Pansori is a Korean musical form developed from around the 17th century, where one person sings and makes commentary following a set story to the accompaniment of a drummer.
There are five traditional repertoires that have survived to the present day: Chunhyangga (The Song of Chunhyang), Shimcheongga (The Song of Shim Cheong), Sugungga (The Song of the Sea Palace), Jeokbyeokga (The Song of the Red Cliffs), and Heungboga (The Song of Heungbo). In this post, I’ll be discussing some of the story elements of Chunhyangga, Shimcheongga, and Sugungga.
Content warning: The sections below contain discussions of dark subject matter including violence, death, and poverty. More detailed warnings are given by section.
Chunhyangga: A love story of self-determination and respect
Content warning: Attempted sexual coercion, imprisonment, torture
Chunhyangga is the love story of teenagers Seong Chunhyang, who is the daughter of a retired gisaeng (courtesan), and Yi Mongryong, the son of a noble family. Theirs are most certainly not two households both alike in dignity; in patriarchal and class-stratified Joseon Dynasty terms Chunhyang does not even have a house worth the name, for she has no father and the head of her family is a woman once indentured to the state to provide entertainment services. Although Chunhyang’s mother Wolmae retired in success and relative wealth and is no longer bound to be a courtesan, nor is Chunhyang herself formally a courtesan, her low birth still makes her vulnerable to abuse of power as the story will demonstrate.
Chunhyang and Mongryong meet and fall in love when Mongryong’s father is appointed the governor of fair Namwon, where we lay our scene, a real town in Korea and a holy site to the art of pansori to this day. Smitten, the two 16-year-olds declare themselves man and wife but their union cannot possibly be officially recognized due to the gaping chasm between their stations. In Joseon, a kingdom whose founding order depended on a strict social hierarchy, at best Chunhyang could be Mongryong’s concubine if he cared enough to keep her around.
The first calamity strikes our young lovers when Mongryong’s father is called away to Hanyang (present-day Seoul) where Chunhyang cannot follow because, again, she was not a legally sanctioned wife. Mongryong might have been able to take her with him if he were respectably married to a noblewoman and was the head of his own household, but as an officially unmarried boy he was part of his father’s household and had to go where his father went. The two part tearfully, promising to be faithful to each other, and Chunhyang begins her long wait for him, mourning their parting and hoping for him to return to her a successful man so that they can be together. In the terms of the times this meant passing the state examination and winning high office.
The second and even worse disaster strikes in the form of the man who succeeds Mongryong’s father as governor of Namwon: Byeon Hakdo. A corrupt and lustful man, he hears of Chunhyang’s famed beauty and just as famous virtue and commands her to attend to him as a courtesan. This, even though she is not on the courtesan register and is legally a free woman. She also considers herself married, to a nobleman at that, and will not pour drinks and smile for another man.
None of that is any protection against Byeon Hakdo’s abuse of power, however, and when Chunhyang continues to refuse him he has her imprisoned and beaten into unconsciousness. He imprisons her, declaring she would be put to death on his upcoming birthday for the crime of refusing him as a mere lowborn woman.
It is at this point, the night before Chunhyang’s scheduled execution, that the long-awaited Lee Mongryong returns to Namwon–but at night, as a ragged itinerant whose once-proud house has fallen. Wolmae, on seeing him, screams that her daughter Chunhyang is dead, for her one last hope of salvation is gone.
Nevertheless, Mongryong convinces his mother-in-law to let him see Chunhyang in prison, and the lovers have a touching reunion scene where Chunhyang, injured, imprisoned, and waiting to die, declares he is her love no matter what the circumstance and defends him to her irate and grieving mother. All Chunhyang asks is that she be buried as Mongryong’s faithful wife on his family’s funerary grounds, his castoff clothes covering her in the coffin.
Morning comes, and Chunhyang is dragged before the governor Byeon Hakdo to be executed. He tries one last time to get her to relent, offering to spare her life if she will do as he commands, and she refuses to the last. Just as she is about to be killed, the troops of the King’s Secret Inspector strike, arresting Byeon and his cronies. Chunhyang, saved from the executioner’s blade, comes face-to-face with the Inspector–her self-declared husband Lee Mongryong, who had returned in disguise hiding his high office to root out Byeon’s abuses of power and to save her. She is given a special dispensation to marry him, not as his concubine but as his lawful noble wife, and her virtue is praised throughout the land.
Within the limitations of the time and society it arose from, then, Chunhyangga tells a deeply subversive, and of course fantastical and impossible, story of a lowborn woman daring to assert her own will, her own love and self-determination, in the face of power and have it legitimized by the broader society. These are revolutionary ideas, though the story they appear in fits them into terms friendly to the existing order.
