Jeong Chobu (鄭樵夫, 정초부, 1714-1789) was a Chosun Dynasty poet and of the slave class (賤民, 천민). Unlike many of the other poets who were born into the slave class, Jeong Chobu did not have a father that was of the aristocratic Yangban class (兩班, 양반) to emancipate him early in his life. His original name (本名, 본명) was Bong (鳳, 봉); his later name was Ijae (彛載, 이재). He lived near modern day Sucheong-ri (水靑里, 수청리) near Yangpyeong (楊平, 양평) in Gyeonggi Province (京畿道, 경기도), just east of Seoul. He worked in a household belonging to members of the Hamyang Yeo Clan (咸陽呂氏, 함양여씨). When he was young, Jeong Chobu first started learning Classical Chinese by peering over the shoulders of the household’s children as they were reciting. His then-master quickly recognized his aptitude in memorizing Chinese characters and had him taught Confucian classics along with the other children. One of these children was Yeo Chunyeong (呂春永, 여춘영, 1734-1812), who was twenty years his junior and later became his master. Yeo Chunyeong distributed Jeong Chobu’s poetry in Seoul. Jeong Chobu soon became well-known for his poetry and went to become one of the most famous poets of the 18th century. Members of the Yangban class regularly invited him to compose with them. One of his poems became the subject of one of Kim Hongdo’s (金弘道, 김홍도,1745-1806) painting titled Crossing the River (渡江圖, 도강도) (picture above). In 19th century and early 20th century poetry collections, his name and works appear along with those of other Yangban poets. Out of all the known slave poets of the Chosun dynasty, he has the largest amount of poetry that has survived to date.
The remaining life of the letters and ink in this old man is in gathering wood.
On his packed shoulders, the autumn colors sway lonely and desolate.
Winds from the east blow and are sent off to the roads of Jang’an (長安, 장안).
At dawn, he steps upon the Blue Gate’s second bridge.
Letters • ink • remaining • life • old • to gather • to cut wood
To fill • shoulders • autumn • colors • to sway • to be lonely • to be lonely
East • wind • to blow • to send • long • peace • roads
Dawn • to step • blue • gate • order • second • bridge
- 翰墨(한묵) – Literally “letters and ink.” Can refer to a literary writer.
- 長安(장안) – Jang’an, or in Mandarin Chang’an, was one of the major capitals in ancient China. It is now modern day Xi’an (西安, 서안, Seoan). Chosun poets referred to Seoul by this name.
- 靑門(청문) – “Blue Gate” is the name of the south-east gate in Jang’an. Refers to the Dongdaemun (東大門, 동대문), also known as Heunginjimun (興仁之門, 흥인지문), in Seoul.
Because of Jeong Chobu’s abilities, Yeo Chunyeong recognized the injustice of his situation, lamenting that the world valued status and money over talent, and eventually burned his slave documents to emancipate him. Even after his emancipation, Jeong Chobu lived a rather squalid life, and continued cutting wood and traveled back and forth from Seoul to his village to sell wood. When Jeong Chobu passed away, Yeo Chunyeong mourned composing a number of poems for him, including the following:
Obituary Poem for the Woodcutter
Down in the yellow clay, are there also woodcutters?
The frosted leaves rain down upon the empty riverbanks.
In the Three Han States, there are many named family clans.
In the next life, I plead that you become one of them.
Yellow • clay • also • to cut wood • or not
Frost • leaves • to rain down • empty • riverbank
Three • Han states • many • surname • family clan
Coming • world • to plead • like so • like so
- 黃壚(황로) – Literally “yellow earth” or “yellow clay.” A Buddhist term referring to the afterlife.
- 三韓(삼한) – Three Han States are Mahan (馬韓, 마한), Byeonhan (弁韓, 변한), and Jinhan (辰韓, 진한). Here, refers to Korea as a whole.
- 寧馨(녕형) – Monomorphemic word (衍聲複詞, 연성복사) for “like so.” Here, refers to becoming a member of an illustrious family clan.