The Origins of Classic Korean Literature

Literature not only entertains, but also documents the linguistic characteristics, cultural practices, and beliefs of a civilization. The collection and research of ancient literature help illustrate various contemporary and modern literary sub-sets. In the last ten years, South Korea experienced a sudden entrance into mainstream media through its music and TV dramas. The exposition of their media also brought attention to other works in Korean culture, especially literature. This article will explore the genesis, themes, and ideas of Korean classic literature and folklore, beginning by briefly touching on the Three Kingdoms Period (57 BCE–668 CE) before focusing on Korea's first unified state, Unified Silla (668–935 CE), and the Goryeo Dynasty (918–1392 CE). Lastly, it will discuss the use of hangeul, established in the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910 CE), in documents and literature.

Figure 1: Painting inspired and named by the book written by Kim Man-jung. - The Cloud Dream of the Nine. Anonymous. c. 1687.

Before the unification of the peninsula, Korea had three co-existing domains: Koguryo (37 BCE–668 CE), Paekche (18 BCE–660 CE), and Silla (57 BCE–668 CE), often referred to as 'Old Silla' before unification. Since classic literature generally begins with oral folklore tradition, it is unsurprising that the earliest seeds of the Korean literary heritage were also planted in the spoken word. In Korea, the first evidence of classic literature emerged through oral storytelling throughout the Three Kingdom era. This early period was typically classified by hymns and songs sung by the locals of the competing territories.

Figure 2: The Gaya Kingdom is still disputed as a main kingdom. -Three Kingdoms period in 375 CE. Anonymous. 2019.

Eventually, the Silla Kingdom united the entire Korean peninsula under its name. In Yong Jin Choi’s book Silla Korea And The Silk Road Golden Age, Golden Threads, Choi describes the peninsula’s unification, “In 668 CE Silla, with the support of Tang China, defeated Koguryo and unified the Korean peninsula” (2006, p. 1). This alliance orchestrated continual Chinese influence in Korea's governmental organization, philosophy, and eventually literature. The Silla kingdom conducted itself independently but as a tributary state of the Chinese Empire, exchanging tangible resources and social conventions. Roger Janelli (1986), an anthropologist and a first-generation scholar of Korean folklore, describes Korea’s relationship with China, “as long as Korea observed the formalities of Chinese suzerainty and sent periodic tribute missions, the Korean kingdom was left more or less free to regulate its own affairs” (p. 27). Korea benefitted from the relationship these two civilizations shared by receiving protection and tools for advancement. The most significant example of that is represented by the use of Chinese in early Korean writings.


Among these early writings are hyangga (native songs), the first example of lyric poetry in Korean history, written in the early Silla era. Although hyangga were the earliest form of Korean literature, none of them were scribed in Korea's own writing system. Bruce Fulton (2022), an Associate Professor of Korean Literature and Literary Translation at the University of British Columbia explains how hyangga transformed into prose:

Hanshi–poetry [was] composed in classical Chinese and following Chinese principles of poetry, but written by Koreans (p. 25).

Thus, just as in many other pre-modern civilizations, only the literati could access written material of their culture. The peasantry could orally express prose through songs, but they would not have the ability to read any compositions of the upper class. Korean sounds were also encoded in Chinese logograms.

Figure 3: Scholars. - Middle Class in Joseon. Yoo, Y. 1853.

The aforementioned Chinese logograms later resulted in two forms of Korean that still exist today, dividing its vocabulary into two types of lexical roots: Native Korean (Hangeul) and Sino-Korean (Hanja). Lou Xiao et al. (2018), involved in education studies and Chinese studies, identify Hanja as “traditionally written in logographic Chinese characters, [but] Sino-Korean words are now written in Hangul, the Korean alphabet” (p. 428). As a result, the Korean kingdom functioned in a dual-linguistic environment where everyone spoke Korean, but only the Korean elite wrote official documents using Chinese characters. The class division through language will be discussed further.


Next, to introduce themes in ancient Korean narratives, religion was a central inspiration. Se-Woong Koo (2010), a lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University, discusses how religion took root in society before the united Silla period:

Some scholars have suggested that in the prehistoric time the first Korean political system had been theocratic, ruled by shaman-kings who served as both political and religious leaders (para. 7).
Figure 4: This type of Buddhist icon became prevalent in the later years of the Three Kingdoms period. Anonymous. Pensive bodhisattva. (57B.C.–676A.D.).

