[Inkstone] Poetry and Sword: Heroic Imagination and Symbolic Ascendancy in a Contested Sino-Centric World

  • onSeptember 1, 2019
  • Vol.45 Autumn 2019
  • bySookja Cho


Heroes define their culture, society, and time. Their lives and achievements fulfill the needs and ideals of the people who worship them. Tales of heroes, “an eternal man” as Joseph Campbell puts it, never cease to enthrall us. Be they real or fictional, once heroes are born into narrative space, they wield power and authority over the living world. It is for this reason that Sherlock Holmes’s imaginary flat at 221B Baker Street continues to attract people from all generations and cultures.

Hero tales were very popular in premodern Korea, yet for most modern Koreans, only a handful of names stand out: historical figures such as King Sejong the Great and Admiral Yi Sun-sin, along with a few literary heroes like Hong Gil-dong and Chunhyang. The unfortunate truth is that comparatively few of the heroes of premodern Korea are still beloved today. As a result, premodern hero narratives tend to be underrepresented in modern times, both at home and elsewhere. I would like, then, to shed new light on two anonymously written hero narratives from Joseon Korea: the Tale of Choe Go-un and the Tale of Jo Ung. Armed with the powerful skills of “poetry” and “sword,” these heroes exemplify Korean sensibilities toward both the unconquered and the unjust, and embody Korea’s struggle to overcome powerful rivals. I hope that getting to know them will nourish conversations about Korean literary heroes, enticing readers to explore the treasures of the premodern Korean literary world, and inviting these heroes to share the modern narrative space.

The Tale of Choe Go-un fictionalizes the life of historical figure Choe Chi-won (b. 857), a renowned scholar and official of the Silla Kingdom (57 BCE–935 CE). Choe earned the respect and sympathy of Koreans through his official career in Tang China (618–907), his literary achievements, and the obstacles he faced. There have been many retellings of Choe’s story since its first appearance in History of Three Kingdoms (1145). The Tale of Choe Go-un, which emerged around the late sixteenth century, is a later version, embroidered with folk and religious elements which render Choe superhuman. In the tale, Choe, whose birth is associated with a mysterious golden hog, displays the highest level of intelligence, prescience, and supernatural power on top of his well-known literary skills. The tale attributes his literary talents to scholars from heaven who teach him mastery of the classics and of literary composition around age three.

Choe’s extraordinary talent drives him to involve himself in the diplomatic tensions between Silla and China, which ultimately manifest themselves in a poetry competition between the two. The Chinese emperor initiates the battle after accidentally hearing a magnificent recitation ring out from Silla, a thousand li away. The emperor sends scholars to compete with those of Silla, but they soon return defeated, having found that they cannot match a six-year- old Silla boy named Choe. This small incident triggers the emperor’s anger for he believes that Chinese scholars are the best. He sends a messenger with an unopenable box to Silla, vowing that he will invade and massacre the people until Silla is no more if Silla does not produce a poem describing the contents of the box. After considerable upset, Choe solves the problem and saves the Silla people. Soon after, he is summoned to China to prove that he is truly the scholar who solved it.

Choe’s talent causes him to constantly alternate between ordeals and successes. He is initially abandoned at birth because his father suspects he is actually the son of the golden hog. In China, he has to endure many tests to prove himself to the dubious emperor. After he earns the emperor’s favor through his success in the civil service exam and on various difficult missions, he is slandered by jealous officials, which eventually drives him to return to Silla. However, with each challenge, Choe’s superiority to all others, including the emperor, shines brighter. When he subdues bandits with only a letter, the supremacy of his writing is redoubled.

These compelling images of Choe’s gratifying victories over powerful Chinese rivals are rooted in the complexities of the historical struggle between China and Korea. His successes reveal the critical awareness of Joseon Koreans of their own political weakness and their silent yearning for change. The supernatural elements of the tale make Choe the perfect hero to serve that end. Choe’s surpassing literary talent expresses the prevalent aspiration for literary education and intellectual success among Joseon Koreans.

While Choe Go-un wields his literary power for Korea, the Tale of Jo Ung, a popular story of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, presents the fashionable hero Jo Ung who embodies the wishes of the common people by combating an evil power. Set in an imaginary land of the Chinese Liu Song dynasty (420–479), the story describes the adventure and romance of Jo Ung, a young boy who grows into a powerful general, bringing justice and restoration to his family and the state. Like Choe, he undergoes hardships from early childhood. Unlike Choe, Jo remains a human hero, having neither an unusual birth nor supernatural power. He starts off as a weak and vulnerable boy, equipped only with his own abilities and a passion for justice. As he grows older, Jo takes the necessary steps to empower himself. He acquires his three-cheok-long sword and a swift horse and seeks out masters to teach him vital knowledge and fighting skills. Finally, he begins a long journey to save the exiled crown prince and restore him to his throne. Throughout his adventures, Jo receives unexpected help from both the living and the dead.

The Tale of Jo Ung provides a rich description of Jo as a caring and loyal leader. He builds a close-knit and sturdy community of family and comrades that perfectly expresses Korean sentiments. Jo fulfills the social values and expectations of a popular readership to whom the stability and legitimacy of the country is of utmost importance. Jo’s deep empathy for his people strengthens his resolve to become a voluntary hero for them. His personal ordeals, including the loss of his father and death threats against him and his mother, gradually build his iron-clad mind and will. Scenes of Jo’s sighs, tears, and regrets, particularly while fleeing, starved and penniless, with his mother as a small boy convey that his salvation will not be his alone, but everybody’s, investing hope in Jo’s every move.

Moreover, Jo’s powerful three-cheok sword evokes the sword which Liu Bang (r. 206–195 BCE), the Gaozu of Han, used to slay the giant snake before coming to his power. The tale’s use of Liu Bang’s sword, a symbol for legitimate force, is a brilliant thread that weaves into the literary landscape Koreans’ thirst for a moral and stalwart martial power. When Jo Ung joins with a righteous army, his fighting spirit brings the balm of justice to the people’s wounded hearts. Each battle scene, many of which end with an enemy’s head skewered on Jo Ung’s sword, evokes greater morale. The final victory of Jo’s army is bountifully rewarded. Not only Jo but all those participating in his righteous campaign receive a tangible share of the triumph. This glorious ending contrasts with that of the Tale of Choe Go-un, which does not include any worldly reward.

Both the Tale of Choe Go-un and the Tale of Jo Ung are so rich with the intriguing charms and literary merits of premodern Korean fiction that no single essay could entirely capture them. These stories evolved to express the broad ranging heroic ideals of the increasing Korean readership of Joseon, particularly those ambitious and adventurous enough to challenge center-periphery politics and seek out a suitable place for an able Korean. Without compromising entertainment or emotional complexity, they constitute an exciting introduction to a specifically Korean attitude toward power and order, dramatizing heroes who personified the compelling desire for excellence and the unquenchable yearning to combat injustice that live on in Koreans today.


1  Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Commemorative Edition; Princeton; Princeton University Press, 2004), 18.

2  For an English translation of the tale, see Cho, Sookja. The Tale of Cho Ung: A Classic of Vengeance, Loyalty, and Romance. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.

3  See Joe Cutter, “‘Well, how’d you becoming king, then?’: Swords in Early Medieval China,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 132.4 (2012) 529–31


by Sookja Cho
Associate Professor of Korean
Arizona State University