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Sijo Masters in Translation

Korean Sijo by Sŏng Sammun

(1418 - 1456)

Sŏng Sammun was a prominent Confucian scholar and member of the Korean Royal Academy during the reign of King Sejong of the Chosŏ n dynasty. He wrote poetry under two pen names: Kunbo (Respectful Beginning) and Maejuk-hon (Plum and Bamboo Leaves). As Cultural Minister, he presided over the creation of Hanguel (Hangul), the Korean alphabet. Previously, Koreans had used a laborious script based on Chinese characters. The new alphabet of 28 characters (later reduced to 26) was based on the unique phonetic characteristics of the spoken Korean language. Published by King Sejong as a Royal Decree in 1446, Hanguel revolutionized the writing of Korean literature and inspired a renaissance of Korean culture. After Sejong's death, his grandson Tanjong, the legitimate heir, was usurped in a coup by Sejo. Sŏng (just 39 years old) was suspected of plotting to restore the deposed heir and was put to death, along with his father, three brothers, four sons and five colleagues. Following another change of regime, Sŏng was posthumously honored as one of the Six Dead Loyal Subjects who had opposed the coup.


When my bones have bleached and blended
What new life will come to me?
I shall be a towering pine
at the top of Mt. Diamond.*
Between snow white home and heaven
I'll stand tall and ever green.



Background:
* The Korean word used here,
Pongnae-san, freely translated as Fairyland of Foliage, is an affectionate summer name for the Diamond Mountains, a prominent feature in both the Korean landscape and poetry. The winter name of the mountains is Koegel, translated as All Bones or Bleached Bones, as in line 1. Indigenous trees such as the pine also figure prominently in sijo on both literal and figurative levels.

When King Sejong died, Tanjong, the legitimate heir known as The Boy King, was ousted in a coup by his uncle. Sŏng was suspected of plotting to restore the deposed heir and was put to death, along with his father, three brothers, four sons and five colleagues. It is said that he wrote this verse while being transported to his execution. It is still recited by school children.

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All Rights Copyright 2001 by Larry Gross. Please do not reprint without written permission.

Updated 071219

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