Contextualizing the Past: Historians Shed New Light on the Past

While history contains facts, the stories based on those facts can be as rich and varied as the events themselves.


1. Song Si-yeol and His Country
Lee Dukil, Gimm-Young Publishers, Inc.
2000, 398p, ISBN 8934905026

2. A Country the Crown Prince Sado Dreamt Of
Lee Dukil, Wisdomhouse Publishing Co., Ltd.
2011, 440p, ISBN 9788993119367

3. Histories Whisper
Kim Gi-bong, Phronesis
2009, 264p, ISBN 9788901094182
  4. Reading History with Literature, Reading Literature with History
Jou Kyung-chul, Sakyejul Publishing Ltd.
2009, 272p, ISBN 9788958284321

5. The Age of Maritime Expansion
Jou Kyung-chul, Seoul National University Press
2008, 581p, ISBN 9788952108678

6. History: Everything One Has to Know
Nahm Gyung-tai, Dulnyouk
2008, 687p, ISBN 9788975278198


Pansori is one form of Korea’s traditional music and performance. It is performed by a sorikkun, a singer who sings and tells a story, and a gosu, a drummer who keeps rhythm. The longest piece of pansori can last for six to seven hours. The singer not only sings and tells a story while playing the roles of different characters but also acts as a commentator. Pansori is a storytelling where the Korean oral tradition lives on.

The fact that one person can lead a story for six to seven hours that makes people cry, laugh, applaud, and cheer shows the power of a story better than anything else. Koreans are experienced in the power of a story told through pansori. Professional storytellers were active until the mid-20th century in Korea, and usually told interesting old tales at places like provincial markets and received money for it. Though they were reading an existing text, they attempted to modify the content to make it more interesting. Unbound by the printed text, they created vivid stories of their own.

With such a tradition of pansori and storytellers, the interest in narrative and storytelling has been rapidly growing in Korea. Storytelling is often emphasized when a cultural relic is developed, a museum is opened, or an exhibition is held. Many local governments try to create a brand based on their historical figures, tourist sites, local products, and relics through storytelling. For example, Gunwi-gun, a county in North Gyeongsang Province, uses Monk Iryeon (1206-1289) from the Goryeo dynasty as a subject of storytelling and as a local brand because he wrote Korea’s leading history book Samguk Yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms) at Ingak Temple in Gunwi-gun.

The reason for the recent emphasis on storytelling in Korea is that storytelling is widely recognized as a core element in cultural content and the tourism industry. Let us suppose that there is something called “A.” What will “A” need in order for it to remain for a long time in people’s memory and spread widely? An impressive and interesting story about “A.” How does a site that does not look like much become a celebrated spot visited by a great number of people? By having a special story related to the place.

Interest in storytelling is not limited to industries in Korea. For example, historian Kim Gi-bong’s Histories Whisper gives an easy and simple explanation on the relationship between history and storytelling. The author points out that there is no such thing as 100 percent fact. Historical documents referring to the recorded facts from the past and history are based on research, however, historical documents based on 100 percent fact do not exist. History is a story about the things that have already taken place. A historian uses his imagination to add a plot to the documents from the past and make a story. It is therefore meaningless to ask whether history is fact or fiction.

Kim Gi-bong focuses on popular historical dramas and films in Korea. He says that such great interest in historical dramas is due to people’s desire for a story. Historical dramas push into the gap between historical facts and use imagination to overturn the context. This is the storytelling of history. Historical dramas present fictional content that are different from historical facts but sometimes they are considered as more persuasive and acceptable. Is such fictional content dangerous and meaningless?

No, argues Kim Gi-bong. It is storytelling that makes the meaning of life more colorful and rich. That is why the title of his book is not “history” but “histories.” Diverse stories are possible even with one historical theme or material. The author dreams about a universe of stories where many stories harmonize.

Playground of History : West, East, Korea (5 vols.)
Nahm Gyung-tai, Greenbee Publishing Co...