Korean Literature

Korean literature. Until the introduction of the Korean script (mid-15th century), the literary cultural heritage of Korea was handed down in Chinese language and script (a large part of the country formed the Chinese prefecture of Lolang from 108 BC to 313 AD).


The oldest evidence of old Korean poetry are cult chants (partly for shamanistic rituals), which are only preserved in Chinese translation and in fragments. The literary tradition in the Korean language begins in the time of the United Silla (668-935) with the Hyangga (“native songs”, also called Sanoega, “songs of the East”, that is, Koreas), which are probably associated with ritual (shamanistic) and Buddhist practices emerged. 14 of these poems, ascribed to different authors, can be found in the literary work Samguk-yusa. A cycle of eleven further poems, by the priest Kyunyŏ (Gwonhyo; * 923, † 973) written, is passed down as part of his biography »Kyunyŏ-chŏn« (»Gwonhyojeon«; 1075). The poems were notated using Chinese characters, some aloud and some meaningful. After the 10th century, the hyangga form seems to have been lost.

Also from the later centuries of the Kory ǒ period, which was strongly influenced by Buddhism (Goryeo period; 918–1392), in the course of which Chinese education gained ever greater importance, only a few Korean-language literature has survived. Twelve partly folk song-like poems (Sogyo) were passed down orally in the context of courtly musical performances and notated in the 15th century. The courtly long poem form Kyŏnggi ch’ega (Gyeonggichega) was based on a Chinese text, which was interspersed with Korean-language expressions and refrains. The short poem (Sijo) may have already changed during the Kory ǒ-Time developed, but is only documented for the 16th century by secured text documents. However, the Chinese-written poetry and non-fiction literature of this epoch flourished; i.a. Korean folk tales were written and published in Chinese.

Under the Confucian-oriented Chosŏn dynasty (Joseon dynasty; 1392-1910), despite the predominant Chinese writing culture, an independent Korean national literature clearly took shape. She received strong impulses from the reform work of King Sejong (1419–50), who in 1443 tried to improve communication between the social classes by introducing an easy-to-learn alphabet (Hunmin-chŏngŭm [Hunminjeongeum]). Although in the new script, poems of praise to the founders of the dynasty (“Yongbi-ŏch’ŏnga” [“Yongbi-eocheonga”], 1445) and to Buddha (“Sŏkpo-sangjŏl” [“Seokbosangjeol”] 1447; “Wŏrin-ch’ŏngang-chigok” [“Worincheongangjigok], 1449, written by the king himself), the literati continued to prefer written Chinese. Nonetheless, the new script found its way into lyric poetry early on, such as the Akchang (lyric chants with musical accompaniment), the Kasa ([Gasa], verse narratives) and v. a. in the short poem Sijo.

The extensive technical literature of a philosophical, historical, medical, geographical and encyclopedic kind was written exclusively in Chinese. Most of the narrative literature also used this language, such as the popular collections of anecdotes and the stories based on Chinese models, including the fragmentary “K ǔ mo Sinhwa” (“Geumosinhwa”) by Kim Sis ǔ p (Kim Siseup; * 1435, † 1493), which is considered to be the first monument in Korean novella literature.

Establishment of an independent Korean-language literature

The earliest evidence of Korean-language narrative literature comes from the 17th century. The attribution of the socially critical and fantastic robber novel “Hong-Kiltong-chŏn” (“Hong-Gildong-jeon”) to Hŏ Kyun (Heo Gyun; * 1569, † 1618) is speculative due to the lack of textual evidence; What has been proven, however, is that Kim Manjung (* 1637, † 1692) originally wrote his novel »Frau Sa’s Journey to the South« (around 1698), which criticized the king in allegorical form, in Korean. As a masterpiece by Kim Manjung and the first great Korean novel is »Nine Clouds Dream«, in which literary, religious and political references are intertwined. Orally and in writing, the »History of Ch’unhyang« (»History of Chunhyang«) is also passed down, in which the free choice of spouse and the elimination of class barriers are discussed, thus reflecting the social tensions of the late Chosŏn period (Joseon period). The anonymous “Imjinnok”, the story of the heroic struggle against the Japanese invasion of 1592, was widely read. In addition to these popular writings of a folk literature – which scholars disregarded – courtly memoirs in Korean were also developed, for which the “Hanjungnok” (“Hyegyeong” of Princess Hyegyŏng (* 1735, † 1815) has outstanding importance.