Inevitably, this setting influenced early Korean hymns, songs, and poems that depicted the mystic characteristics of Shamanism. Another common theme, nationalism, was particularly strong during the Silla period during the consolidation of the peninsula. Hung Seo Koo (1999) an Associate Professor at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, describes some examples of poems and their themes, “The supernatural power of the Sodong-yo and Honhwa-ga [poems within the hyangga genre] expresses sensual and platonic love respectively: the former demonstrates the magical power to make a princess fall in love with the Potato Boy, and the latter, a platonic love which causes an old man to risk his life for a lady” (p. 194). These poems exemplified Korean societal values, such as how the people defined love, social conduct, and interactions with spirituality and divinity. Additionally, dominant Buddhist beliefs and imagery resulted in a majority of hyangga songs being primarily written and collected by Buddhist monks and Silla warrior youth (hwarang) (Fulton, 2002). One of these few songs from the Silla Dynasty by Master Ch'ungdam (some sources refer to him as Master Yungchong), is translated into English and narrates a heavenly savior destroying a falling comet:


There is a castle by the Eastern Sea,

Where once a mirage used to play.

Foreign soldiers came to admire this castle,

Torches were burnt, rockets were fired.

When knights visited this mountain, and when

The moon zealously lit her lamp, and a star

With a long broomstick swept a path,

Someone said, ‘Look, there is a comet.’

The moon has already departed.

Now, where shall we look for the long-tailed star?

("Song of the Comet," c. 579-632, Master Ch’ungdam as cited in Lee, 1965, p. 8).

Figure 5: -‘Deoksugung Gamrodo’ ('甘露圖’). Lee, T. J. 1392–1910.

It is highly plausible that Master Ch'ungdam felt inspired by the greatness of the empire when he composed "Song of the Comet". To illustrate this nationalist theme, the line ‘Foreign soldiers came to admire this castle’ conveys how the empire's otherworldly greatness elicited great admiration even from foreign invaders. Se-Woong Koo (2010) discusses Buddhism’s extensive presence in Korean literature, “Buddhism’s comprehensive explanation of the world and pantheon of deities who could wield potent magic in service of the state [who already held ideas of spirituality and magic of Shamanism] soon exuded enormous appeal” (para. 4). In addition, the line ‘castle by the Eastern Sea, Where once a mirage used to play’ paints the king and his castle as the focal, ethereal setting on earth deserving of divine protection from the comet.


During the Goryeo Dynasty (918–1392 CE), more sophisticated narrative forms began to develop and themes of Confucianism started permeating Korean literature, although Buddhism continued to dominate philosophical and religious thought. Bruce Fulton (2002) explains the identifying features of Goryeo poetry:

The literature of the Koryò kingdom (918-1392) is distinguished by a body of lyric folksongs, increased sophistication and diversity of poetry in Chinese, the prose miscellany called shihwa, and the appearance of shijo, a terse, intensely personal song (p. 26).

While it was primarily the aristocracy who wrote these works, lyric folksongs called “changga (long songs)” or “pyòlgok (special songs)” were Buddhist hymns and chants created by the peasantry, monks, and other anonymous individuals (Fulton as cited in Kwon & Fulton, 2022, p. 26). Eventually, these prose writings were collected by Buddhist monks and preserved in monasteries. Some manuscripts of other classic Korean writings were deemed a National Treasure by The Cultural Heritage Administration (대한민국 문화재청) established in the 1960s.

Figure 6: Old Monk under a Pine Tree. Kim, H. D. 1701-1800.

Finally, some contemporary Korean scholars in the years after Japanese colonization in the 1950s argued that classic Korean literature catered too close to Chinese literary standards and did not accurately represent authentic Korean culture. Lee Seungyeon (2020) addresses another argument in Korea's classic literary research, “Even after early collections appeared, there was no folktale anthology shared by non-elites prior to 1920” (p. 19). To elaborate on Seungyeon's quote, the collection and definitions of Korean folktale anthology were decided by upper-class Koreans during the colonial period, but the 'upper-class' were Koreans who compromised with the Japanese empire's authority. Consequently, the Korean proletariats questioned the research of any literary heritage conducted under Japanese supervision. For that reason, the Korean language not only existed as a symbol of Korean identity but also as a political strategy to unite against colonialism.


However, political strategies surrounding hangeul's use already existed in all three periods of rule (Silla, Goryeo, Joseon) because although it united the classes to a degree, hangeul was still seen as the 'commoner' language. Therefore, the use of Chinese in official court documents and artistic writings for the court remained the preference and was a practice that signaled the gentry's superiority. Accordingly, Korean literature composed in hangeul was more so done by the lower class:

For its part, han’gùl, in theory, gave all Koreans a literary language of their own; in actuality, until the 1900s it was used primarily by women and commoners, most of whom were not literate in Chinese (Fulton, 2002, pp. 26-27).

Yet, the elite wrote in hangeul in unofficial, personal contexts which conveyed their feelings and thoughts. Clearly, the native writing system more accurately portrayed the cultural nuances of utterances but only in the frameworks of conversation or an informal written text. The elite could access everything the peasants could (hangeul), but the peasants could never access what the elite could (Chinese). So, commoners and women (lower in the Confucian filial piety structure) were the ones who pioneered Korean literature actually written in native Korean.

