Seopyeonje: The Southerners' Songs

Seopyeonje: The Southerners' Songs

by Yi Chung-Jun


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Yi Chung-jun's haunting and disturbing novel is set in the 1950s after the Korean War in the remote south of the country, home of the traditional art of pansori singing, a moving and plangently beautiful style of folk song performed by traveling musicians. The linked stories center on a family of itinerant singers: a boy and his stepfather and half-sister. Believing that his stepfather caused his mother's death, the boy cannot live with the murderous hatred he feels towards him, so he disappears, leaving father and daughter to travel and perform alone. Believing her art can become elevated to the highest standard only by sensory deprivation, the father is said to have blinded the child. Thereafter, she becomes a legendary performer throughout the land. Years later the half-brother arrives in a village and finds his sister in a tavern. He asks her to sing for him, and with his drum accompaniment the two perform pansori songs throughout the night—though never explicitly acknowledging their relationship. So begins an unforgettable chain of events in one of the strangest and most haunting of novels exploring themes such as forgiveness, the redemptive power of art, and modern man's loss of innocence and alienation from traditional values—the values at the heart of Seopyeonje. A magic-realist gem, the novel employs epic myth and fantasy to create a fusion of the real and the fantastic. Yi Chung-jun's story has attained near-mythical status in South Korea, especially with the acclaimed and award-winning film of the novel breaking box-office records on its release in the 1990s.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780720613599
Publisher: Owen, Peter Limited
Publication date: 07/01/2011
Edition description: Translatio
Pages: 220
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Yi Chung-Jun (1939-2008) was one of the leading South Korean novelists in recent years. Many of his works have been adapted into movies and drama series. According to critic Kim Byeong-ik, Yi Chung-jun opened up a new pace of Korean literature before the true modern literature of Korea was established in the 1960s. Yi Chung-jun died from lung cancer at the age of 68 in July 2008.

Read an Excerpt


The Southerners' Songs

By Yi Chung-Jun, Ok Young Kim Chang

Peter Owen Publishers

Copyright © 2011 Michael J. Pettid
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7206-1499-2



IN THE TAVERN the woman poured out her songs from early evening without stopping, oblivious to the pain in her throat, while the man accompanied her on his drum. His expression communicated an impression of strain in an effort to suppress a certain premonition stirred by the woman's songs. The sweat of labour had formed in clusters on the foreheads of both performers, the singer with her endless songs and the drummer mutely accompanying her.

The tavern stood on a quiet street corner on the outskirts of the town of Boseong, Jeolla-do Province, overlooking in the distance a group of hamlets on the left and a public burial ground on a steep hill on the right, where ancient graves were packed closely right to the edge of the street. The villagers called the secluded hilly passage that meandered through the cemetery the Song Pass, and everyone knew the name of the tavern, the Song Pass Tavern, a dust-coated thatched place that crouched like a clamshell at the entrance to the cemetery. No one suggested that it should be called anything else, since wailings and pallbearers' dirges filled the street, and the tavern stood guarding its entrance. Casual observers would have passed by without giving it any further thought. There was, however, something more to this passage and this tavern. Most villagers who understood what was what knew about it. Even strangers to the village, if they happened to stop at this tavern for a night of drinking, would soon learn of its significance. This was because of the songs the proprietress sang. She was unmarried and barely managed to keep the tavern going without the help of a man. So extraordinary was her skill in singing the songs of the southern region that anyone who listened to her was deeply moved.

The traveller must have known about the woman and her songs and not wandered into the tavern that night by chance. In fact, he had come with a clear expectation. He had spent the previous night in another town, and the innkeeper there had told him about the Song Pass. Without bothering to listen to the end of the story he left the inn and set off, following the prompting of a premonition.

When he arrived the traveller felt an atmosphere of something beyond the ordinary at the tavern: the woman's inexhaustible singing, which continued from early evening into the depths of the night. Behind the legend of the tavern were this woman's artistry – a woman barely thirty – and her proud, elegant rendition of the distinctive pansori songs from this southern region. As he listened his face betrayed an expression of discontent, as if his earlier ardent sense of anticipation had not been fully satisfied. The longer he listened, the more deeply he became lost in his thoughts. Moved to the depth of his soul by the sound of the songs, he did not notice the small table with wine that had been brought into the room. Finally, after the woman had sung a few scenes from The Song of Chunhyang, he pushed aside the wine table and found himself asking for an instrument to accompany the woman.

'Fine, very fine indeed. Let us first wet our throats with this wine and continue,' he proposed.

After each scene had been sung he handed his wine cup to the woman, appreciating the need for liquid for the singer and the importance of urging her to continue. She executed a graceful rendition of The Song of the Water Palace.

Eventually he could contain himself no longer. 'Tell me,' he asked at last, passing the cup once more to the woman to drink from, 'how long have you been singing – hiding yourself in a place like this?'

At first she looked puzzled, seeming not quite to have understood the meaning of the man's tentative enquiry, and remained silent, although her eyes were steadily fixed on him.