Though heavily mediated and limited by the patriarchal social system of the time, the themes of women’s sexual and romantic autonomy free of the bounds of class are unmistakable. Yes, obviously, it is not feminism as we recognize it for a woman’s sexual and romantic decisions to be validated only if she is a free woman recognized as a nobleman’s wife and guards her sexual loyalty with her literal life. But if we call privilege by its true name, that is the granting of full humanity, we get a glimpse at the idea behind Chunhyang’s story–a woman’s yearning for respect as a person, which in the times she lived in and for her gender was only possible in partial form for a virtuous noblewoman.
It’s also worth noting that while the governor Byeon Hakdo’s downfall for his corruption and cruelty is a political and subversive plotline, it is focused and mediated through his coercion and violence against the heroine. The governor’s persecution of Chunhyang is the main dramatic reason we want him to fall, and we want Mongryong to succeed because he is the man Chunhyang loves and the key to saving her life.
Misogynist violence, therefore, is not a side political issue in the story as it is often treated in real life. Violence against women is THE political issue the story gets the audience to care about. The governor is obviously corrupt and exploitative in numerous other ways, but it is his treatment of a lovestruck, brave, steadfast girl that brings his evil into full focus and gets us to root for this corrupt official’s downfall. This ties into the broader political subversiveness of pansori, which is outside the scope of this post but deserves mention as far as it touches on the theme of women’s humanity and worth.
I will say that there is a parallel in the political subversiveness of pansori to the theme of women’s autonomy in that the political subversiveness also dovetails into the existing order by use of fantasy. In this case it’s the fantasy that the political order under the King is a force for good that ends injustice and corruption, saving victims like Chunhyang. This is not historical fact, of course, much as a courtesan’s daughter becoming a noble wife was impossible in real life. But again, this was a story told within the limitations of its times, often using fantastical elements to fit the events of the story into the worldview of the time.
Shimcheongga: A father as his daughter’s all-loving, all-giving caregiver
Content warning: Bereavement, human sacrifice, poverty, societal misogyny, breasts and breastfeeding
Shimcheongga tells the story of Shim Cheong and her daughterly love for her father Shim Hak-gyu. The most famous part of the story is that Cheong sells herself as a human sacrifice so her father can afford a sizable donation to a Buddhist temple, a good deed that is promised to give her blind father his sight.
The love and devotion is hardly one way, however. The actual story of Cheong and her father begins with, well, her birth of course, but the joy is swiftly and devastatingly eclipsed by her mother’s death only a week later. Cheong’s mother Lady Gwak, a skilled seamstress, was the breadwinner of the family where Hak-gyu could not work due to his disability. The death of the wife meant economic disaster for the family, especially since the couple had plowed their fortune into tithes and offerings trying to conceive a child at past forty. With that fond dream realized, however, the tragedy of the new mother’s death meant the father and infant daughter were staring down the barrel of imminent destitution and starvation.
Fortunately the community come through for this vulnerable family, and interestingly it’s all women who are mentioned as helping them. Centuries before the availability of baby formula and without the money to hire a wet nurse, baby Cheong would have starved to death without breastmilk. When Hak-gyu goes out to the village well begging milk for his infant daughter, those of the village women who are lactating feed her themselves, saying they’d rather let their own children go hungry than this poor thing. Women with no milk give money, while women without money give rice. It is also the community who feed this father and daughter throughout her childhood and teenage years as they beg food which is freely given to them.
Shimcheongga, then, begins with the story of a widowed single father, disabled and destitute, doing everything he can to raise his daughter–a daughter who was, in the terms of the time, a useless liability who would not be able to carry on his name or support him in his old age.
This point is actually foregrounded very early in the story, at Cheong’s birth when her mother is still healthy. Having had Cheong when the couple were both in their forties, Lady Gwak asks Hak-gyu if he isn’t aggrieved that the only child they’ll have is a girl. The overjoyed father answers not at all! After all, Cheong can marry a good man and have sons who will support their maternal grandparents. While constrained by the imagination of a heavily sexist time, the story nevertheless foregrounds the contributions women make to the welfare of their aged parents.
Besides, you can tell the conventional idea of girls being supposedly a burden is belied from the start of the story with Lady Gwak being the breadwinner of the household who supported her husband and, later, paid for the age’s equivalent of fertility treatments. Shim Cheong herself, at the age of ten, takes over the food-begging duties from her father at her own insistence and does better than him at it.
Shimcheongga, in other words, subverts gender roles with a father as his daughter’s primary caregiver, and by also showing women as economic actors with agency. Even more than that, it argues that women have inherent worth and are deserving of care and devotion through this story of a motherless girl who would have died without her father’s and her community’s loving care and generosity.
