Kim Yunshik – Filling the River Red, the Last Month of Spring in Namseong

Kim Yunshik (金允植, 김윤식, 1835-1922) was a late Chosun dynasty bureaucrat, diplomat, and reformist. He was of the Cheongpung Kim Clan (淸風金氏, 청풍김씨); his courtesy name (字, 자) was Sungyeong (卿, 순경); and his pen name was Unyang (雲養, 운양).

Kim Yunshik was born into an impoverished family in Gwangju (廣州, 광주) in Gyeonggi Province (京畿道, 경기도). At the age of 8, he lost both his parents and was adopted by his younger uncle. At the age of 14, he started learning Chinese classics together with his cousins. In 1874, he passed the civil service examination (科擧, 과거) and quickly rose through the ranks. In 1881, Kim Yunshik was made a Delegate to the Qing Dynasty (領使, 영선사) to observe China’s modernization efforts, which thoroughly impressed him. During his visit, he also had an audience with Viceroy Li Hongzhang (李章, 이홍장, 1823-1901) to discuss opening diplomatic connections with the United States. When the Imo Mutiny (壬午軍亂, 임오군란) arose the following year, Kim Yunshik returned to Korea with Chinese troops to quash the mutineers. That year, he oversaw modernization of Korea’s army and his diplomatic efforts lead to the signing of the United States-Korea Treaty of 1882 (朝美修好通商條約, 조미수호통상조약). In 1884, when the Gapsin Coup (甲申政變, 갑신정변) occurred, Kim Yunshik requested military assistance from General Yuan Shikai (袁世凱, 원세개, 1859-1916). His diplomatic efforts lead to the signing of the Russia-Korea Treaty of Amity and resolution of the Port Hamilton Incident (巨件, 거문도사건). Regardless, in 1887, Kim Yunshik was banished to Myeoncheon (沔川, 면천) for his pro-Qing stance and opposition to closer ties with Russia. Upon his release and return to the capital in 1894, he was appointed as a minister in the Foreign Office (外務省, 외무성). However, just one year later, when Empress Myeongseong (明成皇后, 명성황후, 1851-1895) was assassinated by Japanese troops, Kim Yunshik was accused of not acting upon foreknowledge of the plot and was banished to Jeju Island (濟州島, 제주도). He was released from exile in 1907 by a general amnesty order for those above the age of 70.

In 1910, upon the news that the treaty annexing Korea had been signed, Kim Yunshik lamented sighing, “This cannot be! This cannot be!” (不可, 不可 불가, 불가). Pro-Japanese collaborators spread the misinterpretation that he meant “It cannot be any other way,” having parsed the characters as 不可不, 可(불가불, 가). The colonial general-government offered him a pension and the Japanese nobility title of viscount (子爵, 자작). He initially refused, but later accepted at the advice of the deposed Emperor Sunjong (純宗, 순종, 1874-1926, r. 1907-1910). Japan also later offered him a position at the Institute of Confucian Classics Studies (經院, 경학원), an organization for collaborationist Confucian scholars, and the Central Council (中樞院, 중추원), an arm of the general-government. He again accepted both positions, but did not participate much in their activities. Nevertheless, viewing Kim Yunshik as an ideal collaborationist, the Japanese-established Bank of Chosen (朝鮮銀行, 조선은행) chose him as the face on the Yen currency notes

100 Yen Chosen Bank

Kim Yunshik’s portrait on the colonial Bank of Chosen’s 10 yen note (Source)

Despite his associations, Kim Yunshik was somewhat active in independence activist movements. He was acquainted with some of the independence activist leaders. One of his pupils was Na Cheol (羅喆, 나철, 1863-1916), an independence activist and the founder of Daejonggyo (大倧敎, 대종교), a religion centered around Dangun (檀君, 단군), the mythical founder of Korea. Furthermore, in 1919, when Emperor Gojong (高宗, 고종, 1852-1919, r. 1863-1907) passed away, he denounced the posthumous title that Japan bestowed, because it included the words “of Former Korea” (前韓國, 전한국). Later that year, Kim Yunshik joined the March 1 Movement independence protests and wrote a letter entitled A Long Letter to Japan (書, 대일본장서) supporting the independence. For this act, he was sentenced to two years in prison and stripped of his aristocratic title, but was released early on probation because of his old age. (The Korean government commission investigating colonial era activities chose not to formally recognize him as a pro-Japanese collaborator because of his opposition albeit passive.) He spent the remainder of life in solitude and passed away in Seoul. Kim Yunshik is survived by still living grandchildren. 

