Dr. Ross King – Reflections By Jamie Seah

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.

For the Kim Program’s Distinguished Lecture 2016-17, the Program hosted Dr. Ross King, Professor of Korean Language and Literature and Head of the Department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia. Dr. King’s talk centered on his research examining Korean reception of xixiangji (西廂記, or 서상기), one of China’s most famous plays, and Korean interactions with vernacular Chinese through such a written medium. The dramatic work is also known as “The Story of the Western Wing” or “Romance of the Western Chamber” and details a young couple’s consummation of their passionate love without parental approval. It was semi-erotic for Korean readers, who were arguably unfamilar with plays because pre-modern Korea did not possess a dramatic tradition.

In particular, Dr. King was interested in the xixiangji-mania of 20th century Korea and the concomitant manuscript culture it spawned. Today, there exists about 40 to 50 xixiangji manuscripts housed in public collections. These manuscripts were well-produced and interestingly given names such as pogam (“treasure”), exemplifying the extent to which its owners treasured them. In Edo Japan, the publication and circulation of printed copies of shuihuzhuan (a famous Chinese novel written in vernacular Chinese) led to a boom in studies of vernacular Chinese, the rise in study groups, and the development of glossaries to aid in understanding the texts. Similarly, in Chosŏn Korea, Korean readers were intellectually engaging with another vernacular Chinese text, the xixiangji, by making physical markings on the margins of the manuscripts themselves to aid their own comprehension. These markings or glossing usually comprised a mélange of both Chinese characters and Korean hangul characters. Dr. King termed such writing the “recorded sayings” style or ŏrokch’e, a mute form of the vernacular that was sinographic but not spoken Chinese. He further argued that this represented the vernacular “third way”, a literary language that gestured towards or even incorporated vernacular and colloquial elements. Instead of writing solely in Classical Chinese or in hangul, this was a necessary in-between.

Dr. King’s research on xixiangji manuscripts is especially important because modern Korean scholars rarely examine Chinese texts while Chinese scholars have little interest in the reception of vernacular Chinese texts in Korea. As a student of Korean history, as well as both the Japanese and Korean languages, I find his research particularly illuminating, because I often use my native knowledge of the Chinese language (Mandarin Chinese) to enhance and aid my learning of the other two East Asian languages. His work reminds me of the complex interactions between a Japanese audience and a Korean-language play (ch’unhyang, which was likely inspired by xixiangji) performed in Japanese in the colonial metropole, Tokyo, during the colonial period. Nayoung Aimee Kwon looks at these interactions in her recent book, Intimate Empire: Collaboration and Colonial Modernity in Korea and Japan (2015), which I read last semester while writing my final research paper for my Korea in the Age of Empires history seminar.

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