시인과 기생: 최경창과 홍랑
I recently happened to see this show from Korea about an exceptional story about a poet and a gi-sang (a professional entertainer) from the Joseon period. I was moved by the strength of their love, mutual respect and admiration – even to the point of having their graves next to each other.
The story itself moved me, but what startled me was the fact that the poet had the same last name as my family and belonged to the same clan – Haeju. When I was young, my father told me that our clan is from Haeju, and other 최s from Haeju are our relatives. Watching this show and hearing their story was like hearing an old family story. I felt that am still connected to the country of my birth and my people.
I was moved by the poem 홍랑 wrote for her poet lover as they departed for the first time on the day of light rain.
묏버들 가려 꺾어 보내노라 임에게
주무시는 창밖에 심어 두고 보소서
밤비에 새잎 나거든 나인가도 여기소서
I give my love this cut willow branch,
Plant it by the window outside your bed and keep it in view,
When the night rain brings forth a new sprout, think of it as me.
The discernible content in the poem comes across as subtle as the willow branch, and yet it sings of a very strong desire to be together; and her ever-growing love is symbolized by the small willow branch to be planted and the foreseen new sprout.
Romeo tells Juliet: Parting is such sweet sorrow (William Shakespeare). And this emotional content is something any human being speaking any langue could appreciate. However, I find it quite moving when it is sung in a plain day-to-day (yet refined) Korean language. Furthermore, the uniquely intonated sound of those words seems to flow like the flowing mountainous and hilly contour of the Korean landscape, streams and rivers, etc. Further, these words sung seem to take on a whole new dimension of holistic aesthetics. It’s as if what 홍랑 felt toward the poet before she met the poet in person, what the lovers felt in their hearts, the inspired words sung, their surroundings and environment, and perhaps even their fate are all rolled into one.
Moreover, what was once sung still resonates in the hearts of their descendants hundreds of years later. Even their graves seem to show their fulfilled desire to be together for eternity. We’ve heard that, “It’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all” (Alfred Tennyson). But their story makes me want to believe that there is such a thing as 천생연분 (the everlasting match made in heaven), and that the two lovers are true soulmates forever.
Western education has its advantages, yet appreciation of this work and their story made me realize just how much I missed out on Korean culture. Moreover, it would be great if a show such as this could be made available with English subtitles so that the audiences of the rest of world could come to understand Korean culture better and appreciate it.
It’s a good thing that there is much more to Korean culture than BTS and K-pop, isn’t it?