An Overview of the Poets of the Hamlets and Streets – Classical Chinese Poetry of the Lower Classes of Chosun

Kimhongdo - Hunjang

In Kim Hongdo’s (金弘道, 김홍도, 1745-1806?) famous painting of a Confucian private school, children of lower class (left row) and gentry families (right row) are seen seated in the same room.


All over the world, literacy historically has been associated with the elite. This was also true in Korea. For much of its history, the written language used was Classical Chinese (漢文, 한문) and those who knew how to read and write were mostly male members of the gentry. This started changing during the Chosun Dynasty (朝鮮, 조선, 1392-1910). As many know, with regards to the script, King Sejong (世宗, 세종, 1397-1450, r. 1418-1450) attempted to bring literacy — and more importantly, Confucianism — to the lower classes by promulgating Hangul (한글). The new alphabet first caught on among gentry women, some of whom already literate in Classical Chinese, and gradually proliferated to members of the lower classes. Classical Chinese also had begun to take root as well.

Beginning in the 18th century, as Chosun’s economy became relatively wealthier, the lower classes, who previously had to devote most of their time to backbreaking manual labor, had the time to devote to other activities. They now had the opportunity to gather and listen to traveling bands of dancers and musicians playing pansori (판소리) and storytellers (傳奇叟, 전기수) reading from novels written in the vernacular. A number of them also had the opportunity to partake in Chosun’s high culture. Lower class families enrolled their children in Confucian private schools (書堂, 서당) to learn Chinese classics. Some even started forming poetry societies (詩社, 시사) to compose Classical Chinese poetry (漢詩, 한시) together.

Chosun’s Non-Gentry Poets and Poetry Societies

The Classical Chinese composed by of the lower classes is collectively called Yeohang Munhak (閭巷文學, 여항문학), or “Literature of the Hamlets and Streets.” There were four classes in Chosun Dynasty’s social order (身分制度, 신분제도): (1) the gentry Yangban (兩班, 양반), (2) skilled middle class (中人, 중인), (3) freed commoner class (良民, 양민 or 常民, 상민), and (4) vulgar class (賤民, 천민), of which slaves (奴婢, 노비) were a part. The last three comprised of the lower classes. (It should be noted that unlike China, which had abolished hereditary slavery fairly early in its history, Korean slavery was largely a hereditary system until its abolition in the mid 19th century. In addition, by the 18th and 19th centuries, many members of gentry families had fallen destitute (殘班, 잔반) and became indistinguishable from commoners.) The bulk of the poets from the lower classes were of the skilled middle class, but there were a number of freed commoners and even slaves that participated. They composed poetry on variety of themes, but the most reoccurring subject concerned the lives of the lower classes.

Eo Mujeok (魚無迹, 어무적, late 15th Century)

Eo Mujeok is one of the first poets from the lower classes. His father was of the gentry Yangban class, but his mother was a government maidservant (官婢, 관비). Because of the different statuses of his parents, the laws at the time (從母法, 종모법) dictated that Eo Mujeok be born into the slave status like his mother. His father educated Eo Mujeok and was eventually able to obtain freedman status (免賤, 면천) for him. Eo Mujeok was also able to serve at a very low ranking bureaucratic post for sometime, and often wrote about the toils of those in his former class. He often appealed to Confucianism in critiquing the circumstances of his time, as he does in the poem below.

新曆嘆 신력탄

Lamentation on the New Calendar (Second and fourth verses)

堯舜至今顔尙韶 요순지금안상소
周孔至今頭尙黑 주공지금두상흑
朝聞吁咈土階上 조문우불토계상
暮見絃誦杏壇側 모견현송행단측

Emperors Yao and Shun, even now their faces are still beautiful;
Duke of Zhou and Confucius, even now their heads are still black.
In the morning, they are heard discussing and debating above the earthen steps;
In the evening, they are seen playing and reciting next to the apricot tree grounds.

