Inter-area/Border Crossing

Organized Panel Session

2 - Turning the Poems into Songs: The Intersection of Literary Chinese and Vernacular Korean in Chosŏn Literature

Friday, March 23
12:45 PM - 2:45 PM
Location: Coolidge, Mezzanine Level

The relationship between literary Chinese and vernacular Korean (both in its spoken and written forms) was a contentious one throughout the Chosŏn dynasty. While the invention of hangul in 1443 was lauded as a monumental achievement that would increase literacy throughout the kingdom, most Korean literati of the time refused to adopt it as a desirable tool of communication or self-expression. They regarded the hangul texts not as “texts (mun)” but as “sounds” and deemed only the compositions in literary Chinese were fit to be called “texts.” Yet the paradox of writing in literary Chinese and speaking in vernacular Korean created tensions, especially, in their poetic endeavors.


This paper explores the Chosŏn literati’s discussion of the problems arising from poeticizing using literary Chinese and the solutions they designed. Poetry in literary Chinese stipulated a strict observance of rules but also demanded expressive genuineness. Many felt that to be genuinely affective, the poems had to be sung as Confucius instructed in the Classic of Poetry. Yet the poems written in literary Chinese could not be sung in Korean, and when tried, the effects were undesirable. The unsingable poems, it was argued, could not fulfill the edifying role of poetry. In the end, to solve this problem some began combining poems in literary Chinese with hangul expressions. This paper shows that the Chosŏn literati negotiated between literary Chinese and vernacular Korean to create what they considered to be true poems by transforming the poems in literary Chinese into songs they could sing. 

Christina Han

Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario, Canada

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2 - Turning the Poems into Songs: The Intersection of Literary Chinese and Vernacular Korean in Chosŏn Literature



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