Yi Gyubo – Immortals by the River: Watching a Baduk Match at the Chief Buddhist Monk’s Abode

Baduk Board

Baduk board (바둑판). This picture shows the initial stone positions of Sunjang Baduk (巡將棋, 순장바둑), a Korean variant that would not be developed until probably the 16th or 17th centuries. (Source)

Yi Gyubo (李奎報, 이규보, 1168-1241) was a civil bureaucrat and scholar of the Goryeo dynasty (高麗, 고려, 918–1392). He was of the Yeoju Yi Clan (驪州李氏, 여주이씨); his original name (初名, 초명) was Injeo (仁氐, 인저); his courtesy name (字, 자) was Chungyeong (春卿, 춘경); his pen names (號, 호) were Baekun Geosa (白雲居士, 백운거사) (“Resident Scholar of White Clouds”), Jiheon (止軒, 지헌), and Samhokho (三酷好, 삼혹호); and his posthumous name (諡, 시) was Munsun (文順, 문순). The son of a high-ranking official, he spent most of his childhood in Gaeseong (開城, 개성), the capital of the Goryeo dynasty. While recognized for his brilliance and literary talent from an early age, Yi Gyubo spent most of his youth debauching and drinking excessively, so much so that he failed the civil service examination (科擧, 과거) thrice. Eventually, he did sober up and passed at the age of twenty-one in 1189. Yi Gyubo rose through the bureaucratic ranks, working in offices requiring his literary skills, starting from the Office Recorder of Jeonju (全州錄) and Military Recorder and Editor (兵馬錄事兼修製, 병마녹사겸수제). After General Choi Chungheon (崔忠獻 최충헌, 1149-1219) took control of Goryeo court, Yi Gyubo became fully supportive of the Choi regime (崔氏政權, 최씨 정권, 1196-1258), and attained even higher ranks. Although he was demoted and even banished once for offending General Choi Chungheon and his successors, Yi Gyubo was eventually appointed to the prestigious office of the Hanlim Academy (翰林院, 한림원). When the Mongols invaded Korea in 1231, he wrote a letter to the Khan, persuading him to temporarily halt the campaign. Yi Gyubo also convinced the Goryeo court to move to Ganghwa Island (江華島, 강화도), an island off the coast near the capital. From there, the Goryeo government directed their stubborn defense of the peninsula from Mongol forces. He retired from public office in 1237, and passed away on the island. 

Though he sobered up, his carefree spirit from his youth never left and remained in his writings. In line with his personality, Yi Gyubo’s favorite Chinese classic was Zhuangzi (莊子, 장자). He took one of his pen names from one of its passages: “Ride that white cloud over there and reach the home of the gods (乘彼白雲 至乎帝鄕 – 승피백운 지호제향).” Compared to his contemporaries, Yi Gyubo did not overly rely as much on allusions to other works or people of antiquity (典故, 전고), particularly those from China. Rather, he created new expressions and composed poems on Korean historical figures. In addition, Yi Gyubo criticized his peers for excessively focusing on minutiae of poetic form and structure. It was not because he did not know form or structure. On the contrary, Yi Gyubo knew them very well, and composed several of the earliest surviving Lyric Poetry or Ci (詞, 사) by a Korean poet. He was also an avid player of Baduk (바둑) (better known as “Go” in the West), which appears in several of his poems including the following. 

臨江仙 임강선
希禪師方丈觀棋 희선수방장관기

To the Tune of Immortals by the River
Watching a Baduk Match at the Chief Buddhist Monk’s Abode

夜靜紅燈香落地 야정홍등향락지 仄仄平平平仄仄
蛇頭兎勢縱橫 타두토세종횡 平平仄仄平平(韻)
但聞玉子響紋枰 단문옥자향문평 仄平仄仄仄平平(韻)
誰饒誰勝 수요수승 平平平仄
山月西傾 산월서경 平仄平平(韻)

The night is quiet; the red lantern’s fragrance falls upon the ground.
A snake’s head and a hare’s movements lay vertically and horizontally.
The only sound heard are the echoes of the jade pieces upon the patterned board.
Who will be better off? Who will be victorious?
The mountain’s moon declines westward.

