As I have been working on the Classical Chinese primer, one question I have been curious about is how many Chinese Characters (漢字, 한자) should one memorize before embarking on learning Classical Chinese (漢文, 한문). The Korean Hanja Proficiency Exam (漢字能力檢定試驗, 한자능력검정시험) specifies that people should learn at least up till the first rank (一級, 1급), or 3,500 characters, to read Classical Chinese “without difficulty.” This is a somewhat subjective judgment, and depends on how willing a reader is in looking up characters that he does not know while reading Classical Chinese texts. I like to conceptualize this in more mathematical terms:


where p(x) is the probability that reader does not know character xC(x) is the cost (e.g., time and effort) reader is willing to spend on looking up each character x, and T is the threshold at which reader will “give up” on finding all the characters. The equation as a whole states that a reader will be willing to find the character, as long as the cost and probability of doing so does not exceed the threshold. C(x) and especially are highly subjective, and depend on the individual reader. p(x), on the other hand, is not. I was interested in seeing how p(x) looked like, and how I could interpret it.


I had some downtime over Easter, and decided to code a very short script to determine this. The pseudo-code is very simple, and is as follows:

  1. Load file with Classical Chinese source text.
  2. Remove all the punctuation, spaces, new lines, et cetera.
  3. Count the number of time a particular character occurs in the source text.
  4. Output data.

The Classical Chinese source text chosen was Analects of Confucius, Annotated by Zhu Xi (論語集註, 논어집주). I believed that this was very representative of Classical Chinese texts, as many people learning Classical Chinese at the very least read Analects unannotated.

Data & Analysis

The total number of characters in the Analects is 80,964. There are 2,373 different characters. Sorting from the most frequent to the least, the top 20 most frequent characters are:

Top 20 Most Frequent

Table 1 – Top 20 Most Frequent Characters in Analects

This result should not surprise anyone, as most of these characters serve common grammatical functions and thus are likely to appear quite frequently. For instance, from experience, 也 occurs at the end of sentences very often. It is no surprise that Table 1 reflects this. One curious result was how quickly the frequently dropped: from 3756 with 之(지) to 644 with 矣(의). This is further illustrated in the table below:

Random Characters

Table 2 – Assorted Characters

Table 2 shows a few characters by the order of their frequency in the text. By the most common 150th character, the frequency has dropped into two digits. By the most common 850th character, the frequency has dropped to just one digit. By the most common 1900th character, the frequency has dropped to 1.

Freq v Percent

Table 3 – Frequency & Percentage

In Table 3, characters that appear less than 1000 times in the text occur with 74.8%, those that appear less than 250 times occur with 50%, and those that appear less than 50 times, occur with 22.2%.


First, a caveat. This quick, informal analysis does have some weaknesses, particularly with the sample source text chosen. Some characters that are considered as “easy” in resources for learning Chinese Characters surprisingly showed up as occurring very few times in Analects. For instance, 雨(우) (“rain”) only occurred a total of three times in the text. For future analysis, I would like to do add other texts.

As for the relationship between learning Classical Chinese and memorizing Chinese Characters, the data suggest that readers should have an expansive of knowledge of Chinese Characters. Most notably, although characters that appeared less than 10 times or less occur with 6% probability, those that 100 times or less occur with 33% of the time in the text. In general, the less likely the character occurs, the more it is considered “difficult.” I would presume that most readers, who have not yet memorized less frequent characters, would not want to be flipping through their dictionaries one-third of the time while reading through Analects, as this would exceed the threshold cost they are willing to allow. This data, although not perfect, may give an idea where this threshold may be.


The Cloud Dream of the Nine (九雲夢, 구운몽) was the first Korean novel to be translated into English in 1922. It is uncertain whether the work was originally written in Hangul or Classical Chinese.

Third Person Pronouns

Third person pronouns  (三人稱代名詞, 3인칭대명사) are those that refer to someone or something else besides the speaker and the audience. Examples in English include, “he,” “him,” “she,” “her,” “it,” et cetera. Unlike English but like Korean, third person pronouns in Classical Chinese lack gender and describe what is being referred to in relation to some external spatial frame of reference. (In linguistics jargon, this frame of reference is called spatial deixis.) These are called demonstratives (指示代名詞, 지시대명사). Examples of English demonstrative include “this” and “these,” which refer to someone or something close to the frame of reference, and “that” and “those,” which refer to someone or something more distant. Similar to English and Korean, most demonstratives in Classical Chinese can be used as either determiners (冠形詞, 관형사) modifying the word coming after it or as standalone pronouns (代名詞, 대명사). One of the challenges in interpreting demonstratives is in determining whether the character is being used as a determiner or a standalone third person pronoun. Based on their frame of reference, Classical Chinese demonstratives can be classified into four categories: (1) proximal (近稱, 근칭), (2) medial (中稱, 중칭), (3) distal (遠稱, 원칭), and (4) generic (總稱, 총칭).


