Kim Hunggyu: Understanding Korean Literature

Understanding Korean Literature - cover imageME Sharpe, 1997

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Written in 1986 and expertly translated by Robert Fouser ten years later, this is a highly readable basic introduction to the wide variety of Korean literary forms. The scope of the work includes oral literature, literature written in Korean but using Chinese characters, and, perhaps controversially, literature written in classical Chinese, as well as the now mainstream literature written in Hangeul.

Designed for the raw beginner who doesn’t know a kasa from a shijo, the book can only afford to spend a few pages on each genre, but the pages are well-illustrated with examples, and a good bibliography at the end allows for further exploration.

Interesting concluding chapters document the history of Korean literary criticism and, unusually, discuss some of the commercial aspects of literature production: in the Choson dynasty there were two ways for an intermediary to make money out of books: print them or lend them out. The printers / publishers, naturally enough (given the fixed costs in preparing the woodblocks), would be happy with just a few blockbusters, while the lenders thrived on a wide variety of a books to keep their readers hooked.

The author and translator have done a tremendous job in producing a user-friendly introduction for a non-specialist.

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