In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Love Lyrics in Late Middle Korean
  • Peter H. Lee (bio)

Gesang ist Dasein.

—Die Sonette an Orpheus

One of the most intriguing and challenging topics in Korean literary history is the love lyrics in Late Middle Korean. By “lyric” I mean a fictional representation of a personal utterance to be sung.1 We do not know when the texts and music were composed. The social settings of these anonymous feminine-voiced songs have almost disappeared. Because the predominant [End Page 201] written language among the learned until the mid-fifteenth century was literary Chinese, the prestige language, no song texts could be written down until Chosŏn officials wrote new texts as contrafactum2 (writing new texts for popular melodies) for well-known Koryŏ songs. Because of the sociolinguistic status of the vernacular, we have memorial (oral) but no written transmission. Moreover, we have no textual history to speak of until the compilation of the Akhak kwebŏm 樂學軌範 (Guide to the study of music, 1493) and two anonymous compilations—Siyong hyangak po 時用鄕樂譜 (Notations for Korean music in contemporary use; ca. early sixteenth century; made known only in 1954)3 and Akchang kasa 樂章歌詞,4 an anthology of song texts dating from Koryŏ and early Chosŏn. I consider them diplomatic copies of the songs. These texts must have invited innovation as part of the process of transmission (mouvance = fluidity).5 Thus Koryŏ songs owe their survival to the adoption of their accompanying music for court use in Chosŏn. It is unclear, however, how the texts, dubbed “vulgar and obscene” and expunged by Chosŏn censors as late as 1490,6 managed to survive. Are what we have the precensored or the censored versions? Perhaps these songs were so popular that no one needed to write them down to remember them. Repetition and recurrent refrains—mimetic in origin—of both verse and music made it easy for the unlearned to remember.

Oral delivery was the mode of transmission in an orally based poetic tradition, and we can identify the speaker’s gender from verbal [End Page 202] features and textual markers: woman, the locus of unrequited love. Songs are inseparable from their performance. The music composed for performance, together with song lyrics, invites a communal identification of singer and audience.7 But the texts do not encode information about the speaker’s social status and economic class: was she a propertied woman like the Occitan trobairitz of medieval Europe?8 The singer re-creates emotions in a specific context and shares those emotions with the audience. Was the song performed before a mixed audience? Did they identify more with the speaker than with the speaker’s target, the beloved? It was not considered indecorous in the Koryŏ period for women to compose and perform songs of love and to take part in public entertainment—a challenge to male monopoly on desire and language.

About the same period (eleventh to fourteenth centuries) in the West there flourished Mozarabic kharjas (“exit”; the oldest known secular lyrics in any Romance language, the earliest ca. 1000);9 songs by the troubadours and trobairitz (ca. 1100–1300) in Old Occitan (Langue d’Oc; Old Provençal)10 and by the trouvères of northern France (late twelfth to thirteenth centuries);11 Galician-Portuguese songs (fl. 1200–1350), cantigas d’amor and cantigas [End Page 203] d’amigo;12 Minnelieder (twelfth to early fourteenth centuries);13 Goliardic songs including the Carmina Burana (Songs of Beuren);14 the Cambridge Songs (Carmina Cantabrigiensia);15 and the Harley lyrics (compiled ca. 1314–1325),16 to mention a few. These Koryŏ songs have come to us from anonymous women who lived and sang from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries. No contemporary comments survive; the living context for these songs seems lost. Has the twenty-first century reader the means to understand the texts—can we reconstitute the feminine speakers’ voices, the first and only voices from that period, the inventors of love lyrics in the vernacular?


The following observations are offered in the hope of better situating our songs in time and space, that is, in their sociopolitical and cultural contexts.17 My aim is to re-create...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 201-267
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.