Kim Yunshik also was well renowned for his Classical Chinese. Through his diplomatic career, he became acquainted with intellectuals from China, Korea, and Japan. In 1915, Kim Yunshik received enormous praise for publishing his opus magnum, Collection of Unyang’s Writings (雲養集, 운양집). Critics acclaimed him as “The Han Yu (韓愈, 한유, 768-824) and Ouyang Xiu (歐陽脩, 구양수, 1007-1072) of the Eastern Country.” The Japan Academy (日本學士院, 일본학사원), which is still existent, awarded him the Japan Academy Prize. Below is just one of the poems from his widely lauded work. It is set to the tonal meter of the well-known Chinese lyric poem (詞, 사), Filling the River Red (滿江紅, 만강홍), typically associated with the Southern Song Dynasty’s (南宋, 남송, 1127-1279) General Yue Fei (岳飛, 악비, 1103-1142), famous for having curbed the Jurchen Jin invasions. Kim Yunshik wrote this poem in 1900, during his exile on Jeju Island. In it, he reminiscences about his hometown of Gwangju and the not too distant Seoul. He also alludes to the Pure Brightness Festival (淸明, 청명) and the Cold Food Festival (寒食, 한식). Both of these festivals fall on consecutive days around April 4-5 on the Western Gregorian Calendar.

滿江紅 南城餞春
만강홍 남성전춘

Filling the River Red, the Last Month of Spring in Namseong (南城, 남성)

  • 南城(남성) – Another name for Gwangju in Gyeonggi Province.

閉戶三春 폐호삼춘
經過了 경과료
花朝上巳  화조상사
又過了 우과료
淸明寒食 청명한식
光陰如水 광음여수

With the doors closed for the three months of spring,
Already gone through and passed:
Are the blossoming morning of the First Snake Day (上巳, 상사),
And again passed:
Are the Pure Brightness and the Cold Food Festivals.
Time is like the flowing waters.

  • 上巳(상사) – Refers to the first day with the character 巳(사) in a month in the sexagenary cycle. More specifically, he is referring to the third day of the third month on the Lunar calendar.
  • 光陰(광음) – Literally, “light and darkness.” Refers to time.

澗草細鋪開餞席 간초세포개전석
林風輕拂摧行李 림풍경불최행리
更可恨 갱가한
觸忤旅人愁 촉오려인수
勞延企 로연기

Atop the grassy banks of the brook, carefully laid out, I set out a farewell soiree;
The forest breeze blows gently to hurry along the servants.
Again, how sorrowful it is!
That spring has provoked the wanderer’s sorrows,
And keeps me waiting in longing.

  • 觸忤(촉오) – To be angered by someone else’s disobedience.

回首六街三市 회수륙가삼시
不見萬紅千紫 불견만홍천자
覓芳菲 멱방비
秪有汀蘭岸芷 지유정란안지

Turning my head, are six avenues and three markets.
I do not see ten-thousand roses or thousand violets.
I try to find flowery blossoms;
Instead, there are only orchids on the riverbank and angelicas on the hills.

  • 六街三市(육가삼시) – Literally, “six avenues and three markets.” Rewording of the four character idiom 六街三陌(육가삼맥). The idiom originally referred to the busy, bustling scene of Chang’an (長安, 장안), the capital of many Chinese dynasties, which is modern day Xian (西安, 서안). During the Tang dynasty (唐, 당, 618-907), Chang’an had six main avenues and three markets, the grand market (大市, 대시), morning market (朝市, 조시), and evening market (夕市, 석시). Here, the poem is referring to Seoul.

撫迹恍疑尋舊夢 무적황의심구몽
解携那肯回芳躧 해휴나긍회방사
暗思想 암사상
浮世片時榮 부세편시영
都如此 도여차

Fumbling through spring’s traces, as if searching for long-departed dreams,
Having cast me off, will spring ever willingly turn back and retrace her fragrant steps?
I quietly ponder:
That my transient life’s brief glories,
Are all like this.

  • 恍疑(황의) – Literally, “to be bewildered and stupefied.”
  • 解携(해휴) – Literally, “to dissolve a connection.” Refers to someone cutting off connections with another.
  • 滿江紅(만강홍) – The tonal meter specified by the lyric poem Filling the River Red is:

〇仄平平, 平〇仄, 〇平〇仄. 平仄仄, 仄平平仄, 仄平〇仄.
〇仄〇平平仄仄, 〇平〇仄平平仄. 〇〇〇, 〇仄仄平平, 平平仄.
〇〇仄, 平仄仄. 平仄仄, 平平仄. 仄平平〇仄, 仄平平仄.
〇仄〇平平仄仄, 〇平〇仄平平仄. 〇〇〇, 〇仄仄平平, 平平仄.

