Oral Storytelling, Genre & the Vernacular in Late-Choson Yadam


A review of A Textual Study of Tongp’ae Naksong: Problems of Oral Storytelling, Genre and the Vernacular in Late-Chosŏn Yadam, by Si Nae Park.

Si Nae Park’s dissertation painstakingly examines questions of literary genre in Korea through vernacular influences in yadam (野談 or 野譚), which is perhaps best translated as “unofficial talks.” This body of literature employed the Chinese script but sat outside the canon until the second half of the twentieth century, when it was rehabilitated by scholars keen on highlighting its putatively oral origins. The idea that these written stories originated in popular oral stories was at once appealing and necessary in a context of heightening linguistic nationalism. In this conception, the Chinese script played servant to the Korean vernacular which embodied the Korean nation. As Park shows, the real situation was far more complex and interesting than that.

The dissertation is comprised of two parts and eight chapters, including an Introduction and a Conclusion. Part One begins with Chapter 2, “Decentering kuyŏn (actual oral storytelling events) in late-Chosŏn yadam.” Here Park examines the origins of research into yadam and shows how this body of work was influenced by a broader historiographical trend that emphasized social changes in the latter stages of Korea’s Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910). The fundamental idea was that all social changes in late Chosŏn could be seen as “indexing Korea’s advancement toward Western-style democratic and capitalistic society” (pp. 18–19). The field of yadam studies thus developed within an atmosphere in which there was a predisposition to emphasize the oral and vernacular—which is to say, Korean—elements in texts that, in terms of script, were uniformly written using Chinese graphs and that, in terms of language, were for the most part written in literary Chinese. Or to put the matter from the opposite direction, yadam did not employ the Korean script—the one thing that would have made recording the vernacular technically easy. An overarching question in all of this was how to situate yadam within the broader conception of national literature. Whereas Korean vernacular texts written in the Korean script perfectly met the definition of national literature, yadam fell short. An emphasis on oral and vernacular elements helped to bridge the gap.

In Chapter 3 (“Toward a more historicized framework: TPNS [Tongp’ae Naksong] as a vantage point”), Park continues to pursue the question of the evolution of yadam studies, but here the focus shifts to the Tongp’ae naksong 東稗洛誦 (Repeatedly recited stories of the East), compiled by No Myŏnghŭm (1713–1775).  Although much is covered in this chapter, it raises two essential points that become clear through Park’s analysis of the Tongp’ae naksong. First, the idea that yadam were either transcripts of oral performances or prompts for storytellers cannot be substantiated by the evidence. Second, the agency of authors/compilers of yadam can be substantiated, which emphasizes yadam as literature and makes it untenable to look at yadam as “capturing the voice and consciousness of late-Chosŏn people in any unmediated way” (p. 85).

Part two begins with Chapter 4 (“The life of an author-compiler and the origins of his text”). Here Park locates No Myŏnghŭm within the broader social, economic, political, intellectual, and literary contexts of late Chosŏn. The depth and breadth of the treatment is admirable, and of particular interest and value are the many detailed translations of primary sources dealing with No. These not only give us insight into his life and work, but just as important, they give us insight into how he was seen by others. Through these sources Park argues that the stories in the  Tongp’ae naksong “constituted (1) an inscriptional space for No Myŏnghŭm’s life experiences and (2) a stage on which No manipulated his narratives rhetorically, basing himself on both written and oral sources and presenting them as records of orally derived stories [emphasis added]” (p. 94). A key feature of No’s manipulation and mediation thus was to emphasize his narratives’ oral origins. In short, the inbuilt assumptions found in earlier studies on yadam may have been wrong in many respects, but they were not entirely without foundation.

Chapter 5 (“Surviving manuscript editions and literary antecedents”) surveys in considerable detail the existing manuscripts of No’s Tongp’ae naksong. Park demonstrates that contrary to previous assumptions and arguments, the extant manuscripts “strongly indicate that [No] was an authorial compiler who imparted a particular structure to his story collection” (p. 237).  Moreover, this mediation on No’s part was also an act of emulation of a collection by his predecessor, Im Pang (1640–1724). In this way, Park shows how precedents functioned in two distinct ways in No’s collection: first, as an example of mediation by an author-compiler; and second, as literary source material. The question thus is not whether No used sources or mediated—he clearly did—but rather his choice “whether to alter, how much to alter, and in what respects to alter, his pre-existing written source” (p. 237). In this context, a crucial question is that of the meaning of “textual transmission” (munhŏn chŏnsŭng) and its range of applications. Park makes the sensible point that its restricted meaning in yadam studies requires “an expansion to include similarities in structural and thematic patterns, paraphrasing, as well as word-for-word syntagmatic correspondence,” which is to say, verbatim transcription (p. 238).