International influences from the end of the 19th century

When Korea increasingly had to deal with international political issues at the end of the 19th century, a new literary age began in which the realistic representation of reality came to the fore and the Korean colloquial language increasingly found its way into literature. Yi Injik (Lee Injik; * 1862, † 1916), Yi Haejo (Lee Haejo; * 1869, † 1927), An Kuksŏn (An Gukseon; * 1854, † 1928), Yi Sanghyŏp (Lee Sanghyeop; * 1893, † 1957) and others created the enlightening “new novel” (Sinsosŏl) with which they fought against the outdated feudal society and for the western ideals of equality and (religious) freedom – often mediated by contemporary Japanese literature. Ch’oe Namsŏn (Choi Namseon; * 1890, † 1957), the most important publicist of his time, and Kim Ǒ k (Kim Eok; * 1893, †?, Abducted to North Korea) paved new paths for poetry. Yi Kwangsu (Lee Gwangsu; * 1892, † 1955?) Is considered to be the most important novelist of the modern age, his novel “Narrative” (1917) as the beginning of modern narrative literature (Hyŏndae sosŏl [Hyeondaesoseol]).

Through the mediation of Japan, the styles of Western literature in Korea became known during the colonial period (1910–45). Romantic, naturalistic and symbolistic currents developed almost simultaneously. The revolt against the Japanese occupying power and its pressures was reflected in literary terms, among other things. in the thought poetry of Han Yongun (* 1879, † 1944), the popular poems by Kim Sowŏl (Kim Sowol; * 1902, † 1934), but also in avant-garde texts by Yi Sang (Lee Sang; * 1910, † 1937), who visionarily anticipated the darkest epoch in Korean history that began with the attack by Japan on China (1937). A fundamental polarization of Korean literature occurred with the establishment of the Federation of Proletarian Artists of Korea (KAPF) in 1925, which continued to have an effect in Korea, which had been divided since 1948.

Recent developments

In the literature of North Korea, socialist realism (reinterpreted in Korean) remained dominant. Since the 1960s, literature has increasingly been placed in the service of the personality cult around the heads of state Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. In South Korea the discussion on the relationship between “pure literature” and “trend literature” continued. The division of the country and the Korean War (1950–53) remained decisive themes for a long time – as in Ch’oe Inhun’s (Choi Inhun; * 1936) novel »Der Platz« (1961; German). Historical novels, including by Pak Kyŏngni (Park Gyeongri; * 1927, † 2008), tried to fathom the roots of the current situation. The Minjung (“popular mass”) literature deliberately dealt with socialist realism in the north. The representatives of committed poetry that pick up on folk traditions include the internationally known Kim Chiha (Kim Jiha; * 1941), Ko Un (Ko Eun; * 1933) and Kyong-Rim Shin (Shin Gyeongrim; * 1935). The social and intellectual breaks of modernity led to form-experimental lyric poetry (Kim Suy ǒ ng [Kim Suyeong], * 1921, † 1968; Hwang Tong-Gyu [Hwang Donggyu], * 1938), ambiguous imagery and the inclusion of Buddhist and Western ways of thinking (S ǒ Chǒ ngju [Seo Jeongju], * 1912, † 2002; Kim Ch’unsu [Kim Chunsu], * 1922, † 2000). The phenomena of alienation associated with industrialization and globalization are increasingly being addressed on an individual psychological level rather than on a national and social level (e.g. in Kim Hyesun, * 1955). Growing thematic diversity is also evident in the narrative literature, which in addition to problems in the world of work, industrial society, gender relations and family conflicts v. a. also dealt with the relationship between tradition and modernity (Yi Mun-Yol [Lee Munyeol], * 1948; Oh Jung-Hee [Oh Jeonghui], * 1947; Lee Chun-Jun [Lee Cheongjun], * 1939, † 2008; Kim Joo-Young [Kim Juyeong], * 1939). Recently, the realistic spelling, which has been dominant for a long time, has received impulses from the fantastic realism of Latin America and popular currents, among others. from Japan.


Crane by the sea. Korean poems, ed. v. P. H. Lee (1959); Virtuous women. 3 classic Korean novels, translated by R. Rutt et al. (1974); Wind and grass. Modern Korean Poetry, ed. v. Eggert, M. (1991); Modern Korean Tales, ed. v. H. Picht et al., Calculated on several volumes (1999 ff.); “A very simple polka-dot dress.” Modern Stories by Korean Women, ed. v. H. Kang and A. Sohyun (2003).

Korean Literature