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Book Review: Understanding Korean Literature

Contemporary feminist Korean literature is seeing a boom in Korea and abroad. So I’ve read quite a few books by female authors, but I don’t know much about the broader world of Korean literature.

Who are some contemporary female writers?

Recently, more work has become available in English. But browsing through the bookshops in Seoul, I notice that translated novels, essays, and poetry still often struggle to fill one little shelf!

So what are the unique points about Korean literature? How does it fit into the context of Korean history? What are some major works that I should read?

Understanding Korean Literature sets out to answer these questions. It’s an English translated version by Robert J Fouser of the original work by Kim Hunggyu, a scholar of Korean poetry.

The book gives a great introduction to the big picture of Korean literature from ancient songs to the modern novel. And it mentions some notable works.


It was first published in 1986 and since then has often been used as a university textbook. So it’s written for academic purposes or for those with a serious interest in Korean Literature.

The seven chapters include an overview of Korean literature within a historical context, the genres of Korea literature, and special features of the language.

The chapter on the five broad genres of Korean Literature is the longest chapter and the main body of the book. But there’s a lot to talk about and so the five genres (lyric, narrative, dramatic, didactic, and mixed) can only be covered briefly. Still this is a useful starting point and reference book.

Korean literature in an historical context

Korean culture has developed from a mix of influences: Confucianism from China, Buddhism from India (via China), and Shamanism from Northeast Siberia.

The writer points out that the influence from Siberia brings a uniqueness to Korean literature. Apparently long ago when people moved here from Northeast Siberia they brought a love of song and dance and ceremonies to pray to the gods with music.

So while Confucianism adds intellectualism to literature, the Siberian influence adds emotion.  

understanding Korean Literature

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A few more factoids from the book stand out for me which I’d like to share with you.


I learned that the national anthem is an example of a changga, described as a type of children’s song from the late 19th century. (they come under the didactic genre) At that time the lyrics of changga were often an ode to independence, probably since the country was going through major upheaval from foreign influence.

See my post on the fictional drama Mr Sunshine for more on Korea in the late 19th and early 20th century.


Here’s a fascinating titbit about Pansori, an art form which I’ve heard of but know little about.

So Pansori is a kind of musical storytelling, (under the narrative genre) which tell stories about people from all walks of life. To accentuate this, the music and narrative changes depending on the status of the character. So for upper class characters there’ll be a solemn and graceful rhythm. But for the lower classes, the rhythm and narration is more simple and lively. 

understanding Korean Literature
poetry and metre

Finally, the chapter on poetry and metre piqued my interest.  It compares the special features of poetry in syllable-timed (eg. Korean) and stress-timed (e.g. English) languages.

Korean and Japanese are both syllable-timed languages. But while Japanese haiku has become well-known for its rigid 17 syllables 5-7-5 in three lines format, Korean poetry doesn’t have strict rules like this.

Fascinating stuff. But I need to study more about poetry. So I’ll save that topic for another post.

see more from dramasrok about life in Korea on Facebook Pinterest and Instagram 

related posts:

Korean idioms

What is the most important post war Korean novel?

What’s a good book on Korean Buddhism?

Who are some contemporary female writers?

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