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Poems of Korea in Chinese - Introduction



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

Chinese logographs are very difficult to translate, as being a picture they convey subtleties that cannot be readily expressed in English.  They are a symbol in themselves and as such a poet using Chinese logographs is writing in direct symbolic form.

This was long recognised in Korea, and Chinese logographs were introduced into ancient Korean kingdoms as early as the second century B.C.  In other words, not only was there no resistance to the use of logographs, they were embraced and taught.  In Koguryo, for example, a Chinese-style royal academy was established in the late fourth century and the learned class studied the Five Classics, histories, and the Selections of Refined Literature (Wen hsuan), compiled by Hsiao T'ung (501-531).  

With the establishment of the royal academy in Silla in 682, the core curriculum consisted of the Analects and the Book of Filial Piety, along with specialization in the Book of Songs, the Book of Changes, the Book of Documents, the Record of Rites, and the Tso Commentary or Selections of Refined Literature.

In Silla, monuments erected at the sites of King Chinhung's tours of inspection, all from the mid-sixth century show the mastery of written Chinese.  Students also traveled to T'ang China to learn the language.  The most famous among them was Ch'oe Ch'iwon, who at age twelve went to China where he passed the examination at the age of eighteen (874).

“Upon his return to Korea, lamenting his country's social disorder, Ch'oe retired to Mount Kaya and is said to have become a transcendent. He was posthumously enfeoffed as Marquis of Bright Culture in 1023.”

The use of Chinese logographs had a profound effect upon Korean literature and poetry In Koryo, old-style poetry and parallel prose gradually gave way to new-style poetry and old-style prose - the prose of the Han and poetry of the T'ang and Sung began to be studied and imitated.

Columbia Anthology of Traditional Korean Poetry – edited by Peter Lee

Courtier poets wrote on every conceivable social occasion; they must have dreamed in verse as well, for numerous poems were inspired by dreams. They wrote poems on the walls of monasteries, post stations, or friends' houses, if the host happened to be out. Such impromptu poems were mulled over, harmonized, and treasured.

In addition to poems on nature, friendship and wine, and time, they wrote on moral cultivation, social problems, and yearning for freedom from political reality. Because poetry occupied the highest place in the literary hierarchy, and most of their energy was spent in producing poems, some were quite prolific -Yi Kyubo wrote more than two thousand poems, for example, Yi Saek and So Kojong about six thousand.

If a soldier, merchant, slave, or female entertainer is mentioned in history, it is because of that person's ability to write poetry in literary Chinese. This ability also saved the lives of a number of Korean males captured and transported to Japan during the Japanese invasions of 1592-1598.

The "Three T'ang Style-Poets" (Yi Tal, Paek Kwanghun, and Ch'oe Kyongch'ang) in the late sixteenth century scorned the complex rhetoric and difficult allusions-in short, court taste-and emphasized in their work the faithful expression of emotion that came from real-life experience.

We have not provided many examples here because of the obvious difficulties of translation.  The ones we have included are again from the Columbia Anthology of Traditional Korean Poetry

The source of the experience

Korean mystic shamanism

Concepts, symbols and science items



Science Items

Activities and commonsteps