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The Book of Korean Poetry: Songs of Shilla and Koryo

The Book of Korean Poetry: Songs of Shilla and Koryo

by Kevin O'Rourke

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Korea’s history is divided into four periods: the Three Kingdoms of Koguryo (37 bc–ad 668), Shilla (57 bc–ad 668), and Paekche (18 bc–ad 660); Unified Shilla (668–935); Koryo (935–1392); and Choson (1392–1910). Kevin O’Rourke’s The Book of Korean Poetry traces Korean poetry from the pre-Shilla era to the end


Korea’s history is divided into four periods: the Three Kingdoms of Koguryo (37 bc–ad 668), Shilla (57 bc–ad 668), and Paekche (18 bc–ad 660); Unified Shilla (668–935); Koryo (935–1392); and Choson (1392–1910). Kevin O’Rourke’s The Book of Korean Poetry traces Korean poetry from the pre-Shilla era to the end of Korea’s golden poetry period in the Koryo dynasty.There are two poetry traditions in Korea: hanshi (poems by Korean poets in Chinese characters) and vernacular poems, which are invariably songs. Hanshi is a poetry to be read and contemplated; the vernacular is a poetry to be sung and heard. Hanshi was aimed at personal cultivation, vernacular poetry primarily at entertainment. Hanshi was a much more private discipline; vernacular poetry was composed for the most part against a convivial background of wine, music, and dance.In this comprehensive treatment of the poetry of Shilla and Koryo, O’Rourke divides one hundred fifty poems into five sections: Early Songs, Shilla hanshi, Shilla hyangga, Koryo kayo, and Koryo hanshi and shijo. Only a few pre-Shilla poems are extant; O’Rourke features all five. All fourteen extant Shilla hyangga are included. Seventeen major Koryo kayo are featured; only a few short, incantatory pieces that defied translation were excluded. Fourteen of the fewer than twenty Koryo shijo with claims to authenticity are presented. From the vast number of extant hanshi, O’Rourke selected poems with the most intrinsic merit and universal appeal. In addition to introductory essays on the genres of hanshi, hyangga, Koryo kayo, and shijo, O’Rourke interleaves his graceful translations with commentary on the historical backgrounds, poetic forms, and biographical notes on the poets’ lives as well as guides to the original texts, bibliographical materials, and even anecdotes on how the poems came to be written. Along with the translations themselves, O’Rourke’s annotations of the poems make this volume a particularly interesting and important introduction to the scholarship of East Asian literature.

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From the Publisher
“Here at last in one English-language volume is the heart and soul of the Korean lyric tradition, brought to sensuous life by a poet who is our finest all-around translator of Korean literature.”—-Bruce Fulton, Young-Bin Min Chair in Korean Literature and Literary Translation, University of British Columbia

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University of Iowa Press
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THE BOOK of Korean Poetry Songs of Shilla & Koryo
UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS Copyright © 2006 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-58729-510-2

Chapter One Early Songs

Korea's history is divided into four periods: the Three Kingdoms-Koguryo (37BC-AD668), Shilla (57BC-AD668), and Paekche (18 BC-AD660); Unified Shilla (668-935); Koryo (935-1392); and Choson (1392-1910). Koguryo was the largest of the Three Kingdoms. Its territory extended from south of the Han River into Manchuria. The men were known as brave warriors and accomplished horsemen. Paekche was the most prosperous of the three, boasting trade links with China and Japan. Koguryo and Shilla quarreled constantly. Eventually Shilla employed a Chinese army to conquer Koguryo and Paekche and unified the country for the first time. These were the main kingdoms in Korea's early history, but the peninsula was not divided among them. Minor kingdoms existed side by side. Unified Shilla was an era of great cultural accomplishment, during which an attempt was made to establish an ideal Buddhist state. The last two hundred years of the dynasty, however, were marked by weakness and decadence. In 900 Kyon Hwon, a rebel leader, established Latter Paekche; and in 901 Kung'ye, another rebel leader, set up Latter Koguryo. Wang Kon, first minister of Kung'ye, overthrew his lord and succeeded in overwhelming Shilla with the support of landlords and merchants. King Kyo?ngsun of Shilla abdicated in 935. The following year Wang Kon conquered Latter Paekche and unified the Korean peninsula for the second time.

