An Overview of Classical Chinese Poetry of Korean Independence Activists



Whenever I mention that one of my hobbies is to read Classical Chinese texts (漢文, 한문) to other Koreans, their first reaction is astonishment that a Gyopo (Korean-American) would and could endeavor such a task. Their second reaction is their opinions on the role of Classical Chinese in Korean culture and history, and they can vary from positive to extremely negative. First, towards the positive end, the opinions are one of great appreciation in the language’s role in just about everything in Korean history from art to philosophy. Then, those who hold a somewhat positive view reluctantly acknowledging its position in Korean history and accepting that Sino-Korean words comprise a substantial portion of the Korean vocabulary. Lastly, toward the extremely negative end, the opinions are those of derision, disparaging Classical Chinese as foreign and elitist, and thus “less” Korean.

Unfortunately, it has been those who hold this last position that are the most vociferous and rancorous. For a people whose flag is laden with symbols that originate from China, namely the blue-red Yin and Yang (靑紅陰陽, 청홍음양) and the four tetragrams (乾坤坎離, 건곤감리), I have found such views utterly baffling. While the desire to appear independent from China is certainly understandable, this view jettisons a significant and important part of the Korean cultural patrimony. To overcome their hostility, I have found it very helpful to show them the Classical Chinese writing of Korean independence activists. This undermines the notion that Classical Chinese is a “threat” to Korean identity. In this blog post, I will first walk through where such views concerning Classical Chinese originate, then demonstrate that widespread knowledge of Classical Chinese was more recent than many believe, and finally exhibit the Classical Chinese writings of Korean independence activists.

The Hangul Narrative

Dongguk Jeongun

The Proper Rimes of the Eastern Country (東國正韻, 동국정운). Published in 1448, it was a Chinese Character dictionary, and one of the first works using Hangul.

The extremely negative view originates from the following narrative concerning Hangul (한글) that is held by most Koreans today. The story goes that Koreans originally used Chinese characters and Classical Chinese to write. Commoners found the script too difficult to learn. Finally, in the 15th century, King Sejong (世宗, 세종, 1397-1450, r. 1418-1450) created the Hangul, intending to entirely replace Chinese characters with his new alphabet. The haughty aristocracy, however, continued to use Chinese characters and purposefully kept commoners illiterate until the 19th century when reformers finally overthrew the script and declared Hangul the national script. (Other versions of the narrative have that Koreans suddenly stopped using Chinese characters after Hangul was promulgated.)

Though King Sejong’s creation of Hangul is undeniably a watershed moment in Korean history, there are several issues with this narrative. The most problematic is the claim that King Sejong created the script to entirely replace Chinese characters. While in The Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the People (訓民正音, 훈민정음) the King explicitly states that Hangul was created for commoners, he did not intend to supplant Chinese characters, but supplement them. It can be readily recognized that Hangul was designed to transcribe the pronunciation of Chinese characters. Each block of Hangul represents one syllable, and can correspond to the pronunciation of one Chinese character (e.g., 韓 for 한). Most strikingly, the original script provided for consonants and vowels that were never present in Korean, but in Chinese vernacular dialects. As for its application, one of the first uses of Hangul was to teach – or if one takes a cynical view, propagandize – the Korean populace with Confucian tenets. Many of the earliest works in Hangul are Confucian classics with parallel Classical Chinese and vernacular translations in Hangul, some of them in mixed script.

Widespread Knowledge of Classical Chinese in Early 20th Century Korea

Kyunghyangshinmun March 23 1959

Classical Chinese poetry submission section in the March 23, 1959 edition of the Kyunghyang Shinmun (京鄕新聞, 경향신문).