Proximal demonstrative are those words that refer to something close to the frame of reference. In English, these correspond to “this” or “these.” In Korean, the proximal demonstrative is 이. In Classical Chinese, the characters used are: 是(시), 此(차), 斯(사), 玆(자), 這(저), and 焉(언), which is an abbreviation of 於(어)+此(차). Note that 玆 is not often used as a demonstrative as the other characters listed and 這 is seen only in much later Classical Chinese texts.


This certainly is a person whose talents are sound but whose virtues is not shown.
► Zhaungzi (莊子, 장자), Inner Chapters (內篇, 내편), Seal of Virtue Complete (德充符, 덕충부).

終而復始, 日月也.
종이부시, 일월야.

To end but to begin again, the sun and moon are [like] this.
► Sun Tzu’s Art of War (孫子兵法, 손자병법), Strength (勢, 세).

日也, 放聲大哭
일야, 방성대곡

Upon this day, [we] release our sighs and loudly wail.
► Imperial Capital Gazette (皇城新聞, 황성신문), Nov. 11, 1905 Edition by Jang Jiyeon (張志淵, 장지연, 1864-1921).

有道伐無道, 天理也, 所從來久矣.
유도벌무도, 천리야, 소종래구의.

[What] has the Way strikes [what] does not have the Way. This is heaven’s principle. Where it originated came from long ago.
► Luxuriant Dew of the Spring and Autumn Annals (春秋繁露, 춘추번로) by Dong Zhongshu (董仲舒, 동중서, 176-104BC).

讐若除, 死卽無憾.
수약제, 사즉무감.

If these enemies are removed, then if [we] die there will be no regret.
► Complete Works of Admiral Yi Sunshin (李忠武公全書, 이충무공전서).


These following [articles] establish a treaty of commerce and amity.
► Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the United States of America and Korea of 1882 (朝美修好通商條約, 조미수호통상조약).

逝者如夫, 不舍晝夜.
서자여부, 불사주야.

Those [things] that depart are like this: [they] do not cease day and night.
► Analects (論語, 논어), Zi Han (子罕, 자한).

長者假喜怒, 愧小兒矣.
장자가희노, 괴소아의.

When an elder fakes being happy or being angry, this shames the small child.
► A Book on the Ear, Eye, Mouth, and Heart (耳目口心書, 이목구심서) by Yi Deokmu (李德懋, 이덕무, 1741-1793).

樓以四望, 聊暇日以銷憂.
루이사망, 료가일이소우.

Ascending this pagoda to gaze at four [directions], somehow on [this] leisurely day [my] worries have disappeared.
► A Lyric on Ascending the Pagoda (登樓賦, 등루부) by Wan Can (王粲, 왕찬, 177-217).

文王旣沒, 文不在乎?
문왕기몰, 문불재호?

King Wen (周文王, 주문왕, 1152-1056 BC) has already passed away, but does culture not reside in this [place]?
► Analects (論語, 논어), Zi Han (子罕, 자한).

是駝卵, 能治難名奇疾.
시타란, 능치난명기질.

This is an ostrich’s egg. [It] can cure strange diseases that are difficult to name.
► Jehol Journal (熱河日記, 열하일기) by Pak Jiwon (朴趾源, 박지원, 1737-1805).

議論極明快, 甚不易.
의론극며왜, 심불이.

This controversy is extremely lucid; [it] is not very easy.
► Records of the Teachers and Friends of the Eastern Confucians (東儒師友錄, 동유수우록) by Pak Sechae (朴世采, 박세채, 1631-1695).

然, 昔者吾舅死於虎, 吾夫又死.
연, 석자오구사어호, 오부우사.

Yes, a long time ago my father-in-law was killed by a tiger. My husband again was killed by this (於+此) [tiger].
 Record of Rites (禮記, 예기), Tan Gong Part II (檀弓下, 단궁하).


