Sijo, Korea’s contribution to world
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.”
Aftermyboneshaveturnedto dust;whethermysoullivesonor not,
The answer is sijo — Korea’s best contribution to world literature.