Yao • Shun • to • now • face • still • beautiful
Zhou • Confucius • to • now • head  • still • black
Morning • to hear • onomatopoeia • onomatopoeia • earth • steps • above
Evening • to see • strings • to recite • apricot tree • ground  • next

  • 新曆嘆(신력탄) – Possible reference to a poem of the same title by Lu You (陸遊, 육유, 1125-1210), a poet of the Southern Song dynasty (南宋, 남송,1127-1279). I am not sure which calendar either poet was referring to. Chosun dynasty used the Ming Dynasty’s Great Concordance Calendar (大統曆, 대통력) and the Yuan Dynasty’s Season-Granting Calendar (授時曆, 수시력) until the 17th century, well after Eo Mujeok’s time, when it adopted the Qing Dynasty’s Time Conformity Calendar (時憲暦, 시헌력). There was research into the Islamic calendar system during King Sejong’s reign, but this predates the poem. Eo Mujeok could be simply referring to the confusion over the calendars, as there were two in use. In Lu You’s lifetime, the Southern Song dynasty promulgated seven different calendars.
  • 堯舜(요순) – Refers to the legendary Chinese emperors, who are considered model rulers in Confucianism.
  • 周(주) – Refers to Duke of Zhou (周公, 주공), another model ruler in Confucianism. He is also credited with compiling the Book of Changes (易經, 역경).
  • 吁咈(우불) – Sound of speaking or discussing.

聊與萬民同醉眠 료여만민동취면
嗚嗚共唱康衢曲 오오공창강구곡
却勸紫皇詔太史 각권자황조태사
萬萬年來一改曆 만만년래일개력

Somehow ten-thousand people altogether become inebriated and fall asleep.
O, alas! O, alas! Together they sing the tunes of wide-open streets.
All the more, they instruct the purple emperor and lead the great historian.
Ten-thousand, ten-thousand years will come; only once will they fix the calendar!

Somehow • with • ten thousand • people • together • to be drunk • to sleep
Alas • alas • together • to sing • wide • road • tune
All the more • to command • purple • emperor • to advise • great • history
Ten thousand • ten thousand • year • to come • once • to fix • calendar

  • 紫皇(자황) – Refers to the Jade Emperor (玉皇上帝, 옥황상제), a deity in Taoism.
  • 太史(태사) – Refers to a literati bureaucratic office in charge of maintaining historical records.

Pak Gyegang (朴繼姜, 박계강, 16th Century)

Sixteenth century Chosun saw the first non-gentry poetry society, the Followers of the Fragrance of the Moon and Wind (風月香徒, 풍월향도). The society was headed by lead poets Yu Heuigyeong (劉希慶, 유희경, 1545-1636), who was originally a slave but later elevated to a high ranking bureaucrat, and Baek Daebung (白大鵬, 백대붕, ?-1592), who remained a slave till his death during the Japanese invasions (壬辰倭亂, 임진왜란, 1592-1598). It met at a bolder near Dobong Mountain (道峰山, 도봉산), a mountain just north of Seoul. One of the society’s first listed poets in its published poetry collection was Pak Gyegang. Not much is known about him, other than that he was from an affluent commoner family. He is said to have been illiterate until the age of 40, when he was humiliated by a Buddhist monk because of his illiteracy. Pak Gyegang then resolved to learn how to read Classical Chinese, and became proficient enough to write poems. (On another note, it is never too late to learn the language.)

贈人 증인

Presented to Another

花落知春暮 화락지춘모
樽空覺酒無 준공각주무
光陰催白髮 광음최백발
莫惜典衣沽 막석전의고

The fallen flowers know the end of spring;
The empty casks sense the lack of wine.
Light and darkness hastens whitening of hair.
Do not regret pawning your clothes for buying wine.

Flowers • to fall • to know • spring • to set
Wine casks • empty • to sense • wine • to lack
Light • dark • to hasten • white • hair
Not • to regret • to pawn • clothes • to trade (for wine)

  • 光陰(광음) – Literally means “light and darkness.” Refers to time.

Hong Setae (洪世泰, 홍세태, 1653-1725)

The successor to the Followers of the Fragrance of the Moon and Wind society was the Naksa Poetry Society (洛社詩社, 낙사시사), which was named after a famous poetry society in Song Dynasty China that met at Luoyang (洛陽, 낙양). Most of the members of this society were of the skilled middle class. It was headed by Im Junweon (林俊元, 임준원, ?-1697), a petty clerk(胥吏, 서리), and its members met at various scenic places to compose poetry. One of its most famous poets was Hong Setae. Like Eo Mujeok, his father was of the gentry class but his mother was a slave, and the laws dictated that Hong Setae be born with slave status like his mother. Eventually, he was freed and worked as a petty clerk and then was awarded a low ranking bureaucratic position. His Classical Chinese poetry was known not only in Chosun, but also in Qing Dynasty China and in Japan. Hong Setae often wrote often about the plight of those in the lower classes.