Another issue with the narrative is that Classical Chinese did not all of the sudden die out in the late 19th – or 15th – century. This misconception has probably been fed by the fact that most Koreans especially of the younger generation today are primarily exposed to Classical Chinese through period dramas (史劇, 사극), where court scholars in traditional Hanbok garb are seen occasionally reciting Chinese classics. In reality, the widespread knowledge of the language is much more recent than is widely believed. Classical Chinese was very well alive in the former half of the 20th century in Korea. (I would not be surprised if it were shown that Classical Chinese literacy had actually peaked during this time period.) Many new Classical Chinese works were written during this period:

  • A number of Classical Chinese translations of the folk story Tale of Chunhyang (春香傳, 춘향전) were published during the Japanese colonial period (1905-1945). Translations of other folk tales as well as wholly new novels also came out during the same period.
  • The last Korean head of state with a Classical Chinese poetry collection is not Emperor Gojong (高宗, 고종, 1852-1919, r. 1863-1907) or Emperor Sunjong (純宗, 순종, 1874-1926, r. 1907-1910), but President Rhee Syngman (李承晩, 이승만, 1875-1965), the first President of South Korea. (North Korean leader Kim Ilsung (金日成, 김일성, 1912-1994) also wrote at least one poem.)
  • Korean newspapers regularly printed Classical Chinese poetry submission sections well into the latter half of the 20th century. The newspaper clip above is a poem composed by Korean National Assembly member Jeong Jaewan (鄭在浣, 정재완, 1900-1967?), expressing his scorn for other assembly members’ avarice.
  • Family clans to this day continue to publish their genealogical records with new material in Classical Chinese.

Classical Chinese of the Korean Independence Activists


In tandem with this widespread knowledge, Korean independence activists not only looked back to Classical Chinese writings from previous generations for inspiration, but also composed new, original texts to describe their desire for an independent Korea liberated from Japanese rule. Note that Japan made Korea a protectorate in 1905 and annexed it in 1910.

A Turn to the Past for Inspiration

Certain poems by Chosun dynasty figures who lived in other turbulent times in Korea’s history became popular. The poem below is by Hyujeong Seosandaesa (休靜 西山大師, 휴정 서산대사, 1520-1604), a Buddhist monk and a leader of an irregular army (義兵, 의병) who fought against the Japanese during the Japanese Invasions of 1592-1598 (壬辰倭亂, 임진왜란). Kim Gu (金九, 김구, 1876-1949), who is known by almost every Korean schoolchild as the father of the Korean independence movement, loved reciting Classical Chinese poems and regarded Hyujeong’s poem as his favorite. One story states that he recited the poem as he crossed the 38th Parallel into North Korea to meet with a delegates of the Workers’ Party in Pyongyang.

踏雪野中去 답설야중거
不須胡亂行 불수호란행
今日我行蹟 금일아행적
遂作後人程 수작후인정

Stepping upon the snow in the middle of a field, I depart.
I ought to not haphazardly and recklessly travel:
The footprints of my travel today
In the end will become mileposts for those after.

Another poem that became well-liked is the poem below by Kwon Pil (權韠, 권필, 1569-1612), who also had lived during the 16th century Japanese Invasions of Korea. Although well-educated, he chose not enter into government office, but became a poet lampooning the state of affairs during his time. This poem is of a form known as “bird-crow” poetry (禽言體, 금언체). The word 布穀(포곡), pronounced pogok, which is repeated throughout the poem, is an onomatopoeia for the sound “cuckoo,” or Bbeogugi (뻐구기) in Korean. Literally, it means “to sow seeds.” To the Korean independence activists, the word became reinterpreted as “Restore the nation,” because it sounds similar to the word Bokguk (復國, 복국).

布穀布穀 포곡포곡
布穀聲中春意足 포곡성중춘의족
健兒南征村巷空 건아남정총항공
落日唯聞寡妻哭 락일유문과처곡
布穀啼誰布穀 포곡제수포곡
田園茫茫煙草綠 전원망망연초연

Sow the seeds! Sow the seeds!
Amidst the sounds of sowing the seeds, the spring’s resolve is at its completest.
A vigorous child campaigns southward; the village’s streets are empty.
The setting sun only hears the widow’s wails.
Singing “Sow the seeds!” who will sow the seeds?
The paddies and gardens are wide and vast; the field of grass is green.

Poets of the Korean Independence Movement

Many Korean independence activists were also literate in Classical Chinese and composed their own works in the script. A lot of them had been educated in Confucian village schools (書堂 서당). These schools had played such an important role in fomenting patriotic sentiment that the Japanese colonial administration started heavily restricting their activities in 1918, and had effectively closed all of them by 1930. The remainder of this post will cover the poems of Ahn Junggeun, Yun Bonggil, Hwang Hyeon, and Kim Taekyeong. The first two are so well known that they are household names in Korea.

