in the first half of the Choson dynasty were members of the Confucian upper class (yangban) and the kisaeng. In the latter part of the Choson dynasty, a longer form called sasol sijo (“narrative sijo”) evolved. The writers of this form were mainly common people; hence, the subject matter included more down-to-earth topics such as trade and corruption as well as the traditional topic of love. In addition, sasol sijo frequently employed slang, vulgar language, and onomatopoeia.

The kasa developed at about the same time as the sijo. In its formative stage, kasa borrowed the form of the Chinese tz’u (lyric poetry) or fu (rhymed prose). The kasa tends to be much longer than other forms of Korean poetry and is usually written in balanced couplets. Either line of a couplet is divided into two groups, the first having three or four syllables and the second having four syllables. The history of the kasa is divided into two periods, the division being marked by the Japanese invasion of 1592–97. During the earlier period the poem was generally about 100 lines long and dealt with such subjects as female beauty, war, and seclusion. The writers were usually yangban. During the later period the poem tended to be longer and to concern itself with moral instruction, travel accounts, banishment, and the writer’s personal misfortunes. The later writers were usually commoners.

Immediately after the founding of the Choson dynasty at the end of the 14th century and the establishment of the new capital in Seoul, a small group of poetic songs called akchang was written to celebrate the beginning of the new dynasty. In its earliest examples the form of akchang was comparatively free, borrowing its style from early Chinese classical poetry. Whereas the early akchang are generally short, the later Yongbi och’on ka consists of 125 cantos.

Sijo Poetry

The sijo is the longest-enduring and most popular form of Korean poetry. Developed in the twelfth century, it is composed of three couplets and characterized by great simplicity and expressiveness. Although some poems are attributed to writers of the late Koryo dynasty, the sijo is primarily a poetic form of the Choson dynasty (1392–1910). Sijo are three-line poems in which each line has 14 to 16 syllables and the total number of syllables seldom exceeds 45. Each line consists of groups of four syllables. Sijo may deal with Confucian ethical values, but there are also many poems about nature and love. The principal writers of sijo in the first half of the Choson dynasty were members of the Confucian upper class (yangban) and the kisaeng. In the latter part of the Choson dynasty, a longer form called sasol sijo (“narrative sijo”) evolved. The writers of this form were mainly common people; hence, the subject matter included more down-to-earth topics such as trade and corruption as well as the traditional topic of love. In addition, sasol sijo frequently employed slang, vulgar language, and onomatopoeia.

A sijo poem by Chong Mong-ju (1337-92), a Koryo Dynasty loyalist who was assassinated at the foundation of the Chosun Dynasty, refers to his political choice not to side with the new government. It goes: My body is mortal, commonly mortal. My bones end in dust, soul or no soul. My lord owns my heart, though, and that cannot change. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

Early Korean Novels

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “The first Korean vernacular novel was The Story of Hong Kiltong by Ho Kyun (1569-1618). Like the story of Ch'unhyang it is a satire in which commoners outdo the upper class. The hero, named Hong Kiltong, is the leader of a band of thieves who set up a classless community on an isolated island and succeed in getting along without the yangban and their laws and privileges. Nearly a century later, the novelist Kim Manjung (1637-92) wrote The Cloud Dream of the Nine (Ku'unmong), based on the Buddhist idea of dreams and clouds that hide reality. It too concerned the conflict between pretense and reality in the lives of the ruling class. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“Women wrote fictional works, including historical novels, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries using the loan gul script that most educated male writers tried to avoid. The authors were court ladies; that is, wives and mothers of powerful men who had to keep their silence while observing the cruelties and injustices of court politics. Since they were not writing for publication at the time and were in effect keeping secret diaries for their own use, they were not bound by the rigid forms and conventions that stripped so much of the men's writing of emotion and color. As a result, in modern times their ban'gulwritings have reappeared as popular novels about court life, full of characters and judgments about right and wrong. Like the Ch'unhyang story these have made good screenplays, and television series based on them have been wildly popular.

The Tale of Queen Inhyon (Inhyon wanghujon) is one that concerns a manipulative royal concubine who tries to remove the reigning queen in order to get her own son in line for the throne and has to commit multiple murders in the process. Eventually the king realizes the evil of the concubine and has the queen restored to her rightful place. The most famous court novel by a woman is The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong (the Hanjung-nok). The writer, Princess Hyegyong (1735-1815), tells the story of the court of King Yongjo (r. 1724-76) and the tragic fate of her husband, Crown Prince Sado. Written in diary form, the Hanjung-nok tells about the plots against Princess Hyegyong's husband, Prince Sado, how the plotters convinced King Yongjo that the prince was a criminal and deserved to die, and how the king had him locked in a box to starve to death. Like many other Korean classics the theme of the novel is one of miscarried justice—of unfair and arbitrary treatment and the abuse of power. King Yongjo was a great ruler but his blindness in the affair of his own son and heir was a great national tragedy. Princess Hyegyong's written record not only kept the historical event in the minds of the Korean people but also contributed a work of literature that is a Korean equivalent of a Shakespearean epic in the West.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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