Dr. Ross King – reflections by John Grisafi

The James Joo-Jin Kim Program in Korean Studies hosted Dr. Ross King (University of British Columbia) as the Distinguished Lecturer for 2016-2017. He spoke on “Out of the Margins: The Western Wing 西廂記 Glossarial Complex in Late Chosŏn and the Problem of the Literary Vernacular” on Tuesday, October 11, 2016.

In Chosŏn Korea, Chinese graphs were the predominant writing script, especially for the aristocratic yangban class. Classical Chinese in particular was highly valued among the educated elites of society. Spoken Korean was, of course, a distinct language from both classical Chinese and the Chinese spoken at the time. What place then, did the vernacular Chinese of Qing China – and works written in such language – have in Chosŏn Korea?

In his guest lecture for the Kim Program, Dr. Ross King enlightened the audience as to how Koreans of the Chosŏn dynasty engaged with a specific example of vernacular Chinese literature, the Xixiangji. Dr. King described Xixiangji as “China’s most famous play” and semi-erotic for Korean readers in Late Chosŏn. It was not printed in Korea but manuscripts from China were circulated and copied. Korean copies of the work remained printed in vernacular Chinese, but the text was supplemented by marginal notes, glossing (explanatory notes to aid understanding of words or phrases), commentaries, and glossaries. These forms of additional content aided Koreans in engaging with a work which contained otherwise unfamiliar phrases and terms from the colloquial language of Qing China.

One example of how Korean readers engaged with the text was to gloss portions of the text by writing more familiar Chinese characters, Korean hangul script, or a combination of the two, alongside the Chinese characters. This aided readers in identifying the meaning of unfamiliar phrases from vernacular Chinese found in the Xixiangji. This was not an effort to learn colloquial Chinese, however. The glossing in hangul showed Korean pronunciations of words, not the way they were pronounced in Chinese as spoken in Qing China. Other forms of supplement to the text were commentaries which told readers “how to read a Chinese play.” including explanations of play terminology, and glossaries listing unfamiliar Chinese terms for reference.

Aside from the aforementioned efforts to increase the readability of this work for a Korean speaking audience, there is ample evidence to suggest Xixiangji was a popular and highly-regarded work in Chosŏn Korea. According to Dr. King, readers took great care in putting together their manuscript copies, which tended to be “neatly and lovingly produced” and included covers which featured time-consuming illustrations. Readers gave the copies names such as Kisŏ (“marvelous book”) and Pogam (“treasure”).

Dr. King argued that examples such as the Xixiangji demonstrate a “third way” of Korean writing in this era. While Korean scholars tend to exclusively study either Chinese literary works as originally written in (usually classical) Chinese or Korean works as written in Korean, the Xixiangji represents an underemphasized middle ground where Korean language was used to engage with otherwise Chinese language works. Rather than a direct shift from writing in classical Chinese to writing in Korean with hangul, the transition was gradual and less than linear. Amidst this long transition, Korean readers were engaging with vernacular Chinese works through limited usage of hangul as well as Chinese graphs as they were understood by Korean speakers.

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