Night • quiet  • red • lantern • fragrance • to fall • ground
Snake • head • rabbit • form • vertical • horizontal
Only • to hear • jade • (grammar particle) • echoes • patterned • Baduk board
Who • to prosper • who • to win
Mountain • moon • west • to incline

  • 希禪師(희선사) – Name of a Buddhist monk.
  • 方丈(방장) – Refers to the residence of a high-ranking Buddhist monk.
  • 蛇頭兎勢(타두토세) – Probably refers to particular patterns in Baduk. “A snake’s head (蛇頭, 타두)” may be referring to a ladder and “a hare’s movement (兎勢, 토세)” may be referring to various jumps.

十九條中千萬態 구십조중천만태 仄仄平平平仄仄
世間興廢分明 세간흥폐분명 仄平仄仄平平(韻)
箇中一換幾人生 개중일환기인생 仄平平仄仄平平(韻)
仙柯欲爛 선가욕란 平平仄仄
回首忽相驚 회수홀상경 平仄仄平平(韻)

Upon the nineteen lines, thousands upon tens of thousands of variations.
In the real world, what flourishes and what flounders is stark and apparent.
Within all this, how many men’s lives are there in one exchange?
As the hermit’s axe helve becomes rotten,
All the turned heads suddenly become startled.

Ten • nine • strips • amid •  thousand •  ten-thousand • shapes
World • between •  to rise •  to be abolished • one • clear • bright
Each • amid • one • to exchange • man • life
Hermit • axe helve •  to become • to rot
Turn •  head •  sudden •  mutually • to startle

  • Third line is probably referring to a common tactic in Baduk, in which a player sacrifices a few stones to gain greater territory (捨石作戰, 사석작전).
  • Last two lines are in reference to a famous story on how onlookers of the board game can become so mesmerized that they forget their sense of time. Here it is summarized in the Book of Jin (晉書, 진서):

王質入山斫木, 見二童圍棋, 坐觀之. 及起, 斧柯已爛矣.
왕질입산작목, 견이동위기, 좌관지, 급기, 부가이란의.

Wang Zhi (王質, 왕질) entered the mountain to cut wood. He saw two children playing Baduk and sat down to watch them. When he rose up, his axe helve had already rotten.


  • This poem follows a variant of the tune, Immortals by the River (Linjiang Xian). The variant rubric has two verses of fifty eight characters (雙調五十八字). The former and latter verses each have five lines (前後段各五句) with three plain tone rimes (三平韻).  The plain tone rime used throughout the poem is 庚(경). As described in the Imperial Compilation of Lyric Poetry Rubrics (欽定詞譜, 흠정사보):

又一體 雙調五十八字, 前後段各五句, 三平韻
OO平O平O仄, O平O仄平平(韻), O平O仄仄平平(韻), O平O仄, O仄仄平平(韻)
OO仄O平O仄, O平O仄平平(韻), O平O仄仄平平(韻), O平O仄, O仄仄平平(韻)

Note that the former and latter verses are identical.


  1. (Now not-so) New Reader said:

    Well now. This entry has a lot of things I like. History, Weiqi (Baduk, sorry), Hanzi/ja and poetry. Quite a refresingh “gust from the past”.
    By the way, Mr Kuiwon, this might not be overtly evident firsthand, but please indulge my curiosity: I assume your mastery of chinese characters is on the range of acceptable, or proficient even, right? What is your take on the simplification movement?
    Keep up the good work, salutations.

    • 歸源 said:

      Thank you for your compliments. I’d say I’m fairly proficient, though far from mastery. I can get by most Chinese classics without having to consult the dictionary too often, but rely on footnotes to get at the allusions.

      As for your question regarding simplification, a number of years ago, I tried to learn the Seal Script (篆書, 진서), which is older and more complicated than traditional Regular Script (楷書, 해서). While I am in favor of using traditional over simplified, this experience made me unsure of how to wade into the debate.

      Also, Weiqi, Go, Baduk, it’s all the same to me. The Korean pronunciation of the word “Weiqi (圍棋)”, “Wigi (위기)” does appear in a few terms.

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