Joseon women’s secret universes are in verses

Although I loved Heo Yeon U’s character in the fantasy sageuk The Moon that Embraces the Sun, I must admit that part of me found it hard to believe that a woman like her existed in the Joseon era. It was, after all, a time when women existed to serve family and home while men took care of things like politics, ethics, and acquiring and keeping property.

heo yeon woo the moon that embraces the sun

photo from this site

Consequently, Korean women were not allowed access to education at the level that men received. That is, although Confucian ethics emphasized education, women were educated only on things like maintaining proper homes and keeping themselves virtuous in terms of conduct, speech, appearance and chastity, obedience, and duty.

Heo Yeon U was different from characterizations of Joseon women. She was smart, strong-willed and brave. She expressed her mind freely, just as she was raised in what seems to me as an unconventional Joseon era household.  She was the opposite of what Confucian ethics dictated.

It was amazing, too, how her passion for reading and writing went unhindered. I loved how meticulous she was with the quality of paper she used as she was about her words. I imagine this must be how real life Joseon women poets expressed their passions, even in secrecy.

I recently came across this book called The Poetic World of Classic Korean Women Writers by Lee Hai-soon and translated by Hur Won-jae (Ewha Women’s University Press).

book cover

photo from this site

The book showcases the works of 13 women poets from the Joseon era, a time when women’s writings and opinions were kept to, and circulated, among themselves. During the Choson era, educated women wrote kyubang kasa, meaning “lyrical verse of the inner room” which they shared with fellow women.

At that time, the male-dominated society they lived in was also a hindrance for women writers seeking to publish and gain recognition for their writings. So we are very lucky to be reading these women’s preserved works now. Moreover, we are also lucky to be writing freely in our present time.

Among the 13 women writers in this book, what I loved most is the works of Korean poet Heo Nanseolhon (1563-1589), who is regarded as one of the leading female poets of her time. According to the book, Nanseolhon distinguished herself from other women poets of her time through her critical take on society and the literary world.

heo nanseolhon

photo from this site

Her poems can be classified into two bodies of work. She wrote a number of kyubang kasa after her marriage. These poems, according to the article Women and Korean Literature by Helen Koh “lamented her solitary existence as a wife and mother.”  Aside from these, Nanseolhon also wrote poems in the Taoist tradition which delved into topics such as “immortality and fantastic journeys through nature”.

She led a sad family life since she was not favored much by her mother-in-law and her two children died at a young age. This sadness translated to melancholy and bitter poems.

Personally, I feel that I gravitate to her poetry for an emotional intensity that is tempered by a critical eye and social commentary, such as the 3rd stanza of Contemplating One’s Sorrows:

photo from this site

Contemplating One’s Sorrows

Noble family in the East, their influence like a burning flame

Sounds of song fill the high loft

Neighbors in the North, poor and naked

Live hungry in hovels

Should the family strength sway overnight

They shall envy their neighbors to the North

Fortune and ruin change according to the times

Escaping heaven’s law is a difficult thing. (The 3rd Stanza)

I also love her poetry for its beautiful imagery, which speaks to women and their experiences, such as this poem:



photo from this site

Contemplating One’s Sorrows

Lilting lilting the orchid beneath the window

How fragrant its leaves and branch

One breath of autumn wind

Sadly it will fall under the autumn frost

Although its beauty fades

Its clear fragrance will never die

My heart aches before every living thing

My sleeves are wet with tears. (The 1st Stanza)

Nanseolhon died on her 26th year. To honor her memory, her brother compiled her poems to leave her legacy to future generations of Koreans as well as international audiences like us.

As you may have noticed from my blog entries thus far, I am curious about how Korean women in ancient and modern times live. I’m glad to have stumbled upon this book containing Heo Nanseolhon’s poetry as it gave me a glimpse of Korean women’s experiences, which, come to think of it, may not be so much different from ours.



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