Thus began the Koryo dynasty, from which modern Korea takes its name. While Wang Kon was a distinguished leader, his successors were not of the same caliber. With the passage of time, Koryo became weak and corrupt, undermined by conflict between civilian and military factions in the government. The kingdom suffered a series of invasions by the northern barbarian tribes and continuous acts of piracy by the Japanese. The Koryo kings eventually became no more than figureheads. In 1392 General Yi Songgye set up the Choson dynasty. Choson brought the full flowering of Confucian culture, which had radical consequences for the administration of the country and also for the nature of poetry discourse.

According to Samguk yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms, an important source work on history, folklore, literature, and religion compiled in 1285 by the monk Iryon), the earliest Korean poetry was religious, magical, and incantatory. It was ordered around rituals to propitiate spirits and to appeal for good harvests, accompanied by singing and dancing. These festive celebrations continued late into the night. Kim Hunggyu quotes from the "History of Wei" section of The History of the Three Kingdoms (Samguk chi; Chinese: Sanguo zhi) by Chen Shou (223-297):

On New Year's Day ... the people ... of Puyo hold a festival in honour of the heavens. At this festival ... they drink, dance and sing endlessly.

In the kingdom of Mahan, the people hold a festival in honor of the gods after finishing the spring planting in May. They drink and dance for days on end at this festival.

The people of Koguryo like to sing and dance. Men and women in villages throughout the country gather every night to sing and dance.

In Chinhan, people like to dance and sing while drinking and playing the komun'go.

Korean people loved to dance and sing. Unfortunately, very few early texts have survived: a few pre-Shilla poems (composed in or translated into Chinese characters), fourteen Shilla hyangga recorded in Samguk yusa, and eleven Koryo hyangga recorded in Kyunyo chon (Life of Kyunyo, the biography of an eminent Buddhist monk, compiled by Hyongnyon Chong in 1075). Samdaemok (compiled in Shilla in 888) was purportedly a large collection of poems, but only the title has survived.

Korea has two poetry traditions, hanshi (poems by Korean poets in Chinese characters) and vernacular poems, which are invariably songs. Hanshi are to be read and contemplated; the vernacular poetry is to be sung and heard. Hanshi aimed at personal cultivation, vernacular poetry at entertainment, although this generalization must not be pushed too far. Personal cultivation should be distinguished from the merely didactic; many shijo, for example, were blatantly instructional. Vernacular poetry was composed for the most part against a convivial background of wine, music, and dance; hanshi poetry was a much more private discipline. This does not mean that vernacular poetry was inferior. Good poetry both seeks personal cultivation and entertains. Shilla hyangga and Koryo kayo are perhaps old Korea's finest poetic achievements, a perfect amalgam of cultivation and entertainment.

The following poems have survived from pre-Shilla times.


This lyric from Old Choson, translated into Chinese in Haedong yoksa, is the oldest Korean poem in the records. The song is also found in an Old Jin dynasty document, however; hence there are doubts about whether it is Chinese or Korean.

Yo Ok composed this song after hearing the harrowing background tale from her ferryman husband. A white-haired crazy man had come to the river that morning. The waves were rough, but the man, unmoved by the pleas of his wife, insisted on crossing and was drowned in the attempt. His wife poured out her sorrow on the harp. Yo Ok, moved by her husband's tale, took down her harp and composed "Konghuin."

Don't cross the river, love. Ah, you dare to cross the river, love. Swept away, drowned, love. What am I to do?


Dated 17 BC and translated into Chinese, this poem was recorded in Samguk sagi (a fifty-volume compendium of all things Korean). This unique source of Korean lore was compiled by Kim Pushik (1075-1151) between 1130 and 1145 at the command of King Injong (1122-1146).

The kingdom of Koguryo (37BC-AD668) included Manchuria and most of the Korean peninsula. King Yuri, Koguryo's second monarch, went hunting one day. His queens fought in his absence: Zhiji (who was from Han China), at a loss to control her anger, left for home. When Yuri returned from the hunt, he galloped after her but failed to persuade her to return. Resting in the shade of a tree on his way home, he saw orioles flying back and forth and composed this song:

Fluttering orioles cavort in pairs. Who will go home with this lonely man?


This first-century poem, translated into Chinese, was recorded in Samguk yusa in the section on the foundation myth of Karak kuk. Karak kuk (42?-562) was one of the six kingdoms of Kaya kuk, founded by King Kim Suro and his brothers; it was located along the lower reaches of the Naktong River.