Medial demonstratives are those words that refer to something not too close but not too far from the frame of reference. There are no equivalents in English, although they can be thought of as “that” and “those.” Oftentimes, it might be suitable to translate these demonstratives as “he,” “she,” or “it.” In Korean, medial demonstrative is 그. The characters used are: 其(기) and 厥(궐).

人之性惡, 善者僞也.
인지성악, 선자위야.

Man’s nature is evil. Those who [claim that it is] good are lying.
► Xun Zi (荀子, 순자, 312-230 BC), Nature is Evil (性惡, 성악).

北冥有魚, 名爲鯤. 鯤之大, 不知幾千里也.
북명유어, 명위곤. 곤지대, 불지기천리야.

In the Northern Oceans, there is a fish. Its name is Kun (鯤, 곤). [As for] Kun’s size, [I] do not know its [size] in how many thousand li (里,리).
► Zhuangzi (莊子, 장자), Inner Chapters (內篇, 내편), Enjoyment in Untroubled Ease (逍遙遊, 소요유).

今有米在十斗桶中, 不知數.
금유미재십두통중, 불지수.

Now, there are rice grains in the middle of this bottle of ten dou (斗, 두) (180 liters). [I] do not know its number.
The Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art (九章算術, 구장산술), To Fill Not Sufficiently (盈不足, 영부족).

鋪子新設者, 免鋪稅五年.
포자신설자, 면포세오년.

For those who have newly constructed stores, exempt their shopping stores for five years.
 The Following Records of Ban’gye (磻溪隨錄, 반계수록), On Currency (錢幣, 전폐) by Yu Hyeongweon (柳馨遠, 유형원, 1622-1673).

寡君聞楚爲不道, 荐伐吳國, 滅民人.
과군문초위불도, 천벌오국, 멸민인.

Our lord heard that the Chu (楚, 초) did not pursue the Way (道, 도), and recommended [that we] strike the Wu State (吳, 오) and exterminate their people.
 Zhou’s Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Period (春秋左傳, 춘추좌전), Duke Ai (哀公, 애공), Fifteenth Year of Duke Ai’s Reign (哀公十五年, 애공십오년).

農夫餓死, 枕種子.
농부아사, 침종자.

The farmers die of starvation. They lay on their seeds.
A Collection of Heard Words (耳談續纂, 이담속찬) by Jeong Yakyong (丁若鏞, 정약용, 1762-1836).

若藥不瞑眩, 疾不瘳.
약약불명현, 질불추.

If the medicine makes [him] not dizzy and somber, then his illness has not been cured.
► Classic of History (書經, 서경), Charge to Yue Part I (說命上, 열명상).


Distal demonstratives are those words that refer to something far from the frame of reference. In English, these correspond to “that” or “those.” To elucidate the distinction between medial and distal, it might be better to conceptualize the latter as “that over there” or “those over there.” Similar to medial demonstratives, they can be often translated as “he,” “she,” or “it” in English. In Korean, the distal demonstrative is 저. In Classical Chinese, the characters used are: 彼(피) and 夫(부). Note that there are at times where 夫 need not be translated.

以小易大, 惡知之.
이소역대, 오지지.

Having traded something small for something large, how will those [people] know it?
► Mencius (孟子, 맹자), Liang Hui Wang Part I (梁惠王上, 양혜왕상).

江南紅何妓女, 意志眼目如高尙?
강남홍하기녀, 의지안목여고상?

What kind of Gisaeng (妓生, 기생) is Gang Namhong (江南紅, 강남홍) for [her] intentions and discerning eye to be similar to that [person's] elegance?
Dreams in the Jade Tower (玉樓夢, 옥루몽) by Nam Yeongro (南永魯, 남영로, ?-?).

西山兮, 采其薇矣.
서산혜, 채기미의.

[I] have ascended that mountain in the west, and have plucked its ferns.
► Records of the Grand Historian (史記, 사기), Biography of Bo Yi (伯夷列傳, 백이열전).


That old man transformed into a white crane and flew away.
► Precious Mirror of Eastern Medicine (東醫寶鑑, 동의보감), Inner Scene Chapter (內景篇, 내경편) by Heo Jun (許浚, 허준, 1539-1615).


Those three people’s words, what were [they]?
Analects (論語, 논어), Xian Jin (先進, 선진).

我過矣, 夫是也.
아과의, 부시야.

I was wrong. That man was right.
 Record of Rites (禮記, 예기), Tan Gong Part I (檀弓上, 단궁상).

