Heo Nanseolheon (許蘭雪軒 허난설헌)

Heo Choheui (許楚姬, 허초희, 1563-1589) was a Chosun dynasty poet and artist, better known by her pen name (號, 호) Nanseolheon (蘭雪軒, 난설헌). She was of the Yangcheon Heo Clan (陽川許氏, 양천허씨); Her courtesy name (字, 자) was Gyeongbeon (景樊, 경번). She was born in Gangreung (江陵, 강릉) in Gangweon Province (江原道, 강원도) as the third child in a gentry family. Her younger brother was Heo Gyun (許均, 허균, 1569-1618), the author of the first novel in Hangul, Tale of Hong Gildong (洪吉東傳, 홍길동전). Heo Choheui learned Classical Chinese from a young age and composed her first Classical Chinese poem at the age of 8. She married Kim Seongrip (金誠立, 김성립, 1562-1592), also another member of a gentry class and civil bureaucrat, at the age of 15. But it was not a happy marriage. Because of her ability to write well, Heo Choheui’s husband while literate was embarrassed by his own lack of proficiency, and tried to avoid staying at the household. For the same reasons, her mother-in-law was abusive toward Heo Choheui. Moreover, none of the two children that she bore survived past infancy. Outside the home, her older brother was banished and suddenly passed away in 1588, exacerbating her anguish. To cope with the problems at home and outside, Heo Choheui continued composing poetry and drawing paintings. She passed away at the young age of 27, instructing her younger brother Heo Gyun to burn her writings.

Her brother, however, decided not to destroy Heo Choheui’s writings. After the chaos wrought by the Japanese invasions (1592-1598), Heo Gyun scraped together Heo Choheui’s remaining Classical Chinese poems. Heo Gyun first showed his sister’s poems to Zhu Zhifan (朱之蕃, 주지번, ?-1624), a Chinese emissary who was visiting Korea, asking him to publish her works in China. Zhu Zhifan was greatly impressed by the quality of Heo Choheui’s writings and agreed to do so. Her poems became very popular in China and eventually reached Japan. In Korea, however, Heo Choheui’s works were not initially popular, partly because she was a noble woman. Although literacy was encouraged, women writing poetry in Korea was considered until the 18th and 19th centuries the province of courtesans (妓生, 기생). At any rate, Heo Choheui wrote several Lyric Poetry or Ci (詞, 사), unfortunately only one of which survives. In the passage below, her brother Heo Gyun critiques her lyric poem by comparing it to a rubric to see whether the poem was written properly. This excerpt also gives not only showcases Heo Choheui’s unhappy marriage, but also a sense of how complex Classical Chinese poems can be from a formal and structural perspective. 

娣氏甞自稱作詞, 則合律喜爲小令.
제씨상자칭작사, 즉합률희위소령.

My sister prided herself in writing Lyric Poetry (詞, 사). Following the poetic meter, she joyfully wrote short melodies (小令, 소령).

余意其誑人及見詩餘圖譜, 則句句之傍, 盡圈點以某字,
여의기광인급견시여도보, 즉구구지방, 진권점이모자,

I thought that she was tricking others, so I took a look at the Classifications of Besides-Poetry (詩餘圖譜, 시여도보). There, next to each and every line, there were circular marks for each character.

則全淸全濁某字, 則半淸半濁逐字註音.
즉전청전탁모자, 즉반청반탁축자주음.

Also, there were indications of wholly-clear (全淸, 전청) and wholly-muddy sounds (全濁, 전탁) for each character. Furthermore, there were annotations of sounds following each character for half-clear and half-muddy (半淸半濁, 반청반탁) sounds.

  • This is a reference to pre-modern Chinese phonology. Some Classical Chinese poets followed not only rules on tonal meter (平仄, 평측) and rime (押韻, 압운), but also rules on which types of consonants could be used. (Most did not follow the latter.) There were thirty-six initial consonant sounds (三十六字母, 삼십육자모) in middle Chinese that were classified into the following four categories:
    • 全淸(전청) Wholly Clear Sounds – Referred to unvoiced, unaspirated, obstruent consonants. In middle Chinese, these consonants were 幫[p]·非[f]·端[t]·知[ʈ]·見[k]·精[ts]·心[s]·照[tʂ]·審[ʂ]·曉[x]·影[ʔ]. In Hangul, these consonants originally correspond to ㄱ[g]·ㄷ[d]·ㅂ[b]·ㅅ[s]·ㅈ[dz]·ᇹ[ʔ].
    • 次淸(차청) Partially Clear Sounds – Referred to unvoiced, aspirated, obstruent consonants. In middle Chinese, these consonants were: 滂[pʰ]·敷[fʰ]·透[tʰ]·徹[ʈʰ]·淸[tsʰ]·穿[ʨʰ]·溪[kʰ]. In Hangul, these consonants originally corresponded to ㅋ[k]·ㅌ[t]·ㅍ[p]·ㅊ[tʃ]·ㅎ[h].
    • 全濁(전탁) Wholly Muddy Sounds – Referred to voiced, obstruent consonants. In middle Chinese, these consonants were 竝[pɦ]·奉[fɦ]·定[tɦ]·澄[ʈɦ]·群[kɦ]·從[tsɦ]·邪[sɦ]·牀[ʂɦ∼tʂɦ]·審[ʂɦ]·匣[xɦ]. In Hangul, these consonants originally corresponded to ㄲ[kk]·ㄸ[tt]·ㅃ[pp]·ㅉ[cc]·ㅆ[ss]·ᅘ[hh].
    • 半淸半濁(반청반탁) Half-Clear, Half-Muddy Sounds – Referred to sonorant consonants. In middle Chinese, these consonants were 明[m]·微[ɱ]·泥[n]·娘[ɳ]·疑[ŋ]·喩[j]·來[l] 日·[ɲ]. In Hangul, these consonants originally corresponded to ㄴ[n]·ㅁ[m]·ㆁ[ŋ]·ㅇ[ø]·ㄹ[l]·ㅿ[z]. Also referred to as 次濁(차탁) and 不淸不濁(불청불탁).

