Yi Seo’u (李瑞雨, 이서우, 1633-?) was a Chosun dynasty literati bureaucrat. He was of the Ugye Yi Clan (羽溪李氏, 우계이씨), which is now called the Gangreung Yi Clan (江陵李氏, 강릉이씨); his courtesy name (字, 자) was Yunbo (潤甫, 윤보); and his pen name (號, 호) was Songgok (松谷, 송곡). He was a student at Sunggyun’gwan (成均館, 성균관) and passed first in the civil examination there. He was dismissed from office on one occasion and banished on another, each time for criticizing members of the Western Faction.
In the poem below, Yi Seo’u expresses his joy of playing Janggi (將棋, 장기), which is the Korean variant of the Chinese variant of Chess. In Classical Chinese, it is also known as Sangheui (象戱, 상희), which literally means “elephant play.” There is some dispute as to the origin of Chess. One theory is that chess was created in India in the 6th century and entered China sometime shortly after. It entered Korea sometime during the Three Kingdoms Period (三國時代, 삼국시대, 57-668). Another theory is that Chess was first created in China in 3rd century BC. Regardless, it is true that Janggi is supposed to be an allusion to the 3rd century BC Chu-Han Contention (楚漢戰爭, 초한전쟁, 206BC-202BC), with the pieces equivalent to the king pieces in Chess labeled as Cho (楚, 초) and Han (漢, 한). Although somewhat similar in appearance, the rules of Janggi are different from the rules of Chinese Xiangqi (象棋, 상기). One notable difference is that there is no river (漢界, 한계 or 楚河, 초하) in Janggi and thus no restriction on which side of the board the elephant (象, 상) must be.
An Incidental Composition After Having Played Chess
My mind is still, without work;
It does not form a person in my shape.
Today, while raining, I am at leisure;
Suddenly, I play with the wooden general.
At that very, at that very time of the match,
The board becomes jumbled; it is quite strengthened.
The chariots and knights in short time move vertically and horizontally;
The pawns and soldiers are charged with taking plunder.
If it ends with a victory, there is joy and delight;
If one acquires a defeat, it breaks grudge and discontent.
Briefly studying the small children’s work,
I suddenly forget the number of gentlemen.
From our Bukpyeong are the Barbaric Chinese:
They are not like this body, without disease.
Laughing once, I face towards the grand emptiness.
It is dense and packed; who does not forget it?
Thanking the guest, I go to my midday nap.
The refreshing magpie speak above the branches.
- Bukpyeong (北平, 북평) is the old name for Beijing (北京, 북경, Bukgyeong). Yi Seo’u is probably referring to Seoul or Pyeongyang in this poem.
- 胡(호) is how Koreans during the late Chosun dynasty referred to the Qing.
- 輟(철) – To finish or to end (그치다).
- 礴(박) – To be jumbled (뒤섞이다).
- 頗(파) – Very much (자못).
- 用壯(용장) – Refers to courage or strength.
- 倐(숙) – Suddenly (갑자기).
- 怏怏(앙앙) – Grudge and discontent.
- 蹔(잠) – Variant of 暫(잠).
- 陡(두) – Suddenly (갑자기).
- 恙(양) – Disease (病, 병).
- 虗(허) – Variant of 虛(허). Here, it refers to the heavens.