小子! 何莫學詩?
소자! 하막학시?

Little child, why did you not study poetry?
► Analects (論語, 논어), Yang Huo (陽貨, 양화).


Generic third person pronouns are those without any frame of reference. That is, they can refer to anyone or anything proximal, medial, or distal. These are similar to English third person pronouns and thus can be translated to “he,” “she,” or “it.”  Likewise, in Korean, these can be any of 이, 그, and 저. In Classical Chinese, the characters used are: 他(타), 渠(거), 伊(이), 之(지), and 諸(제), which is an abbreviation for 之(지)+於(어). Note that: 他 is more often used to mean “other” or “another”; 渠 is used as a pronoun beginning in later Classical Chinese texts; and 之 is only used as a standalone pronoun and only functions as an object referring to something or someone described previously.

促還馬, 赦汝罪.
촉환마, 사여죄.

If [you] quickly return his horse, [I] will forgive your transgressions.
Book of the Later Han (後漢書, 후한서), Biographies of Alchemists (方術列傳, 방술열전).

女壻昨來, 必是所竊.
여서작래, 필시소절.

The daughter’s husband came yesterday. It must be he who stole.
Records of the Three Kingdoms (三國志, 삼국지), Book of Wu (吳書, 오서), Biography of Zhao Da (趙達傳, 조달전).

旣要淸淨寂滅, 如何不坐禪?
기요청정적멸, 여하불좌선?

He already needed to become clean and pure (Taoist term) and quietly destroy [himself] (Buddhist term). How was [he] not to sit in Zen meditation?
 Arranged Words of Master Zhu (朱子語類, 주자어류), On Sakyumi (釋氏, 석씨).

一雨三日, 誰之力?
일우삼일, 수지력?

It rained once for three days. Whose power is it?
► Record of the Happy Rain Pavilion (喜雨亭記, 희우정기) by Su Shi (蘇軾, 소식, 1037-1101).

勿學汝兄, 汝兄自不如!
물학여형, 여형자불여!

Do not learn from your older brother: your older brother by himself was no more like him!
► A New Account of the Tales of the World (世說新語, 세설신어), Evaluation (品藻, 품조) by Liu Yiqing (劉義慶, 유의경, 430-444).


But the four [beginnings] (四端, 사단) are emitted [from] the principle force (理, 리) and the material force (氣, 기) follows it.
► Reply to Ki Myeong’eon (答奇明彦, 답기명언) by Yi Hwang (李滉, 이황, 1502-1571).

參不敏, 何足以知?
삼불민, 하족이지?

I, Shen (參, 삼), am not nimble. How am [I] sufficient to know it?
► Classic of Filial Piety (孝經, 효경), The Scope and Meaning of the Treatise (開宗明義, 개종명의).

我皆令入, 無餘涅槃, 而滅度.
아개령입, 무여열반, 이멸도.

We all will make [them] enter, without remainder, into nirvana, and will liberate them.
► Diamond Sutra (金剛般若波羅蜜經, 금강반야바라밀경).

祝訖, 遂擲, 生果勝.
축흘, 수척, 생과승.

[He] prayed exerting [himself], finally chucked them, and became in the end victorious.
► The New Tale of the Golden Terrapin (金鰲新話, 금오신화) by Kim Shiseup (金時習, 김시습, 1435-1493).


Cui Ming (崔明, 최명, Choe Myeong, ?-?) at night buried him in (之+於) the large tomb.
► Commentaries of Zhou on the Spring and Autumn Period (春秋左傳, 춘추좌전), Duke of Xiang of Lu (襄公, 양공).

Songseokweon Shisa Meeting

This concludes the series on non-aristocratic poets of the hamlets and streets (閭巷詩人, 여항시인). I was previously aware that Classical Chinese literacy was not limited to only the aristocratic Yangban (兩班, 양반) elite during the Chosun Dynasty; however, I first became fascinated in the subject after having read about the slave poet Jeong Chobu (鄭樵夫, 정초부, 1714-1789). I knew very little about this subject prior to these posts, and learned quite a lot through preparing and reading about these poets. (There is still a lot I do not know.) I was fairly surprised at how many resources there were on the internet. Here are the list of poems in this series:

The list can be found in the exhibit tab at the top of the blog. I have corrected some of these posts, and as requested have added links to Korean translations. I have only done Korean translations for those poems that did not have one. Furthermore, there are many more non-aristocratic poets that I did not get to cover. For those readers that can read Korean and further interested, there are a ton of resources at Naver Encyclopedia’s (네이버 지식백과) entries on Chosun dynasty’s non-aristocracy culture (閭巷文化, 여항문화).