試取所作符之, 則或有五字之誤, 或有三字之誤, 其大相舛謬者, 則無一焉.
시취소작부지, 즉혹유오자지오, 혹유삼자지오. 기대상걸류자, 즉무일언.

I tested [and juxtaposed her compositions] against what was marked [in the rubrics]. Some had errors in five characters; others had errors in three characters. But there was not even one that had significant discrepancies or errors.

乃知天才俊邁, 俯而就之, 故其用切約, 而成就如此.
내지천재준매, 부이취지, 고기용절약, 이성취여차.

Then, I realized her endowed genius and incredible talent, that she endeavored in this while holding her head low, and thus was modest while successfully accomplished like this.

其漁家傲一篇, 緫合音律而一字不合. 詞曰:
기오가오일편, 총합음률이일자불하. 사왈:

One of her compositions of the tune, Idling at the Fisherman’s Abode (漁家傲, 어가오), perfectly matched the poetic tones and meter, and not even one character was in disagreement with the rubrics. The lyric poem composition went:

漁家傲 어가오

To the Tune of Idling at a Fisherman’s Abode:
Easterly Winds in the Courtyard

庭院東風惻惻 정원동풍측측 平仄平平仄仄(韻)
墻頭一樹梨花白 장두일수리화백 平平仄仄平平仄(韻)
斜倚玉欄思故國 사기옥란사고국 平仄仄平平仄仄(韻)
歸不得 귀불득 平仄仄(韻)
連天芳草萋萋色 련천방초처처색 平平平仄平平仄(韻)

Within the courtyard, the easterly winds are sorrowful and doleful.
Atop the walls, one tree’s pear blossoms turn white.
Leaning upon the jade railings, I long for the old country.
But return, I cannot.
Connecting with the heavens, the flowery grass are dense and thick in color.

羅幙綺牕扃寂寞 라막기총경적막 平仄仄平平仄仄(韻)
雙行粉淚霑朱臆 쌍행분루점주억 平平平仄平平仄(韻)
江北江南煙樹隔 강북강남연수격 平仄平平平仄仄(韻)
情何極 정하극 平平仄(韻)
山長水遠無消息 산장수원무소식 平平仄仄平平仄(韻)

The lustrous curtains and silken window block me out, alone and lonesome.
Two trails of powdered tears run down, dousing my red heart.
North of the river and south of the river, smoke rises amid the trees.
How extreme are these emotions?
The mountain are long and the waters are far, but there is no news.

朱字當用半濁字, 而朱字則全濁. 才如蘇長公者, 亦强不中律, 況其下者乎?
주자당용반탁자, 이주자즉전탁. 재여소장공자, 역강불중률, 황기하자호?

The character 朱(주) should have been a character with a half-muddy sound (sonorant), but the character 朱(주) is a wholly-muddy sound (voiced). Even one with talent like Su Shi (蘇軾, 소식, 1037-1101), who also did not conform to the rules, how much more so is one inferior to him?


  • The poem follows the tune Idling at the Fisherman’s Abode (Yujiaao). It has two verses of sixty two characters in total (雙調六十二字). The former and the latter verses each have five lines with five oblique tone rimes (前後段各五句, 五仄韻). The poem uses near rimes (通韻, 통운). All the rimes are near rimes (通韻, 통운) of the entering tone (入聲, 입성) ending in the terminal consonant -k(ㄱ). As described in the Imperial Compilation of Lyric Poetry Rubrics (欽定詞譜, 흠정사보):

雙調六十二字, 前後段各五句, 五仄韻
OOOO平O仄(韻) O平O仄O平仄(韻) O仄O平平仄仄(韻) 平O仄(韻) OOOO平平仄(韻)
O仄O平平仄仄(韻) O平OO平平仄(韻) O仄O平平O仄(韻) OO仄(韻) O平O仄平平仄(韻)

  • I have not been able to find the work Classifications of Besides-Poetry (詩餘圖譜, 시여도보) that Heo Gyun used to check his sister’s compositions. The first example for the rubric in Imperial Compilation of Lyric Poetry Rubrics, however, shows the character 年(년), a sonorant consonant, in the same position as 朱(주).