Anonymous Sijo

항우 작한 쳔하장사랴마는 우미인 니별에 한슘 셕꺼 눈물 지고

명황이 작한 졔셰영쥬랴마는 양귀비 니별에 마외역에 울엇거든

허물며 녀남문 장부야 일너 무삼

Xiang Yu is an outstanding general of the Heavenly empire,

But after parting with the beauty Yu he made sighs and shed tears,

And Ming Huang is a talented ruler,

But after parting with Yang Guifei,

At the Mawei station he cried

Then what to say

About other men!

As Anastasia A. Guryeva notes in her paper “Allusions and Citations in the Context of New Tendencies in Korean Vernacular Poetry of Late Chosŏn,” use of Chinese imagery, Chinese personal names, and Chinese geographical names is one of characteristic traits of Korean poetry (3). These associations serve not just to express the education of the author (and a good education was indeed an education in Chinese literature and history), but also to heighten the main idea of the poem (3): here, in this undated poem of the 18th century, of longing, separation, and grief.

Along with the tragedy of Ming Huang, a common name for Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang, and Yang Guifei, the poem mentions Xiang Yu, a famous warrior of 3rd century China. Xiang Yu is famous for his romance with a concubine 虞美人, who chose death after he himself committed suicide after a defeat (5).

The sorrows of such powerful, historic figures, then, is this poem’s avenue toward its central point. If mighty heroes and illustrious emperors such as these two are overcome by separation from their loves and sorrow at their loss, “Then what to say / About other men!” Regular, common men stand no chance against these overpowering forces. The scale of Xiang Yu’s and Ming Huang’s power does seem to accentuate their specific grief, but this in turn serves to magnify the force of grief in general, making it something deeply human. Indeed, in sijo at this time, this was “a new representation of Chinese legendary figures” (6). The texts of this type “depict them as ordinary people who have their weaknesses and limitations” and who “may face ordinary problems” (6), perhaps something new for sijo, but also an overarching theme of the Yang Guifei story itself.

Despite this, the Yang Guifei story does not seem to enjoy as much of an influence on the art and literature of Korea as on that of China or Japan. Of course the story would have been well known from a historical point of view, as this sijo demonstrates, but uniquely Korean representations or retellings of the story have been hard to find. Perhaps the fault is in our own resources, but perhaps the story itself, so seeped in the failings of its central lovers and often concerned with the eternal nature of their love, is shameful to the very Confucian sensibilities of Korea, something this national culture has not been interested in carrying forward.

Works Cited

Guryeva, Anastasia A. “Allusions and Citations in the Context of New Tendencies in Korean Vernacular Poetry of Late Chosŏn.” SOAS-AKS Working Papers in Korean Studies, no. 42, University of London, May 2014, pp. 3-6. https://www.soas.ac.uk/koreanstudies/overseas-leading-university-programmes/soas-aks-working-papers-in-korean-studies-ii/file92640.pdf.