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Early Korean literature was heavily influenced by Shamanism, Buddhism and
Confucianism. The early literature, which began as an oral tradition,
depicted a love of nature and man and held that man was a part of nature.
Good was rewarded and evil was punished and values like loyalty to the King,
filial piety, respect for one's elders, true friendship and chastity were
emphasized. Some of the earliest Korean writings were poems, called
written during the Shilla Kingdom using the script type Idu partially
adapted from Chinese characters phonetically, only 25 remain. During the
Koryo period, Korean literature of the upper class, mostly written in classical
Chinese, was characterized by an emphasis on philosophic expositions on the
Chinese classics, an art that was essential for government service, the only
respectable avenue to success outside of teaching.
essays and diaries of scholars an court ladies compose one strain of the
literature of this time. Also during this period, hanshi, poems in
Chinese characters, developed to maturity, and toward the end of the dynasty, a
new form of poetry called shijo gained wide acceptance. The shijo,
a short three-line poem written in Han-gul (the Korean alphabet),
remained popular throughout the Choson Dynasty, as did the later kasa, a
new vernacular verse genre which was more descriptive and expository. The
Choson period also saw a great outpouring of literature written in Han-gul
which often centered on the concept that all men are equal and attacked social
inequality, spurred by the introduction of Sirhak (Practical Learning) in
the 17th century.
The predecessor of this genre
was Hong Kil-ton Chon,
generally considered to be the first Korean novel, written in the early 17th
century to criticize the inequalities of Choson society. This trend was
reinforced during the late 19th century by the introduction of Western
influences, as writers were inspired by ideas of enlightenment, freedom and
independence. Modern writers have also focused on social injustice,
particularly under the authoritarian regimes, as well as the dehumanizing
influence of industrialization and modernization.
Korean literature shows a significant difference before and after Western
influences. In the pre-Western period, literature was influenced by
Shamanism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Under these influences, individuals
accepted the status quo and had a fatalistic view of life. Early
literature depicted a love of nature and man and held that nature and man are
one. Another special aspect of the early period of Korean literature was
that it began as an oral tradition. Therefore, many literary works, also
tales and legends sung or spoken by the ancestors of various Korean tribes, were
presented at tribal rites, religious festivals, sacrifices and political
Influenced by social norms, morals and customs, in Korean
literature good is rewarded and evil is punished. Early literature
stresses behavior patterns like loyalty to the king, filial piety, respect for
seniors, true friendship and chastity of women.
After western influences, modern Korean literature has shown dissent both
political and moral, and has deviated from traditionally restricted subject
matters to encompass varied themes. The first Korean writing was produced
in the Shilla Kingdom in the 8th century.
The script-type language
partially adapted from Chinese letters by phonetic sounding was called Idu.
Only 25 poems called Hyangga remain in this style. During the Koryo
Dynasty, a popular type of verse called Longer Verses came into
fashion. At the latter part of the dynasty, a new kind of lyric, shijo,
gained popularity. The shijo usually consisted of three-line
stanzas conveying compact messages. After the Han-gul alphabet was
invented, various kinds of love-poetry were attempted. In the mid-Choson
Period, the lyrical form known as kasa was widely composed. Written
in Chinese as a kind of typical Korean lyric verse, the literati expressed their
attachment to the beauties of nature through their kasa. After the
introduction of Sirhak (Practical Learning) in the 17th and 18th
centuries, Western influence brought new developments to Korean literature,
often through Christianity. The concept that all men are equal became a
common theme and attacked the inequality of traditional society. Once
great change in the literature field was the outpouring of works in Han-gul.
Authorship also diversified from the literati to commoners.
Stories of the Golden Turtle written in Chinese by Kim Shi-sup (1435-1493)
is usually regarded as the beginning of fiction in Korea. Only the first
book. containing five stories, survives today. The stories are marked by
Korean settings and tragic endings in contrast with the Chinese settings and
romantic happy endings that characterized earlier works. Ho Kyun's King
Kil-ton Chon is considered the first vernacular novel. Written in the
17th century, it is a social commentary that attacks the inequalities of Choson
society. In the 19th century, p'ansori, or the "one man opera"
form gained popularity. P'ansori were tales sung by professional
artists to an outdoor audience. The text of p'ansori usually
contained satirical messages that lampooned the upper class.
the years before and after annexation by Japan in 1910, the new national
consciousness depicted through the medium of literature was written in Han-gul
called shinmunhak or new literature. Ch'oe Nam-son published the
inspiring poem, From the sea to a child, in the magazine Sonyon
(Child) in 1908, giving birth to modern poetry or free verse in Korea.
Also, Yi Kwang-su started to write modern novels in the magazine Ch'ongch'un
(Youth) in 1914, and his contribution to modern Korean literature is highly
regarded. Up to the late 1960s, creative talents expressed themselves in
the genre. Favorite themes were social injustice, the dehumanizing
influence of industrialization and modernization. Works of noted writers
such as Yi Mun-yol and Han Mu-suk have been translated into various foreign
languages including English and French. Since the quality of writings and
translations continues to rise, in the near future it is hoped that the works of
Korean writers will be appreciated in other countries as much as they are in
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