Book Review – 한시와 한문이야기 – 이권재

Hanshiwa Hanmun Iyagi

한시와 한문이야기
Classical Chinese Poetry and Prose Stories

Bibliographic Summary

  • Title: 한시와 한문이야기 (Classical Chinese Poetry and Prose Stories)
  • Authors: Yi Gweonjae (李權宰, 이권재), Professor at Korea University
  • Publisher: Korean Studies Information (한국학술정보)
  • ISBN: 978-89-268-3943-0
  • Price: 15,000 Won
  • Language: Korean and Classical Chinese original text
  • Pages: 362


I have never received any formal education in Classical Chinese (漢文, 한문). Although I had some help from a few of my relatives that had some exposure, I learned the language largely by myself from various Korean books. I first started learning Chinese characters in elementary school in Korea through rote memorization, copying one character every morning one hundred times. Sometime later, after having moved to America, I decided that I would go a step further, and began to Rosetta Stone my way through Classical Chinese by reading Confucian classics with parallel original text and Korean translation and attempting to deduce the language’s grammar from the translation. (While I was able to deduce many of the grammatical rules, I would not recommend this.) Until a few years ago, I had no clue that Classical Chinese was still taught in middle and high schools in Korea as an elective or that it has been one of the “secondary foreign languages” that students could take on the Korean College Scholastic Ability Test (修能, 수능) since 2005. I was curious at what textbooks and materials Korean students used, and obtained Hanshiwa Hanmun Iyagi (한시와 한문이야기), or in English Classical Chinese Poetry and Prose Stories, to get a glimpse of Classical Chinese education in Korea.


The book contains materials from 10 different Classical Chinese textbooks. There are 210 lessons or excerpts in the book that are divided into two sections. The first section has 80 lessons on poetry. The second section has 130 lessons on prose.

1. Classical Chinese Poetry

Hanshiwa Hanmun Iyagi - Poem

The first ten pages or so give a very high overview of the rules of Recent Style Poetry (近體詩, 근체시), summarizing the tonal meters (平仄譜, 평측보) and rimes (韻, 운). The rest of the section are lessons on a wide selection of poetry. Each lesson has the original text with Korean grammatical markers called Hyeonto (懸吐, 현토), a Korean translation, annotations about some of the words used in the original text, biographical information about the poet, and historical context.

All the poems are pentasyllabic (五言, 오언) or heptasyllabic (七言, 칠언), either of the Recent Style or Archaic Style (古體詩, 고체시). Approximately three-fourths are from Korean poets, most of whom are from the Chosun Dynasty period (朝鮮, 조선, 1392-1905), but a few from the Three Kingdoms Period (三國時代, 삼국시대, 57BC-668AD) and Goryeo Dynasty (高麗, 고려, 918-1392), and even some from the Japanese colonial era (日帝强占期, 일제강점기, 1905-1945). Although most of the poets were — not surprisingly — learned Yangban (兩班, 양반) men, many were women, either from courtesans (妓生, 기생) or noblewomen, and commoners (委巷, 위항). As for Chinese poets, almost all are from the Tang Dynasty (唐, 당, 618-907), including the famous Li Bai (李白, 이백, 701-762), Du Fu (杜甫, 두보, 712-770), Bai Juyi (白居易, 백거이, 772-846) and Wang Wei (王維, 왕유, 699-759).

2. Classical Chinese Prose

Hanshiwa Hanmun Iyagi - Prose

The Classical Chinese prose section is in the same format as the poetry section. Roughly seven-eighths of the passages are from Korean authors, the majority of which are from the Chosun Dynasty but a few from the Goryeo Dynasty period and Japanese colonial era. The prose were from a wide variety of subjects. Here is a listing of a few of them:

  • Histories: Samguk Sagi (三國史記, 삼국사기), Samguk Yusa (三國遺史, 삼국유사), Balhaego (渤海考, 발해고), and Dongguk Tonggam (東國通鑑, 동국통감).
  • Children’s texts: Dongmong Seonseup (童蒙先習, 동몽선습), Gyeokmong Yogyeol (擊夢要訣, 격몽요결), Haedong Sohak (海東小學, 해동소학), Monghak Hanmun Chogye (蒙學漢文初階, 몽학한문초계), and Sohak Hanmun Dokbon (小學漢文讀本, 소학한문독본).
  • Novels: Geum’o Shinhwa (金鰲新話, 금오신화), Heosaengjeon (許生傳, 허생전), and Hanmun Chunhyangjeon (漢文春香傳, 한문춘향전).

There were also a number of works from Chinese sources, the majority of which were philosophical texts or histories. The following is a list of some of the texts excerpted:

  • Philosophical texts: Analects (論語, 논어), Mencius (孟子, 맹자), Xunzi (荀子, 순자), Hanfeizi (韓非子, 한비자), Zhuangzi (莊子, 장자), Liezi (列子, 열자), and Elementary Learning (小學, 소학).
  • Histories: Records of the Grand Historian (史記, 사기), Records of the Three Kingdoms (三國志, 삼국지), Book of Later Han (後漢書, 후한서), Lü’s Annals of Spring and Autumn (呂氏春秋, 여씨춘추), and Eighteen Concise Histories (十八史略, 십팔사략).


