“The Korean Vernacular Story: Telling Tales of Contemporary Chosŏn in Sinographic Writing” by Si Nae Park

Detail of A musical party, early 19th century (via Wikimedia Commons) Detail of A musical party, early 19th century (via Wikimedia Commons)

Many cultures under, or in the shadow of, an empire sometimes make use of that empire’s language to express themselves. Latin was used throughout Europe, while for a couple of centuries after the Norman conquest, the dominant written language in England was French. China exerted a similar cultural pull over its neighbors: Japanese poets would write kanshi and Koreans hansi, both terms being probably derived from the word Han, referring to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) in China. For both, using written Chinese was to make a cultural statement, indicating that these writings were for an elite class of people. Furthermore, despite the invention of hangul, an optimized Korean script, by king Sejong in the 15th century, classical Chinese—both the language and the script—remained the preference of Korean literati for several centuries. Hangul did not in fact hit its stride until well into the 19th century; and, given their acute sense of class-consciousness, Koreans may simply have felt more comfortable reading their stories in classical Chinese. 

It should hardly be surprising that there eventually arose a demand for something more attuned to popular taste. In The Korean Vernacular Story, Si Nae Park introduces readers to yadam, orally-transmitted stories in Korean which, while still written in classical Chinese script, were “vernacularized” so that a much larger segment of the population had access to them through this hybrid literature. She reads the stories as new literary forms which vividly and often humorously illustrate everyday life in Chosŏn Korea at the end of the 18th and the early 19th centuries. Examples include “The Story of the Half-Witted Uncle of Yu Songnyong,” “The Story of a Poor Scholar named Kim,” or “Record of a Night-time Chat at a Post Station.”In addition, Park shows that women were becoming culturally more significant in Korea; many yadam featured women and a large proportion of readers was female. Park’s impressively-researched book, which she says took “a long while” to write, is the first full-length study of this genre.


The Korean Vernacular Story: Telling Tales of Contemporary Chosŏn in Sinographic Writing, Si Nae Park (Columbia University Press, August 2020)
The Korean Vernacular Story:
Telling Tales of Contemporary Chosŏn in Sinographic Writing
, Si Nae Park (Columbia University Press, August 2020)

Much of the credit for making these stories available to general readers goes to one No Myŏnghŭm (1713-1775), nicknamed “The Clumsy Old Man”, a member of the provincial nobility (Park calls him “a marginalized yangban”), who made a collection of them called Tongp’ae naksong, or Repeatedly Recited Stories of the East. By choosing to write the stories down not entirely in classical Chinese (referred to as Literary Sinitic), No started a trend through which his own contemporary Korean society could be interpreted through yadam attuned to its values and mores, whilst incidentally raising his own profile as a writer. In 1808, as Park informs us, a scholar named Hong Chigyŏng, some of whose family had once been tutored by No, read the book and liked it so much he wrote a postface to it in which he concluded


The book is not only an example of beautiful writing but also is like jujubes for Zeng Xi and water chestnuts for Qu Dao—a delectable delicacy.


It brought back childhood memories, as he already knew some of the stories, and this was no doubt a great part of its general appeal, too, in addition to the earthy humor featured in many of them.

Park considers that yadam were part of an almost-invisible vernacular culture which existed in a literary world dominated by works in classical Chinese. The reason that yadam gained popularity in the 18th and early 19th century was partly due to an increase in social mobility within Korean society, which led to audiences wanting to read about themselves and real-world happenings, despite being written using Chinese characters rather than hangul. The Chinese used in yadam was simpler than that of classical texts and was thoroughly shot through with Korean idioms and expressions. Furthermore, professional storytellers knew what people wanted to hear and how they wanted it delivered, and so while the script remained mostly Chinese, much of the actual language was vernacular Korean.