"Kuji ka" was a petition sung by the people to persuade King Kim Suro to come down to earth.

Lord turtle, lord turtle, stick out your head. If you refuse, we'll roast and eat you.


This seventh-century, five-character poem is the oldest hanshi in the records. In 612 General Ulchi Mundok of Koguryo sent this poem to General Yu Zhongwen of Sui. The idea was to lure the general into thinking that he had won.

Your god-like strategy had all the brightness of heaven; your shrewd ploys exhausted the wisdom of earth. You won the battle; your honors are great. Contented now, I trust you will desist from war.


This seventh-century poem, translated into Chinese, was recorded in Samguk yusa, with the following story. Prince Sunjong, governor of Kangnung, was walking along the seashore with Lady Suro, his beautiful wife. Suddenly the Dragon of the East Sea came from the water and abducted Lady Suro. Prince Sunjong was in anguish. An old man passing by reassured the prince: he would tell the local people to sing a song that would secure the release of Lady Suro. This is the song they sang:

Turtle, turtle, let Suro go! To filch the wife of another is a grievous sin. If you persist in your perfidy, we'll net and roast you for dinner!

Chapter Two Shilla Hanshi (Korean Poems in Chinese)

Chinese characters were introduced early into Korea. "Hwangjo ka" (Song of the Orioles), which is attributed to King Yuri (?-18) and dates back to Koguryo, was transcribed in Chinese. The inscription (1,759 characters) on the monument of the Koguryo monarch Kwanggaet'o (391-412) is in Chinese, as is General Ulchi Mundo?k's poem to the Sui general Yu Zhongwen, written in 612.

In the seventh century Sol Ch'ong created the hyangch'al writing system, which made possible the transcription of the Korean vernacular in Chinese characters. This cumbersome system was used to transcribe hyangga, but it was discontinued in Koryo. Subsequently, Korean vernacular verse was either transmitted orally or translated into Chinese. A script to record the vernacular did not come into being until Sejong and his scholar group promulgated Hunmin chong'um (Right Sounds to Educate the People) in 1446.

Chinese was used extensively in Paekche and Shilla from the fourth century. By the time of Unified Shilla (668-935), it was common for the educated class to write classical Chinese poetry. Kukchagam (forerunner of Songgyun'gwan, the National Confucian Academy) was established in Koryo in 930, and the Chinese civil service examination system (kwago) was adopted in 958. Classical Chinese became the cornerstone of a good education. Skill in poetic composition was a major indicator of ability to serve in the bureaucracy. It was also a yardstick of literary ability and personal cultivation, which were the way to preferment. The dominance of Chinese as the language of government and literature continued until the end of the nineteenth century, when the rising tide of nationalism led to a rejection of Chinese influence and the promotion of Korea's native script. Sejong's scholars invented the vernacular script in the fifteenth century, but the literati never really accepted it as a cultivated form of expression. It was referred to as onmun (vulgar language), fit for those who were deemed unsuited to formal study because of sex, class, or lack of ability. The word han'gul used today to describe the vernacular script is a twentieth-century coinage.

In The Art of Chinese Poetry James Liu enumerates various categories of Chinese verse: four-syllable verse, Old Style, Modern Style, lyric meters, dramatic verse, and dramatic lyrics. All these verse forms were read in Korea, but the vast majority of written hanshi were in Old Style (koch'eshi) or Modern Style (shinch'eshi or kunch'eshi). Old Style refers to verse in four-, five-, and seven-character lines, which does not follow the rules of tonal parallelism. Modern Style refers to the Tang verse in five- or seven-character lines, which follows the rules of tonal parallelism.

The main divisions of Modern Style are regulated verse (yulshi) and the quatrain (cholgu). A poem in regulated verse has eight lines with five or seven characters, observes tonal parallelism, employs a single rhyme at the end of the second, fourth, sixth, and eighth lines (rhyme at the end of the first line being optional), and shows strict verbal parallelism in the second and third couplets. The quatrain has four lines with five or seven characters, observes tonal parallelism, and employs rhyme at the end of the second and fourth lines (rhyme at the end of the first line being optional).

Regulated verse and the quatrain have a fourfold structure: theme (ki), development (sung), twist or antitheme (chon), and conclusion (kyol). This structural profile is deeply imbedded in the minds of Korean commentators: they return to it again and again in discussing not only hanshi but also shijo, kasa, and even contemporary verse.

Regulated verse was so difficult that many Korean poets continued to write Old Style. Precedent for this existed in China, where the great Li Bai used Old Style by choice.

Chinese has four tones that differ from each other in pitch, length, and movement. In determining meter, the first tone is regarded as level (the voice remains on an even keel); the other three are regarded as deflected (the voice moves up or down). Hanshi was recited with the Korean pronunciation of the characters. Thus the role of tone in hanshi seems to have been very different from the role of tone in Chinese verse. When hanshi were recited, the poems would be unintelligible if the listener was not familiar with and could not visualize the characters. Classical Chinese poetry used all the sound resources of the language, including assonance and alliteration. Hanshi, however, apparently centered on images or ideas rather than sounds: hence the notion of a poetry to be read and contemplated.

KIM CHIJANG, 705-803

Kim Chijang was a Shilla prince during the reign of Kyongdok (742-765). He went to Tang China, where he engaged in ascetic practices on Mount Jiuhua.


The hermitage was so remote it made you think of home. Let's part in the house of clouds; you must go down Mount Jiuhua. Your heart was always on the bamboo terrace, where you played horse; you were careless about collecting gold dust from the gold lode. There'll be no more calling the moon when filling your bottle in the stream; and there'll be an end to flower games when brewing the tea. Go in peace; don't cry; this old monk has mist and twilight for companions.

CH'OE CH'IWON, 857-?

Ch'oe Ch'iwon was the first Korean poet to achieve an international reputation for his Chinese verse. After passing the Tang civil service examination, he worked for a time as a bureaucrat in China before returning to Shilla and accepting an official post. In his later years he became disillusioned with the corruption endemic in Shilla society. He retired to his hermitage on Kaya san (Mount Kaya), where he pursued a life of study and seclusion. Kaya san is a scenic mountain in the Kyongsang area, the site of one of Korea's most famous temples, Haein-sa.

The quality of Ch'oe Ch'iwon's imagination is evident in "Beside Mirror Terrace," where he sees a departing boat as a bird disappearing in flight, and in the justly famous "Autumn Night in the Rain," where he demonstrates his loneliness by effectively separating body and spirit.


Imgyongdae (Beside Mirror Terrace) was on the banks of the Hwangsan (Yellow Mountain) River in the lower reaches of the Naktong River in South Kyongsang Province.

The river winds through mist shrouded peaks, houses and mountains face to face in the water. A solitary boat takes the full breeze; whither is it bound? Look! A bird flies off and vanishes without trace!

AUTUMN NIGHT IN THE RAIN (hanshi) Autumn winds sing only plaintive songs. So few people in this world understand me. It is the third watch; rain splatters the window. I sit in front of the lamp, my spirit ten thousand li away.

NIGHT RAIN AT THE POSTHOUSE (hanshi) Lodged in the hostelry; late autumn rain falling. The night is still; lamplight glints on the cold window. I sit in inner turmoil, filled with self-pity, a veritable monk in contemplation.

WRITTEN IN MY STUDY ON KAYA SAN (hanshi) Water rushes madly between the bundled rocks; the mountain seems to roar. Even at close range human voices are indistinct. The constant dread of wrangling in my ears made me ring the mountain with flowing streams.

LEISURELY STROLL BY THE SEA (hanshi) The tide has gone out; I walk the quiet sands. The setting sun bathes the ridge in evening light. Spring hues are at odds with the pain in my heart; they intoxicate me like the flowers of home.

SPRING BREEZE (hanshi) I know you've come across the sea from home. I sit at my dawn window trying to recite a poem; it's not easy to collect my thoughts. The breeze flutters the study curtain with tender feelings that speak of home flowers about to bloom.

SPRING DAWN: TAKING A LEISURELY LOOK (hanshi) The wind shifts the clouds dawdling on the ridge; the sun deceives reluctant snow into melting on the hill. How can my spring song express the bitterness of my thoughts? Like the gull on the seashore I'll make a friend of isolation.


Excerpted from THE BOOK of Korean Poetry Copyright © 2006 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Kevin O’Rourke is professor emeritus of English literature at Kyunghee University, Seoul. He is the translator and editor of The Book of Korean Shijo.

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