He continued, 'I came knowing that this place is called Song Pass and that your tavern is called the Song Pass Tavern. It must be because of the reputation of your songs. Isn't that so?'

Still she did not give him an answer, but this time her silence did not appear to suggest that she had misunderstood his question. Her mostly expressionless but gently probing eyes pursued him, trying to decipher his thoughts, then she slowly shook her head.

'Does this mean you are not the original cause of the legend of this place? Was there another before you?' the guest persisted impatiently. 'I take it then that there is another story that came before your songs?'

Only then did she move her head in acknowledgement. Her face began to cloud, and she spoke haltingly. 'You are right. The names of this pass and this tavern have nothing to do with my singing. I don't deserve them. There was one who could sing the real songs.'

'Who was that person? I ask you, who was that singer?' he demanded urgently, driven by foreboding.

'The one who is buried in the grave.'

'What grave?'

'At the top of this hill. We call it the "Song Grave". You have heard about the Song Pass and the Song Pass Tavern, yet you don't know the story of this man's grave. During his lifetime he knew nothing but songs, so the villagers filled his grave with his songs. The rest of the story came after that: the Song Pass and Song Pass Tavern.'

She could not fend off the traveller's barrage of questions and began her story of long-ago events in a voice tinged with sighs. The story went like this.

At the end of the Korean War, as peace returned to the country, the villagers began the process of recovery. It was during the autumn of 1956 or 1957. When the proprietress was still a child she had worked as a servant girl for a prosperous family in town in order to feed herself. To this grand household came two strange boarders, a father and daughter, two itinerant pansori singers. One day the head of the household, who was past sixty, had gone to town, where he met the singers by chance, and when he returned home he brought them with him. The old master installed the singers in the sarang quarters and treated them as his guests. Their astounding artistry transported his spirit, and throughout the autumn he enjoyed listening to their songs.

The skills of the father and daughter were equally matched, but it was the daughter, barely fourteen, who did most of the singing, the father accompanying her on his drum. In the beginning the master preferred the voice of the father, a man over fifty who was growing old, sickly and weak, but soon the master was overcome in amazement by a very special quality in the daughter's proud yet plaintive timbre. All through the autumn the father and his daughter did nothing but sing. Meanwhile, winter was rapidly approaching, and the harsh winds caused the father's already frail health to worsen. Since the beginning of the season his coughs had become more frequent and more severe; finally he could no longer withstand them.

All of a sudden the father began saying that he must leave the household – he had a strange and obstinate insistence. Because the master could not persuade his guests to stay he let them go, somehow intuiting the old man's intentions, and he said goodbye to the pair. They left the house and disappeared into a street where a fierce wintry wind raged.

Soon afterwards, a rumour reached the household that after wandering about all day the father and daughter had discovered an abandoned hut near the public cemetery and had installed themselves there. They were told that the father had become bedridden and was refusing both food and drink; however, after darkness fell he would sing throughout the night. On hearing these stories the master ordered his servant girl to carry food to the hut.

The proprietress, who was that servant girl, recalled the events clearly. When she reached the hut, carrying the provisions on her head for the pair, everything she saw bore out what she been told. As the villagers listened to the father sing at night they agreed that his songs conveyed feelings of bitter pain and deep despair. They were in accord that since the cemetery had first come into existence they had never heard such mournful tunes. However, no one was disturbed by the father's nightly singing nor did they complain about it. On the contrary, when the villagers looked at the father and daughter they would repress their sighs, the significance of which they themselves could not understand, and muse about the transience of their own lives.

Winter was ending, and it was one of the last days of the lunar year. The night-snow was falling, covering the entire village, hurrying to bury another passing year. During the night, the father sang his last songs in this world, and finally, towards daybreak, he coughed up blood with his final, painful breaths.

The following day the master received word of the death of the father. That evening he sent the servant girl to the hut where the father and daughter had been living. But when the girl arrived she found the villagers returning from the cemetery where they had just buried the body.

After the death of her father, for reasons unknown to the servant girl, the daughter refused to leave the hut. The master wished to bring her once more into his household since she now had no one to look after her, but she stubbornly insisted on remaining there. Not only did she spurn the master's suggestion; she took her dead father's place and began singing his songs. The master was at his wit's end. Unable to persuade her, he sent his servant girl to live with the daughter. What was more, he offered to convert the hut into a small tavern and hired a man to help the two of them run it.

The proprietress continued, 'As a young girl, I had no ear for really fine singing, but I, too, was fascinated by the daughter and her songs. I was most grateful for my master's command and moved in willingly – and that was how I learned to sing. The daughter could no longer refuse the master's kindness, and for a few years she sang for the tavern customers. She did this with great devotion. On the days when there were no customers she would teach me to sing, sometimes late into the night. We lived like that for about three years.' The tavern owner gave the impression that she had just emerged from the haze of a reverie. Slowly and carefully, she continued with her tale.

On the anniversary of her father's death the daughter would prepare fresh purified wine instead of an offering of food as dictated by custom. She placed the wine at the altar of the deceased and sang through the night. One winter's night she sang, this time without the ritual offering of wine, and on the morning after that night of singing she disappeared with the dawn. And she was to be seen no more. It was the third anniversary of her father's death.

The villagers began to talk about the songs that emanated from the tavern. After the father had been buried the daughter had continued his songs, and after her departure the servant girl, now the proprietress, took her place as singer. The villagers refused to believe that the voice they heard belonged to the daughter or to the servant girl. They insisted that it must be that of the long-dead old man; they had no doubt that the soul of his songs, entombed in the grave, was enabling the women to continue to sing in this fashion. To them it did not matter who was the actual singer, the daughter who had disappeared or the servant girl who had taken over the tavern and the songs. The villagers found pleasure in talking about the old man's songs and in confirming their belief in his influence.

'That's how the father's grave came to be called the Song Grave, and the names Song Pass and Song Pass Tavern were coined shortly after this. As for me, I am but a maintainer of his grave. I bear no resentment for my fate, nor do I desire to leave this place. As humble as I am, I have inherited the old man's songs. And as I sing them I wait for the day when someone of his bloodline will pass through this place again. I am truly grateful, for I owe my livelihood to his songs.'

The tavern owner finished her story, her voice punctuated with sighs, and resumed her singing. This time it was a passage from Hongbo and Nolbu. She began with Hongbo lamenting his wretched life as a peddler.

At her abrupt opening the man hastily drew the drum towards his breast and, after a few moments' delay, began to accompany her. This time, however, his accompaniment was slow to match the song's enchantment. His face still bore an expression of impatience; the woman's story had left him unsatisfied, his demeanour indicating that he was more pre-occupied in delving further into her story than with her music. Paying no attention to him, she continued to sing, her voice gathering heat and emotion.

Finally, he became aware of a hot flush spreading through his hands and perspiration slowly forming in his palms. As if wandering in the burning valleys of memory, with its flame searing his heart, his eyes ignited with a strange fire while feeling the sun's burning heat. Whenever he listened to a pansori song, the summer sun, this flaming ball of fire, would appear, scorching his body. It was the sun of his childhood, the sun of his fate.

A hillside farm overlooked the sea, where the waves glistened like scales on fish, and sloped up the hill until it reached the border of a camellia grove. A child was tied from his waist to a post at the edge of the farm where an ancient unmarked grave lay near the farm. The farm was the only thing the boy's father had left to his young wife when he died. All summer the boy's mother did nothing but tend the plot of land. Each day, leashed like an animal, the boy endured the long summer's heat. Now and then he would look down at a sailboat gliding over the shimmering sea, breaking the fish-scale waves and disappearing behind an island. At other times he would lie under the searing sun and, feeling hungry, take a midday nap. All the while he would wait for his mother to emerge from the field after finishing her work for the day. Each summer the mother planted soya beans or a mixture of soya and sorghum, and, once inside the furrows of the field, she ignored her son's longing for her. He would see only his mother's bent figure moving in and out of the plants, reminding him of a buoy floating on the water. He would hear a strange voice emanating from her as she worked, a nasal sing-song or moaning sound. Her voice would slowly reach him and then recede into silence. This pattern went on throughout the day.

Then, one day, a peculiar singing voice came from the sloping path overlooking the sea that led from the farm into the mountains. The song it sang was the kind that fuel-woodcutters would sing while crossing a mountain path. But that day no woodcutter could be seen on his way into the mountains, and no one saw the singer. All day the voice came from somewhere in the green shade of the mountains. The villagers later discovered that it was the voice of an itinerant songman who was passing by the village for the first time. The disembodied voice resounded from the forest until sunset. Meanwhile, as she worked in the furrows under the burning sun, the mother's odd moaning, sobbing voice grew more intense and clear and reached out as if in response to the one coming from the mountain path. Finally, the sun began to set behind the mountain peaks, and the opaque shadow of dusk spread itself over the foot of the mountains. It was then that the singing voice made its stealthy descent from the green-shrouded mountains and overcame the boy's mother, still working in between the furrows, like a snake devouring its prey.

The following day the man with the voice entered the village and took up residence in the room next to the gate of the boy's house. Every morning at dawn the songman would return to the mountains, and all day long the villagers would hear him sing, his voice booming like a mountain quake from the depths of the forest. The villagers heard only songs, but in his songs they conjured up an image of the spirit of the forest, cowering, fearing to show its face. At the same time the mother's song grew even more frantic as the days went by. As he lay tied to the ground the child continued to endure the songman's voice. Listening to the songs he would fall asleep, the sleep of hunger, and then he would be awakened by them. Asleep or awake, he could not escape the music swirling in his ears or the sun that hung above him, the flaming ball of fire.

The faceless voice implanted in the boy's memory a face more distinct than the flames of the burning summer sun and doomed him to wander in search of that sun, the face of his fate.


Excerpted from Seopyeonje by Yi Chung-Jun, Ok Young Kim Chang. Copyright © 2011 Michael J. Pettid. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Foreword by Michael J. Pettid,
Translator's note,
The Light of Songs,
Immortal Crane Village,
Bird and Tree,
The Rebirth of Words,

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