Ahn Junggeun (安重根, 안중근, 1879-1910)

Ahn Junggeun is renowned for his feat of assassinating Ito Hirobumi (伊藤博文, 1864-1909), the first resident general of the Japanese colonial administration in Korea. He is perhaps the most famous Korean independence activist today. What many Koreans today do not know, however, is his aptitude in Classical Chinese. Ahn Junggeun had studied Chinese classics in a Confucian village school run by his father, and by the age of 10 had not only read the Four Books and Five Classics of Confucianism (四書五經, 사서오경), but also a few of the volumes in the 294 volume tome Comprehensive Mirror to Aid Government (資治通鑑, 자치통감). While he awaited execution in jail, he composed much of his last thoughts in the language. Ahn Junggeun wrote many pieces of calligraphy, an essay titled Peace in East Asia (東洋平和論, 동양평화론), and his entire autobiography (安重根義士自敍傳, 안중근의사자서전) all in Classical Chinese. The poem below is from one of his pieces of calligraphy:

東洋大勢思杳玄 동양대세사묘현
有志男兒豈安眠 유지남아기안면
和局未成猶慷慨 화국미성유강개
政略不改眞可憐 정략불개진가련

Concerning the grand scheme in East Asia, I have pondered extensively and profusely.
Having the will, how can a man tranquilly sleep?
Since a peaceful state of affairs has not yet been achieved, I am still indignant and incensed.
Political tactics have not changed; it is truly pitiful.

Yun Bonggil (尹奉吉, 윤봉길, 1908-1932)

Yun Bonggil is best known for lobbing a lunchbox bomb at a group of Japanese officials gathered at Hongkou Park (虹口公園, 홍구공원) in Shanghai (上海, 상해) for the celebration of the Japanese Emperor’s birthday. The attack killed Yoshinori Shirakawa (白川義則, 1869-1932), a Japanese general who had lead the Imperial Army in capturing the city earlier that year, and injured several others. (Soldiers of the army that the general lead would later partake in the Nanjing Massacre.) He is perhaps the second most famous Korean independence activist after Ahn Junggeun. Again, what most Koreans do not know about him is his high proficiency of Classical Chinese. After the March 1st Movement in 1919, he left a Japanese-run public school for a Confucian village school, where he studied Chinese classics. By the time he was executed by firing squad in 1932 at the young age of 24, Yun Bonggil had written over 300 Classical Chinese poems, including the one below:

路上有感唫 노상유감음

Recitation on Thoughts While on the Road

野禾半熟碧黃連 야화반숙벽황련
爭啄群禽盡向前 쟁탁군금진향전
西風忽捲千峯雨 서풍홀권천봉우
午熱猶蒸萬巷烟 오열유증만항연
最恨索租添白地 최한삭조첨백지
那能絶粒上靑天 나능절립상청천
眼看山川多奇麗 안간산천다기려
邦基回泰理將然 방기회태리장연

The rice on the field are half-ripe, interspersed with green and yellow.
Fighting and pecking, a group of birds all face forward.
The west wind suddenly breaks the rain from the thousand peaks;
The noon heat still swelters the smoke of ten-thousand hamlets.
Most resentful are the straws and unhusked grains added upon the white grounds;
How can a severed grain rise up to the blue skies?
My eyes see mountains and streams, with much awe and beauty.
This country’s foundations shall return to grandeur surely in the future!

  • 白地(백지) – Literally “white grounds.” Refers to land unsuitable for farming.

Hwang Hyeon (黃玹, 황현, 1855-1910)

Though Hwang Hyeon is not as well-known as Ahn Junggeun or Yun Bonggil, his contributions to the Korean independence movement are just as significant. In particular, he chronicled various events and opined on the roles of various figures leading to the loss of Korean independence. (On a related note, he was adamantly against the abolition of Classical Chinese as the official script.) Hwang Hyeon was a great scholar of Chinese classics, and is considered one of the Four Great Masters (四大家, 사대가) of Classical Chinese in the late Chosun dynasty period (舊韓末, 구한말). Many of his poems make allusions to not only Korean history, but also Chinese history. It should be noted that Korea had never been entirely stripped of its independence prior to the Japanese annexation. In contrast, China had been wholly subjugated by foreign powers multiple times in its history, such as the Turks, Jurchens, Mongols, and the Manchus. Because of this, Hwang Hyeon and other poets of this era looked to Chinese history to draw parallels to what was transpiring in Korea. This is evident in the poem below:

絶命詩 절명시

Suicide Poem (third and fourth verses)

鳥獸哀鳴海岳嚬 조금애명해악빈
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.
The autumn lamp hides the volumes encompassing thousands of ancients.
Difficult it is to make mankind into literate men.

