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  • The Road to Ch'unhyang:A Reading of the Song of the Chaste Wife Ch'unhyang
  • Peter H. Lee (bio)

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"Map of Namwŏn," in Kim Sayŏp, Kyoju haeje Ch’unhyang chŏn: Yŏllyŏ Ch’unhyang sujŏl ka, Hagwŏnsa, 1962. Courtesy of Peter Lee.

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Writing and reading are not separate, reading is a part of writing. A real reader is a writer. A real reader is already on the way to writing.

-Hélène Cixous, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing

The story of Ch'unhyang 春香, known to all Koreans, is the subject of narrative fiction for the eye or sung in a p'ansori 판소리 version for the ear. It concerns Ch'unhyang, daughter of a wealthy retired female entertainer and Second Minister Sŏng 成參判, who meets and marries Student Yi 李道令. When his father, the magistrate of Namwŏn 南原, is transferred to a position at court, Yi follows him to Seoul to prepare for his civil service examination. Meanwhile, a new magistrate arrives and demands that Ch'unhyang become his mistress. When she refuses because she is married, she is tortured and put in prison. Yi then returns to Namwŏn as a secret royal inspector and saves his beloved.


There are some 120 diff erent editions of the Song of Ch'unhyang, short or long, in literary Chinese or in the vernacular, in narrative [End Page 257] fiction or in p'ansori to be performed by a professional singer (kwangdae 廣大), lasting from five to eight hours depending on which version has been compiled by which singer. The earliest extant version (1754), by Yu Chinhan 柳振漢 (1712-1791), is in literary Chinese1 and consists of 200 heptasyllabic couplets. Chinese is the language of official tradition, authority, and power, indeed, the language of the symbolic father; vernacular is the language of the people. Chinese is a fixed language; vernacular, in a state of continual flux. In a hybrid culture that practiced written and oral circulation of stories and, as well, a bicultural society in which Chinese and vernacular literacies interacted with vernacular orality, it was inevitable that Yu's version, a memorial reconstruction of a version heard (or slightly misheard) on stage, must have effaced much that was distinctly oral. As a literatus, Yu was probably moved by the power of the human voice and the singer's competence and formal excellence. And the Song of Ch'unhyang he heard dealt with common material so that the broad outline of the plot was known in advance. P'ansori was a popular art form that joined the people in the immediacy of performance; but reception is a "unique, fleeting, irreversible act-no same performance experienced in an identical manner by any two audience members."2

"Textuality gave to utterance a materiality that memory does not have."3 Traces of earlier oral productions may be seen in the frequency of parataxis, formulas, episodes, myths, and elements of literacy-orality and literacy merged and supported each other. We may speculate that the earliest version was composed orally in performance. The text was almost exclusively transmitted [End Page 258] in performances, which survived only in written versions.4 By "oral" I mean, with Paul Zumthor, "any poetic communication where transmission and reception at least are carried by voice and hearing," and by "performance," "the complex action by which a poetic message is simultaneously transmitted and perceived in the here and now."5 Among multiple retellings of some 120 versions, the one I have chosen is the Wanp'an wood-block edition, meant to be sung, titled Yŏllyŏ Ch'unhyang sujŏl ka 烈女春香守節歌 (Song of the Chaste Wife Ch'unhyang; 84 sheets, 168 pages). This version focuses on Ch'unhyang; it is the most well wrought, the richest in sound and sense, form and style, and probably the most literary and most readable.6 Written from a pluralistic narrative perspective, with different voices and their corresponding value systems, it is polyphonic and heteroglossic, recognizing and exploiting to the fullest intralingual and interlingual features of the language. As an introduction, allow me to discuss for a moment the issues...


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