Sugungga: Rabbit, revolutionary.
Content warning: Attempted sacrifice and mutilation, body gendering, genitals
Sugungga, the most satirical of the five classic repertoires, has a female protagonist (or villain, depending) in the sense of a female animal. In the story the Sea King falls ill and his trusted retainer, Terrapin, sets out to land to capture a rabbit whose liver the Sea King must eat in order to heal. After a mishap with calling a Tiger instead of a Rabbit, the Terrapin finally meets and tricks Rabbit to the Sea Palace, luring it with promises of high office and honors. At the Sea Palace the true purpose of the visit is revealed, and the Rabbit is told it will be killed so the Sea King can be cured. But not to worry, it’ll be remembered and honored forever for its noble sacrifice!
Rabbit, instead of quaking in fear, claims it can live without a liver. In fact, it takes out its liver every moon! This happens to be one of the times Rabbit had its liver out, and it needs to go back to land to fetch the organ. As proof of this unlikely tale Rabbit points out that it has three holes down there–one for pissing, one for crapping, and one to take its liver out and put it back. Rabbit claims it is happy to hand some of its liver over to the Sea King and enjoy the high honors he will bestow in exchange. The Sea King falls for this and Terrapin takes Rabbit back to land. Of course Rabbit, once safely back on hand, mocks Terrapin soundly for its gullibility and runs off.
I mean the “three holes” part is a ruse that a crowd better versed in mammal anatomy would never have fallen for; it’s pretty obvious to a landbound audience what the “third hole” is for and it wasn’t for taking out any liver. In this sense, the the Terrapin’s misadventures with the Tiger early on comes across like foreshadowing, with most versions saying it escaped by biting the tiger’s balls. This symbolism rings all the truer because in Korean folktale Tiger and Rabbit are often contrasted as symbols of the foolishness of the powerful and the wisdom of the powerless. It would not be a stretch to read gender into that symbolism, with Tiger as a strong, aggressive man and Rabbit as a physically weak but witty woman.
The way Rabbit is tricked into almost being killed so the Sea King might live is also reminiscent of the way patriarchal systems, and in this case the Confucian hierarchy of this time, demand sacrifices of women. Given that “give out the liver and gallbladder” is a common Korean expression for being a doormat without boundaries or the courage to say no, the entire premise of the story reads as satire for what believing the promises of the powerful does to you: You’re promised honor and prestige, and end up losing your selfhood and your very life. Rabbit itself was lured by the false promises of patriarchy before it had a rude awakening of the system’s true nature, and had to use its wits to survive that situation.
The story in this reading seems to ask, are you really going to give away your liver to a system that benefits only powerful men, and consent to live as a corpse with no will of your own, “cherished” in loving memory not as a vital, living being but for how you were tricked and exploited? The story also exposes the true nature of hierarchies like the patriarchy, that they ultimately depend on taking people’s will and lives, deceiving them into bargains that serve none but the powerful.
It’s a message so subversive that it could only be told in metaphor: Where Chunhyangga and Shimcheongga paid at least lip service to Confucian values including the beneficience of the King and familial piety, Sugungga, in the realm of talking animals and supernatural beings, fully took off the gloves and pilloried the sacred social values of the times.
There’s also an interesting contrast to be drawn between Shim Cheong’s willingly becoming a human sacrifice for her father and Rabbit’s refusal to sacrifice for the Sea King. As discussed at length above, Cheong was giving her life for a father who had lovingly raised her in difficult circumstances, while Rabbit had no intention of dying for a king that it had no relationship with and who had no claim to its loyalty. Though both acts might be laudable in the logic of the worlds they take place in, in the case of Sugungga it would have been a hollow virtue without any grounding in reciprocal and loving relationships. That difference gives us room to think about how virtues in a hierarchical social system can be connected to emotional values with resonance, ones that we might be able to expand on and adapt without keeping the whole oppressive structure.
No one is suggesting that these stories about a woman willing to be executed to be loyal to an absent husband, another woman who dove to her death for her father, and talking animals in an underwater palace are the pinnacle of Western-style modern feminism. What they do show is that the recognition of female autonomy and worth existed in Korean society far before full contact with the U.S. and Europe, and these ideas were not new to Koreans nor given to us wholesale by the West. The specific expressions may differ, but the feminist yearnings, the desire of women to be recognized as fully human and live on our own terms, has always been there as seen in this small glimpse of Korean art. It’s a heritage worthy of rediscovery and interpretation as we look to exploring a myriad of different feminisms, each in our cultural, historical, and social contexts.
This is an edited and expanded version of a thread originally posted to Mastodon.