Hwang Hyeon – Assorted Compositions on the First Full Moon Festival – Offerings for Crows

Short Biography on 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 was born in Gwangyang (光陽, 광양) in South Jeolla Province (全羅南道, 전라남도), and started studying Confucian texts from a young age. In 1870, he married Lady Oh of the Haeju Clan (海州吳氏, 해주오씨, ?-?), with whom he had two sons and one daughter. (Both of his sons also became Confucian scholars and independence activists.) In 1878, Hwang Hyeon moved to Seoul to study under the tutelage of Yi Geonchang (李昌, 이건창, 1852-1898), a Confucian scholar of the Yangming School of Thought (陽明學, 양명학), which was considered heterodox in Korea. In 1888, he passed the civil service examinations (科擧, 과거), but despaired at the corruption of the Chosun government and decided to rusticate soon thereafter to Gurye (求禮, 구례) near his hometown.

In Gurye, Hwang Hyeon established a den named Gu’andang (苟安堂, 구안당), and devoted himself to studying the classics. He also wrote a number of works. His most important works were his chronicles on the turmoil and numerous developments in Korea, which he started writing in 1894 in reaction to the Donghak Peasant Revolt (東學農民運動, 동학농민운동), Gabo Reforms (甲午改革, 갑오개혁), and the First Sino-Japanese War (淸日戰爭, 청일전쟁), all of which occurred that year. His chronicles include the Unofficial Records of Maecheon (梅泉野錄, 매천야록), Records of the Hearsay Under the Paulowonia Tree (梧下紀聞, 오하기문), and Collection of Maecheon’s Writings (集, 매천집). In addition, he composed over 1,000 Classical Chinese poems (漢詩, 한시).

First Sino-Japanese War

Japanese troops marching through the countryside in Korea during the First Sino-Japanese War (淸日戰爭, 청일전쟁) (Source)

Assorted Compositions on the First Full Moon Festival

Sometime during the first months of 1906, Hwang Hyeon wrote Assorted Compositions on the First Full Moon Festival (上元雜詠, 상원잡영). The First Full Moon Festival (正月 大–, 정월대보름 or 上元, 상원) occurs fifteen days after the Lunar New Year, which is on March 5 of this year. Ten heptasyllabic poems in all, they describe various traditional Korean folk customs on this day, covering offering food for crows (祭烏, 제오), giving feed to an ox (飼牛, 사오), drinking wine to gain sharp hearing (治聾, 치롱), selling heat (賣暑, 매서), planting reed flutes (植風竿, 식풍간), building a bridge out of straw thatch (苫橋, 섬교), setting ridges between rice paddies on fire (燒田, 소전), gazing at the full moon (候月, 후월), playing tug-of-war (繂曳, 솔예), and exorcism of evil spirits (罷儺, 파나). The rest of the blog post will focus on the first in this collection, on the custom of offering for crows (祭烏, 제오 or 까마귀 밥주기).

Traditional Korean Folk Custom of Offering Food for Crows

According to this Korean folk custom, farmers would leave out food for crows or magpies as an offering. What food was offered, which day the custom was conducted, and other particulars varied across different regions of Korea. In general, however, the food offered usually included five-grain meal known as Ogokbap (五穀-, 오곡밥) or a concoction with glutinous rice and other herbs known as Yakbap (藥-, 약밥). The custom was typically celebrated on the First Full Moon Festival. The offerings were typically placed either on tree branches or the tops of walls.

Crow Jesa

Offerings for Crows (祭烏, 오제 or 까마귀 밥주기) (Source)

The traditional explanation on the origins of this custom can be found a famous mythical event recorded in the Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms (三國遺史, 삼국유사), a collection of legends from the Three Kingdoms Period in Korean history (三國時代, 삼국시대, 56BC-668AD). More modern explanations state that farmers placed food earlier in the year under the belief that it would prevent birds from eating seeds later in the year during planting season — though certain regions placed the offerings well into the summer. (It should be noted that crows and ravens have fascinated humans for a long time, and appear of the legends in many, if not every, culture throughout the world, not just Korea.)

射琴匣 사금갑

Shooting the Zither Case

第二十一毘處王 (一作炤智王) 即位十年戊辰, 幸於天泉亭.
제이십이비처왕 (일작소지왕) 즉위십년무진, 행어천천정.

The twenty second king, King Bicheo (毗處王, 비처왕, 431-500, r. 479-500) (also known as King Soji (炤智王, 소지왕)), during the tenth year of his reign, Mujin year (戊辰, 무진) (488), graced his presence upon Cheoncheon Pavilion (天泉亭, 천천정).

時有烏與鼠來鳴, 鼠作人語云: “此烏去處尋之.”
시유오여서래명, 서작인어운: “차오거처심지.”

At that time, a crow and a mouse came crying. The mouse made human speech saying, “This crow will depart to a place. Find it!”

(或云神德王欲行香興輪寺, 路見衆鼠含尾, 怪之而, 明日先鳴烏尋之云云. 此說非也.)
(혹운신덕왕욕행향흥륜사, 로견중서함미, 괴지이환점지, 명일선명오심지운운. 차설비야.)

