A Fateful Meeting with Modern Korean Poetry

  • onNovember 9, 2014
  • Vol.21 Autumn 2013
  • byChong Chi-Yong

It was by coincidence that I encountered Chong Chi-Yong, the first modernist Korean poet. That is why I never imagined that he would become so central in my life. Twenty years ago when I had just enrolled in a master’s degree program, I visited the home of a friend of my father and came across Jo Jung-rae’s epic novel, Taebaek Mountain Range in his study. I borrowed it and read the whole series. Twenty years has passed, yet I still have a vivid memory of the poem “Nostalgia” that was in the book. I cannot forget the shivers I experienced upon reading that poem which was an integral part of the narrative of the novel. But there was no way of knowing about the poet Chong Chi-Yong, the writer of “Nostalgia,” the poem I fell in love with, or his other works. It was not until the following year that China and Korea established diplomatic relations, and until then there was very little material on Korean studies that I could get my hands on.

It was not until four years later in the spring of 1997 that I was able to re-encounter Chong Chi-Yong. I was pursuing my second doctoral degree at Inha Univeristy in Korea. The course on “Modern Korean Poetry,” which I had registered for during that semester required that I submit an essay every week. It was a truly difficult task for someone who was just getting used to attending college in Korea as a foreign student. But it was from this course that I was at last able to come in contact with the treasure chest of Korean modern poetry and found myself being mesmerized by the beauty of Chong Chi-Yong’s poems. In the process of studying and analyzing poems like “Nostalgia,” “Glass Window 2,” “Mount Jangsu,” and “Indongcha,” I discovered that Jeong, who was known only as a modernist to me, was deeply knowledgeable about classical Chinese poetry. I subsequently ended up choosing Chong Chi-Yong as the topic of my doctoral dissertation.

The time I spent preparing to write my doctoral dissertation provided me with a diverse range of emotional and intellectual experiences. I found out that the best way to appreciate poetry was to keep a relatively objective aesthetic distance. The more I liked someone’s poetry, the easier it was to get attached to the poem in a personal way, hence making it difficult to gain an objective and rational understanding. After much pondering, I decided to change my strategy and delve into his biography and get a hold of his essays in order to analyze the influence of Chinese in his work. With great difficulty, I sought out Jeong Gu-gwan, Jeong's eldest son, and conducted a number of in-depth interviews. In the process, I was able to confirm the influence of classical Chinese literature on Jeong's poetry and his deep love of the Book of Odes and Tang dynasty poetry. Then I read his prose writing with great care and discovered the poems with direct references to the following poets: TuFu, Yu-hui, Beomseongdae, Wang An-seok, and Samagwang. I also found out that he had made a direct reference to the Book of Odes, the Analects of Confucius, and Mencius (Hsün Tzu), and the Book of Lesser Learning (Xiao Xue). Chong Chi-Yong stressed how poetry should enrich and develop the classical tradition in a theoretical way. After going over his prose writing, I applied a detailed analysis to his poetry and was able to find new aspects of his work.

For example, the line from his poem, “Indongcha,” which is as follows, “In the mountains without even a calendar/ the three months of winter are all white,” is not about his feelings about leisure, as expressed in Tang dynasty poetry, but instead it is derived from the poetry of Shin-hwal who lived during the Joseon era, who wrote, “Upon hearing the news of Shimyang, I enter the mountains with mixed emotions… All alone in the midst of the mountains without a calendar/ I shall remember the spring by the blossoming of the flowers”; these lines reveal the poet’s strong criticism and resistance against the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), which brought about the collapse of the Ming dynasty.

In effect, Chong Chi-Yong’s poems from beginning to end reflect the influence of Chinese classical poetry, his later poems, in particular. Hence, the reason why Chong Chi-Yong can be known as the “father of modern Korean poetry” is that his poetry is written in a very sophisticated language while also succeeding in perfecting and bridging the classical tradition with modernism for the first time in the history of Korean poetry.

After I completed my degree, I returned to China and began teaching Korean literature at a Chinese university. But I was often asked outrageous questions as to whether or not there is actually any world-renowned Korean literature, or whether or not there is any immortal work like Tang dynasty poetry or the History of Song. At first, I was simply cynical and dismissed these ridiculous questions. But for someone who truly loved Korean literature, and taught it at the same time, I could not remain mute or indifferent. That is because while Guiyeoni (pen name), a Korean Internet writer, is significantly influencing contemporary Chinese readers, classical Korean literature is being neglected. Thus, I felt an urgent responsibility to introduce and acquaint Chinese readers with classical Korean literature. That is how I embarked on a project of translating the famous modern Korean poems with a grant from the Daesan Foundation. In order to render the most accurate meaning and image of each and every poem, I did thorough research into the original text and studied all the relevant research materials that were available. I must add, in the actual process of translating, I spent days mulling over a simple name. Occasionally, when I was able to come up with a wholly satisfying line with the help of inspiration, I felt great catharsis. To make the poetry more easily comprehensible for Chinese readers, I added footnotes and asked professors of Chinese literature to edit and proofread my translation. That is because the translation of poetry calls for a similarity of form and more importantly, a similarity of spirit with the writer. That is how it can move the heart of a reader, as well as provide them with a wonderful aesthetic experience.

Translation is commonly thought of as a kind of betrayal but “it is better to like something than to know it and better to enjoy it than to like it.” However, if one undertakes the endeavor of translation with a solid literary background and ample understanding of the humanities, and not be negligent with a single word, then the translated work cannot be an easy betrayal of the original work. At present, I am relishing both the anguish and the bliss of translating the poetry of Baik Suk and will continue to make an effort to accurately translate the full spectrum of the poems — for reasons none other than that Korean literature is connected to me by fate.


Yin Hai-yan is a professor of Korean Language and Literature who has taught at universities in China and Korea. Since March 2010, she has also served as director of the Korean Studies Center at Nanjing University. Her areas of specialization are Korean contemporary poetry and Chinese and Korean comparative literature. Her major translations include: Reading the Best of Korean Contemporary Poetry (2006) and German Ideology and MEGA Literature Studies (2010).