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

Earlier, I did not support the house with even half a rafter’s merit.
I have only achieved benevolence, but not loyalty.
Ending my will, 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).

  • Yun Gok and Jin Dong both refer to figures from the Song dynasty (宋, 송, 960-1279) 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 Emperor that General Li Gang (李綱, 이강, 1083-1140) should be spared and that his disloyal ministers should be all sentenced to death. In the end, however, he was sentenced to death by beheading.

Kim Taekyeong (金澤榮, 김택영, 1850-1927)

Kim Taekyeong was also a scholar of Classical Chinese, another of the Four Great Masters of the late Chosun dynasty period and a friend of Hwang Hyeon (the other two had passed away before the 20th century). In response to the Eulsa Treaty (乙巳條約, 을사조약) in 1905, which made Korea a protectorate of Japan, he took his family and fled to Nantong (南通, 남통) in China. There, Kim Taekyeong became acquainted with many Chinese reformers and started working at a publication company, where he published works by other Korean independence activists – including Hwang Hyeon’s – and compiled books on Korean history and Korean Classical Chinese literature. He was also a skilled poet, and particularly enjoyed composing in a form of poetry called Songs of Chu (楚辭, 초사). This form is marked by the character 兮(혜) in the middle of every line, and is attributed to Qu Yuan (屈原, 굴원, 343-278BC), a Chinese poet and official who committed suicide by drowning in the Miluo River (汨羅江, 멱라강) after having learned that the State of Chu (楚, 초) had capitulated. Kim Taekyong was so renowned for his Songs of Chu poetry that Chinese intellectuals called him the “Korean Qu Yuan” (韓國屈原, 한국굴원). The most famous of his poems is the Song of Lamentation (嗚呼賦, 오호부), in which he expresses his grief over loss of Korean independence:

嗚呼賦 오호부

Song of Lamentation (last two verses)

光化之鐘兮, 何人于夕
광화지종혜, 하인우석
箕子之神兮, 何族于食
기자지신혜, 하족우식
嗚呼! 哀哉! 已矣兮
오호! 애재! 이의혜

O, the bells of Gwanghwamun (光化門, 광화문), what person will toll it at night?
O, the ancestral tablet of Gija (箕子, 기자), what people will offer oblations of food?
Alas, how sad the situation is! It is all over!
How have we not spirits and have we not Heaven?

  • Gwanghwamun (光化門, 광화문) – Literally, “Gate of Enlightenment.” Refers to the main gate of Gyeongbokgung (景福宮, 경복궁) Palace in Seoul.

獨祖宗之崇儒兮, 其終也得一義士安重根
독조종지숭유혜, 기종야득일의사안중근
彼生氣之凜然兮, 孰云國之盡圮
피생기지름연혜, 숙운국지진비
庶英靈顧我兮, 搴秋蘭以竢乎江之涘
서영령고아혜, 건추란이사호간지애

O, only our ancestors revered Confucianism!
In the end, we received a righteous man, Ahn Junggeun.
O, his vivacity was dashing and gallant!
Who will say that our country is totally lost?
Several heroic souls gaze back at us.
Pluck an autumn orchid and wait at the banks of the river.


In one of the most calamitous periods in Korean history, many Korean independence activists not only looked back to Classical Chinese writings from previous generations, but also expressed their desire for a liberated Korea in the same script. In this blog post, I only have listed four poets; there are many, many more. Although they certainly were free to write in Hangul (and many did), these independence activists intentionally composed in Classical Chinese to preserve and continue this part of the Korean cultural heritage. With this in mind, I do not think Koreans should continue to shy away from this aspect of Korean culture and history.

More Reading (in Korean)


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