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 is form of short novel, 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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
All links retrieved June 25, 2014.
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