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Yi Kyubo (1168–1241). Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature

Yi Kyubo was a Korean scholar, statesman, literary
critic, poet, and prose writer of the Koryo Period
(918–1392). His Collected Works of Minister Yi of
Korea (1251) was among the earliest texts by a Korean
writer printed under official sponsorship.
Yi Kyubo left an estimated 1,500–2,000 poems
and numerous prose works written in hanmun—
that is, “letters of Han,” the Korean term for Chinese
characters. Korea did not develop a native
writing system until the 15th century, so medieval
Korean poets and writers, much influenced by
Chinese culture and traditions, learned and used
literary Chinese as their mode of expression.
The Koryo dynasty, emulating the TANG DYNASTY
of China, instituted a State Civil Service
Examination in 958, grounded in the classics of
Confucian thought. Yi Kyubo passed the examination
in 1190 and eventually rose to the influential
post of first privy counselor under the
ruling Ch’oe family. During the period of invasion
and devastation wrought by the Mongol invasions
from China that began in 1231 and
culminated in the 1250s, Yi Kyubo accompanied
the royal court to Kanghwa Island, where they
lived in comparative luxury and comfort while
thousands of Koreans were dying. Yi Kyubo
seems to have felt some sympathy for the peasants’
lot, however, as he composed poems that
describe the struggles of the farmers during the
Mongol atrocities.
Perhaps Yi Kyubo’s best-known work is a long
poem called the “Lay of King Tongmyong,” which
retells the mythic story of the founding of the
Kingdom of Koguryo (one of the Three Kingdoms
of Korea before the unification of the peninsula
under the earlier Silla dynasty). The poem, with
its emphasis on local Korean history, legend, and
cultural achievements, is a kind of nationalistic
statement in the face of a Chinese-dominated historical
tradition in Korea and the political dominance
of the Mongol dynasty.
Yi Kyubo also wrote prose works in the aristocratic
genre known as kajon, or “fictitious biography.”
In the tradition of a form that had originated
with the Chinese author HAN YU during the Tang
dynasty, these stories took everyday objects and
turned them into fictitious characters, giving them
a history and a family. Among Yi Kyubo’s works in
this genre are the Tale of the Turtle in Clear Water
and The Story of Mr. Yeast.
As a literary theorist, Yi Kyubo was involved in
a debate current in Korean letters of the time, concerned
with the relative importance of form (or
yongsa) vs. creativity (or shinui) in poetry. Yi came
down strongly on the side of creativity, emphasizing
sincerity in particular. His own poetry expresses
this concern. His poems dealing with
nature or everyday events are characterized by
closely observed sense images and an expressed
empathy for other people. His striking imagery
may be illustrated by the quatrain from a memorable
poem called “Two Verses on the Moon in a
Well”:
From deep in the clear well by the mossy
green rock,
the newly risen moon shines straight back.
In the water bottle I filled, the half moon
sparkles.
I carry back only one half of the moon
round as a mirror.
(McCann 2000, 81)
Other poems concern his family and himself, and
these are often humorous with a touch of melancholy,
such as this verse from a poem “To Sambek,
My Son, Drinking Young”:
You know already how to tip the wine jar;
before many years pass you may bust a gut,
so stop.
Don’t follow your father’s example, always
tipsy.
All your life, people will be calling you a
crazy fellow.
(McCann 2000, 80)
Bibliography
Hungguyu, Kim. Understanding Korean Literature.
Translated by Robert J. Fouser. New Studies in
Asian Culture. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharp, 1997.
Kim, Kichung. An Introduction to Classical Korean
Literature: From Hyangga to P’ansori. New Studies
in Asian Culture. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharp,
1996.
Lee, Peter H., ed. The Columbia Anthology of Traditional
Korean Poetry. New York: Columbia University
Press, 2002.
McCann, David R. Early Korean Literature: Selections
and Introductions. New York: Columbia University
Press, 2000.

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