[Inkstone] Sijo: A Gateway to Joseon Korea

  • onJune 25, 2019
  • Vol.44 Summer 2019
  • byAnastasia Guryeva


Nowadays, South Korea is often associated with its globally oriented trends, along with the originality of its culture, often represented though authentic images and phenomena. To understand contemporary Korea, it is important to grasp specifics formed long before. But what was Korea of past centuries like? How did Korean people view the world and what were their concerns?

Short sijo poems—a representative vernacular genre of the Joseon period (1392–1897)—gives a reader more than just a delightful encounter with beautiful verse; it also provides one of the best opportunities to have a glimpse of life in Korea in its past. Several thousands of preserved texts cover a wide range of topics, producing voices from the time. They reveal a mindset tracing its roots to traditional concepts but which are also found in contemporary discourse.

Let us open this gateway to Joseon and see what sijo shares with us.

“Literature of rivers and lakes”—this common denomination for sijo shows how deeply it is embedded in nature. Many contemplative texts depict the world in an ideal state with humans as part of it. The neo-Confucian philosopher Yi Hwang (1501–1570) creates a harmonic picture by pairing oppositions (yin and yang):


At the blowing wind of spring, the mountains are full of flowers

And at the autumn night, the terrace is filled with the moonlight.

The beauty of the four seasons—

For a human they are all of the same delight.

Then what to say of jumping fish and flying hawks,

Of cloud shadows and sky lights?


A multi-layered symbolism in sijo combines with the laconic character of the text, which gives an impression of seeming simplicity. At the same time, nature-related images often serve as metaphors and express a variety of ideas.

Poetic parables form one of the sijo types. In one of the earliest examples of sijo, the mother of the famous official Jeong Mong-ju (1337–1392) metaphorically warns about the danger of keeping company with indecent people:


Hey, white heron, don’t you go

To the place where crows are fighting!

Looking at your snow-white feathers

They may envy your pure color.

What if they besmirch your body,

Which you washed in blue river waters?


As the genre originated in the break between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it witnessed crucial events such as a change in dynasties and struggles for power, making principle values and moral choices important topics for poetic expression. Seong Sam-mun (1418–1456), one of the scholars involved in the creation of the hangeul alphabet, uses the image of a pine—a common symbol of loyalty—to speak of his support to the young King Danjong, dethroned by his uncle Sejo, and of his readiness to die for his decision.


What happens to myself after I die?

I’d turn into a pine that grows at Mount Penglai.

Then lofting at the top of the mountain of the immortals

Alone I would be keeping those colors of green,

When the snow falls upon the ground

And all around is covered with white.


Among sijo authors we find officials who experienced exile or chose life at nature’s bosom as a form of political protest, so the periods of service and being a recluse interchanged in their lives. Yun Sun-do, a representative sijo poet, is one of them.

In exile, he depicts an ideal scene in nature:


The stream is bringing fallen petals here,

It means the “Peach-Blossom Spring” is somewhere close


The lines allude to the “Peach Blossom Spring,” a utopian poem by Chinese poet Tao Yuanming (365–427), famous for living as a hermit. It speaks of a fisherman who discovers an ideal society in a forest with blossoming peaches, but after he returned to his home he could not find the way there again.

In other texts Yun metaphorically expresses that he is ready to return to civil service:


They say, the continuous rain is over,

They say, the gloomy clouds are already gone.

The deep dark pit which used to be ahead

Is now not as dark—I heard so from someone.

If those words are true and it is pure and light,

Then I could wash the strings of my hat in those waters.


The last phrase is an allusion to the text by Chinese poet Qu Yuan (340–278 BC), which contains a metaphor of the royal situation: “When the waters are clean, one can wash his [civilian’s] hat’s strings; if they are dirty, one can wash one’s feet in it.” The images here are of “rain,” a reason to postpone active service; or “clouds”—a metaphor for a ruler’s unworthy surroundings.

With the widening authorship of sijo, ordinary concerns and private life became popular subjects. Female-voiced sijo, often composed by kisaeng courtesans, deal with love and relationships. A sijo by the famous Hwang Jini (1506–1544) contains a humorous tint. She uses her literary name Myeongwol (Bright Moon) to pick on a man named Byok Kye Su (Azure Stream), who boasted of his strong resistance to female charms. The legend says this exquisite word play made Byok give up his position:


Hey, listen to my words, Azure Stream,

Why should you boast of your speedy run?

See, once you reach the waters of the sea,

It is not easy to return from where you’ve gone.

Bright moon is rising over the mountains again

Then why not rest and why not have some fun?


As the audience of the genre grew, people of humble origins also became sijo poets (the names of many are unknown). The textual framework widened. Merchants, hunters, and artisans enter into the texts along with their speech-styles and actions, bringing readers to street scenes and market places. Anonymous sketches of everyday life may be endowed with a philosophical sub-context:


Hey, cowherd, you are sitting on the calf, your back ahead,

And riding over that green and rampant grass,

You tell me, do you know or don’t you

About what is good and what is bad?

The boy keeps blowing his tiny pipe

And, smiling, does not give me a reply.


In the details of the boy’s image we recognize a Taoist immortal far from earthly matters. His non-reply is another element supporting this interpretation as the Tao is not to be expressed in words.

A similar motif is used in a text by a contemporary South Korean poet Chong Hyon-jong:


This boy kept silent

for the whole day.

When we went to see the waves of bloom

At the Peach Blossom Spring,

This boy,

Whatever asked

By his uncle from Seoul,

Did not say a word.

That’s true. At the end of the twentieth century,

In the light of your silence,

Words are a nervous breakdown,

They are a sickness of civilization.


The poem calls for return to nature and purity, applying Taoist motifs of silence and an allusion to the famous social utopia, i.e. “Peach Blossom Spring.”

Even this small number of textual illustrations introduces us to political circumstances, thought, human relations, and everyday life of Joseon. In sijo, social matters, love and faithfulness, personal expectations, and eternal values are conveyed with the help of a purely Korean tone embellished with elements borrowed from Chinese literature, but applied individually and in a creative way to form an authentic tradition. Translations of sijo texts into foreign languages are a good opportunity to meet this tradition and value it.


by Anastasia Guryeva
Associate Professor
Saint Petersburg University