(Some say that King Shindeok (神德王, 신덕왕, ?-917, r. 912-917) wanted to go burn incense at Heungryun Temple (興輪寺, 흥륜사). On the road, he saw a group of rats holding one another’s tails in their mouths. He thought it was strange and returned to read his fortune. It said “Tomorrow, the first crying crow you see, go find it.” But this tale is false.)

王命騎士追之, 南至避村. (今壤避寺村在南山東麓.)
왕명기사추지, 남지피촌. (금양피사촌재남산동록.)

The King ordered his horsemen to follow the crow. They went south and arrived at Pichon (避村, 피촌). (Today, this is a village near Yangpi Temple (壤避寺, 양피사) that lies in the eastern edge of the south mountain.)

兩豬相鬥, 留連見之. 忽失烏所在, 徘徊路旁.
량저상투, 류련견지. 홀실오소재, 배회로방.

There, two pigs were fighting with each other. The horsemen stopped to stare at the fight for while. All of the sudden, they lost where the crow was and wandered about the side of the road.

時有老翁自池中出奉書. 外面題云: “開見二人死, 不開一人死.”
시유로옹자지중출봉서. 외면제운: “개견이인사, 불개일인사.”

At that time, an old man came out from the middle of a pond and presented a letter. On the outside, it was written, “Open it and two people will die. Do not open it and only one person will die.”

使來獻之, 王曰: “與其二人死, 莫若不開但一人死耳.”
사래헌지, 왕왈: “여기이인사막약불개단일이사이.”

The ministers (horsemen) returned and offered the letter. The King said, “Rather than two people dying, it would be better to not open it and only have one person die.”

日官奏云: “二人者庶民也, 一人者王也.”
일관진운: “이인자서민야, 일인자왕야.”

The Minister of the Days (日官, 일관) informed the King saying, “The two people refer to commoners. The one person refers to the King.”

日官(일관) – Refers to a bureaucratic position responsible for fortune telling and determining which days are auspicious (吉日, 길일) that existed during the Three Kingdoms Period.

王然之開見. 書中云: “射琴匣.”
왕연지개견. 서중운: “사금갑.”

The King, having deemed the meaning as so, opened and read it. In the letter, it said, “Shoot the zither case.”

內殿(내전) – Literally, the “Inner Palace.” Refers to where the Queen or Consort resided in the palace.
焚修(분수) – Refers to lighting incense in front of Buddha.

王入宮見琴匣射之. 乃內殿焚修僧與宮主潛通而所姧也. 二人伏誅.
왕입궁견금갑사지. 내내전분수증여궁주잠통이소간야. 이인복주.

The King entered the palace, saw the zither case, and shot it. Then, a Buddhist monk in charge of lighting incense in the inner palace (內殿, 내전) with the Queen were committing illicit relations and adultery. The two people fell over and died.

自爾國俗每正月上亥上子上午等日, 忌慎百事, 不敢動作.
자이국속매정월상해상자상오등일, 기전백사, 불감동작.

Thenceforth, it became a national custom on the first month, the First Pig (上亥, 상해) day or the First Rat (上子, 상자) day or other days, in the morning to be discreet in all work and not dare to make movements.

以十五日爲烏忌之日, 以糯飯祭之, 至今行之.
이십오일위오기지일, 이나반제지, 지금행지.

The fifteenth day was deemed “Crow Respect Day” (烏忌日, 오기일). With glutinous rice, they offer to crows. Even now, this is celebrated.

俚言 “怛忉,” 言悲愁而禁忌百事也. 命其池曰: “書出池.”
리언 “달도,” 언비수이금기백사야. 명기지왈: “서출지.”

In the vernacular, this was called “Daldo” (怛忉, 달도). It means to be sorrowful and to avoid and shun all work. The name of the pond was “The Pond Whence the Letter Came” (書出池, 서출지)

(Korean translation of the excerpt available here.)


The pond attributed as “The Pond Whence the Letter Came” (書出指, 서출지) is located in what is now North Gyeongsang Province (慶尙北道, 경상북도), Gyeongju-si (慶州市, 경주시), Namsan-dong (南山洞, 남산동). (Source)

Hwang Hyeon’s Assorted Compositions on the First Full Moon Festival – Offerings for Crows

In his poem on the custom of offerings for crows, Hwang Hyeon not only describes its traditional origins but also comments on the precarious situation that Korean nation was facing. He especially rebukes pro-Japanese collaborators, describing them as thieves. Note that this poem was composed only a few months after the Japan-Korean Protectorate Treaty of 1905 (乙巳勒約, 을사늑약) was signed. The treaty made Korea a protectorate of Japan, stripping its right to conduct diplomacy with foreign powers. There were five high-ranking Korean officials who had signed onto the treaty, today collectively known as the Five Eulsa Traitors (乙巳五賊, 을사오적).

