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Sijo Masters in Translation

Korean Sijo by Kil Chae

(1353 - 1419)

Kil Chae was one of the three noted Confucian literary scholars of Korea's late Koryo dynasty known collectively as The Three Recluses. Educated in the school of Chong Mongju, he passed the State Examination and became Minister of Annals shortly before the kingdom fell to the leaders of what would become the Choson dynasty. Refusing to serve the new regime, he retired and at one point reportedly lived in a cave. Later, when Taejong (with whom Kil had played as a child) became king and asked Kil to accept a position in the new government, he refused. Chong Mongju, another of The Three Recluses, was murdered. Only Yi Saek managed to remain active without compromising his principles.

Kil Chae’s pen name Yaun has been translated as Hiding Blacksmith (He evidently lived among blacksmiths.) and also as Seductive Recluse. Only two of his sijo have come down to us.

My pony and I go to Songdo,
where Koryo reigned five hundred years.

The landscape seems unchanged,
but those great leaders I knew are gone.

Only a dream they seem now,
those days of peace and glory.

In 1392, after several years of conflict, Gen. Yi Songgye toppled the Koryo regime. Taking the name of Taejo, he and founded the Choson dynasty (1392-1910).  The Koryo had ruled for about 500 years from their capital, Songdo (present-day Kaesong), but Taejo moved the government to Seoul. Kil had been an important government official but resigned rather than take a position under the new ruler. He spent the rest of his life as a recluse. Near the end of his life, Kil made a long journey  to revisit the old capital; this sijo is the result of that trip.

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