On another note, I have revised my plans for the blog for the remainder of the year. In particular, I would like to focus on the Classical Chinese primer, and would greatly appreciate feedback on that project. In addition, I will work on editing the resources tab above, do a few book reviews, other assorted articles, and might do one more exhibit. Also, feel free to use any post from this blog, but please do properly attribute.


Yu Heuigyeong (劉希慶, 유희경, 1545-1636) was a Chosun dynasty poet. He was of the Ganghwa Yu Clan (江華劉氏, 강화유씨); his courtesy name (字, 자) was Eunggil (應吉, 응길); and his pen name (號, 호) was Chon’eun (村隱, 촌은). He was originally of the slave caste (賤民, 천민), although he later became a freed commoner and eventually a high-ranking literati bureaucrat. As a child, Yu Heuigyeong was known for his filial piety (孝, 효). After his father passed away when Yu Heuigyeong was 13, he mourned by his father’s grave all day and refused to leave it. His neighbors, pitying him, built a mud hut next the grave for him to stay. Furthermore, when his mother became ill, he attended to her day and night. Later on, Yu Heuigyeong became a disciple of Nam Eon’gyeong (南彦經, 남언경, ?-?), a literati bureaucrat, and learned Chinese Classics under his tutelage. He became particularly interested in Confucian mourning rites (喪禮, 상례). He also a member of the non-aristocratic poet’s circle known as the Pungweolhyangdo (風月香徒, 풍월향도), and a friend of Baek Daebung (白大鵬, 백대붕, ?-1592), who was also of that circle. In 1590, Yu Heuigyeong met a well-known courtesan (妓生, 기생) named Yi Maechang (李梅窓, 이매창, 1573-1610) in Bu’an (扶安, 부안) in modern day North Jeolla Province (全羅北道, 전라북도). Yi Maechang had already heard of Yu Heuigyeong. They both fell in love with each other, and corresponded in poetry. The following is one of their correspondences:

贈癸娘 증계량

Presented to Gyeryang

我有一仙藥 아유일선약
能醫玉頰嚬 능의옥협빈
深藏錦囊裏 심장금낭리
欲與有情人 욕여유정인

I have one magical elixir.
It can cure a jade cheek’s frown.
Having stored it deep inside my silk pocket,
I intend to give to a lover.

I • to have • one • magical • drug
To be able • to cure • jade • cheek • frown
Deep • to store • silk • pocket • inside
To intend • to give • one • love • person

    • 玉頰(옥협) – Literally “jade cheek.” Refers to the countenance of a beautiful woman.

贈別 증별

Presented While Departing

我有古奏箏 아유고진쟁
一彈百感生 일탄백감생
世無知此曲 세무지차곡
遙和緱山笙 요화구산생

I have an old Jin Jaeng (奏箏, 진쟁).
One pluck, and a hundred feelings arise.
In the world, there is no one that knows this tune.
From afar, reply to the Saeng (笙,생) on Mount Gu (緱山, 구산).

I • to have • old • Jin • Jaeng
One • to pluck • hundred • feelings • to arise
World • to not have • to know • this • tune
Afar • to reply • Gu • Mountain • Saeng

    • 奏箏(진쟁) – A type of plucked zither. Also called Gujaeng (古箏, 고쟁) or Jaeng (箏,쟁). During the Song (宋, 송, 960-1279) and Tang Dynasty (唐, 당, 618-907), it had 13 strings. Later on, there were versions of the instrument with 16, 18, 21, and 25 strings.
    • 笙(생) – A reed wind instrument with 17 pipes. Also called Saenghwang (笙簧, 생황).
    • 緱山(구산) – Mount Goushi (緱氏山, 구씨산, Guss’isan) or Guoling (緱嶺, 구령, Guryeong) is located in Yanxi County (偃師縣, 언사현,  Eonsa Hyeon) of Henan Province (河南省, 하남성, Hanam Seong). The mountain is frequently mentioned in Classical Chinese poetry because of an event from the life of King Ling of Zhou’s (周靈王, 주영왕, ?-545BC) son and heir Jin (晉, 진, Jin). After he directly reproved the King, Jin was made a commoner. He then decided to become an apprentice of the Taoist hermit Fuqiu Ba (浮丘伯, 부구백, Bugu Baek, ?-?) and lived in seclusion on Mount Goushi. This is recorded in the Collected Biographies of the Immortals (列仙傳, 열선전), a collection of hagiographies of Taoist hermits:

王子喬者, 周靈王太子晉也. 好吹笙, 作鳳凰鳴.
왕자교자, 주령왕태자진야. 호취생, 작봉황명.

