In medieval Korea, poetry was often a medium of correspondence among learned men. People addressed each other in poetry and conveyed messages metaphorically in terse four or five-line poems or three-line sijo. The recipient of the correspondence would also reply with a poem. How poetic were our ancestors’ lives in those days! Westerners may find it hard to understand, but the power of poetry was so potent in Korea that it could remit one’s debts at times and even prevent war at other times.
When General Wu of the Sui Dynasty in China invaded Korea in A.D. 612, Korean General Uljimundeok sent a short poem to persuade him to withdraw. After reading the poem, the Chinese general surprisingly decided to give up the campaign and pull back his troops to China. The anecdote is so famous because a short poem prevented the seemingly inevitable, imminent war. The famous poem was as follows:
Your unfathomable strategies reached heaven
Your intricate calculations penetrated the earth
Winning so many battles already
You should know when to stop and withdraw.
It was neither a petition nor a threat, neither praise nor criticism. The message was so intricate and metaphoric that one could hardly understand the underlying meaning. Yet the Chinese warrior understood the poem and acted accordingly. It is amazing that even warriors used to address each other in poems. Perhaps Wu did not have a choice at that time except to pull back his troops due to the lack of supplies. Nevertheless, it was the poem from the Korean general that prompted him to make the final decision.
Another example of poems that resulted in historic events is the two famous poems exchanged between Yi Bang-won and Jeong Mong-ju. In 1392 the faltering Goryeo Dynasty was challenged by the House of Yi that later founded the Yi Dynasty. Yi Bang-won, who later became the third king of the Yi Dynasty, invited Jeong Mong-ju, a minister of the Goryeo Dynasty, to a feast to test his loyalty to the falling Dynasty. Then Yi recited the following poem to Jeong:
What difference does it make, this way or that?
The tangled vines of Mt. Mansu in profusion grow entwined
We too could be like that, and live together a hundred years.
(translated by Inez Kong Pai )
To this tempting sijo poem, Jeong Mong-ju improvised the following in sijo, too:
Though I may die, die a hundred times
Though my bones become dust and my spirit is gone
How could my everlasting loyalty to the lord be swayed?
Listening to this poem, Yi Bang-won gave up on Jeong Mong-ju. On his way back home, Jeong was ambushed and killed by assassins dispatched by Yi. Before the tragic incident, Jeong’s mother advised her son not to change his loyalty, once again through poetry.
Do not go near a flock of crows, my white crane
Angry crows will be jealous of your white feathers
And will stain your spotless body washed in the clean river.
In those days, Korean women also used poems to express their feelings to their beloved ones. Hwang Ji-ni, the most celebrated gisaeng (courtesan) of the 16th century, composed exquisite love poems. Since she was so charming and attractive, all the men fell in love with her as soon as they laid eyes on her, except a man named Byeok Kye-su (“crystal-clear water”). So Hwang, whose pen name was Myongwol (“bright moon”), wrote a celebrated love poem, playing with their symbolic names:
O crystal clear water in the green mountain, do not boast of your speed
Once you reach the sea, never can you turn back again
How about stopping by, while the mountain is full of the bright moon?
Another famous love poem was written by Im Je, the famous playboy in the 16th century. Visiting the celebrated gisaeng Han-wu (“cold rain”), Im Je confessed his desire to stay overnight metaphorically in a poem:
Clear was the northern sky, and I came without an umbrella
Now a snowstorm hits the mountain and rain falls in the field
Soaked in cold rain, I must sleep icy cold tonight.
Then the warm-hearted, beautiful Han-wu replied also in sijo:
Why sleep icy cold, my dearest one
When we have this comfortable honeymoon bed here?
Soaked in cold rain, you deserve warm sleep tonight.
These days, such intricate poetic sensibility seems to have disappeared from our society. Unlike our delicate ancestors who practiced restraint, we have become too direct, too blunt, and too hasty. We no longer send poems to our beloved ones or to our enemies. Instead of sending poems, we ask rather bluntly, “Are you with us or not?” And to our boyfriend or girlfriend, we ask directly, “Do you love me or not?” or “Can I stay over?” Dismayed by our hostile society that lacks decorum, we often miss those good old days when people communicated with each other in poems.
By Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon, a professor of English at Seoul National University, is editor of the literary quarterly “21st Century Literature.” ― Ed.