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Classical Literature in South Korea

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When talking about South Korea, lots of people think about its huge entertainment industry or its gastronomy, but you should know that it not only excels in these areas; South Korea is well known in many countries for its literature.

Translation by Laura Fino and Sara Varón.

Korean literature is one of the richest in the world and one of the oldest as well. Its history begins more than 1500 years ago. Currently, their general production is in the Korean language, but if we go back in time, we can find manuscripts in classical Chinese. This is due to the influence China had in the territory in ancient times, when Korea did not have its own writing system.

Oral literature contains all orally transmitted texts (ballads, legends, mask games, puppet texts and sung tales), which were for a long time the main form of entertainment for the Korean people. They were based on impersonated animals, gods and dealt with topics such as the origin of the universe.

Photo by ibmoon Kim on Unsplash

Classical Korean literature has its origins in the traditional folk beliefs and folk tales of the Korean peninsula. Other influences include Confucianism, Buddhism and, in part, Taoism. Traditional Korean literature, written in Chinese characters (hanja), was established at the same time that Chinese writing reached the peninsula. Korean scholars wrote poetry in the classical Chinese style as early as the fourth century. Some historians exclude these forms of literature from Korean literature, arguing that they were simply forms of Chinese literature.

However, others believe that the fact of using Chinese characters is not enough reason to exclude this literature from Korean classics, especially since it reflects Korean thought and experience. Under the unified Silla, a national academy was established to promote Korean literature. During most of that time, Korean higher education courses were bilingual, speaking Korean but writing in Chinese.

Hyangga (鄕 歌 – 향가), which means native songs, was the first form of poetry in Korea, consisting of between four and ten lines. They were mainly written by monks and warriors, predominating in these writings Buddhist topics. One typical hyangga is “Ode to eternal life”, the authorship of the poem is unclear, it is said that it was written by a monk.

Goryeo (Koryo) songs 長 歌 Changga are called long poems, their length differentiates them from Hyangga. These poems were songs published anonymously that expressed the lives of ordinary people. They were first transmitted orally and then written in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. They are considered the oldest. The main themes of these were simple life and love.

Sijo y Gasa ( 調 歌詞)

Sijo emerged at the end of Goryeo and is still being written to this day. For its writing, authors based upon themes such as nature, love, historical events, and nostalgia for the past. These were mostly written by rulers or nobles, but they were also written by kisaengs who belonged to the lower class. Sijo are verses known to contain three lines.

Gasa means words to sing. It emerged during Goryeo but became popular during Joseon. The common themes in gasa were nature, the virtues of the gentlemen and the love between man and woman. They were sung, but over time they became longer and began to be recited. They were very popular among yangban women and were considered by some to be essays: “a kasa could go on until its composer stopped writing” Lee Sung Il.

Photo by Bundo Kim on Unsplash

In the 1990s, Korean literature broke ties. At this time, it began to be influenced by foreign literature, thus becoming an international phenomenon. Female writers began to gain fame, as Korean literature seemed to be a man’s thing at the time. The woman began to take a totally different role from the one she had been playing, breaking many of the patriarchal codes they were forced to live by at the time. Although, as mentioned before, China had a lot of influence in Korea, that was left behind. Now, this country has its own traditions, beliefs and values. In addition, it excels in industries such as film, music and everything in what the entertainment industry is concerned.

Written by: María Pertuz 

Edited by: Andrea Avendaño

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