詠貧士 영빈사

A Recitation on a Poor Scholar

荒荒霜下竹 歲暮練實稀
황황상하죽 세모련실희
上有孤鳳雛 文章被其衣
상유고봉추 문장피기의

Bleak and desolate, the frost falls on the bamboo tree.
As the year grows old, ripe fruit are few.
Above, there is a lonely phoenix birdling.
Its insignia covers its clothing.

Bleak • bleak • frost • to fall  • bamboo
Year • to set • to ripen • fruit • few
Above • to exist • lonely • phoenix • child
Writing • sentence • to wear • third-person pronoun • clothing

如何步塵區 謂言君德輝
여하보진구 위언군덕휘
北風吹羽翼 啾啾忍朝饑
북풍취우익 추추인조기

Why do you walk in the dusty lands,
And deem your virtue shining?
The northern winds blows over the wings’ feathers.
Murmuring and whispering, it endures the morning hunger.

Like • which • to walk • dust • region
To call • to say • you • virtue • to shine
Northern • wind • to blow • feathers • wing
To murmur • to murmur • to endure • morning • hunger

鴟鳶得腐鼠 仰視嚇且譏
저연득부서 앙시하차기
食少心則潔 食多身則肥
식소심즉결 식다신즉비

The owl and kite acquire a rotten mouse.
Gazing up, they laugh and ridicule.
When there is little food, the mind is pure;
When there is much food, the body is fat.

Owlet • kite • to obtain • rotting • mouse
To gaze up • to look • to laugh • and • to ridicule
Food • little • heart • then • pure
Food • many • body • then • fat

秉志旣不同 知命復何希
병지기불동 지명부하희
去矣天路永 千仞起高飛
거의천로영 천인기고비

Since their wills are already not the same,
Knowing the mandate, again how do they hope?
Depart! Forever on heaven’s road.
Upon a thousand paths, arise and fly high.

To capture • wills • already • not • to be same
To know • mandate • again • what • to hope
To leave • sentence terminal • heaven • road • forever
Thousand • paths • to arise • high • to fly

  • 知命(지명) – Literally “to know the mandate.” Refers to a famous passage in Analects (論語, 논어), Wei Zheng (爲政, 위정):

子曰: 吾十有五而志于學, 三十而立, 四十而不惑, 五十而知天命, 六十而耳順, 七十而從心所欲, 不踰矩.
자왈: 오십유오이지우학, 삼십이립, 사십이불혹, 오십이지천명, 륙십이이순, 칠십이종신소욕, 불유거.

The Master said, “At fifteen, I had my mind bent on learning. At thirty, I stood firm. At forty, I had no doubts. At fifty, I knew the decrees of Heaven. At sixty, my ear was an obedient organ for the reception of truth. At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right.”

(Translation by James Legge)

Cho Susam (趙秀三, 조수삼, 1762-1849)

Songseokweon Shisa

Kim Hongdo’s Painting of a Soiree of the Pine Grove Stone Garden Poetry Society (松石園詩社夜宴圖, 송석원시사야연도).

The next non-gentry poetry society was the Pine Grove Stone Poetry Society (松石園詩社, 송석원시사). It was headed by Cheon Sugyeong (千壽慶, 천수경, ?-1818), who was born into a poor family, was educated in Chinese classics, and eventually became a teacher of Classical Chinese himself, instructing those of the lower classes. The society’s members met in what is now Ok’indong (玉仁洞, 옥인동) at the base on Mount Inwang (仁王山, 인왕산). The society attracted a large number of members, and held a national poetry contest (白戰, 백전) twice a year. Even Prince Heungseon (興宣大院君, 흥선대원군, 1820-1898) made an appearance at the society’s meeting once. One of its lead poets was Cho Susam (趙秀三, 조수삼, 1762-1849), who came from a skilled middle class family. Despite his non-gentry background, he was able to take the the civil service examination (科擧, 과거) and passed it at the age of 83. Cho Susam enjoyed travelling very much: he visited China on six occasions, and Pyeong’an (平安道, 평안도), Hamgyeong (咸鏡道, 함경도), and Gyeongsang (慶尙道, 경상도) Provinces once each. The following is one from a series of poems that he composed during his visit of Hamgyeong Province.

