Friday, May 13, 2011

Tales of a Gisaeng

Perhaps its the atmosphere of living next to Igigdae Hill/Park where two gisaeng jumped off the cliff with a Japanese general inspiring me. Old legends have a certain power that grows beyond what a real factual account would have. The story sounds suspiciously like another story "a patriotic kisaeng named Nongae in the late 16th century...while entertaining Japanese generals at the Choksongnu Pavilion that overlooks the Nam River in South Kyongsang Province, Nongae led Japanese general Keyamura Rokusuke to a cliff, embraced him and cast herself into the river, killing them both". I found the latter version of the story here @ Han Cinema. The story sounds more reliable than the Igigdae story which doesn't mention which general and gisaeng. Perhaps the Igidae story came from this one.

The story of the gisaeng taking out a general reminds me of the story of koreas ninja the Ja-gaek who were male acrobats trained to be assassins by a korean general of the Hwa-ryung warriors...but I digress...

Lately I've been reading up on all things gisaeng. Gisaeng were the Goryo and Choseon Dynasty entertainers. They were very much like the Japanese Geisha. Later this week I shall find myself in the comic book room beneath the Kyungsung McDonalds reading "Gisaeng Iyagi/Story" by Kim Dong-hwa.

One of the most legendary gisaeng was Hwang Jini. In part, due to the success of "Memoirs of a Geisha" back in 2005, interest in Hwang Jini sparked the production of both a Hwang Jini movie and TV series.
Of the gisaeng she was one of the more prolific, writing 60 shijo poems that still survive today, (I've got a book on order about gisaeng shijo poems, book review coming in a few months...).
Her beauty and talents became legendary as she charmed great scholars of the era, among them a Buddhist monk named Jijok who later was excommunicated because of her.
This picture entitled "7 girls" from the Franklin Francis Carpeter Library of Congress Collection shows 7 young girls who were gisaeng in training. Girls as young as 8 years old began training as gisaeng becoming actual gisaeng at 16 or 17 years old.  According to legend, Hwang Jini was the illigitimate child of a yangban and the gisaeng Heon Keum.  


Gisaeng girl 1890. Gisaeng went through 8 or 9 years of strict training in poetry, song, dance and tea ceremony.

In 2006 actress Ha Ji Won played Hwang-Jini in a TV series entitled Hwang-Jini.  I'm wondering what happened to the 2007 TV production entitled Haeauhwa  (해어화, 解語花) which is about another, though less famous, gisaeng. You can pick up some parts of the Hwang-Jini TV series with English subtitles on youtube. Though to watch the entire series you'll probably have to purchase it on DVD at Someyeon's DVD/CD store. The one with all the korean TV series' on DVD there.  
Actress Song Hye Kyo playing Hwang Jini in a movie (I'm off to rent and watch it this afternoon. Most video stores here have a copy of it. All you have to do is give the video store your phone number to start an account with them and maybe your foreign card which has your address. Videos are usually 2000 won each for 1-2 days.  

As Harvard Professor and shijo poet David R. McCann relates,  "some of the most famous kisaeng poems were composed to persuade prominent scholars to spend the night".
Here's one by Hwang-Jini below:










청산리 靑山裡 벽계수碧溪水야 수이 감을 자랑마라.
일도창해一到滄海하면 다시 오기 어려워라
명월(明月)이 만공산滿空山하니 쉬어간들 어떠리.
In this poem 벽계수/Byuk-Gye Soo is the name of the Yangban Hwang-Jini is addressing the poem to. Historical records show there was a man of royal birth of that name.
명월 (明月)or bright moon is Hwang-Jini's nickname. Thus the poem translates as:

Don't be proud, clear water/Byuk-GyeSoo of running free to the beach!
You will find it hard to go back, once the azure ocean you reach.
Take a break, while the moon is bright in the sky, I beseech.
--Hwang-Jini. Translated by Kim Young Nahg.

As part of the Hwang-Jini craze that has swept Korea, Korean Vogue brought a bunch of models to Paris and dressed them up like gisaeng for a photoshoot. Later I'll bring you more of Hwang-Jini and other gisaeng's shijo poems. Until then, I'm logging off so I can watch the Hwang-Jini movie. Till next time...
 --MWT.

Monday, May 9, 2011

A Tale of 2 Wives: King Yuri of Goguryo's Dilemma.

In the year 17 BC, King Yuri of Goguryo had a problem. His two wives Hwahi and Chihi were not getting along prompting one of them to go back to her hometown in China. Feeling understandably torn King Yuri wrote a poem which became what is considered to be the earliest example of the Korean poetic tradition. Many parts of the poem are in Chinese and I'm currently just starting level 1 of chinese so I was lucky to find the poem translated into Korean from which I translated it into the English presented to you here :
the (bracketed) parts are the phonetic pronunciations for the Chinese. Some say the poem is titled Yellow bird's song. On close inspection it appears the poem almost has two titles: Yellow elegy or Oriole's Song. Perhaps King Yuri was caught between two titles along with being caught between two women...

黃鳥歌(황조가)-琉璃王(유리왕) Yellow elegy --King Yuri
꾀꼬리의 노래-琉璃王(유리왕) orioles song -- King Yuri
翩翩黃鳥(편편황조) : 펄펄 나니는 저 꾀꼬리 fluttering flying, that oriole.
雌雄相依(자웅상의) : 암수 서로 정답구나. Female and male birds look lovely together
念我之獨(염아지독) : 나의 외로움을 생각하니 I think on my loneliness
誰其與歸(수기여귀) : 그 누구와 함께 돌아가리.  With whom would I go back to?

Hence, King Yuri of Goguryo's dilemma. For those just learning Korean it's fun to sound out the bracketed parts to form the sounds of the original Chinese character poem. A fine first step to eventually reading Korean. Poems are also very rewarding practice. A few words with a dictionary and presto! You have a translation. --MWT.

Friday, May 6, 2011

More than just What The !? : Ordering books in Korea

As many of you may know, Amazon.com doesn't ship to Korea. Personally there are two main websites I use to order books here in Korea. The most famous here is http://www.whatthebook.com/ another lesser known site is http://www.abebooks.com/. Abe books is a site that connects thousands of used bookstores in the U.S and in Canada. Their prices are very low! I recently ordered a few books and journals on English shijo poems.
One particular gem was titled "Sunset in a Spider Web" a collection of Korean shijo translated into English. It is available from Abe Books only. That's why I use both sites; covers more ground. Abe books is the place for those rare hard to find volumes, though you can also get The Davinci Code there as well. Here's a few shijo from "Sunset in a Spider Web" shijo adapted by Virginia Olsen Baron :
Oh, do not pull yourself away
If I, weeping, grasp your sleeve.
You have a long way to go over the hills,
And it is almost dark.

In the lonely night ahead, you will understand,
When you must light the lamp alone.
-- Yi Myung-Han.

This next one seems to have been written by a gisaeng though we can't be certain...

When I think about why
You sent that fan to me,
I wonder if you meant
For me to blow out the fire in my heart.

How could I put out a fire with a fan
When teardrops failed ?
-- Anonymous.

I like this style: instead of the Korean style 3 lines of couplets, breaking them up a bit into 6 lines but putting the "twist" ending as a separated couplet.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Samurai Suicide

The snow here in Busan is quite an event as with the spring cherry blossoms. Koreans tend to be more exuberant about such things more so than westerners.

Here's two shijo I wrote while on Pu'er tea earlier this evening. They can be read separately or as a shijo sequence. I'll blog more about sequences later...

Samurai Suicide,The Snow Here

Korean students learn shijo,
memorize how for the exam.
Trudge home late sometimes 9 o'clock,
study more then to bed
Mercedez Benz at 50 years,
poetry a luxury.

Samurai suicide,
Korean student jumps off roof.
Honor saving from shame,
both blunt ends with other options
Creative west has more colors,
the snow here, is whiter. -- MWT.

These poems were inspired by three things: An article about tea rescuing over 160 australians from suicide. Located at The Ancient Art of Tea blog. Another inspiration came from Busan English radio where an ESL teacher was talking about one of his students committing suicide. The third souce of inspiration came from all the Pu'er tea I had been drinking since this afternoon. Sipping tea invites the muses indeed. --MWT.