It was the subject matter and the way the stories came to be told which increased their popularity, not just among men, but women too, which apparently gave rise to protests from male “literati”, who “complained about the rise of avid women readers of fictional narratives” (something satirized at about the same time by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey, where Catherine Morland overindulges in gothic novels by Ann Radcliffe). These literati were probably worried as well about anti-patriarchy tales like “The Story of Chŏng Kiryong” which features “the colorful linguistic mannerisms of a spunky and spirited young woman of a non-yangban status,” who tells her father bluntly, “I will use my own taste to select my spouse …I will not stop till I have found the right person.” When Mr. Right turns out to be a “shabbily-clothed beggar”, as her mother puts it, hyperbolically threatening to gouge her daughter’s eyes out, the daughter replies, “Mother, don’t talk nonsense,” and her father gets the same treatment. Shades of Taming of the Shrew! No wonder women became avid readers.

The capital city, Seoul, is often featured in the tales; No lived there for the last thirty years of his life, and, as Park tells us, “It mattered greatly whether one was living in Seoul or not.” It was the center of government as well as culture, and one needed to have connections there in order to succeed, preferably in yangban circles, and of course everyone wanted to be there. As he was a provincial, making those connections could have been difficult for the rather obscure No, but in the end he did manage to find employment and was able to establish himself fairly securely as a writer and intellectual. His connection was through the patronage of a high-ranking official, Song Chaehŭi, who had heard of No’s abilities and had invited him to come to Seoul. “One’s connection to Seoul,” we are told, “meant greater and more convenient accessibility to new knowledge,” so whilst No may have been dependent on his superiors financially, he was in the right place and time for what really mattered to him, namely writing and being recognised for it.

Park gives close readings of a substantial number of stories, contextualizing them and explaining with great scholarly precision how they can be seen as conduits for our knowledge about everyday life in Chosŏn (especially Seoul) as well as being entertaining. “Record of a Night-time Chat at a Post Station”, for example, features a first-person protagonist who deftly turns the tables on a snobbish nobleman from Seoul who judges people by what they wear and how they speak. The narrator exploits the stereotype by pretending to be a country lout, but then gradually reveals to his interlocutor that he may be from the country, but he is in fact an educated man as well as being a skilled poet. The two part on friendly terms. There’s also “The Story of a Slave Girl from Chirye”, which features a couple who are not lawfully married and decide to forge a marriage certificate because, as the mother says, “Our children are brilliant, but since their social station is base, what good is their brilliance?” She goes on to say that as they’re comfortably off, “why not buy ourselves a house in Seoul and use it as a starting-point for our future success?” The story is, the narrator says, based on recent events, from which readers might conclude that desirable social mobility was becoming more possible, even if it had to be achieved by circumventing the law. And, as Hong Chigyŏng observed in his postface, the stories go much deeper than that, encompassing all aspects of ordinary Korean life. These stories were appreciated by contemporary readers, who seemed to enjoy earthy stories about themselves, whilst at the same time readers were encouraged “to emulate and cannibalize” No’s “stylistic experimentation”, moving the genre beyond No’s compilation and into the “[Chinese] manuscript-heavy culture” of literary Korea.


The Korean Vernacular Story will not only appeal to scholars (there is much here that is analytical and scholarly) but to anyone interested in finding out about Asian writing which is not Chinese of Japanese. Korean literature is not as well-known as either, although the situation is improving, and translations are now more available than they have hitherto been. Park presents a goodly number of the actual stories here, and if the scholarship is a little dense at times for non-specialists, the stories themselves are not, and this book is a wonderful introduction to them.

These yadam, originally circulating anonymously and somewhat surreptitiously, can now be seen to stand out in a sea of Chinese writing by Koreans, and they bring 18th-century Chosŏn vividly to life, warts and all, as the saying goes. The stories responded to the changes that were then going on in Korean society, and people of all ranks were involved in them; as Park puts it,


the “we” that [the stories] evoked was based upon the idea of sharing the same temporality, embracing the most illustrious in society, those at the bottom, and all in between.


As we hear far too often these days, albeit in a different context, “We’re all in this together.” The “Clumsy Old Man” would be delighted that he has now been brought back to his proper place in Korean literature and that readers outside Korea can appreciate what he did in compiling his entertaining and instructive anthology.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.