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Kisaeng’s sorrow

Posted April. 19, 2023 08:02,   

Updated April. 19, 2023 08:02


Anseo Kim Ok (1896-?), a teacher of famous poet Kim So-wol, was a poet himself and a promising translator. When most translations in Korean were translated from Japanese translations of the original text, Kim Ok became the forerunner in translating the original text into Korean. Kim’s attempt can be termed as postcolonial translation given that he lived in the era of the Japanese occupation of Korea. He translated poems from not only the West but also ancient poems from China. Among those, Kim particularly enjoyed translating works of female poets. One of the most famous poems translated by Kim is Dongsimcho, “a love letter,” written by Seoldo, a poet from the Tang dynasty. The poem gained a reputation when the late composer Kim Seong-tae set music to it.

A heart must be tied to a heart to complete love; yet, the poet meaninglessly knots grass leaves to calm herself down. The poet’s endeavors to stop thinking about the lover feel even more heart-wrenching because she lost her parents at a very young age and became a kisaeng, a government-employed courtesan who was highly adept at singing, dancing, and literature. Being a kisaeng meant she was destined to fail at love; men always left. Poems were the only thing that she could depend on to console herself.

Kim Ok believed that poems such as Dongsimcho was “true” poem. He highly appraised poems written by mistresses and kisaeng, citing Confucius’ saying that a good poem conveys thoughts without decoration. “Poems written by women from high-class backgrounds suppress emotions and strike a pose.” Taking Confucius’ saying as true, poems written by upper-class women were a failure, while poems written by mistresses and kisaeng, who did not embellish their emotions, were a pass. Pure emotion conveyed by women who lived lives of sorrow, neither guaranteed nor protected by the vested rights, better embodied the essence of the lyric poetry. This was the theory of art advocated by Kim Ok.