Hwang Hyeon (黃玹, 황현, 1855-1910) was a Confucian scholar, poet, and Korean independence activist. He was of the Jangsu Hwang Clan (長水黃氏, 장수황씨); his courtesy name (字) was Un’gyeong (雲卿, 운경); and his pen name (號, 호) was Maecheon (梅泉, 매천). He passed the civil examinations (科擧, 과거) in 1888. Due to the situation in Chosun at the time, however, he could not take up a literati bureaucratic post, and left Seoul rusticating to Gurye (求禮, 구례) in Jeolla Province (全羅道, 전라도). There, he established a den named Gu’andang (苟安堂, 구안당) and devoted himself to studying classics. With the Japanese annexation of Korea on August 29, 1910, Hwang Hyeon grieved over the loss of independence for Korea and on September 7 decided to commit suicide by drinking poison. Shortly thereafter, his suicide poem was published in the Gyeongnam Ilbo (慶南日報, 경남일보). This lead to the Gyeongnam Ilbo Publication Controversy Incident (慶南日報 筆禍 事件, 경남일보 필화 사건) and caused chagrin to the Japanese colonial authorities. He was renowned for his Classical Chinese poetry, and at least one source notes that he is considered the best late 19th century and early 20th century (舊韓末, 구한말) Chosun Classical Chinese poet. His poems are somewhat difficult to read, since they use difficult characters and contain many allusions to Chinese classics and history. The annotations are based on other Korean translations.
吾無可死之義, 但國家養士五百年. 國亡之日, 無一人死難者, 寧不痛哉?
오무가사지의, 단국가양사오백년. 국망지일, 무일인사난자, 녕불통재?
Indeed, I do not have the duty to die, but this country has nourished scholars for five hundred years. On the day that the country falls, if there is not even one person that perishes in this time of difficulty, would that not be deplorable?…
Chaos and confusion have trickled down, reaching my white-haired age.
How many times have I tried to to take my life, but have yet not done so?
Today, truly and verily, how can I not?
Glimmering and sparkling, the windy candlelight illuminates the blue skies.
Chaos • confusion • to trickle • to reach • white • head • year
How • to be fitting • to hurt • life • instead • not yet • like so
Now • day • truly • verily • not • to be able • how
Glimmering • glimmering • windy • candlelight • to illuminate • blue • sky
- 風燭(풍촉) – Short for 風前燈燭(풍전등촉), meaning “the candlelight before the wind.” Refers to a situation which could not be rectified and is now dangerous.
A calamitous mood has covered and hidden the moving imperial star.
The old palace has sunk and gone under; the writings leak and tarry.
Imperial edicts, from now on, I can no longer have.
Jade-like tears collect as one and drip into thousands of strands.
Inauspicious • mood • to cover • to hide • Emperor • star • to move
Old • palace • to sink • to sink • books • to leak • to be delayed
Royal writings • edicts • from • now on • not • again • to have
Jade-like • jade-like • one • to collect • to drip • thousand • strings
- 帝星(제성) – Refers to the Emperor of Korea being betrayed by pro-Japanese Korean sympathizers. Also, an allusion to a Ming Dynasty (明, 명, 1368-1644) poem by Lan Zhi (藍智, 남지, 1357?-?), who in turn was describing events during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty (玄宗, 현종, 685-762):
At this time, a bizarre mood took over the Tang Dynasty’s foundations.
The imperial star, on one normal day, moved west and south.
The birds and beasts tristfully cry; the seas and mountains cringe.
The hibiscus flowers on this earth have already become flooded and sunken.
By the autumn lamp, I hide my book, meditating about the thousands of ancients.
Difficult it is to be an erudite man among world of men.
Birds • beast • sadly • to cry • seas • mountains • to cringe
Hibiscus • flowers • world • boundary • already • to sink • to fall under
Autumn • lamp • to hide • books • to hug • thousands • ancients
Difficult • to create • mankind • mankind • to recognize • characters • man
- The fourth line in this stanza is the most famous line (名句, 명구) of this poem.
Previously, I did not support my home with even a half a rafter’s merit.
I have only achieved benevolence, but not loyalty.
In the end, I was just only able to follow Yun Gok (尹穀, 윤곡).
At this time, I am ashamed to not have caught up with Jin Dong (陣東, 진동).
Earlier • not • to support • main hall • half • rafter • merit
Only • to be • to achieve • benevolence • not • to be • loyalty
To stop • will • merely • to be able • to follow • surname • name
That • time • to be embarrassed • not • to catch up • surname • name
- 支厦(지하) – Literally, “to support the house” or “to support the main hall.” Refers to supporting the country.
- 成仁(성인) – “To achieve benevolence.” Reference to Analects (論語, 논어), Wei Ling Gong Chapter (衛靈公, 위령공, Wiryeonggong):
子曰: “志士仁人, 無求生以害仁, 有殺身以成仁.”
자왈: “지사인인, 무구생이해인, 유살신이성인.”
Confucius said, “The determined scholar and the benevolent man do not seek to live by hurting benevolence. Some sacrifice themselves to achieve benevolence.”
- 尹穀(윤곡) and 陣東(진동) – Both refer to Song dynasty (宋, 송, 960-1279) figures during the Mongol invasions of China. Their names in Mandarin are Yin Gu and Zhen Dong respectively.
- After Tancheng (潭城, 담성, Damseong) fell during a siege, in despair, Yin Gu decided to kill his family and commit suicide by self-immolation.
- Zhen Dong was a Song Dynasty literati bureaucrat who strongly pleaded with the King that his disloyal subjects should be all sentenced to death. In the end, he was sentenced to death by beheading.