Wangzi Qiao (王子喬, 왕자교, Wangja Gyo) is King Ling of Zhou’s heir Jin. [He] enjoyed playing the Sheng (笙, 생) (Mandarin name for the same instrument), making the songs of a phoenix.

游伊洛之間, 道士浮丘公接以上嵩高山三十餘年.
유윤락지간, 도사부구공접이상숭고산삼십여년.

He wandered about between [the cities of] Yin (伊, 윤, Yun) and Lou (洛, 락, Rak). The Taoist scholar Fuqui met [him] and ascended Mount Songgao (嵩高山, 숭고산, Sunggo San) [and resided there] for thirty some years.

後求之於山上, 見桓良曰: “告我家 ,七月七日待我於緱氏山巔.”
후구지어산상, 견황량왈: “고아가, 칠월칠일대아어구씨산령.”

Afterward, [Jin] requested to go to the mountain top. As he saw Huanliang (桓良, 환량, Hwanryang), he said, “Inform my house to await me on the 7th day of the 7th month at Mount Goushi’s peak.”

至時, 果乘白鶴駐山頭, 望之不得到. 舉手謝時人, 數日而去.
지시, 과승백학주산두, 만지불득도. 거수사시인, 수일이거.

When that time arrived, indeed they rode a white crane and stopped by the mountaintop. They gazed at them, thanking the people of that time. Many days [passed] and they left.

亦立祠於緱氏山下, 及嵩高首焉.
역립사어구씨산하, 급숭고수언.

Also, they erected shrines below Mount Goushi and at the top of [Mount] Songgao.

Unfortunately, their time together was short. When Yu Heuigyeong returned to Seoul in 1592, the Japanese started their invasion of Korea (壬辰倭亂, 임진왜란, 1592-1598). He joined an irregular righteous army (義兵, 의병) and fought against the Japanese. After the war, he was lauded by King Seonjo (宣朝, 선조, 1552-1608, r. 1567-1608) for his efforts and was manumitted. A few years later, for revealing embezzlement at the Ministry of Finance (戶曹, 호조), Yu Heuigyeong was awarded the high-ranking bureaucratic position of Tongjeongdaebu (通政大夫, 통정대부). Fifteen years after their first meeting, he eventually was reunited with Yi Maechang in 1607. Unfortunately, she passed away just three years later in 1610.


South Shrine

Yi Danjeon (李亶佃, 이단전, 1755-1790) was a Chosun dynasty poet. He was of the Yeon’an Yi Clan (延安李氏, 연안이씨); his courtesy name (字, 자) was Un’gi (耘岐, 운기); his pen names were Piljae (疋齋, 필재), Pilhan (疋漢), and Injae (因齋, 인재). He always had on a bamboo braid hat typically worn by lower classes of Korean society, called a Paeraeng’i (패랭이). This was transliterated as Pyeongryangja (平涼子, 평량자) into Hanja (漢字, 한자), and hence his nickname was Yi Pyeongryang (李平涼, 이평량) for this reason. As is clearly evident from his names, Yi Danjeon was a member of the slave caste (賤民, 천민). He worked in a household with the surname Yu (兪氏, 유씨). He first learned Classical Chinese from members of the non-aristocratic poetry circle known as the Songseokweon Shisa (松石園詩社, 송석원시사). Yi Danjeon eventually became so renowned for his poetry that members of the aristocratic Yangban (兩班, 양반) class invited him regularly to compose poetry with them and young aristocrats seeking bureaucratic offices paid him to write Classical Chinese texts on their behalf. For a slave, he lived a rather eccentric life; however, because of his inability to climb up in Chosun society, Yi Danjeon despaired. He fell into alcoholism spending all his earned money on booze, and died of alcohol poisoning at the age of 39 in 1790.