As someone who learned the Classical Chinese through Korean but outside the Korean education system, I am not too familiar on all the details of Classical Chinese education back in Korea. I do hope this that this book review gave some insight. Assuming that this book is representative of how students learn the language, I do have a few comments. It is understandable that the vast majority of the works cited are from Korean sources, because it is after all Korea. It was quite delightful to see early modern era sources. The other resources I have often cite Korean sources, but not to this degree; they vary anywhere between almost none to two-thirds roughly. For the poetry section, conspicuously missing are poems that are neither heptasyllabic nor pentasyllabic. It might be more beneficial to have a few Chu Songs (楚辭, 초사) or quadsyllabic poems (四言, 사언) in the style of the Classic of Poetry (詩經, 시경). Another beneficial addition would be to have more grammar lessons. An understanding of grammar is not only standard for learning any language, but necessary for its quick comprehension.

  1. Question: In the second picture (of the prose section), what is the function of the Korean words inserted between the Chinese? I don’t know any Korean, but I could still understand (more or less) the Chinese without knowing the function/meaning of the Korean.

    About the missing Chu songs and quad-syllabic poems, I think there is actually a good reason that most anthologies or books of this type, which are aimed at a general audience, forgo including these poems. The vocabulary and even the grammar of the Chu Songs and the Classic of Poetry is archaic and many obscure characters are used. Most later authors who occasionally wrote in these styles usually deliberately imitated this archaism. The quad-syllabic poems of 曹操 and 阮籍 are a notable exception, and I agree that modern publications, considering the ease of access which researchers have to an enormous variety of authors and works, would do well to step beyond the usual selections of Tang poetry.

    • 歸源 said:

      The Korean words inserted between the Chinese is called Hyeonto (懸吐, 현토). They are to demarcate the grammatical/semantic function of each phrase or word, and lessen ambiguity. You can think of plenty of Classical Chinese phrases that are in the form AB, where possible interpretations are “A and B” or “A then B.” Inserting Korean grammatical particles can help. I think of them as “training wheels.”

      There are some quadsyllabic poems that are fairly easy to read. Anyone in Korea who’s read 四字小學(사자소학) has read the poem that “父兮生我 母兮鞠我,” which originates from the Classic of Poetry. I was somewhat surprised to see that the vast majority of poems from Chinese sources were from the Tang Dynasty. I have other Korean books with selections of Chinese poems that have poems from the Tang to the Qing.

      • Thank you for explaining the function of the Korean words.

        I do agree that there is no shortage of non-近體詩 poems that are basic enough to be included in an anthology or reader like the one in this review. I wouldn’t mind focusing on the Tang dynasty for selections of 詩, but I would prefer that the authors choose from works outside the more common anthologies like 唐詩三百首 and 千家詩. As always, I think that a sampling of 詞 from various dynasties always adds some variety to a good anthology.

  2. On an unrelated note, in the sample picture from the text the poem that is shown is classified as a 绝句 poem. 海, 灰, 来 are marked as the rhyming words. 海 however is 仄 character, and doesn’t count as a rhyme with the other words in 近體詩. Looking at the individual lines, the tones of the characters are identical in lines 1 and 2, and lines 3 and 4 do not match with the tonal rules for a 绝句 in 近體詩. Taking into account other poems by 韓龍雲 that you’ve posted on this blog, it seems that these poems are conceived as 绝句 in the 近體詩 style (not 古風) but with Sino-Korean pronunciation in mind, hence the allowance of rhyming between 仄 and 平 characters and the disregard of tonal regulations. What is your opinion?

    • 歸源 said:

      I did notice a few mistakes in the book regarding classification. I think it should be 七言古體詩. I noticed that the third line is 仄平平仄仄仄仄. There was another poem in the book mistakenly classified a 絶句 as a 古體詩. I believe it was mistakenly classified, because it used a somewhat obscure exception. I’ve read elsewhere that very few Korean universities that have Classical Chinese programs teach Classical Chinese poetry in that much depth.

      • The reason I am hesitant to classify this poem as a 七言古體詩 is because I think the purpose of 古體詩 is to imitate the ancient style (古風) which therefore usually leads to the avoidance of four and eight-line seven character poems, tonal regularity, and strict parallelism between predetermined lines. At the same time, I do agree with you that classifying this as a standard 近體詩 doesn’t make much sense. Aside from the breaking of tonal regulations within the line, the poem also violates basic aesthetic guidelines central to 近體詩 , such as avoiding 孤韻 for the first/last three characters of the line. My inclination (based on my own limited reading of Chinese poetry by Korean authors) was to suggest that this could be sort of a 變體 of 近體詩 indigenous to Korea. Since Korean doesn’t preserve the tones of the Chinese words, things like tonal regulation and 孤韻 are really meaningless, thus opening the room for poetry like the poem featured here (which are aesthetic nightmares when judged by 近體詩 standards, but otherwise are quite nice when looked at from outside this viewpoint).

        Since Vietnamese is also a tonal language, all sorts of 近體詩 and even 詞 can be easily employed when writing poetry in Vietnamese. Nevertheless, in previous centuries several forms of 變體 of 近體詩 were popular when writing in Vietnamese (for example, replacing several of the seven-character lines with six-character lines). I’m wondering if something vaguely similar could describe this poetry.

      • 歸源 said:

        Most Korean poems do follow the 律詩/絶句 rules pretty closely. Some today still attempt to add tones when reciting. Therefore, the concept of tones isn’t completely foreign. Even this book mentioned it in the explanations. I am under the impression that any poem that doesn’t fall under 近體詩 is just categorized as 古體詩. I am not familiar with the latter category as much to comment.

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