[Inkstone] Presenting KLN Korean Classics

  • onMarch 25, 2021
  • Vol.51 Spring 2021
  • byRyu Junpil

Korean literature has lately been met with a phenomenal global response. International readership is on the rise; prestigious awards are being bestowed on Korean authors and books. This is certainly good news for everybody at KLN, who have worked tirelessly to introduce Korean literature to a global audience. Going forward, we aim to do more.

As with the history of Korea as a country, the history of its native literature is also long and extensive. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that contemporary Korean fiction remains heavily influenced by longstanding traditions in Korean literature and culture. These established traditions, combined with the formidable talents of individual authors, are culminating in glittering works of art. Such is the landscape of Korean literature today.

For the last two years, KLN has presented curated offerings of Korean classics for its readers through its Inkstone section. Now, Inkstone is heading into its second season.

As Korean literature has more than two thousand years of history, the sheer volume of its classics is quite impressive. Classical Korean literature encompasses orally transmitted folklore, classics written in hanja [Sino-Korean] and hanmun [Literary Chinese, or Literary Sinitic], and stories written in hangeul [Korean]. This wide range makes it a challenge to introduce the full scope of Korean classics in its entirety. Instead, we have chosen to focus more on the literary and cultural traditions that are especially relevant to contemporary Korean literature. Hopefully, these classics will offer insight into the sources behind Korean literature’s staying power, while at the same time providing creative inspiration to writers outside Korea.

This new season of Inkstone hopes to be of more practical use for readers and writers alike. It will give priority consideration to literary traditions that are related to various expressive styles, the intriguing characters that appear in Korean classics, and the time and space contexts that serve as the backdrop to the various shenanigans that these characters get themselves into. This content will be divided into sixteen distinct themes that will be presented over the next two years.


For this issue, we introduce the musical tradition of pansori along with a look at the many deities in Korean lore. Pansori was chosen for its distinctive expressive style, while the spirits and gods of Korea make for a delightful cast of characters that exist across multiple time periods and contexts. We also anticipate that the learning curve for these two themes won’t be too steep, as many of our international readers may already be familiar with Korean pansori and folk gods.

Pansori is a traditional performance that integrates singing and storytelling. Historically, it has had an outsized influence on Korean literature. In the pansori tradition, music and storytelling are seamlessly intertwined; the performance is rich with expansive narrative techniques, and is not far removed from a musical or theater production. Given its flexible, forgiving format, pansori has inspired numerous contemporary interpretations and surprising new twists. In an inviting, warmly written essay, Professor Shin Dong-hun gives an overview of pansori as well as a description of its impact on contemporary Korean culture.

Traditionally, the gods and spirits of Korean folklore have been deeply tied to shamanism, Buddhism, and other religious beliefs. Later, as Korea became more responsive to outside, foreign influences, these gods underwent transformations in both shape and substance. These otherworldly beings must be fully appreciated to understand how Korean culture has evolved over the years, which is why it is only natural that folk gods assume a major role in traditional Korean literature. Professor Maurizio Riotto, an expert in Korean history and culture, provides a succinct, focused look at this theme.

In contemporary Korean literature and popular culture, images of the Other are often represented in the form of gods (or of faiths). When we attempt to identify the causes behind the pathological circumstances that affect Korean society today, we often find ourselves confronting the rather cheerless, gloomy manifestations of folk gods who float to the surface from our societal subconscious. These spiritual beings serve as reference points, giving shape to surreal, supernatural beings, forces, or phenomena, particularly when there are changes to the time and space continuum (for instance, time travel or expeditions to otherworldly realms such as outer space or the life beyond), which necessitate alterations to the physical bodies of the characters. In fact, this is a common practice not only in Korea but elsewhere across the world.

We hope that these sixteen forthcoming classic Korean themes will help guide our readers into a deeper appreciation of the fullness and breadth of contemporary Korean literature and culture.


Ryu Junpil
Seoul National University
Translated by Amber Hyun Jung Kim