北行百絶 북행백절 (其七 기칠)

One Hundred Poems on Travels in the North (7th Verse)

舂白趁虛市 용백진허시
殺靑充夜餐 살청충야찬
麥嶺斯難過 맥령사난과
如何又麥灘 여하우맥탄

Ripping the white, they go out to an empty market;
Erasing the blue (殺靑, 살청), they fill their nightly meal.
The barley hump (麥嶺, 맥령); this is difficult to pass by.
How can they again cross the barley rapids (麥灘, 맥탄)?

To rip • white • to proceed • empty • market
To erase • blue • to fill • night • meal
Barley • hump • this • difficult • to pass
Like • how • again • barley • rapids

每歲麥熟之時, 民食甚艱. 故謂之麥嶺, 言其難過也.
매세맥숙지시, 민식심탄, 고위지맥령, 언기난과야.

Every year, when the barley becomes ripe, the people’s food supply is very meager. Therefore, they call it “the barley hump” (보릿고개). This is to say that it is difficult to pass.

  • 麥嶺(맥령) – Seems to be a translation of the word “barley hill” or boritgogae (보릿고개), which is a word referring to a period of famine.

熟者舂而賣之市, 未熟者擣而炊之, 謂之殺靑.
숙자용이매지시, 미숙자도이취지, 위지살청. 

If it is ripe, they are cut and sold in the market. If unripe, they are cut and cooked by fire. This is called “erasing the blue” (殺靑, 살청).

Jeong Chobu (鄭樵夫, 정초부, 1714-1789)

Another poet that lived somewhat contemporaneously to Cho Susam was Jeong Chobu. Unlike most of the other poets who were originally of slave status, both his father and mother were slaves. 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. There, Jeong Chobu worked in a household belonging to members of the Hamyang Yeo Clan (咸陽呂氏, 함양여씨) as a woodcutter slave, and hence his name. From an early age, his original master 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 and friend. Recognizing his talent, Yeo Chunyeong distributed Jeong Chobu’s poetry around Seoul. Soon, he was composing Classical Chinese poetry shoulder to shoulder with some of the elite of the Chosun dynasty. Yeo Chunyeong also realized the injustice of Jeong Chobu’s situation and eventually manumitted by burning his slave documents. Even then, Jeong Chobu lived a rather squalid life, as he notes in his poem below.

山禽舊識山人面 산금구식산인면
郡藉今無野老名 군적금무야로명
一粒難分太倉粟 일랍난분태창속
江樓獨倚暮烟生 강루독의모연생

The mountain’s birds for long have recognized the mountain person’s face;
The bureaucratic office’s records today lack this countryside old man’s name.
Even for one seed of grain, it is difficult for them to share the large silo’s unhusked grain.
As I lean alone on the riverside loft, an evening smoke rises.

Mountain • birds • old • to recognize • mountain • person • face
District • records • today • to lack • countryside • old man • name
One • grain • difficult • to divide • large • storage • unhusked grain
River • loft • alone • to lean • evening • smoke • to form

  • 郡藉(군적) – Refers to the bureaucratic office in charge of records. It also distributed rice as aid to people who were recorded in the register that were in need of food. Since Jeong Chobu was freed, he was no longer on the register.

Jang Jiwan (張之琬, 장지완, 1806-?)

The 19th century saw a few poetry societies. One of them was the Biyeon Poetry Society (斐然詩社, 비연시사), named after the pen name (號, 호) of its leader, Jang Jiwan. The society consisted mostly members of the skilled middle class, and gathered at various scenic locations to write poetry. They were also actively involved in a movement to open up higher ranks of the Chosun bureaucracy to middle class (通淸運動, 통청운동), and in 1851 wrote a petition to the king asking him to do so. Their poems also on similar themes as the other non-gentry poetry societies, and described the lives of commoners. In the poem below, Jang Jiwan describes the modesty of women in a village in southern Gyeonggi Province (京畿道, 경기도).