Figure 7: Shaman Dance (무녀신축). Gisan Kim, J. (n.d.).

To summarize, researching classic Korean literature remains a complex endeavor for scholars. The use of Chinese characters in these early writings makes translations more labyrinthine. Young-Min Kwon and Bruce Fulton (2020) explain the intricate multiplicity of form, content, and graphemes used, “A writer’s choice of script — classical Chinese, hyangch’al, or, after the mid-1400s, hangŭl — not only influenced the text’s orthography but also determined its form and content” (What Is Korean Literature? Section, para. 5). Nevertheless, these classic works were the foundation of contemporary Korean literature in South Korea. The beautiful orality of the Korean language witnessed in their media piqued global interest with optimistic longevity. A smaller nation situated between giant nations of East Asia continues to rise above underestimations and distinguishes itself yet again with a voice twice its physical proportions. Furthermore, it is hopeful that Korean literature will remain a prominent subject in global literary studies.



Bibliographical References

Choi, Y. J. (2006). Silla Korea and the Silk Road. (F. F. Carriere, Ed.). New York, New York: Korea Society. Retrieved from https://www.koreasociety.org/images/pdf/KoreanStudies/Curriculum_Materials/LessonbyTime/2_Silla/694-silla-korea-and-the-silk-road-golden-age-golden-threads-normal-quality.pdf


Kwon, Y., & Fulton, B. (2020). What Is Korean Literature?. Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley. (pp. 25–33). Retrieved from https://www.koreasociety.org/images/pdf/KoreanStudies/Monographs_GeneralReading/GettingtoKnowKorea/GTKK%204%20Fulton%20Korea%20Literary%20Tradition.pdf


Janelli, R. L. (1986). The origins of Korean folklore scholarship. The Journal of American Folklore, 99(391), 24–49. https://doi.org/10.2307/540852


Koo, H. S. (1999). Teaching classical Korean literature: HYANG’GA 鄕歌. The Korean Language in America, 3, 193–208. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42922241


Koo, S. (2010). Religions of Korea yesterday and today. Spice Digest, Freeman Spolgi Institute for International Studies. Retrieved from https://spice.fsi.stanford.edu/docs/religions_of_korea_yesterday_and_today


Kwŏn, Y., & Fulton, B. (2020). What is Korean Literature? Retrieved from https://ieas.directfrompublisher.com/sites/ieas.directfrompublisher.com/files/previews/KwonFulton%20KRM%2037%20sample%20pages_rev.pdf


Lee, P. H. (1965). Korean literature: topics and themes. Tucson: Published for the Association for Asian Studies by the University of Arizona Press. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED012027.pdf


Seungyeon, L. (2020). The Korean folktale as a narrative: Traditional values, changing times, and its sociohistorical development. Journal of Liberal Arts and Humanities (JLAH), 1(4), 18–23. Retrieved from https://jlahnet.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/2.pdf


Xiao, L., Yang, Y., & Sun, J. (2018). A study on the Korean and Chinese pronunciation of Chinese characters and learning Korean as a second language. In the Proceedings of the 32nd Pacific Asia Conference on Language, Information and Computation, Association for Computational Linguistics, 429–436. Retrieved from https://aclanthology.org/Y18-1050


Visual Sources

Figure 1: Anonymous. [c. 1687]. The Cloud Dream of the Nine. [Painting - Six-panel folding screen]. Retrieved from https://www.korea.net/Events/Overseas/view?articleId=7932


Figure 2: Anonymous. (2019). Three Kingdoms period in 375 CE. [Map]. WikiMedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:History_of_Korea-Three_Kingdoms_Period-375_CE-2-es.svg


Figure 3: Yoo, Y. (1853). Middle Class in Joseon. [Painting]. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Middle_Class_in_Joseon.jpg


Figure 4: Anonymus. (57 B.C.–676 A.D). Pensive bodhisattva. [Sculpture-Gilt bronze]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/65397


Figure 5: Lee, T. J. (1392–1910). ‘Deoksugung Gamrodo’ ('甘露圖’). [Painting - Ink and wash]. Retrieved from https://www.korea.net/NewsFocus/Culture/view?articleId=125515


Figure 6: Kim, H. D. (1701-1800). Old Monk under a Pine Tree. [Painting - Oil Painting]. Retrieved from https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/old-monk-under-a-pine-tree-kim-hong-do/NgF2F8Kke8dhQQ?hl=en


Figure 7: GisanKim, J. (n.d.). ShamanDance(무녀신축) [Painting]. Retrieved from https://shamanism.sgarrigues.net/resources.html




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Leah Dietle

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