[Inkstone] A Twenty-First Century Look at the Classics

  • onDecember 13, 2018
  • Vol.42 Winter 2018
  • byJung Byung-Sul

With this winter issue, we begin a new series on classical Korean literature titled Inkstone. LTI Korea has supported mostly modern Korean literature in the past, but it has also maintained an interest in introducing and translating the classics. There are many traditions feeding into contemporary Korean literature, among which classical Korean literature carries a significant weight, making it necessary to understand the classics if we are to understand contemporary literature.

Korean literature is the summation of all the literature created since Koreans settled on the peninsula. There is no way of knowing what oral traditions existed in the early days of settlement. The first written records were written in hanja, or classical Chinese. Since hanja entered the peninsula with the rule of China’s Han dynasty, this could be said to have happened about 2,100 years ago. However, no records survive of any literature from that era, and while many histories and literature were recorded and created soon after, none survived intact. It could be said that the proper beginning of Korean records is the History of the Three Kingdoms and Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Not only do these volumes have partial records of literature from times past, the works themselves qualify as literary texts.

Korean literature further increased in scope with the invention of the hangeul alphabet in the fifteenth century. Hangeul, unlike Chinese which takes years to master, could be learned in a day. Literary readership greatly expanded to the lower classes and to women. This enabled the growth of fiction and encouraged the writing of lyrics. Then in the eighteenth century, commercial book-lenders began popping up in Seoul, and this gave rise to a fiction publication industry. Joseon, once a Kingdom of Narratives, became a Kingdom of Novels.

This general history of Korean classical literature can be learned from other books on the topic. KLN’s Inkstone series, however, aims to do something slightly different. While most books on the history of classical Korean literature are based on research from before the 1980s, this series will include newer research that has benefited from the significant increase in the number of researchers and the rapid development of digital databases. Not only have many new records been discovered, they’ve become easily searchable on the internet, bringing new opportunities for quality research. We have come to a point where our literary history needs to be reexamined. Another contrast is in research perspective. The dominant perspective of twentieth-century Korean literary research has been skepticism and a reassessment of nationalist attitudes. Korea was never a unified nation since the time of our nation’s founder Dangun (as claimed by the nationalists), nor has there been a tradition of such thought throughout history. The Joseon Dynasty emphasized Confucianism, an ancient Gojoseon tradition that came over from China. Nationalism was a concept created from the shock of Western influence in the modern era, not something that existed before then. This skepticism towards nationalism has begotten new and diverse perspectives such as feminism and queer theory, which our series will reflect.

What do people think of when they think of classical Korean literature? Sijo poems, gasa lyrics, The Tale of Chunhyang, Nine Cloud Dream, The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong, The Jehol Diary, and perhaps some hanshi poems. What was treated as the classic canon from the Goreyo and Joseon dynasties and onwards was Chinese literature. Works of Korean literature, in other words, weren’t subjects of consideration. It was only in modern times, with the advent of nationalist thought, that Korean literature entered the pantheon of the classics. Just as Korean-Chinese hanja characters gave way to the hangeul alphabet in modernity, Korean literature, especially literature written in hangeul, took center stage in literary discourse. Korean classical literature is still in its formative stages. Since the 1980s, Maiden Bari and Spring Flower Picking have emerged as major works of interest in literary research. Maiden Bari is a song from the oral tradition, a form neglected by scholars until recently, and Spring Flower Picking, a hangeul gasa, was written in 1930 and wasn’t considered a classic until recently. Its handling of women’s hardships has brought it to the attention of feminist critics. Furthermore, writers who were the offspring of concubines or from the middle class, otherwise neglected in the genre of hanmun and hanshi writing, are receiving more consideration than ever before.

This series takes into account these new advances in research and attempts to further diversify the discourse by including the works of researchers, especially young researchers, who reside outside of South Korea. Scholars of Korean literature outside the peninsula are more removed from the nationalist perspective and tend to have a more objective perspective in their research. Not only are they well-versed in European and American theoretical discourse, they are also well-aware of recent discoveries and research being done in South Korea. They are still not at a level where one researcher could publish a book on the entirety of Korean literature, but we trust they will be capable of producing higher-quality research and literary histories than could previously be written within South Korea. We are confident this series will be an important highlight of not only Korean classical literature but of all Korean literature, suitable for this new twenty-first century.







by Jung Byung-Sul
Professor of Korean Literature
Seoul National University