In the third line, although Kim Yunshik has the proper number of characters, he did not exactly follow the line specifications.

  1. Thank you for this interesting post. I knew that Korea has a long tradition of 漢詩, but did not realize that Korean poets wrote in the 詞 form as well.

    南城餞春: 餞 = 餞别. The poet recreates a picnic in the country as his farewell banquet to the fading spring. Spring is personified here in the subtitle and throughout the poem, a conceit fairly common in 宋詞, especially those from 北宋, of which Kim Yunshik’s own piece is strongly reminiscent. (E.g., poems by Northern Song masters like 晏殊、馮延巳, etc.)

    Below are my notes on places where I differ from your reading.

    澗草細鋪開餞席: 澗 is sometimes a ravine, but it can also mean a brook or rivulet. 細: carefully, with meticulous attention. “On the grassy banks of the stream, spreading it with great care, I set out my farewell banquet.”

    林風輕拂摧行李: 行李 refers not to the picnic hampers themselves, but the servants who have carried them here and are now emptying out their contents. (For a similar usage, see 柳宗元’s famous account of a picnic in 始得西山宴遊記.) As for 摧, I wonder if this character is being used in place of 催 (to hasten). I just Googled 催行李 and got several hits, all from classical Chinese poems. In keeping with the anthropomorphizing tendency in the rest of his poem, Kim seems to be imagining that “The forest breeze blows gently to hurry along the servants (as they lay the banquet out),” or that Spring has set a light breeze blowing in order to hasten the preparations for the banquet.

    更可恨 / 觸忤旅人愁 / 勞延企: The subject of these lines is, I believe, a personified Spring.

    In the present context, 可恨 is to “invite ire or resentment”— in the sense that a beautiful and capricious woman might arouse conflicting emotions in a man when she toys with him, getting him all hot and bothered with her feminine charms.

    勞延企: I read 勞 as a causative verb, to make someone exert himself. 延企, quite common in 宋詞, is a contraction of 延頸企踵 “to crane the neck and stand on tiptoe,” i.e. to wait with eager impatience.

    Taking the three lines together: “Even more hateful, she (Spring) has provoked this wanderer’s sorrow, and keeps me waiting for her (in a passion of longing).” As is typical of 詞, the grammatical connections are extremely loose, and the referents ambiguous, so pardon my adding so many fillers (which are intended not to limit the range of possible interpretations but merely to function as place-holders as we try to make sense of the different possibilities).

    覓芳菲: 芳菲 is just a generic term for blossoms, but in 宋詞 is usually associated with the blossoms of flowering trees (especially cherry, peach, plum). When the poet looks around, searching for blossoms, he finds none, because it’s late spring and they have already fallen; all he sees are the flowers of early summer growing on the riverbank.

    撫迹恍疑尋舊夢: “Looking back at the traces (Spring has left behind), it feels as if I am searching for a long-departed dream (instead of something with a solid existence).” 撫迹 was most famously used by Du Fu; I don’t think it necessarily implies any physical movement, only reminiscing about something.

    回芳躧: I would read 回 as a transitive verb here, to cause to return. 躧 are a woman’s dancing shoes. 解携那肯回芳躧: “Having cast me off, would she be willing to turn back and retrace her fragrant steps?”

    I really like the ending, which injects a note of philosophical meditation into the elegy on spring’s passing.

    • 歸源 said:

      Wow. Thank you again for your amazing, insightful commentary. I have made changes according to your suggestions. This is my first foray into the world of 詞. Until a few months ago, when I was introduced to this form of Classical Chinese poetry by Nguyễn Đan of Khoái Nhị Trà, I did not know much about it. I previously had thought 詞 was just another form of 樂府. I found it even more confusing because there are other 詩 with 詞 in their title (e.g., 竹枝詞).

      As for its legacy in Korea, many Korean poets wrote 詞 albeit in a lesser amount than 詩. Regardless, it does not seem well studied by modern Korean Classical Chinese academics and hobbyists. I only have one book about the form, and it only dedicates a small fraction to 詞. From what little I know, it seems that 李齊賢 (14th century), whom I’ve covered here recently, is accredited as the first Korean poet to have introduced 詞 into Korea.

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