祭烏 제오

Offerings for Crows

烏啼啞啞復角角 오제아아부각각
驅之復來墻頭啄 구지부래담두탁
寄語兒童莫浪驅 기어아동막랑구
此鳥不是凡鴉鵲 차조불시범아착

The crows cry caw caw and again cah cah.
Even after being chased, they again return atop the wall pecking.
I send a word to the children, “Do not chase them so recklessly!”
These birds are not typically like the ravens or magpies.

新羅宮中啣書來 신라궁중어서래
能爲君王捍大灾 능위군왕한대재
糯飯成俗過千年 나반성속과천년
家家施食如僧齋 가가시식여증재

At a Shilla (新羅, 신라) palace, a crow once came with a letter in its beak,
And was able to prevent a great calamity for the King.
Offerings of glutinous rice became a custom for the past thousand years.
Each and every house lays out food as if they were Buddhist monks’ huts.

擧世聾瞶無眞聰 거세롱귀무진총
聞烏輒嗔烏鳴凶 문오료진오명흉
烏如解語應叫寃 오여해어응규원
不祥幾與梟䲭同 불상기여효시동

All the world has become deaf and blind, without true sight.
Hearing crows, people suddenly become angry, regarding crows’ songs as unlucky.
If crows could understand our language, they would indeed clamor in regret.
Inauspiciousness is the same as the hawks and owls.

人不如鳥世多有 인불여조세다유
竊國者侯印如斗 절국자후인여두
援琴欲彈烏夜啼 원금욕탄오야제
北望長安淚眼枯 북방장안루안고

People who are worse than these two birds, in this world, are many.
Those who have stolen the country have been made seigneurs with seals as large as ladles.
Plucking my zither, I intended to play The Crow Caws at Night (烏夜啼, 오야제);
Instead, as I gaze northward to Jang’an (長安, 장안), my teary eyes go dry.

  • 烏夜啼(오야제) – Refers to lyrical poem (辭, 사) written by Wang Yiqing (王義慶, 왕의경, ?-?), a poet that lived in southern China during the Liu Song dynasty (劉宋, 유송, 420-479) (also sometimes confusingly referred to as the Southern Song dynasty). His poem is recorded in the Old Book of Tang (舊唐書, 구당서), which was composed in 945:

“烏夜啼”, 宋臨川王義慶所作也. 元嘉十七年, 徙彭城王義康于豫章.
“오야제”, 송림천왕의경소작야. 원가십칠년, 사팽성왕의강우상장.

The Crow Caws at Night was composed by Wang Yiqing of Linchuan (臨川, 임천) during the Song dynasty. During the seventeenth year of Emperor Wen’s reign (宋文帝, 송문제, 407-453, r. 424-453) (441), Wang Yikang (王義康, 왕의강, ?-?) of Pengcheng (彭城, 팽성) was moved to Yuzhang (豫章, 예장).

義慶時爲江州, 至鎮, 相見而哭, 爲帝所怪. 征還宅, 大懼.
의경시위강주, 지진, 상경이곡, 위제소괴. 정환택, 대구.

Wang Yiqing at that time was in Jiangzhou (江州, 강주) and had reached a village. [Yiqing and Yikang] saw each other and wailed, startling the Emperor. He was called to return home, and was in great fear.

妓妾夜聞烏啼聲, 扣齋閣云: “明日應有赦.”
기첩야문오제성, 구재각운: “명일응유사.”

The courtesans and concubines throughout the night heard the sounds of crows singing, and knocked on the shrine’s house saying, “Tomorrow, there ought be absolution!”

齋閣(재각) – Literally, “Cleansing house.” Refers to a housing structure next to a shrine (祠堂, 사당) for ancestral rites and offerings.

其年更爲南兗州刺史, 作此歌. 故其和云: “籠窗窗不開, 烏夜啼, 夜夜望郞來.”
기년갱위남연주자사, 작차가, 고기화운: “롱창창불개, 오야제, 야야망랑래.”‘

That year, he continued being the Provincial Inspector (州刺史, 주자사) of Nanyan (南兗, 남연) and made this song. Thus, in response, he said, “Every wrapped window does not open. The crow caws at night. Every night, they hope that their dears return.”

今所傳歌似非義慶本旨. 辭曰:
금소전가사비의경본지. 사왈:

Now, the song handed down is not like Wang Yiqing’s original intent. The lyrics are:

歌舞諸少年 가무제소년
娉婷無種跡 빙정무종적
菖蒲花可憐 창포화가련
聞名不相識 문명불상직

Singing and dancing are all the youth.
Pretty and beautiful, they are without seeds or traces.
Iris blossoms are pitiful;
Hearing their name, they do not know one another.

(Korean translation of excerpt available here.)

  • 長安(장안) – Jang’an, or in Mandarin Chang’an, was the capital of many Chinese dynasties and is now modern day Xi’an (西安, 서안). Chosun era poets referred to Seoul (서울) by this name.
  • Heptasyllabic ancient style poetry (七言古詩, 칠언고시). The poem does follow a lose riming scheme.
  • Korean translation of the poem available here.

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