Sijo, Korea’s con­tri­bu­tion to world

The Korea Times - - OPINION - Mark Peter­son Mark Peter­son (markpeter­ is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Korean, Asian and Near Eastern lan­guages at Brigham Young Univer­sity in Utah.

Sijo, the fa­mous Korean, three-line, short po­etic form, should be un­der­stood in a cross-cul­tural per­spec­tive. As the frog out­side the well — that is as a non-Korean Kore­a­nol­o­gist — I see sijo dif­fer­ently than most Kore­ans, and the view I have is that sijo is one of Korea’s best con­tri­bu­tions to world lit­er­a­ture.

When I first be­gan teach­ing Korean Stud­ies at Brigham Young Univer­sity (BYU) in 1984, I came into a hu­man­i­ties build­ing that held paint­ings fea­tur­ing ex­am­ples of world lit­er­a­ture in the main hall­way. There were two framed paint­ings for each piece of lit­er­a­ture — one was a scene from a story and one was an ex­pla­na­tion that de­scribed the work and its author.

There were, among oth­ers, “Les Mis­er­ables” by Vic­tor Hugo, “Romeo and Juliet” by Wil­liam Shake­speare, “The Di­vine Com­edy (In­ferno)” by Dante, “Don Quixote” by Cer­vantes, “Faust” by Goethe, “War and Peace” by Tol­stoy, “The Broth­ers Kara­ma­zov” by Dos­toyevski, “The Odyssey” by Homer, “Huck­le­berry Finn” by Mark Twain, “Tale of Genji” by Murasaki Shik­ibu and “The Dream of the Red Cham­ber” by Cao Xue­qin.

The Chi­nese se­lec­tion was in­ter­est­ing be­cause there were four great Chi­nese nov­els of pre-mod­ern times —“The Dream of the Red Cham­ber,” “The Jour­ney to the West,” “The Wa­ter Mar­gin” and the “Ro­mance of the Three King­doms.” The com­mit­tee that se­lected rep­re­sen­ta­tive works to be fea­tured in the hu­man­i­ties hall­way could have cho­sen any of the four — or per­haps all of them. Where was the Korean se­lec­tion? Since the Korean po­si­tion I was hired to fill was in a new sec­tion of the Asian lan­guages depart­ment (Chi­nese and Ja­panese had been there for a while), I talked to the dean about it. He said if I’d rec­om­mend a Korean se­lec­tion, they would com­mis­sion the artists and add a Korean rep­re­sen­ta­tion to the hall­way dis­play.

What should I have se­lected at the best rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Korean lit­er­a­ture?

As I looked at the Korean op­tions, I found a ma­jor prob­lem — the most fa­mous works were anony­mous. We don’t know who wrote the best-known story, the love story of Chun­hyang. We don’t know who wrote the good brother-bad brother story of He­ungbu and Nolbu. We don’t know who wrote about the blind man’s daugh­ter, Shim Cheong.

Some at­tribute the au­thor­ship of Hong Gil-dong to Heo Gyun (1569-1618), but there are prob­lems with choos­ing that story as the best ex­am­ple of Korean lit­er­a­ture. First, Heo Gyun was not likely the author be­cause the writ­ing style of late 16th and early 17th cen­tury Heo Gyun and the 18th cen­tury Hong Gil-dong don’t match and other ev­i­dence is weak — he never claimed to write it, for ex­am­ple.

The prob­lem is the Korean em­pha­sis on the scholar, and the scholar-of­fi­cial. The up­right schol­ars con­sid­ered writ­ings of fic­tion or of sto­ries as some­thing be­low their dig­nity. And though they, as mem­bers of the ed­u­cated class, must have writ­ten the sto­ries, they could not deign to put their names on such sim­ple fluff. They had to be in­volved with the mat­ters of pol­i­tics, and the so­cial good, and ar­gu­ments about the finer points of neo-Con­fu­cian phi­los­o­phy. And not low-class story writ­ing.

One ex­cep­tion, and one good op­tion, might be “The Dream of Nine Clouds” (Gu Un Mong), but here there are prob­lems here, too. On the plus side, we have an author! Kim Man-jung (1637-1692), a scholar-of­fi­cial of the 16th cen­tury. But the story is cen­tered in China. It’s about a young boy who achieves great­ness, passes the ex­ams, be­comes a high of­fi­cial, et cetera, but it all takes place in China. And the genre, “dream lit­er­a­ture,” is a well-es­tab­lished Chi­nese genre. And he first wrote it in Chi­nese, then trans­lated it him­self into Korean. But all in all, it would seem to me prob­lem­atic to name such a Chi­nese-style, China-based story as the best ex­am­ple of Korean lit­er­a­ture. What’s left?

I de­cided sijo was Korea’s best con­tri­bu­tion to world lit­er­a­ture.

And what did we put on the wall of the main hall of the hu­man­i­ties col­lege? Jeong Mong-ju’s sijo, known as the “song of loy­alty.”

ThoughIdie,and­diea­gain; thoughIdieone­hun­dred­deaths,

Aftermy­bone­shave­turnedto dust;whethermysoul­livesonor not,

Myred­heart,forever­loy­al­tomy King,with­n­ev­er­fade­away.

The an­swer is sijo — Korea’s best con­tri­bu­tion to world lit­er­a­ture.

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