This is astonishing, but not because Park’s proposal is in any way unreasonable. What is astonishing is that the proposal is necessary at all. At this juncture, the enduring influence of the early ideological orientation of research into yadam becomes evident. It is as if no one has ever recognized the inherent instability of the oral, the ways in which the oral and the written can interact, or the instability of manuscripts. The crucial importance of two points made in the Introduction becomes evident here. First, there is the fact that, “[d]uring the Chosŏn period, all yadam collections circulated in the form of manuscript copies—there are no instances of yadam collections being printed, whether by xylography or by movable type” (p. 2). Second, yadam as a genre was not killed by the advent of modern media; instead “yadam collections persisted in modern media such as newspapers, commercial printing, radio broadcasting, and magazines” (p. 4). The thrust of yadam studies at the outset was thus internally inconsistent in terms of arguing for yadam as an index of social change while assuming that those who would have recorded such narratives would have been so conservative as to have changed nothing. Moreover, the fact that yadam were adopted by commercial media usefully underscores the fact that they were entertaining—or at least thought to be so—well into the twentieth century. This all serves to make the limited meaning of “textual transmission” appear all the more strange and inappropriate. In turn, Park’s argument can be seen as all the more sensible and necessary.

Chapter 6 (“Perceptions of genre surrounding [Tongp’ae naksong])” provides a clear and nuanced assessment of a critical question: “[i]n what ways does [Tongp’ae naksong] fit into preexisting forms of literature?” (p. 239). This question is important for two reasons. First, it is necessary to bear in mind that those who created or transmitted what are now classified as yadam most likely thought of their work in terms of other genre distinctions. Indeed, as Park notes, “the majority of what are today labelled as yadam collections lacked the word yadam in their titles” (p. 4). Anachronism is the obvious danger. Second, it is clear that author-compilers as well as their admirers and friends were mindful of the problem of genre distinctions. Park’s lucid examination of this question from multiple directions is resistant to any easy summary. But one point above all others must be emphasized. Mindfulness of the question genre was much more than a literary consideration. It was at root an historical consideration that reflected a Confucian utilitarian notion of literature’s moral and political functions. Park raises this point in relation to an analysis of a postface to Tongp’ae naksong by Hong Chigyŏng (1782–1842), taking note of the idea that “moral instruction derive[es] from historical veracity (emphasis added)” (p. 311). She concludes that there is “strong evidence that the paratextual references to historical groundedness and moral instruction [in Hong’s postface] are aimed at legitimating [Tongp’ae naksong] as a new piece of literature that contains highly fictional elements” (p. 311).

This hesitancy is unwarranted and is explicable again as a reaction to the influence of earlier studies on yadam. Based on what Park alone writes, it is clear that that is precisely what Hong was doing. Moreover, the tension between fact and fiction, so evident in Hong, was not unique to him. It had grown sharper over the preceding century, and Hong’s comments—and Park’s analysis of them—seem all the more understandable in light of when Hong lived. There is also a fascinating point of connection here with the founding assumptions in yadam studies. That is to say, Hong provides clear evidence for changes in late Chosŏn, but those changes also attest to a sturdy degree of Confucian-based conservatism that would finally fall with the Chosŏn dynasty. In sum, early assessments of yadam may have been partly right, but for the wrong reasons.

