Hwang Hyeon – Suicide Poem

Hwang Hyeon

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.

絶命詩 절명시

Suicide Poem

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?…

亂離溒到白頭年 란리원도백두년
幾合損生却未然 기합손생각미연
今日眞成無可奈 금일진성무가내
輝輝風燭照蒼天 휘휘풍촉조창천

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.

妖氛掩翳帝星移 요분엄예제성리
久闕沉沉書漏遲 구궐침침서루지
詔勅從今無復有 조칙종금무복유
琳琅一綜淚千絲 림량일종루천사

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):

是時妖孼侵唐基 시시요얼침당기
帝星白日西南移 제성백일서남리

At this time, a bizarre mood took over the Tang Dynasty’s foundations.
The imperial star, on one normal day, moved west and south.

鳥獸哀鳴海岳嚬 조수애명해악빈
槿花世界己沉淪 근화세계기침륜
秋鐙揜卷懷千古 추등엄권회천고
難作人間識字人 난작인간식자인

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.

曾無支厦半椽功 증무지하반연공
只是成仁不是忠 지시성인불시충
止竟僅能追尹穀 지경근능추윤곡
當時愧不攝陣東 당시괴불섭진동

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.
3 comments
  1. 秋鐙揜卷懷千古
    難作人間識字人

    I really like these two lines. I’ve mulled over them for a while. I would translate them as:

    By the autumn lamp, I close my book meditating on past ages
    It is difficult to be a scholar in the world of men

    I think 人間識字人 means a 識字人 in the 人間. This probably makes more sense in the poem as a whole, since it is because of the difficulty of living up with the standards of an educated Confucian that the author feels compelled to commit ritual suicide and also write this poem to express his 志 to future generations. An example of using 作 to refer to oneself can be found in many, many poems, for example Du Fu’s poem: 萬里悲秋常作客

    • 歸源 said:

      I have seen Korean translations for this poem similar to the one you suggested. I think it now makes better sense, and have adjusted it accordingly.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: