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Yi Ok

Yi Ok scrap


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Yi Ok was a writer who left behind many lively and interesting works, having put his all into the creation of brief essays on minor subjects (小品文 sopummun) his whole life. He was an uncompromising and unique writer. As a Confucian student of the National Confucian Academy (成均館) in 1792, Yi Ok did not bend even when he received a command from King Jeongjo (正祖, r. 1776-1800) to fix the ‘irreverent and strange writing’ style in the essay on minor subjects on the written exam to which the King Jeongjo himself had set questions.

1. Life

Yi Ok’s courtesy name was Gisang (其相), his pen name was Munmuja (文無子), Gyeonggeumja (絅錦子), Hwaseokja (花石子), Maehwa Oesa (梅花外史), Cheonghwa Oesa (靑華外史), Seokho Juin (石湖主人), Dohwa Yusugwan Juin (桃花流水館主人), and Munyang Sanin (汶陽散人). He received the king [Jeongjo]’s reprimand for the writing style of the eungjemun (應製文 writings in king’s official order), which he composed on the grounds that it was like a common story collected by low-rank officials (稗官小說體 paegwan soseolche) in 1792. Then in 1795, he was forbidden from taking the civil service examination for having received the assessment that his writing style was strange. He even received the command to go to the army in the countryside. Later, even though he finally passed the civil service examination, his name was put in last place on the examination roster for continuing to stick with his writing style and causing controversy. It is speculated that he spent the rest of his life writing in Namyang county in Gyeonggi province, until his late years.

When Yi Ok studied at the National Confucian Academy during his youth, he exchanged writings and views on criticism with Kim Ryeo (金鑢, 1766-1821) and Kang Icheon (姜彝天, 1769-1801), who mainly wrote brief essays of unofficial history (稗史小品 paesa sopum). One can deduce that he actively socialized with Silhak (實學 Practical Learning) School writers as well. In his work, Baekunpil (白雲筆 Writings in Baekun [Temple]), there is an anecdote he heard from his cousin, Yu Deukgong (柳得恭, 1748-1807), when he visited his mother’s side of the family. Also, in another story, he met Pak Jiwon (朴趾源, 1737-1805), Anui county’s magistrate at that time, on his way down to a place of exile, Samga county. In this story, he wrote that he advocated for Pak Jiwon, who had made the provincial office in Chinese styles built with bricks.

The figures with whom Yi Ok made these social exchanges mostly had the commonality of having gone against the King Jeongjo’s munche banjeong (文體反正 Rectification of Textual Style). And among them, Yi Ok was a representative figure who made unique pieces without compromising his writing.

2. Writing

Yi Ok’s literary works was put in Damjeong cheongseo (潭庭叢書 Collectanea of Damjeong [Kim Ryeo]), in which was collected by his closest friend Kim Ryeo, the writings of figures with whom Kim Ryeo had made exchanges. His works are also in Ieon (俚諺 Vulgar Maxims), Dongsanggi (東廂記), Baekunpil (白雲筆), and Yeongyeong (烟經 Writing of Smoking).

Other works included in Damjeong cheongseo were: Munmuja muncho (文無子文鈔), Maehwa Oesa (梅花外史), Hwaseokja muncho (花石子文鈔), Jungheung yugi (重興遊記), Dohwagwan sogo (桃花流水館小稿), Gyeonggeum sobu (絅錦小賦), Seokho byeolgo (石湖別稿), Maesa cheomeon (梅史添言), Bongseong munyeo (鳳城文餘), Muntohyang chobon (墨吐香草本), Gyeonggeum bucho (絅錦賦草).

Munmuja muncho (文無子文鈔) is in chapter 19 of Damjeong chongseo, consisting of 10 essays of ‘the way to exile in the south’ (南程 namjeong), 7 biographies (傳 jeon), such as Sangrang jeon (尙娘傳), Jeong Unchang jeon (鄭運昌傳), Sin Ah jeon (申啞傳), Yeollyeo Yi-ssi jeon (烈女李氏傳), Jang Bongsa jeon (蔣奉事傳), Seong Jinsa jeon (成進士傳), Gagaek Song Silsol jeon (歌者宋蟋蟀傳), 7 of miscellaneous notes (雜著 japjeo), and 3 records (記 gi). Among these 27 pieces, two anecdotes one essay of an artist who is proficient in the game of Go, songs, and other writing [record] that shows Yi Ok’s thoughts, are worth noticing.

Maehwa Oesa (梅花外史) is in chapter 21 of Damjeong chongseo, consisting of 11 biographies (傳 jeon) and 5 miscellaneous notes (雜著 japjeo); Poho cheo jeon (捕虎妻傳), Suchik jeon (守則傳), Munmyo iuibok jeon (文廟二義僕傳), Cha-Choe iuisa jeon (車崔二義士傳), Saengyeollyeo jeon (生烈女傳), Bu Mokhan jeon (浮穆漢傳), Yu Gwangeok jeon (柳光億傳), Sim saeng jeon (沈生傳), Sin byeongsa jeon (申兵使傳), Seongo (蟬告), So gimajeon (所騎馬傳), Haegwan (海觀), Hwanghangnu sajeok gojeung (黃鶴樓事蹟攷證), Namryeong jeon (南靈傳), Hyeopchang gimun (俠娼紀聞). All these stories reveal Yi Ok’s recognition of the righteous characters at that time.

Hwaseokja muncho (花石子文鈔) is made of Gyeongmun (鏡問), Gwaeo (瓜語), Seungbulgak (蠅拂刻), Haengmyo (劾猫), Nonseopung (論西風), Jungeo (衆語), Hiryong (詰龍), Suo (莠悟), Chokgyuhwaseol (蜀葵花說), Chiljeol (七切), Gangno seonsaeng jeon (却老先生傳), Mukchwihyang seo (墨醉香序), Mukchwihyang jeonseo (墨吐香前敍), Mukchwihyang huseo (墨吐香後敍), Dohwa yusugwan mundap (桃花流水館問答), Gumunyak soseo (歐文約小序), Sillugi (蜃樓記). One can grasp through objective matters the author’s ideology of strife against the outside world.

Jungheung yugi (重興遊記) is a record (記 gi) that Yi Ok left after sightseeing Jungheungsa, a temple at Mt. Bukhan near Seoul, in 1793. It is a valuable document for its detailed descriptions of the people that accompanied, the objects they took with them, and the buildings seen during the itinerary. Beside it, Dohwagwan sogo (桃花流水館小稿), Gyeonggeum sobu (絅錦小賦), and Seokho byeolgo (石湖別稿) contain Yi Ok’s unique perspective on a variety of characters and objects, about their customs and social conditions.

Ieon (俚諺 Vulgar Maxims) is a collection of maxims of the affection between men and women by female narrators in the folk language of proverbs and their dialects. Yi Ok assessed works that captured the love between men and women very thoroughly, and he himself wrote poems of the same kind. There are 66 songs (or poems) divided into four sections in this work: 17 songs of refinement (雅調 ajo), 18 of splendor (艶調 yeomjo), 15 of dissipation (宕調 tangjo), and 16 of inexpression (悱調 bijo). It is, perhaps, Yi Ok’s strangest and most compelling work.

Dongsanggi (東廂記) is a play Yi Ok wrote in 1791 by the king’s command. It dealt with the marriage of an old bachelor and an old bachelorette. It is a fun depiction of marriage customs in colloquialisms and with lewd jokes mixed in.

Baekunpil (白雲筆)is a work completed at Namyang county, Gyeonggi province, in 1803. It was named “Baekunpil” to mean that it was recorded in freeform at Baekun Temple. An encyclopedic writing often produced during the late Joseon period, it introduces the ecological characteristics and uses of various kinds of plants and animals

Yeongyeong (烟經 Writing of Smoking) is a book filled with information related to tobacco. Across a total of 4 chapters, Yi Ok paid attention to everything from methods of cultivation, to its properties, paraphernalia to smoking culture. He depicted scenes of people smoking in a concise and unique kind of writing, earning it the label of a “cultural text.”

Yi Ok wrote unique works that challenged authority. He emphasized on brief essays on minor subjects, in which he honestly expressed a change in poetry and personal lyricism; and he poured all of his efforts into discovering and creating the value of new literature there. Yi Ok’s literature has several unique characteristics.

First, Yi Ok’s creative writing was such that even the King Jeongjo was not able to bend it away from Yi Ok’s unique and original thoughts. He discovered truth in insignificant subjects, and he showed a profound interest in the name of subjects (物名 mulmyeong) of his surroundings. A portion of Late-Joseon authors created brief essays on minor subjects, but their purpose was limited to imitating classical texts. However, Yi Ok remarked, “one falls into falsehood in learning the classical texts,” solely dedicating his writing to the minor subjects.

Second, Yi Ok paid attention to the lively streets of the city and there, found the subject matter for many of his creations. They were trivial objects in the life surroundings of the crowded streets of generally low-class women, lowly servants, and thieves. Readers can catch a glimpse of Yi Ok’s spirit, which added  to gossip or popular stories (稗說 paeseol) and minor subjects through the telling of the strange and interesting stories that circulated in municipal circles.

Third, Yi Ok poured his attention and affections into small and insignificant things, and he made them into minor subjects. Originally, one of minor subject’s characteristics was that they were “expressions of vulgar or insignificant subjects in detailed and crude language.” Yi Ok captured trivial subjects of his life surroundings - spiders, pitches, fleas and ticks, mirrors, fly swatters, cucumbers - in his creations, depicting their characteristics exactly as they were in reality. The best among them is surely Baekunpil. Its themes weren’t politics or ethics, but rather, discussions of the world’s truths through things that nobody noticed like grass, trees, flowers, vegetables, clouds, stones. Yi Ok paid attention to the small and insignificant things, describing his observations in detail and impressed readers by deftly conceptualizing wonderfully metaphorical expressions.

Lastly, Yi Ok pulled out the human attachments (情 jeong) that medieval Confucian thought had stored away and found it in the essence of literature. Yi Ok saw human attachments as the binding force of all things, even among the most distinct subjects. For Yi Ok, who paid attention to the concreteness and individuality of things rather than the universal principle of all things, “jeong (情)” came first before “li (理 rational principle),” which the Confucian ideology emphasized; and even within this jeong, Yi Ok treated solely the “jeong between men and women” as honestly revealing one’s self without any hypocrisies or coverings whatsoever. Therefore, he eventually proposed that capturing the affection between men and women was important for literature. This position of Yi Ok comes out best in his work, Ieon.

3. Reference

Ahn, Daehoe, transl., Yeongyeong, Dambae ui Modeun Geot [Writing of Smoking, Everything in Tobacco], Hyumeoniseuteu, 2008.
Gojeon Munhak Yeonguhoe, transl., Wanyeok Yi Ok Jeonjip [Completed Translation of the Collection of Yi Ok], Hyumeoniseuteu, 2009.
Pak, Gyeongsin, et. al., Hanguk ui Gojeon eul Ingneunda [Reading Korean Classics] vol. 3, Hyumeoniseuteu, 2006.
[Encyclopedia of Korean Culture], Yi Ok [李鈺]李鈺&ridx=0&tot=2888
[Korean Research Memory], Yi Ok ui Munhak e Natanan Saengtae Geul Sseugi wa Gu Uimi [The Ecological Writing and Its Meaning in Yi Ok’s Literature] by Sumil Pak

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