Korean social history through yadam

I was recently sent a copy of Si Nae Park The Korean Vernacular Story: Telling Tales of Contemporary Chosŏn in Sinographic Writing (Columbia U.P., 2020) It’s not really a book I can teach with, since it is $65.00 in hardback and I don’t teach any classes that would call for a book on the genre of yadam, stories of daily life in Korea written in Literary Sinitic. Park “combines historical insight, textual studies, and the history of the book. By highlighting the role of negotiation with Literary Sinitic and sinographic writing, it challenges the script (han’gŭl)-focused understanding of Korean language and literature.”

Yadam apparently used to get less attention than they should, in part because they don’t fit very well in the categories that later Korean scholars would like. They were written in Literary Sinitic, but grew out of oral stories of the upwardly mobile non-Yangban groups of Late Chosŏn. So where to they fit? Are they elite literature or popular? Oral or written? Are they -Korean-? Needless to say for modern scholars this sort of border-crossing, genre-bending stuff is exactly what they want to study. Park is mostly looking at No Myŏnghŭm‘s (d. 1775) Repeatedly Recited Stories of the East, which included 78 stories on topics from the Japanese and Manchu invasion of Korea to marriage, the lives of scholars (and especially those on the edge of the scholarly world), kisaeng, the sons of concubines, the wonders of Seoul, stories of history and kings, etc.

I found the book enjoyable and informative on that level, but what it mostly did was make me wish there more translations of yadam collections that I could use in class. I rather like using things like Feng Menglong’s Sanyan Stories where the whole class can read a few together and then you can turn them loose on a larger corpus of stories to do some sort of research project. Park only includes two fully translated stories here. One of them is “The Story of a Slave Girl from Chirye” This is a pretty standard “Slave girl uses thrift and geomancy to rise in the world, becomes concubine to a poor scholar and forges a marriage certificate, moves to Seoul with her two talented sons, has someone who is about to expose them murdered and then lives happily ever after” sort of story. It is a fun story to teach with, but you need more to build a big chunk of class around.

Park has actually been involved with the editing of a larger collection of yadam stories Score One for the Dancing Girl, and Other Selections from the Kimun ch’onghwa: A Story Collection from Nineteenth-century Korea James Scarth Gale trans. Ross King and Si Nae Park eds. (U. Toronto, 2016) Gale was a missionary who died in 1937, and it shows, but 704 pages of stories is worth getting into print. The Kindle edition is $66.00, so you could not use it in class, but my library has the e-version through EBSCO. As you can see from the story below, the translation is a bit old-fashioned, but it has both the Korean and the Literary Sinitic text as well, so if you want to get your students into things like that this would be a good collection.

Pages from KimDongukKingRo_2016_6_ScoreOneForTheDancing

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