南甸道中記見 남전도중기견

Recording What I Saw South of the Capital Province

山木蒼蒼鷄犬鳴 산목창창계견명
拄笻斜日問前程 주공사일문전정
村中少女太羞澁 촌중소녀태수삽
半掩紅裙背面行 반엄홍군배면행

The trees on the mountain are lush and thick; the rooster and the dogs make noise.
Being propped by a cane, as the sun wanes, I inquire about the mileposts ahead.
At the village, the young woman is very uncomfortable and uneasy:
With her half-covered red skirt, she turns to her back and goes about.

Mountain • tree • thick • thick • rooster • dog • to sing
To prop • cane • to wane • sun • to ask • ahead • mileposts
Village • middle • young • woman • very • uncomfortable • uneasy
Half • to cover • red • skirt • to turn back • to face • to go

  • 南甸道(남전도) – Refers to being south of Seoul.

Gang Wi (姜瑋, 강위, 1820-1884)

Another poetry society was the Sixth Bridge Poetry Society (六橋詩社, 육교시사). Its members were centered around Gwanggyo (廣橋, 광교), the sixth bridge on Cheonggyecheon (淸溪川, 청계천). In the late 19th century Seoul, it was an area resided by doctors and translators, professions of the skilled middle class. They gathered at one another’s houses to compose poetry. The lead poet was Gang Wi, a Chinese classics scholar and reformer. His lineage was originally of the gentry class, but none of his ancestors had attained any bureaucratic titles since the middle period of the Chosun dynasty. He spent the earlier part of studies toward passing the civil service examination. Gang Wi, however, later decided to devote himself to studying Chinese classics under Min Nohaeng (閔魯行, 민노행, 1782-?), who was a scholar and advocate of the Confucian School of Evidentiary Thought (考證學, 고증학) and was consequently called a heretic (異端, 이단). (This is noted in the poem below.) After having visited China and Japan, he associated himself with Korean reformers and took to their causes. In Korea’s first newspaper, the government-run Hanseong Sunbo (漢城旬報, 한성순보) founded in 1883, he proposed the abolition of special privileges for the gentry, advocated the wider use of the mixed script (國漢文混用, 국한문혼용), and admonished readers about the precarious situation that the country faced. Gang Wi was also active in the Sixth Bridge Poetry Society, which he founded in the late 1870s. The society still met during the early years of the Japanese colonial period (日帝時代, 일제시대, 1905-1945).

老懷有難釋然者, 不已于言
로회유난석연자, 불기우언

Senile Thoughts That Are Difficult to Face, Told Without Stop

聞道苦難早 문도고난조
求師走八紘 구사주팔굉
天姿誠暗劣 천자성암렬
見處未分明 견처미분명
獨願遵詩禮 독원준시례
粗知畏法程 조지외법정
甘心居汚下 감심거오하
難受異端名 난수이단명

To hear the Way (道, 도) has been hard and difficult since when I was young.
In search of a teacher, I have run around in eight directions.
Heaven’s talents truly are absurd and inferior;
What I have seen is not clear or certain.
Alone, I wanted to excel in poetry and propriety;
Roughly, I knew that I should be afraid of its rules and orders.
With a joyous mind, I live in a dirty and low place.
But it is difficult to receive the title of “heretic.”

To hear • Way • painful • difficult • early
To seek • teacher • to run • eight • strings
Heaven • appearance • sincerely • dark • poor
To see • place • not yet • clear • bright
Alone • to want • to follow • poetry • rites
Roughly • to know • to fear • rules • methods
Joyful • heart • to reside • dirty • low
Difficult • to accept • different • end • name

  • 聞道(문도) – Allusion to a famous passage in the Analects (論語, 논어), Li Ren (里仁, 이인):

子曰: 朝聞道夕死可矣.
자왈: 조문도석사가의.

The Master said, “If in the morning I hear the Way, then at the night I will be alright with dying.”

  • 天姿(천자) – Refers to one’s innate characteristics.


Contrary to popular belief, literacy in Classical Chinese was not exclusive to the Yangban gentry. Beginning as early as the late 15th century, Classical Chinese started to proliferate to the lower classes. Many from the lower classes attempted to partake in and appreciate Chosun’s high culture. In doing so, some even railed against the class system as they aspired to join higher ranking bureaucratic positions. Thus, interest in Classical Chinese today should not be dismissed as elitist, as is too often seemingly the case. This post presented just a few of the poets from the lower classes.


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