Seopyeonje: The Southerners’ Songs

  • onApril 20, 2015
  • Vol.27 Spring 2015
  • byYi Chung-jun
Seopyeonje: The Southerners’ Songs
Tr. Ok Young Kim Chang

When the singer had concluded another tan-ga with considerable effort, the traveller made a request. ‘I suppose you are ready for a real song, now that you have warmed up with your tan-ga. How about Chunhyang-ga or Sim Cheong-ga—anything your heart desires, any passage from them—I mean?’ He was now requesting her to sing pansori.

However, she was already exhausted—but not from singing songs in preparation for the pansori; she no longer cared whether she had any strength left to go on. As she had become aware that the guest’s breathing was growing increasingly harsh as he listened, she felt a strange flash of foreboding in her sightless eyes, and finally it immobilized all her movements.

‘You have such a deep desire for songs?’

No answer came from the man. He flinched, suspecting she had read his mind. He recovered himself and fixed his sight on her. It was obvious that she did not wish to continue; she needed to rest her voice.

‘I wonder why you have come to enjoy listening to songs so much. I have never met a lover of pansori who does not have a reason for becoming one.’ The singer spoke with conviction.

‘What do you mean by “a reason”?’ He hesitated for a moment, then took a deep breath, struggling to speak. Finally, he decided what he should say. ‘If you ask why I have become so obsessed with songs, there is something in my life that you might think is the cause of it.’

His expression remained withdrawn. When he spoke again, it was in a hollow voice. ‘Yes, there is a reason. I am over forty now and looking wretched. I have been everywhere in this region hoping to find songs. But tonight, meeting your voice this way, I know that all the days of wandering were worth while. I have no regrets.’

‘My humble songs do not deserve to be heard,’ the singer demurred.

A hint of a smile surfaced on his lips as he shook his head. ‘Don’t deny it. There is something delightful and precious in your voice, something I value and cherish above anything I have ever known in my life. I feel that it is for this very dear thing—more than for the songs—that I have searched in vain all my life.’

‘What is it? What is so very precious and valuable to you?’ She was becoming increasingly agitated and anxious.

‘If you care to listen, I will tell you.’

He began. It was the same story he had recounted years before to the proprietress of Song Pass Tavern in Boseong after he had listened to her songs all through the night. It was the remembrance of a flaming summer sun, a ball of fire that was lost with his childhood and beginning to fade from his memory. Anywhere, anytime he listened to a pansori song, the traveller experienced the heat of that sun beating down on him, the sun of his fate scorching his face and lashes.

The man concluded his story calmly, as if it belonged to someone else. ‘My mother died when a bloody lump of flesh in the shape of an infant dropped from her womb, and my stepfather, the songman, could no longer remain in the village. He buried the infant’s mother and left the village with the infant.’ The boy did not believe the songman’s face was the face of the songs, but the flaming sun remained in his consciousness as the true face of the songs. A suffering, pain-ridden face though it was, he could not live a day without it—without feeling its burning heat, his body and soul wasted away. It was in search of this sun of his fate that he had wandered half his life.

‘I needn’t go on telling you what happened to me after that time. You can well imagine the rest. In any event, I have been drifting ever since. Yet I am unable to rid myself of the miserable memory of my childhood. I go from place to place, a god-forsaken beggar of songs. Whenever I listen to pansori singing an image surfaces in my mind of the breaking ocean waves I watched as a child from the soya-bean patch, glistening like fish scales, and I can feel the wind on my face from the deep forest, that cool breeze rising after a short summer rain, washing away the sultry heat. And, more significantly, I see once again the same scorching summer sun that hovered over me with such a horrific intensity that it singed my eyelashes. I tell you now. What I mean is that in your song I meet that sun. Never have I encountered a song that holds a sun as powerful as yours. Now you must understand why I have been so drawn to them.’ Even after he had finished his story his face remained twisted in pain like a man suffering in the sun’s intense heat.

The woman’s expression had betrayed no sign of the turmoil in her mind until the traveller’s story came to an end. She sat immobile, desolate, her sightless eyes fixed on the void, her figure bent, exhausted and lifeless like a withered roadside tree under the summer sun, just as when she would come outside and crouch under the tavern’s awning and, turning her empty gaze towards nothing in particular, endlessly wait for something. When the guest had concluded his story the glimmer of a vague foreshadowing that had spun about in her sightless eyes had disappeared completely, leaving no trace.

‘Very well, then, I’ll let you listen to me sing all night.’ She spoke in an effort to soothe him. She adjusted her sitting position and then silently pushed towards him the drum and the drumstick she had been holding against her chest, an indication that if he wanted to listen to her songs he must be willing to accompany her. This was her habit when her customers asked her to sing, and she always trusted their hands.

The man seemed to shrink away from her, his eyes clearly showing confusion as he looked at the instruments thrust at him. But her blank eyes pursued him, allowing him no alternative but to accept her terms.

‘I haven’t touched the drum for so long. I wonder whether my accompaniment can match your songs.’ But he realized he could not resist her gesture and drew the instruments slowly to him. And so began the duet of the blind woman and the traveller which promised to last the whole night. 


pp. 53 - 58