題關王廟 제관왕묘

Writing About King Gwan’s Shrine

古廟幽深白日寒 고묘유심백일한
儼然遺像漢衣冠 엄연유상한의관
當時未了中原事 당시미료중원사
赤兎千年不解鞍 적토천년불해안

The old shrine is secluded and deep; the daytime is bleak.
Clearly, the remaining portrait is in Han dynasty (漢,한) clothes and headwear.
At that very time, the affairs of the middle plains were not yet complete.
The Red Hare, for a thousand years, has not had its saddle undone.


Old • shrine • to be secluded • to be deep • white • day • to be bleak
Clearly • grammatical marker • remnant • image • Han dynasty • clothes • headwear
That • time • not yet • to complete • middle • plains • affairs
Red • hare •  thousand • years • not • to undo • saddle


  • 關王廟(관왕묘) – King Gwan refers to Guan Yu (關羽, 관우, Gwan U, 160-219), a famous Chinese general from the Three Kingdoms period. In Seoul, there are two shrines commemorating Guan Yu. One is South King Gwan’s Shrine (南關王廟, 남관왕묘), located outside of Namdaemun (南大門, 남대문) in Huamdong (厚岩洞, 후암동). The other is East King Gwan’s Shrine (東關王廟, 동관왕묘), located outside of Dongdaemun (東大門, 동대문). In addition, there are two other shrines outside of Seoul in Andong (安東, 안동) and Sangju (尙州, 상주) in North Gyeongsang Province (慶尙北道, 경상북도). In his poem, Yi Danjeon is referring to the the South King Gwan’s Shrine, which had a statue of General Guan Yu on the Red Hare, a mythical horse. King Seonjo (宣祖, 선조, 1552-1608, r. 1567-1608) ordered the construction of the South King Gwan’s Shrine in 1598 to offer rites to General Guan Yu, at the request of Ming Chinese generals, who fought against the Japanese during Hideyoshi’s Invasion of Korea (壬辰倭亂, 임진왜란, Imjin Waeran, 1592-1598). The shrine was destroyed by a fire in 1899 and was rebuilt in 1901. It was destroyed again during the Korean War (1950-1953) and rebuilt in 1957.
  • 白日(백일) – Literally “white sun” or “white day.” Refers to the middle of the day (대낮).
  • 中原(중원) – Literally “middle plains.” Refers to continental China.
  • 赤兎(적토) – Refers to the Red Hare, a legendary horse owned by Chinese warlord Lü Bu (呂布, 여포, Yeo Po, ?-198). Some of the Red Hare’s abilities are recorded in the Book of the Later Han (後漢書, 후한서):

布常御良馬, 號曰赤兎, 能馳城飛塹
포상어량마, 호왈적토, 능치성비참

Lü Bu always liked riding [this] horse. [Its] name was the “Red Hare.” [It] could charge castle [walls] and fly over puddles.


Pak Yunmuk Calligraphy

Pak Yunmuk (朴允默, 박윤묵, 1771-1849) was a Chosun dynasty poet and a petty bureaucratic official. He was of the Milyang Pak Clan (密陽朴氏, 밀양박씨); his courtesy name (字, 자) was Sajip (士執, 사집); and his pen name (號, 호) was Jonjae (存齋, 존재). He was originally from a petty official (署吏, 서리) family. At the recommendation of Prime Minister (領議政, 영의정) Kim Josun (金祖淳, 김조순, 1765-1832) became a low-ranking official in the Council of Ministers (內閣, 내각). Pak Yunmuk learned Classical Chinese from Jeong Ijo (丁彛祚, 정이조, ?-?), a member of the non-aristocratic poets’ circle known as the Songseokweon Shisa (松石園詩社, 송석원시사). After the Songseokweon Shisa was dissolved in 1818, Pak Yunmuk became one of the founders of the successor non-aristocratic poets’ circle called the Seoweon Shisa (西園詩社, 서원시사). The circle met on the Mount Inwang (仁王山, 인왕산), the same mountain as the former Songseokweon Shisa.

糴政 적정

The Rice Office

糴政秋多劇 적정추다극
文書幾等身 문서기등신
吏皆工壅蔽 리개공옹폐
民亦巧因循 민역교인순
手罷煩毫墨 수패번호묵
眸揩漲米塵 모개창미진
公心宜自勵 공심의자려
頭上有神明 두상유신명

The rice office this autumn is very busy.
How many writings and books equal the number of human bodies?
All the petty bureaucrats skillfully block and hide;
Commoners too craftily continue and follow.
Their hands have let go the cumbersome brush and ink;
Their eyes have been cleared of the overflowing rice seeds and dust.
With impartial hearts, they rightfully by themselves toil.
Above their heads exist deities.