The question of conservatism is central to the final Chapter 7 (“The lexical texture of [Tongp’ae naksong] and variant hanmun as a literary language”). Park appropriately begins by quoting Sheldon Pollock: “The written differs from the oral…[W]riting claims an authority the oral cannot” (The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, [2006] 2009, p. 4). The authority claimed by writing was, of course, a consequence of writing itself, and in the context of the Chosŏn dynasty, it was hanmun (漢文; Literary Chinese or Literary Sinitic) that possessed the greatest authority. Due to the vast linguistic differences between Chinese and Korean, however, the authority vested in hanmun posed practical problems. It was desirable to be able to record things said in Korean for the sake of accuracy, or to use Korean in conjunction with hanmun texts so as to make those texts understandable. Throughout Korean history, various techniques were developed for bridging the gap between hanmun and vernacular Korean. Park provides a lucid discussion of the characteristics of these techniques, but the single most important one was the development of the Korean alphabetic script in the middle of the fifteenth century. However, that resource was, in relative terms, not much used. Moreover, in the context of the literary genre examined by Park, it was not used at all.

Instead, “variant hanmun” was the vehicle that allowed one to remain firmly within the ambit of the authoritative written language while also incorporating Korean vernacular elements, albeit written using the Chinese script. Here too Park’s analysis is outstanding, and the crucial overarching point is one of contrast: “Within Korea, the privileged status of cosmopolitan hanmun was never questioned. However, hanmun co-existed with various other writing systems and types of literature in a hierarchical relationship” (p. 315). And contrary to many assumptions in Korean scholarship, Park argues that it is untenable to view “hanmun (Literary Sinitic; Literary Chinese) and…[the Chinese script]…as an object of struggle for Korean people” even as late as the eighteenth century (p. 318). That is absolutely true and cannot be emphasized enough.

There is, however, an additional issue of massive importance that Park also assesses, and it is the most detailed coverage of the matter I have read: the influence of vernacular Chinese writing (i.e., baihua) on Korean literary practices. This question is at once linguistic and conceptual: linguistic, in terms of how Koreans read, understood, and then integrated baihua into their own writings; and conceptual, in terms of how vernacular Chinese influenced Korean ways of thinking about their own vernacular. Notwithstanding Park’s excellent treatment of these issues, she also makes it clear that she is not attempting to provide final answers: “My primary goal then, is to present my observations so as to invite further investigation into the relationship between [Literary Sinitic], baihua, and variant hanmun in terms of the vernacularization process for written-only language” (pp. 388-389). She succeeds in this goal admirably, forcing us to reconsider yadam as a genre, the position of No Myŏnghŭm and his Tongp’ae naksong in Korean literary history, as well as the differences between the Sanskrit Cosmopolis analyzed by Pollock and the on-the-ground realities in Korea’s participation in the “Sinographic Cosmopolis” (p. 411). It is an outstanding end to a fascinating piece of work.

Once published, this study has the potential to influence scholarship not only on premodern Korean literature and history in the West, but within Korea as well. On reading this, it is easy to imagine it being translated into Korean, and moreover, to imagine the heated discussions it might provoke. One thing that would be apparent is often overlooked in Korea itself: serious and innovative work on premodern Korean literature and history is done outside of Korea, and that work is not necessarily derivative of or subordinate to work done in Korea. The notion of the “cosmopolis”—and all its attached connotations—springs to mind readily here. In a similar vein, it is clear that scholars of Chinese and Japanese—whether historians, linguists, or specialists in literature—stand to benefit greatly from Park’s efforts, as do scholars of comparative literature more generally. Indeed, Pollock himself would no doubt find this work worthy of sustained thought.

Gregory N. Evon
School of Humanities and Languages
UNSW Australia

Primary Sources

Ch’ŏnyerok 天倪錄 (Records of the invisible workings of heaven). Tenri University,
Tongp’ae naksong 東稗洛誦 (Repeatedly recited stories of the East). Yonsei University,
Tongp’ae naksong 東稗雒誦 (Repeatedly recited stories of the East). Ewha Womans
University, Korea.
Tongp’ae naksong 東稗洛誦 (Repeatedly recited stories of the East). Gyeongsang
University, Korea.
Tongguk p’aesa 東國稗史 (Insignificant histories from the Eastern Country) / Kii sosŏl
(Marvelous stories), Yeongnam University, Korea.

Dissertation Information

The University of British Columbia (Vancouver), 2012. 440 pp.,  i-xii. Primary Advisor: Ross King.

Image: First page of manuscript edition of the Tongp’ae naksong, held by Kukhak charyosil, Yonsei University, Seoul.


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