Grains • government • autumn • many • to be busy
Writings • books • how many • to be equal • body
Petty official • all • to work • to block • to hide
People • also • to be crafty • to continue • to follow
Hand • to stop • to be cumbersome • hair • ink
Eye • to rub • to overflow • rice • dust
Impartial • hearts • rightfully • by oneself • to toil
Heads • above • to exist • deities • to be bright


  • 糴政(적정) – Refers to a government office that handed out grain every autumn. Also known as the Hwanjeong (還政, 환정).
  • 因循(인순) – Refers to not letting go of bad old habits (舊習, 구습).


Jang Hon

Jang Hon (張混, 장혼, 1759-1828) was a Chosun dynasty poet. He was of the Gyeolseong Jang Clan (結城張氏, 결성장씨); his courtesy name (字, 자) was Weonil (元一, 원일); and his pen names  (號, 호) were Iieom (而已广, 이이엄) and Gonggongja (空空子, 공공자). He was born into a skilled Chung’in class (中人, 중인) family. He was recommended by Oh Jaesun (吳載純, 오재순, 1727-1792), a literati bureaucrat, to the Gyoseogwan (校書館, 교서관), an office that was responsible for printing of Chinese Classics and history books. During his time at the Gyoseogwan, Jang Hon focused his attention on children’s education, and published a number of Classical Chinese textbooks for children. His edition of the Gyemongpyeon (啓蒙篇 , 계몽편) was highly influential in early modern children’s education and was in print even during Japanese colonial period. He also excelled in Classical Chinese poetry, in particular ancient style poetry (古體詩, 고체시). He was also one of the leading poets at the non-aristocratic poetry circle known as the Songseokweon Shisa (松石園詩社, 송석원시사).

津寬寺呼韻 진관사호운

At Jin’gwan Temple, Calling a Rime

初地入雲松 초지입운송
數里淸澗道 수리청간도

The first step to nirvana is to enter clouds and pine trees,
Numerous li (里,리) is on the path by the clear mountains’ stream.

First • land • to enter • clouds • pine trees
Numerous • li • to be clear • mountain gorge • paths

 초지(初地)는 구름과 소나무에 들어가는 것이다,
수많은 리(里)는 맑은 산골 시내의 길이다.

    • 津寬寺(진관사) – Jin’gwan Temple is a Buddhist temple located in Mount Bukhan (北漢山, 북한산), a mountain on the northern border of Seoul.
    • 初地(초지) – Literally “first land.” Refers to the first step in nirvana.

金殿麗王作 금전려왕작
往跡浮雲掃 주적부운소

The Golden Temple, the Goryeo Kings constructed;
The remaining traces, the floating clouds have swept.

Golden • temple • Goryeo • King • to create
Remnant • traces • to be floating • clouds • to sweep

금전(金殿)은 고려(高麗) 왕조가 지은 것이며,
지나간 자취는 떠나니는 구름이 쓸었네.

洞天極幽夐 동천극유형
周覽卽事好 주람즉사호

The cave in heaven is extremely far and distant.
Gazing around is certainly good affair.

Cave • heaven • extremely • to be far • to be distant
Around • to gaze • to be • affairs • to be good

동천(洞天)은 지극히 아득하고 멀으니,
[여기서] 주람(周覽)하는 것은 휼륭한 일이다.

    • 洞天(동천) – Literally “a cave in heaven.” Refers to a place where a Taoist hermit resides.

雨深古寺暝 우심고사명
猿鳥入懷抱 원명입회포

The rain is severe and the old temple becomes dark.
Monkeys and birds enter my held thoughts.

Rain • to be severe • old • temple • to be dark
Monkeys • birds • to enter • thoughts • to be held

비가 심하니 고사(古寺)는 어두워지고
원숭이와 새들은 회포(懷抱)로 들어온다.

寄語空門友 기어공문우
香山有九老 향산유구로

I send these words to my school of empty thought friend.
In the fragrant mountains, there reside nine old men.

To send • words • empty • door • friend
Fragrant • mountain • to exist • nine • to be old

이 이야기를 공문(空門) 벗에게 부친다.
향기로운 산에 아홉명의 늙은이 계신다.

    • 空門(공문) – “School of empty thought.” Refers to Buddhism.



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